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A Word, A Question, A Promise


John 21:1-19

I: — What do people do when they are let down terribly?  What do people do when they suffer enormous loss and are bereaved beyond telling? They can do several things.

They can deny their loss; i.e., consciously deny the significance of their loss or unconsciously deny the fact of their loss.  They can put on a false face and pretend that everything is as rosy as ever. Conscious and unconscious denial, however, exact a terrible price psychologically.  Denial renders people become inwardly bent and outwardly lame.

Or people who suffer enormous loss can simply be overwhelmed by it; so overwhelmed as to be frozen, immobilised by it.  Life stops for them. This is a living death.

Or people who suffer enormous loss can admit their loss, own their pain and endure their disappointment.         They can admit, own, endure, and go back to work.  They can begin doing once more what they have customarily done in the past. The job they have worked at they continue to work at.  This is by far the healthiest response.  It’s the best thing that any bereaved person can do.
My wife Maureen and I often comment on the fact that when my mother was Maureen’s age my mother had been a widow for eleven years.  At the time she was widowed my mother was working part-time and was content to work part-time. One week after my father’s death, however, she was working full-time.  My father had left her an insurance payout of $1000 (1967).  After funeral expenses she had $200.  The decision to work full-time was a decision my mother arrived at quickly after little deliberation: if she didn’t work, she didn’t eat. She often joked about riding the subway train to work, packed so tightly into the rush-hour car that if she had fainted she couldn’t have fallen down, her face pressed into the back of a tall man’s rain-soaked woollen overcoat, everything smelling like wet dog. She also says that what she had to do was the best thing she could have done: work.

And this is what the disciples did in the wake of the death of Jesus. They went back to fishing. They had been rocked by the events in the last week of Jesus’s life, shattered by the ending of that life. Worst of all, they felt themselves deluded, self-deluded, as gullible as kindergarten-age children. “How could we have been so naïve?”, they asked each other incredulously, “Our earlier enthusiasm for the mission was as groundless as a mirage in the desert. How could we have been so simple-minded, so silly about ‘The Messiah’?   We aren’t suggestible people.  Then how were we swept up in the tide of exuberance and ardour?   Worse still, how many others have we misled?  How ardently have we commended to any who would hear us what has dribbled away without trace like water in the sand?”

All of us – you, I, and everyone else – all of us are eager to think ourselves sophisticated.  We hate being “suckered” as we hate little else.  All of us like to think we are worldly-wise, able to identify hucksters and charlatans and outright phoneys.  We shudder at being thought as naïve as a child standing wide-eyed and open-mouthed in front of a magician.  There’s no humiliation like the humiliation of public benightedness.

And there’s no humiliation like the humiliation of being taken in religiously. Who doesn’t feel sorry for the person who, perchance at a moment of unusual need or unforeseen vulnerability, makes a religious declaration that strikes us as hugely overblown or espouses a religious cause that’s plainly exaggerated? We share the embarrassment of that person who, months later, feels she “went off the deep end.” What do such people do next? If they are wise they put their embarrassment behind them and simply get on with the business of everyday living.

A minute ago I spoke of bereavement, of loss.  We mustn’t think that jarring loss is loss of loved one only.         There are bereavements everywhere in life.  There are familiar scenarios and situations that are so very familiar as to appear unlosable. But they are lost! Not merely a familiar scenario and situation can be lost but even a familiar world. Someone’s entire world can be lost, and lost more quickly and more thoroughly than she would ever have thought; than she would ever have thought, that is, until the day it was lost.  She always thought she knew how the world turned and what made it turn. Then one day she found out. The day she found out — the day of her shattering disappointment —  was also the day she was bereft of her world.

Denial won’t help. Immobility won’t help. The only thing to do is also the best thing to do: go back to work.         If our work is the work of a homemaker, it’s still work: children have to be fed, the schoolteacher dealt with, the haemorrhaging husband bandaged.

