My father-in-law used to tell the story of a farm wife in one of his parishes whose husband died during Holy Week. The woman didn’t come to church that Easter Sunday morning, but when Russ went to visit her early in the week and asked how she was doing, she said, “Sunday morning I got up and went out to the chicken coop to feed the chickens, and you know, the sound of that grain jumping up and down in the metal bowl and those chickens cheeping and chucking did more for me than any of those Easter hymns.”
Peter chose to go fishing. After they managed to leave that locked upper room where Jesus had appeared to them, some of the disciples gathered on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, or Galilee. John tells us, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We’ll go with you.’”
Feeding the chickens, going fishing, weeding the garden–which is maybe what Jesus was doing when Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener–, going for a walk–which those two disciples did on the way to Emmaus–, sitting at the kitchen table and breaking bread–it is in the midst of all these ordinary activities that the Risen Christ is recognized. Sure, there are some people who have more dramatic revelations. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus when he was blinded by a light and knocked to the ground. The writer of the Revelation of John says he was transported in a vision to the throne of God, and heard the voice of thousands upon thousands of angels and every creature in heaven and earth, singing praises to God: “To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
But after Saul was taken to the home of a disciple in Damascus, where he remained blind and didn’t eat anything for three days, until Ananias came and prayed over him, something like scales fell away from his eyes and they gave him something to eat. Jesus appeared on the lakeshore to the disciples, and once he had told them where to find the fish–on the “right side” of the boat, the side that was awkward for most fishermen, who were right-handed–once they came ashore, he had built a charcoal fire, and they barbequed fish together.
At some point, after the revelation, after the mountaintop experience or the empty tomb experience, the spiritual insight, the mind-blowing encounter, the funeral, at some point we have to come back to feeding the chickens, cooking the fish, cleaning the bathroom. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry–as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield entitled his book. But, if we allow that experience of being knocked off our feet, like Saul, or like you, perhaps, when you lost your job or received that diagnosis, or that experience of having our world utterly changed, like the disciples after Jesus had been crucified and then encountered by some of them, or like you, when you lost a loved one or slipped and fell on the ice and broke your hip, if we can allow that dis-orientation that comes when we have to do things differently now–like the disciples, who had to throw the nets over the right side instead of the left, after all these years, or you, when you have to do the chores that loved one had always taken care of, or when you have to learn to walk with a walker–IF we can allow all those things to happen,–not just “let it go,” but let it be what it is,– IF somehow we can leave the possibility open that this, for now, is our new reality, then we too might encounter the Risen Christ, experience new life, abundance even, as we feed the chickens, weed the garden, fold the laundry, go fishing. All of those things can become, as one writer put it, “practices of resurrection.” [Nancy Rockwell, biteintheapple, 3/30/16]
“After they had finished breakfast…”/folding the laundry/weeding the garden, “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
So this is an awkward conversation. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and there with the coals of the campfire still burning, Peter no doubt remembers being questioned around another fire, asked whether he knew Jesus or was one of his followers. Peter remembers how he had answered then and how he had lost himself.
The memory of that other conversation is painful for Peter, but Jesus is not asking him these questions now to rub salt in his wounds. He is, rather, as David Lose suggests, offering the two things that psychologists tell us everyone needs: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. [David Lose, inthemeantime, 4/5/16] Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to profess his love, to be re-instated into this company of followers and lovers, to reclaim his sense of self within this larger community. “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Not just, “Yes, I love you.” but also, “You know I love you. I know you know I love you. I know you forgive me and love me.” John says Peter was hurt by being asked the third time, but Jesus knew that sometimes we need to say something, or be told something, over and over before we really do get it. [Advertisers claim we need to hear a message 21 times before we really hear it.]
“Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” Now instead of blindly, automatically, because he can’t think of anything else to do, instead of “just going fishing,” Peter is given a purpose by Jesus–feeding, tending, all those who would follow in this Way…while Peter is following Jesus in the Way. A sense of purpose is one of the greatest motivators we can have– greater than money or power of fame [D. Lose, op cit.] . You have something of value to contribute. We need you–your personality, your gifts, your insights, your skills. You matter. All of us need to know that.
A sense of belonging and acceptance and a sense of purpose. The church has used other “church-y” words to talk about these–justification and vocation, but they mean acceptance and purpose. After the ecstasy, the laundry, and then somewhere to go, something of value to do in those clean clothes. It’s what we all need. It’s what, at our best, we as a community can help one another and those in our wider community find. There’s no end to the possibilities.
John says they counted the number of fish they were able to haul in from the right side of the boat and found 153. You will not be surprised to know that there has been endless speculation about that number, none of which has come to any particularly satisfying conclusion. The one that makes the most sense to me is, “That’s a lot of fish.” Which is really the point of this whole last chapter of John’s Gospel–not only is it a lot of fish, but it’s a lot of grace, a lot of love, a lot of lambs and sheep and people to be cared for and loved. Abundant life. The last verse of the chapter and the whole gospel of John sums it up–”But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” In other words, God is still speaking–in the world, in your life and in my life. The saga continues. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark