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Sermon from 4/10/16 by Seminarian Evan Mayhew

A Reading from John

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, 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.  Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, 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.”  (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

There’s something about this image of Jesus building a fire on the beach that resonates deeply with me.  For all the majesty of our Christian language, “Glory on high”, “Lamb of God”, “Alpha and Omega”, “Redeemer”, “Savior”…. Nothing really quite captures the Jesus we see here.  I think there’s this tempting image in our minds of a Jesus who almost floats on air, moving from town to town with speed, resting only briefly…  A Jesus with limitless energy.

But every once in a while in the Gospels we get these glimpses of mundane every day business.  We’re reminded of a Jesus who was human and walked the dirty streets of first century Israel.  Someone who got dust in his eyes, sand between his toes, and air in his lungs.

And normally when we see Jesus interact with food it’s in the context of something amazing: feeding the five thousand, turning water into wine, or even blessing the wine and bread in communion.  But here, after helping the disciples catch an abundance of fish, Jesus does something very ordinary.  He builds a charcoal fire and starts to cook.

I don’t know if you’ve ever built a fire, but if you have, then you probably know that there’s something very human about it.  It’s an action that hearkens back to the simplest use of technology, connects us to our ancestors, and is both unremarkable and yet, marvelous.

I imagine Jesus squatting down by the sand, gathering kindling and tinder, blowing on the embers, maybe shielding the flames from the wind, getting smoke in his eyes, and carefully watching the fish cook while listening to waves from the sea calmly lapping on the beach, as often happens just after daybreak.  There’s a certain calmness to this scene.  It reminds me of times that I have spent camping.

But there’s also something strange about this. In the Gospel of John this scene takes place not long after Jesus’ resurrection, and yet, it contains none of the intensity of the Easter story.  Last we heard, Thomas had witnessed the wounds of the Risen Christ.  Then all of a sudden Peter wants to go fishing, and Jesus and seven disciples have a quiet breakfast on the beach… nothing really incredible about that.

But that’s exactly what comforts me about this text.  I am someone who can be very anxious.  Whether it’s sudden silence in a text conversation, taking a friend to a restaurant they’ve never been to, or even writing a sermon, I can very easily convince myself that the worst-case scenario is happening or about to happen.  They’re not responding because I offended them, they don’t like their food, I’m sure I’ve said something heretical in this sermon… Given the right situation, I can drive my friends crazy with this sort of insecure anxiety.  I’m sure some of you have had these sorts of moments yourself.

Over this past summer, I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home as a part of my Clinical Pastoral Education.  In my wing, I had a resident who, due to a stroke, could only communicate with grunts and hand gestures.  The other residents didn’t seem to pay any attention to her, and most of the time she wheeled herself around slowly and kept to herself.

At first, I struggled to connect with her.  I remember one such instance where I saw her pointing and grunting loudly near the dining hall.  Thinking she was upset, I tried very hard to discern what was going on, talking with her, asking questions, and even praying with her in the hallway.  After 10 minutes together, I had exhausted every tool I had to deal with such a situation and it seemed like I still was no closer to knowing if I had helped at all.  I was at a loss.  Then, suddenly, a CNA walked by and said, “Yes Honey, dinner is at 5:00”.  Immediately, she put her hand down, content.  Needless to say I was embarrassed.  She wasn’t upset at all… just curious about mealtime.

These types of miscommunications continued, and more often than not I felt like I was more of a nuisance to her than a pastoral presence.  It wasn’t until near the end of the summer that something finally changed.

I learned from my supervisor that she enjoyed going outside, so I decided to take her out to see the courtyard.  I held the handles of her wheelchair as she slowly tiptoed her way forward around the perimeter of the garden, stopping occasionally to gaze at the sunlight filtering through the trees, or to point at a bird’s nest in the pavilion.  Eventually we came to a flower bush and she smelled the flowers.  I even broke off a flower whose stem was already broken and gave it to her.  Then we went around again, as she held the flower up in different lights.  The whole process took around 45 minutes.  Throughout most of the walk, I said very little, just making sure her wheelchair didn’t roll off the sidewalk.

