sermon text is John 21:1-19
There was an article in the LA Times, recently, that circulated around the internet pretty quickly. The authors share a story from when one of them was in the hospital after surgery related to breast cancer. One of her colleagues felt a strong need to visit her in the hospital, but she did not feel up to visitors, at the time. The colleague’s response was, “This is not all about you, you know.” This colleague was speaking honestly, but she said exactly the wrong thing.
In response to stories like this, the authors offer a graphic that can help people avoid saying the wrong thing. They start by drawing a circle, and putting the person who is in crisis at the center of the circle. Then in that first ring, they put family. In a circle a little bit bigger, around the first one, they place true friends. They keep drawing bigger concentric circles—for colleagues, acquaintances, etc. And then, they suggest this principle: comfort goes in, dumping goes out.
In other words, as we interact with people closer to the center of the crisis, we focus on offering comfort—listening, loving, being present, shutting up about our own problems. When we feel those fears, anxieties, and frustrations bubbling up, we turn to the people who are in the bigger circles—further away from the crisis. That is where we can dump our own concerns.
Besides being a simple representation of a good caregiving principle, this article reminded me of the way I see church communities working. When someone is in crisis, we have some people who are close to the crisis—who keep vigil at bedsides, and hold hands, families who surround each other with love in the midst of loss. And we have people who step up to take care of those caregivers. Friends who write cards, and bring food, and coordinate luncheons, and we have people that they can turn to, as well, in those moments when they feel like saying, “Boy am I exhausted!” We’re all connected and taking care of each other, and even if, in a particular crisis, you feel like you’re further removed—because you don’t know the person in crisis as well—you are still part of this big web of care-giving. Maybe in that particular crisis, you are the person that a friend can turn to and say, “You know, this is the fifth funeral luncheon I’ve baked for since October. I don’t know how much more I can take.” And in that situation your role would be just as important as any other part of the caregiving network, because that friend can’t dump that sadness in the center—to the family members or close friends of the deceased. They need for there to be people further removed from the crisis, who can listen while they vent and grieve, themselves. We don’t all have to be in the intimate circles of caregiving to be an important part of the caregiving work of the church.
During this Easter Season, we are examining the six Great Ends of the church. The reasons, according to our Presbyterian tradition—that the church exists. The reason for our being. Last week we thought a little bit about the call to proclaim the gospel to the world. This week, we are looking at the call to provide shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship to the people of God.
Or, to put it differently, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
I think we all know this—that faith is not just a Me-and-Jesus kind of experience. If we love Jesus, if we love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must also love our neighbors as ourselves. There is this inextricable connection between loving God and loving others. But there is also a special power in this particular resurrection story and the way it draws the connection between the two.
First of all, let’s not forget that Peter—the disciple who is named in this story—has recently distinguished himself as the disciple who denied ever knowing Jesus as he was being hauled away for crucifixion. Peter was always the disciple who was most demonstrative in his expressions of loyalty and love for Jesus, but in the midst of Jesus’ crisis, Peter couldn’t cope. He abandoned Jesus like all the rest of the disciples and denied that he even knew who he was.
Peter has completely failed at being a good friend—he’s failed at being a disciple and following Jesus—he’s failed at living out the love he proclaimed so boldly. But Jesus isn’t done with Peter.
And Peter isn’t done with Jesus, is he? When he realizes Jesus is the stranger on the beach, he can’t wait to steer the boat in to shore—he jumps into the water and swims his way to Jesus. Peter, Peter. Always so impulsive and over-the-top. He may have failed in the heat of crisis, but Peter still loves Jesus—still adores Jesus.
So, Jesus feeds him. He feeds all those disciples after their night on the fishing boat. He feeds them what was probably a really normal breakfast after a long night’s work, and then he starts in on the healing.
“Peter, do you love me?”
I wonder what that question felt like to Peter? Did he feel singled out? Did it sting a little, in light of how recently he denied Jesus? Or, did he think almost nothing of it, answering automatically, “Of course, Jesus, you know I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Jesus is offering Peter a way of demonstrating his love, but it is not about making up for his denial of Jesus. He doesn’t need to grovel, or swear allegiance to Jesus, or do something to pay for his sins. No—Jesus invites him to just keep loving. Keep loving him by taking good care of the people Jesus cares about.
The exchange is repeated two more times, and by the third time, surely, Peter is connecting this to the three times he denied knowing Jesus. We’re even told that Peter was hurt that Jesus asked him a third time. But Jesus isn’t shaming Peter. He isn’t rubbing his face in his failures. He is opening that wound—opening that shame and telling Peter that he is okay. He failed, but he can still love. The story isn’t over. He has sheep to feed.
And then, Jesus makes some comments that always seemed kind of out of place to me. The whole, “when you were a young man, you tied your own belt and went where you wanted, but when you are older, you will stretch out your arms and others will tie your belt and lead you where you do not want to go.”
It’s odd, and it’s hard to understand if it’s literal, or metaphorical, and how exactly it is connected to the rest of this interchange. But just this week, as I talked to some friends about this passage, we began to talk about how loving other people is sometimes a process of being lead into places we don’t want to go. Sometimes we walk into grief, or challenge, or confusion because we love someone who needs us to go to those places with them.
Maybe Jesus is telling Peter that even though he failed to follow Jesus all the way to his death, he will find the courage to go into those frightening places in the future. He will get there, and it will be because of love. When we love Jesus, we learn to love others with the same kind of self-sacrifice and courage that marked Jesus’ life and death.
So, do we do this? Do we show our love for Jesus by feeding his sheep? Do we live up to our purpose of providing shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship for the children of God?
How do we do it?
Monks in medieval Europe provided literal shelter for anyone in danger—even people running from the law. If they ran to a monastery, and got through the doors before the law enforcement caught them, they were safe. They had sanctuary.
How do we provide shelter for one another? How do we provide shelter to strangers?
Christians like Dorothy Day founded soup kitchens during the depression to feed people’s bodies and spirits. How do we nurture one another?
Some churches today are taking risks to be inclusive. They have decided that even if their denominations or their states do not support same-sex relationships, they will. They will make sure their church is a safe place for people to express their love, and place where loving relationships can be nurtured, a place where people will not be excluded from spiritual fellowship because of who they love. How do we provide shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship to one another, and to people in our world who are looking for safe, nurturing communities of faith? How do we do this, and how do we let people know that we are trying to live this way, here?