05/15/22 “Follow Me”

John 21:15-19

You’ve probably heard of “the Jesuits,” especially in relation to education. There’s St. John’s Jesuit High School up on Airport Highway. John Carroll and Xavier Universities here in Ohio are Jesuit colleges. The Jesuits are members of a Catholic religious order founded by St Ignatius Loyola. St Ignatius began his career as a soldier in the 16th century. While recovering from the injury that ended his military life, his faith deepened and he was eventually drawn to become a priest. He went on to be a co-founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.

The Jesuits are known as a practical bunch. That’s why you find many scientists and teachers among them. It’s said that if a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit were all worshiping together and the lights went out in the church, the Franciscan, following St. Francis of Assisi, would praise the chance to live more simply. The Dominican would deliver a learned and scholarly sermon on how God brings light to the world. The Jesuit would go to the basement to replace the fuses.

But what I like about the Jesuits is their spirituality—their way of connecting with God. “Finding God in all things” is the goal of all their traditions and devotional practices, and St. Ignatius and his Jesuits were intentional about making these practices accessible to everyone.

The practice I most appreciate and use most often is imaginative prayer, or imaginative contemplation. This is a kind of meditation where you place yourself in a Scripture story. You imagine the scene, paying attention to what you see and hear, what you smell and maybe even taste. You enter into the feeling of the story and what is happening around you. As you place yourself within the scene, you may find that it holds new insights and meaning for you.

Today, I invite you to join me in imagining ourselves into the story as  it unfolds on the shore along the Sea of Galilee. Do you hear the waves, lapping against the sandy shore? Make yourself comfortable—there’s a tree nearby that offers some shade, and there are some big rocks you can lean against. As usual, I’m feeling a little chilly in this early morning hour. So, you’ll find me near the charcoal fire that Jesus built, where it’s warmer. And, to be honest, I want to sit as close to Jesus as I possibly can.

The other disciples are arranged around the fire, too. The scent of the fire mingles with the smell of the fish that are in the boat, waiting to be taken to the market. Everyone is full of the fish and bread Jesus prepared and gave to us, and we’re all comfortably tired after pulling in all those fish. Even though we’re done with breakfast, no one makes a move to get up and go on about our business; we’re waiting for a cue from Jesus. Then, Jesus speaks to Peter.

We know the bare bones of what happens next. Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” Again, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” and Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.” A third time Jesus asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” John tells us that Peter felt hurt because Jesus asked him a third time, but he answers, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And Jesus replies a third time, “Feed my sheep.”

There’s no argument among scholars that this scene is related to Peter’s denials back in the high priest’s courtyard while Jesus was being questioned. The charcoal fire recalls the one around which Peter gathered with the police and the high priest’s slaves. But when I look at the faces of Peter and Jesus, and listen for the tone of their voices, my imagination offers me several possibilities about what is going on here.

It’s easy, and common, to assume that Jesus sounds stern with Peter, in order to remind him of his earlier unfaithfulness. It’s easy, and common, to see a hang-dog look on Peter’s face. In my imagined scene, his face is reddening with embarrassment and shame. This conversation isn’t private; Peter and Jesus are still seated around the fire. All of us disciples are within hearing distance, which means we’re all witnesses to this conversation. How awkward for Peter to have Jesus bring up what he would just as soon forget, and in the hearing of the others.

As I imagine being one those witnesses, my stomach knots up a little. I feel for Peter. I feel for him, not just because of what he’s remembering, but because of what I’m remembering. I remember all the times I’ve denied Jesus—maybe not in as direct a way as Peter did, but in my thoughts and words and actions. I know I’ve had way more uncharitable thoughts than I care to admit. I’ve reacted to others with impatience or disrespect, maybe not to their faces but in private. I’ve said things that I later regretted and certainly would be ashamed to have Jesus call me out on. In our imagined scene, I develop a sudden interest in the sand around me, hoping Jesus won’t catch my eye.

It’s interesting that, in the other three gospels, Peter is reported as saying that he didn’t know Jesus. But in John, Peter denies being one of Jesus’ disciples. If others can’t tell by the way we live that we’re disciples of Jesus, that’s a kind of back-door denial of our discipleship. So, as I listen to the conversation between Peter and Jesus, I squirm a little. But I’m also relieved, because in this conversation, Jesus is also making his love and forgiveness and acceptance of Peter very clear. Three times, he calls Simon by the name he used when they first met. When Andrew brought his brother Simon to Jesus, Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John.” Now, when Jesus utters that name three times, it’s like he’s pushing a reset button. Jesus is saying to Peter, “I called you once, and now I’m calling you again.”

Three times, Jesus asks Simon a question. The first time, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus “more than these.” I wonder, “Who or what is Jesus asking Peter to compare himself to?” Here’s another place where our imaginations have several options. One is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the rest of us love Jesus. Of course, Peter says, “Yes.” I confess this makes me feel a little annoyed. I mean, who is Peter to say that he has a greater love for Jesus than I do, or you do?

But then I realize that this is another gift from Jesus to Peter. Back in the upper room, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus had warned the disciples that he was going away, and that they wouldn’t be able to follow him. Peter asked for special treatment. He wanted to be allowed to follow Jesus right then, because he would lay down his life for Jesus, suggesting that the rest of us wouldn’t. It was then that Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him. Peter wasn’t able to love Jesus more than the rest of the disciples that night. Now, Jesus gives Peter another chance.

Another possibility is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than Peter loves us, his companions. In this scenario, I feel Peter’s uncertainty. What answer should he give? What answer would we give? Jesus said in the upper room that others would know us as disciples by our love for each other. But, surely, we can’t fully love each other unless we love Jesus first and most. I turn my attention to the fire, hoping Jesus won’t ask me that question.

And then there are those fish, still flopping around in the boat. Could it be that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the fish? Well, not the fish themselves, but what the fish represent—Peter’s old life, before he knew Jesus. Will Peter’s love for Jesus be enough to sustain this new life he’s found, even after Jesus is gone? Or will he put his three years of following Jesus behind him and return to what is safe and familiar and comfortable?

Do you remember when you first realized how much Jesus loves you and how much you love him? I think that most people have a moment—or maybe a period—in their lives when they become more conscious of what Jesus means to them, even people who have spent their entire lives in the church. Did the glow of that knowledge begin to dim in you over time, as it got buried under the everyday activities of life? Did worship begin to seem like a chore than a joy? Did your prayers become a little less heartfelt and a little more perfunctory?

If Jesus were to look away from Peter and direct his question to us, how would we answer? Could we honestly say that we love him more than the life we lived before we knew him? Could we honestly say that we love him more than the life we’re living now?  I keep gazing into the fire, hoping to fly under Jesus’ radar.

As I imagine Jesus asking his question of Peter, it dawns on me that the comparison isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is simply the love. Jesus gives Peter three chances to profess his love for Jesus. Jesus has never taken Peter’s discipleship away from him. But now, Jesus gives Peter a chance to reclaim it for himself. Jesus gives him the chance to declare his love for Jesus, which is the very foundation of his discipleship, as it is for every disciple, including you and me.

However Peter interpreted Jesus’ question, he answers “Yes. Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He repeats his answer the second time Jesus asks. The third time, John tells us, Peter felt hurt that Jesus had to ask yet again. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Maybe Peter is hurt because he’s sorry that he’s given Jesus cause to doubt him. But, it also might be that Peter is mistaken. Maybe he’s misinterpreting. As I watch Jesus’ face, all I can see there is love for Peter. Maybe, in addition to giving Peter the three-fold chance to face his weakness and be forgiven, Jesus just takes pleasure in hearing Peter tell him that he loves him. Maybe Jesus longs to hear those three little words as much as we do.

That thought reminded me of the song “Jesus Loves Me.” Back in the pre-COVID days, when we still held a worship service at the nursing home, one of the residents taught us all an extra verse to that beloved old song: “I love Jesus; does he know? Have I ever told him so? Jesus likes to hear me say that I love him every day!” As I sit there on the beach, along the Sea of Galilee, I sing it softly to myself. As I sing, I make a silent promise: I’ll make sure I tell Jesus that I love him—every day.

