Sermon on John 21:1-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
The presidential campaign of 1920 introduced a new word into the American lexicon. After years of political turmoil at home and abroad, Warren G. Harding promised that his presidency would signal a “return to normalcy” in the United States. No longer would Americans have to worry about world wars and Leagues of Nations; instead, they could return to what they knew before the world fell apart. Americans responded enthusiastically to this neologism: Harding earned 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 votes in the Electoral College. For a time, it seemed that Harding’s pledge came to fruition. The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic growth and relative domestic tranquility. Though the twenties failed to roar for farmers and racial minorities, many people assumed that Harding’s promised “return to normalcy” was a permanent state of affairs.
Before long, however, it became clear that this was an illusion. By the end of the decade, the stock market had crashed, touching off the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, military dictators took power in Europe and Asia, setting the world on an inexorable path toward yet another global war. In some ways, it was actually the world’s haste to get back to normal that precipitated these crises. In the end, our collective desire to return to normalcy became part of the endless cycle of violence and retribution that has characterized all human history.
Returning to normalcy is what seems to motivate Peter and the other disciples in our gospel reading today. After years of following a charismatic and unpredictable teacher, the disciples returned to what they knew before they met Jesus. They returned their easy lives as fishermen. This is not to say that the life of a fisherman was easy in the first century: it was backbreaking, difficult work in which the line between starvation and subsistence was incredibly thin. The ease of this life could be found in its predictability. There was something familiar, almost comforting about the drudgery of mending nets, the stench of decaying fish, and the disappointment of a night without a catch. Peter and the other disciples understood how to deal with these challenges. As fishermen, they would not have to wrestle with the question of God’s purpose for them. They could live the rest of their lives governed by a predictable and timeworn routine.
Jesus disrupts this familiarity when he calls out to the disciples from the shores of Tiberias. Though they are initially excited, they become quiet when Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast by a charcoal fire. John implies that Peter and the other disciples eat their bread and fish in silence. Of course, there’s probably very little small talk to be made with someone who has been raised from the dead. There might be a deeper reason for this silence. Peter in particular may have been silent because the last time he saw a charcoal fire, he was in the courtyard of the high priest, the place where he denied Jesus three times. Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman to escape his rejection of Jesus, only to have Jesus return, reminding Peter of his faithlessness.
When Jesus finally disrupts the silence, he does it in the most revealing way possible. Fully aware of Peter’s guilt, Jesus turns to him and asks pointedly, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t call Peter by his nickname; Jesus uses the name Peter’s mother gave him. Three times Jesus asks this question and three times Peter responds. The implication seems clear: Peter erases his triple denial with a triple confession of love. While this may seem obvious to us, Peter doesn’t seem to get it. John tells us that he was hurt, that he was grieved by the repetition of Jesus’ question. On one hand, this may be a classic example of Peter’s thick-headedness: perhaps he just forgot what happened on that fateful night before Jesus died. On the other hand, we human beings have an extraordinary capacity to remember the times we failed. How often do we worry about how our relationship with someone has changed because of something we have said or done? Peter does not feel hurt because he has forgotten his failure; Peter grieves because he is apprehensive He is waiting for the other shoe to drop, he is anticipating a torrent of vengeance and righteous indignation from man he had so recently scorned. Peter wants to get these questions about love out of the way so that he can receive the judgment he so richly deserves. What Peter fails to understand, what we fail to understand is that the Resurrection is the judgment of God. What we fail to understand that the resurrection is the fullest expression of God’s love. In a way, the questions that Jesus asks Peter are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether Peter loves Jesus or not; what matters is that Jesus loves Peter. I don’t mean for that to sound glib, because it is of ultimate importance. Jesus loves Peter and all of us with a fullness that transcends all of our expectations. We would expect Jesus to punish Peter for rejecting him. We would at least expect him to require some extraordinary act of penitence. In the resurrection, however, God disrupts our assumptions about repentance and divine punishment and announces that even our rejection of God can be redeemed. In the resurrection, God liberates us from the endless cycle of vengeance and retribution and offers in its place a love that restores and renews all things.
This resurrection appearance is not just about Peter’s restoration. In his anxiety, Peter failed to recognize the true purpose of Jesus’ questions, which was to call Peter to a new vocation. Peter’s vocation changes in the other gospels, but only in its direction and emphasis.“You’re a fisherman? Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says at the beginning of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus invites Peter into an entirely new vocation: “If you love me, take care of my flock.” In light of the resurrection, Jesus instructs Peter to shift his vocation from that of a hunter to that of a shepherd, from one whose work depends on violence to one whose work is shaped by love. What difference does the resurrection make to us? How will this redemptive and restorative love change our vocation?
Our world once again seems to be falling apart. Between war, terrorism, economic disaster, and climate change, hardly a day goes by without reminders of how fragile life is. In the face of these calamities, it would be tempting to proclaim that we would like to go back to the way things were before everything fell apart. But that is not the gospel. The gospel calls us to come to terms with the realities of our fallen world. Indeed, the Church’s vocation is not to call for a “return to normalcy.” Our vocation is to proclaim the endless cycle of death has been marvelously disrupted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to lift our hearts above shame, guilt, and resentment and embrace the resurrection love that Jesus shows Peter, a love that reorders and renews all things.