April 19, 2020/Second Sunday of Easter

Opening Prayer

God of empty tombs and angelic messengers; God of rolled away stones and new life in graveyards—we come to you this morning amazed at what you have done and wondering about what else might happen. 

If love is the greatest power in the universe as revealed in the Resurrection, what else might be possible?

If love chooses to carry on loving even those who try and kill it, what else might be possible?

If love decides to give of itself for the sake of others, what else might be possible?

In our wonder and our longing for such a love as this that turns the world upside down, may we dare to believe in that which seems impossible.

May we dare to live lives that hope beyond death.

And may we also believe in new, abundant life even before death.

May we live this kind of love—that dares to work for justice and the fullness of life for everyone.

May we dare to work for peace—that brings the richness of reconciliation to everyone.

All because we believe that this love is the most powerful thing in the universe.

God, may we make time in this season of renewal and life to wonder, and wonder, and wonder again, what this resurrection love might make possible in us and in our world.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/John 21:1-19 (NRSV)

1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3Simon 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.  

4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”  They answered him, “No.”  6He 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.  7That 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.  8But 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.  

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11So 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.  12Jesus 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.  13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When 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.”  16A 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.”  17He 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.  18Very 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.”  19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

A Reflection on John 21:1-19                        [William Loader]

The blame-forgotten, shame-covered, Peter lept into the sea.
Where tears once drowned hope and denials became despair and self-loathing,
now eyes had seen that figure on the shore, that body once strung across the stained wood of execution.

A revived fishing business, the dull depression of remembered cowardice, of failed courage, bad dreams of abandonment, a deep sea of pain, now splashed with new hope.

Peter would make it to the shore.

He is risen. 
Peter is risen from the dead.
Three times denied.
Three times invited to love again by him who three times prayed his own despair
and, three times mocked ‘mid three crosses, in three days rose to resurrect Peter.

Peter made it to the shore.

Others made it to the shore.
They ate together, a fellowship of grace and rehabilitation,
of forgiveness and hope, a symbol of the persistence of divine love, also for you and me.

Message/Over a Charcoal Fire

Preaching professor and author Alyce McKenzie tells the story of leading a Sunday School class on the stories of Easter found in the Gospels.  She invited participants to reflect on all the different responses people had to the empty tomb.  The class looked at the women fleeing in terror and amazement at the end of Mark.  They discussed the women worshiping at the Risen Lord’s feet in Matthew.  They examined Luke’s account about the women running to tell the disciples.  Finally, they came to the foot race between the beloved disciple and Simon Peter in John’s gospel.  As John tells it, the faster “beloved disciple” gets there first, but waits, hovering just outside the tomb.  Simon Peter arrives second, but bold and brash as usual, barrels his way into the tomb to check things out.  John then goes on to share “then the disciples returned to their homes.”  Dr. McKenzie turned to the class and asked, “Why do you think Simon Peter, after making this amazing discovery of the empty tomb, went home?”  One of the men in the class said, with a grin, “He went home to hide from Jesus!”  Everyone laughed.

But McKenzie goes on to share that she had never thought of it that way before.  You betray someone three times.  You feel terrible, but since they’re now dead, all you have to deal with is your guilt.  But if they are actually alive, what you have to deal with is them, standing before you, demanding a reckoning. 

This week’s Gospel reading begins with shame so thick, it makes me cringe.  It begins with the disciple Peter battling his shame on a fishing boat in the Sea of Tiberias.  Peter the Rock.  Peter whom Jesus astounded with a miraculous catch of fish.  Peter, “a fisher of men.”  Peter who proclaimed Jesus the Son of God before any other disciple dared to.  Peter whose mother-in-law Jesus healed.  Peter who had dared to come out to Jesus on the windswept water.  Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on a mountaintop.  Peter who promised to stay by Jesus’s side even unto death.  Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire on the night of Jesus’s arrest that I’ll bet he expected to spend the rest of his life fleeing from that single, searing memory: “Hey!  I saw you with Jesus!  You must be one of his followers.”  “No.  No, I am not! I swear, I don’t even know the man.”  

That complicated, wounded Peter returns to his fishing boat.  Isn’t that what we all do when we’re ashamed?  Retreat to whatever is safe, comfortable, and familiar?  Run headlong towards something — anything– that will help us feel competent and worthy again?  Peter flees to his boat, his nets, his vocation before Jesus.  As if there is some time or place in his life where shame is not.  Where his wound is not.  Where Jesus is not.

But of course, there is no time or place in our stories where Jesus isn’t.  He is just as present in our fleeing as he is everywhere else.  Just as loving in the midst of our failures as he is when we succeed.  It’s not Jesus who has stakes in drawing out our humiliation or maximizing our penance.  That’s on us.  Our voyeuristic obsession with other people’s failures.  Our need to rebuke and shame wrongdoers in order to keep ourselves pure.  Our constant pointing of fingers, making scapegoats of others, passing the blame, for that which we alone are responsible.  Jesus doesn’t have those flaws, obsessions, or needs; his will is reconciliation, and his pleasure is grace.