“I’m going fishing”, said Peter; “We’ll go with you”, the rest chimed in; “What else is there to do?”  Back to fishing they went.


II: — It’s while they are fishing that Jesus appears to them.  They don’t recognise him. Of course they don’t. In the first place, they aren’t expecting him; in the second, they’re fishing. None of us can be conscientious in our daily work and “be looking for Jesus” at the same time. Besides, where would we look? The men and women who tighten wheel nuts on cars in Oakville or Oshawa aren’t standing around, looking for Jesus.

Still, despite all non-expectations the risen Lord steals upon the disciples and startles them. He speaks. As he speaks, Peter recognises the One he’d put behind him forever – he thought.

It still happens. William Sloane Coffin, among other things chaplain at Yale University for 17 years, and before that an officer with United States military intelligence; Coffin was raised by a wealthy, socialite family that recognised his prodigious talent as a child pianist and prepared him for a career on the concert stage. His family provided no Christian formation at all. When Coffin was an adolescent his best friend died suddenly.  Coffin wasn’t sure why he was going to the funeral, but went anyway, if only to curse the God he didn’t believe in.  Sitting through the funeral service he mysteriously found himself addressed: “Whose life is it, anyway?  What makes you think you’re the measure of the universe?”  He emerged from the funeral service turned around for life, retiring a few years ago as minister of Riverside Church , New York City.

A friend of mine; his parents couldn’t get him to church regardless of what technique they deployed.  This fellow – atheist, sceptic, cynic – went to university to pursue a program in Honour English.  Naturally enough his program required him to read English criticism, including criticism of mediaeval English.  Scholars in this field opened up literary riches to him, cultural wealth he hadn’t known to exist. One such scholar was C.S. Lewis, Cambridge Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance English. Soon he moved from reading Lewis’s formal academic writings to Lewis’s popular Christian writings. And like Peter of old he came to say, “It is the Lord.”

Neither of the two men I’ve mentioned was expecting any such thing. Both were immersed in everyday matters. Yet both were addressed. In the course of being addressed both came to know who had addressed them.

The apostle John adds a comment to his resurrection narrative that we read this morning: “This was the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”  The third time? Why was a third time necessary? Weren’t the previous two times enough? First the risen Jesus had appeared to the eleven in the upper room when they were fearful. Then he had appeared to them with Thomas when they were doubting.  And after two such appearances the disciples still want to go back fishing? The truth is, all of us always stand in need of a new visitation from our Lord and a new word from him. We never get beyond needing yet another apprehension and word.

Maureen and I have been married for 37 years.  Even so, a dozen times a week we ask each other, “Do you love me?” I don’t think for a minute we are insecure in our relationship.  I don’t think for a minute that our marriage is at risk and I might go home Monday evening only to find Maureen’s shoes no longer under the bed. Then why do we ask each other, “Do you love me?”, as often as we do?  It’s because both she and I live and work in jarring, turbulent environments where it’s easy to see there are many people who aren’t loved; easy to see there are many people who were once loved; easy to see that love is scarce in the world.  Therefore it’s all the more important to meet each other yet again, affirm each other once more, declare and exhibit and embody our mutual love as often as we need to; better, as often as we can.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the third appearance of Jesus. Before you and I are finished our Lord will have to visit us 300 times.  Needy as we are, our need is never greater than his grace.


III: — Yet our Lord does more than visit us again and renew our life with him once more. He also puts a question to us, the same question he put to Peter: “Do you love me more than these?” The Greek word for “love” that Jesus uses here is strong: it’s love in the sense of total self-giving, total self-outpouring, thorough self-forgetfulness, utter self-abandonment.  It’s the word used of God himself, “for God so loved the world that he gave – himself, utterly, without remainder or regret – in his Son.”