Finally, when we came back inside, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and gestured to me to take the flower.  I told her that I had meant for her to keep it so that she could put it in her room.  She then took the flower and held it close to her heart.

While we were walking, I realized that I felt totally at peace; free from the anxiety of needing to say something, free from the anxiety of feeling as though I wasn’t providing the kind of care that she needed or wanted.  I felt as though I was right where I needed to be, doing exactly what I should be doing.  It was wonderful, and definitely the moment I treasured the most out of the entire summer.

On Good Friday, we talked about Peter standing at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard, contemplating whether to flee, fight, or wait.  We heard how Peter, standing by the fire denied Jesus three times for fear of his own life.  And now, we see Peter by the fire once again, but this time, alongside Jesus.

I imagine Peter must have felt like I felt in the garden, quietly eating breakfast with someone who he had wronged, in a forgiving, peaceful silence.  At the gate and standing among the soldiers, the anxiety must have been exhausting.  At that moment, he must have thought that nothing would ever be the same.  Yet here he was, just a short time afterwards, sitting with Jesus on the beach, enjoying breakfast.

This is a side of Jesus that I find comforting.  The Jesus that understands the need for calm.  What I wouldn’t give to sit on that beach with Jesus.  What I wouldn’t give to be back in that courtyard, experiencing God through the peaceful silence of a slow daytime walk with someone who truly appreciates the smallest things in life.

And it’s in this environment that Jesus chooses to reference that which has likely never left Peter’s mind.  It’s now that Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to profess his love to mirror his three denials.  In the quiet morning, after helping cook the meal, Jesus helps Peter deal with any anxiety he may have had left, and giving him a direction for the future.

When I began working with that resident, all I wanted was to give her the kind of care that she wanted… but she couldn’t tell me what that looked like.  It was a very human desire. I wanted to be in the right place.  I wanted to do the right thing.  All Peter wanted was to do what Jesus asked… and he failed… but Jesus gave him an opportunity for redemption.

Jesus understands humanity.  Jesus understood Peter.  How better to deal with the anxiety of someone eager to please than to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves for past mistakes, and then give them a direction… to tell them in plain terms what they are to do now: Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.  And even more, to sit with them in peaceful, approving silence and just be.  To show them that “Yes, I approve of you.  Yes, you are right where you should be.  Yes, you are doing what you should be doing.  Don’t worry.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t feel like you have to speak.  Just sit, and share a meal with me”.

As humans we are constantly marching forward.  There is rarely time to sit and appreciate life the way that my resident did.  We rarely can appreciate the ways that God shapes our world and our lives.  And because of this, anxiety, regret, and sadness can rule our thoughts… but our God understands those emotions.  Jesus is more than transcendent, he is imminent, and he experienced anger, pain, and loss.  Our God is not impartial to our struggles and anxieties, or unsympathetic to our insecurities and fears.  Our God understands that our prayers and words don’t always express everything we feel, or encapsulate everything we want to say.  Our God sits with us in silence.  Our God sends the Holy Spirit to intercede when we don’t have words to speak.  Our God walks with us in moments of anxiety.

And the thing is, if he was being reasonable, Peter probably should have been okay.  Jesus was raised from the dead, what was there to be worried about?  Even when we know better, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of anxiety where we feel that despite what happened on Easter, somehow things aren’t right.  That’s why this story is powerful: despite having already given us the greatest gift we could ever receive, Jesus wasn’t finished.  He showed Peter a way forward.  Jesus pushed past Peter’s humanity, and met Peter where he was.  Our God is not finished with us, and will never be finished with us.  Even though Easter has come and gone, God will continue to speak to our doubts and anxieties.

No matter how crazy our lives become, no matter how bizarre the world is around us, no matter what we say or what we do… There will always be a beach where Jesus is quietly sitting, tending the fire, waiting for us.  And if, when you come to that beach, you don’t know what to say… It’s okay.  Our God knows our hearts better than we know ourselves, so just sit and hand him the fish.  He’s got it from here.

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