In my imagined version of the story, Peter moves from shame to relief. He moves from uncertainty about his status to a sure acceptance of his discipleship. I feel those things right along with him. Because, if Jesus is willing to forgive Peter his denials, surely he’s willing to forgive me mine—and you, yours. If he’s willing to keep Peter as a disciple, surely he’s willing to keep me—and you. We can once again take up the mantle of discipleship which we may have let slip a little, and re-orient ourselves in our love for Jesus.

Jesus also invites Peter—and us—to continue the work he began on earth and now entrusts to us. “Feed my lambs,” he says. “Tend my sheep.” The only time Jesus talks about sheep in the Gospel of John is when he describes himself as the good shepherd. He’s the shepherd who protects and nurtures his sheep. The shepherd who knows each lamb and ram and ewe by name. The shepherd who loves even the sheep who don’t belong to the fold. The shepherd who loves the sheep so much that he willingly lays down his life for them.

When Peter responds to Jesus with his declaration of love, Jesus tells him how to put that love into action: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Continue the work that I began.” As I listen in, I remember Jesus breathing his Spirit into the disciples gathered together on Easter evening. I remember his words as they gathered on the night when he was betrayed: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” As I listen in, I know that Jesus meant these words for all his disciples—the ones gathered in that room and the ones—like you, like me—who would believe in him through their word.

I can see that Peter is getting more and more excited. The exuberance he showed when he jumped off the boat and made for Jesus on the shore has returned. Of course, he can feed and tend Jesus’ sheep! Of course, he can search out those who don’t yet know Jesus and bring them into the fold! Of course, he’ll stick up for them and protect them, as a good shepherd would! I feel the same enthusiasm spreading to the others around me. I feel it. Do you?

But Jesus isn’t finished. He expects more of his disciples. He expects total commitment—a commitment which includes the willingness to glorify God in the sacrifice of one’s very life—literally, not figuratively. Jesus makes a full disclosure of where Peter’s discipleship will lead: “When you grow old, Peter, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” The life of discipleship is a life of cross-bearing—and for Peter, this will literally be true. We know, although the others sitting near us do not, that Peter will indeed die on a cross, glorifying God in his death as in his life. Once, Peter had declared that he would lay down his life for Jesus. In the end, he would do exactly that.

The excited murmurs around us die down at Jesus’ words. We were all willing to board the discipleship train when it sounded like it just involved doing good works and loving each other. But being willing to die for Jesus and his mission? For many people in the world, having to choose between life and death on account of Jesus is a very real possibility, even today. But, when push comes to shove, how many of us would be able to do that? It’s easy to commit to laying down your life when the odds of actually having to do it are slim to none.

As I pondered Jesus’ words, I remembered when National Guard and Reserve troops were called up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were news stories about people who had enlisted to get job training or an education, never dreaming that they would actually have to take up arms. They were shocked when they were deployed and sent into combat. “I knew that what  was signing on for,” some said, “but I never thought I’d actually have to do it.” I think many of us enlist as disciples, being pretty sure that we’ll never have to face its more terrifying aspects.

Yet, that’s what Jesus demands: that we follow him, no matter where the path leads, even if it is to death in his name. Only after telling Peter—and us—the full extent of discipleship’s demands does Jesus issue his invitation: “Follow me.” Peter makes his decision. He will follow Jesus. He will take up the work Jesus began and serve as a shepherd to Jesus’ flock after Jesus’ model. He will face whatever comes, including the death Jesus has predicted.

Jesus walks away from our circle, with Peter behind him. But, they aren’t alone. Another disciple leaves the circle and trails behind them—a disciple whose name we do not know. We know him only as the disciple Jesus loved. We’ll hear more from him about discipleship next week.

But, for now, our morning on the beach, listening in on Jesus and Peter, has given us a lot to think about. We’ve remembered with sorrow and shame the times in our lives when we’ve denied Jesus, and we’ve felt the wave of grace and forgiveness wash over us. We’ve pondered the love Jesus has for us, and we’ve considered how our love for Jesus stacks up against our love for other people and the lives we lead. We’ve felt a renewed excitement at the prospect of being shepherds for Jesus’ flock, but we’ve also come face-to-face with Jesus’ sobering demand that we be willing to sacrifice our lives for him. We’ll continue our time with Jesus and the others next week. For now, we will leave our friends behind on the beach, and we’ll take Jesus’ challenge to follow him with us as we go. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young