“Do you love me like that”, the master says to Peter; “Do you love me more than these other fellows love me?” Now Peter is shaken. “These other fellows” were present, one week earlier, when Peter told Jesus that these fellows might crumble, cowards, when the crunch came, but he, Peter, “the rock”, would remain steadfastly loyal, brave and true.  Then these fellows saw Peter fall all over himself. Now they are watching him. So shaken is Peter that he can’t answer the master’s question.  He can only blurt, head down, “You know that I love you.”

The English translations of our bible hide something crucial: Peter doesn’t use the same word for “love” that Jesus has used.  Peter uses a weaker word. Jesus has said, “Are you willing to sign yourself over to me, abandon yourself to me, never looking back?”   Peter is nervous now about vowing anything this large, since the last time he vowed something large he disgraced himself.  And so now Peter replies, “You know that I’m fond of you; you know that I care for you.”

Jesus asks a second time, “Do you love me?”, using again the strongest word for “love” that there is.  Now Peter is in pain. As if his pain weren’t enough, he’s asked a third time, “Do you love me?” – only this time Jesus uses Peter’s word, Peter’s weaker word. “Simon, are you truly fond of me? Do you really care for me? If this is as much as you can honestly say, will you say this much?”   Peter replies, “You know everything; you know that I care for you.” After each question and answer Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  It’s a commission, an invitation and a promise: “Feed my sheep.”

I am and continue to be a disciple not because of superior insight or unusual loyalty or extraordinary grip on Jesus Christ.  Like Peter I’m a disciple only because my Lord keeps coming to me, keeps speaking to me, and continues to hold me with a grip greater than my grip on him. And when he says, “Victor, do you love me?”, I don’t jump up and say, “Of course I do! Isn’t it obvious? Have a look!”  I don’t say this because, like Peter, I’ve heard the rooster crow. Instead I barely manage to croak, but do manage to croak, “You know that I care for you.” Never has he said, “Not good enough; see me in six months.”  Always he has said, “Feed my sheep.”

Now you mustn’t think I’m discouraged or depressed or immobilised or even suffering from low self-esteem.         On the contrary, the master’s question, “Do you love me?” plus his commission, “Feed my sheep” are a double safeguard.  In the first place we are safeguarded against spiritual presumption. “Of course I love you. My faith is proverbial, my obedience faultless, my life exemplary.”   The question Jesus puts to us repeatedly just because he has to put it to us repeatedly; this question spares us a spiritual presumptuousness as repugnant as it is false.

At the same time his commission, “Feed my sheep”, reinforced relentlessly, safeguards us against despondency and uselessness.   He has promised that whatever we do in obedience to him; whatever we undertake in his name will become food for his sheep.  We aren’t asked to be super-achievers or heroic or even merely impressive; we need only be faithful, and our faithfulness, even when pot-holed like Peter’s, he will yet use to expand his own life within his own people. For our Lord’s commission, “Feed my sheep”, is more than a commission; it’s more even than an invitation; it’s a promise: we can feed his sheep, and we shall, just because he, unlike us, keeps the promises he makes.

The last word to Peter is, “Follow me.”  To follow our risen Lord means that he asks us to go only where he has already been himself.  He asks us to do only what he has already done himself.  He asks us to intercede on behalf of the world only as he has already interceded on its behalf himself.  To follow him means that we are never appointed to a work whose venue and environment he hasn’t already prepared for us.  To follow him means that he’s forever drawing us to himself, never driving us on ahead of him. To follow him means that our obedience always decreases the distance between him and us; only our disobedience can ever increase the distance. To follow him means that his word of pardon and freedom and encouragement is a much louder word and a more penetrating sound than the raucous screech of the rooster. To follow is simply to know that our Lord will ever use us to feed others in ways that we cannot see and don’t have to see.


He who appeared to disciples so very long ago with a word, a question and a promise will continue to come to you and me.  His word will let us recognise him.  His question will save us from any suggestion of superiority.  And his promise, “Feed my sheep”, will ensure that we do just that.

                                                                                            Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                        

Easter 2006