But Peter doesn’t seem to know this.  So he spends a long night trying to catch fish without Jesus, and he fails.  Dawn breaks, Jesus shows up, a miraculous catch follows the night of futility, and Peter finds himself, breathless and soaked, sitting by another charcoal fire.  Again. Looking into the eyes of the Lord he thrice denied.  Again. Facing three costly questions.  Again.

What I find both searing and instructive in this story is the way Jesus saves Peter by returning him to the source of his shame.  He doesn’t wrap the humiliated disciple in gauze or bubble wrap.  He doesn’t avoid the hard conversation.  He doesn’t pretend that Peter’s denials didn’t happen and didn’t hurt.  But neither does Jesus preach, condemn, accuse, or retaliate.  He feeds.  He feeds Peter’s body and then he feeds Peter’s soul.  He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.”  

As I reflect on Peter’s story, I wonder what our failures would feel like if we offered each other the safety Jesus offers his disciple.  The safety to return to the heart of our wrongdoing and despair.  The safety to wrap fresh language around our failure and to look at it from a different perspective.  The safety to experience unconditional love in the midst of our shame.  The safety to try again.  How different would our witness look like if the Church epitomized Jesus’s version of reconciliation?  What would the world be like if Christians were known as the people to run to in times of humiliation?  Can we, like Jesus, become sanctuary for the shamed?

Around the fire Jesus builds, Peter’s fear and denial (“I don’t know the man!”) evolves into trust and worship: “Lord, you know everything.   You know that I love you.”  In the end, Peter realizes that it’s what Jesus knows that matters.  Jesus knows that we’re more than our worst failures and betrayals.  He knows that we’re prone to shame and self-hatred.  He knows the deep places we flee to when we fail.  And he knows how to build the fire and prepare the meal that will beckon us back to shore.  

Jesus’s appearance to Peter — like all of the post-resurrection appearances the Gospels record — speaks volumes about God’s priorities. In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment of his time on revenge or retribution.  He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his.  Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends.  He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she sheds tears in the garden. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas.  He grills bread and fish for Peter and the other hungry disciples.  He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.

In other words, Jesus focuses on relationship.  On reconciliation.  On love.  He spends the last days before his ascension delivering his children from fear, despair, self-hatred, and paralysis.  He wastes no time on triumphalism or smugness.  Even at the height of his power, he chooses humility.  He chooses to linger on a lonely beach till dawn, waiting for his hungry children to realize how much they need him.  He chooses to ask Peter an honest and vulnerable-making question about denial, even though the answer might hurt.  He chooses to feed and tend his sheep.  

Peter’s shame meets Jesus’s grace, and Jesus’s grace wins.  That’s the Gospel story in a nutshell.  As writer and professor Brené Brown puts it, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.”  Meaning, shame cannot survive the living Word.  Shame cannot tolerate the resurrection.  When shame encounters the God who is Love, it burns to ash and scatters.

Prayers of Intercession

In the joy and hope of Easter, we sing Alleluia with the fullness of hearts. Christ is Risen!  Love is stronger than Death!  Alleluia!

In the joy and hope of Easter, in the midst of our singing and shouting, we know there are those who are bewildered and sad. 

We pray for those that have no hope, for those who suffer from depression, loneliness, and fear. 

We pray for those places and peoples in our world where death and domination rule, where imperial powers ignore the poor, where war never ends, where children are hungry, where parents grieve because they cannot provide, where accidents happen and death abounds senselessly. 

We pray for those held hostage to addiction and chronic illness that debilitates. 

In the joy and hope of Easter, we realize the depth and breadth of what it means to be your Easter people.  For we are the ones who are called to go into the places in our lives and world to work for justice and life for all in your Creation. 

It is up to us to bear witness to the promise of resurrection, to hold those in despair, and believe for them, that Love is stronger than death. 

In the joy and hope of Easter, O God, give us the courage to bear your living Love in every corner of our lives, so that your peaceable realm will be so, here on earth, as it is in heaven. 

In the name of the Risen Christ, we pray, Alleluia!  Amen. 

Closing Thought/Commission & Benediction

In the 12th century, Peter of Damaskos encouraged: Should we fall, we should not despair and so estrange ourselves from the Lord’s love….  Let us always be ready to make a new start.  If you fall, rise up.  If you fall again, rise up again.

Go now and follow the risen Christ.
Love God and nourish the faith of God’s little ones.
Make Christ known to all people for God has chosen you as an instrument to lead others into the way of mercy and love.

And may God change your anguish into a joyful dance;
May Christ Jesus lead you from betrayal to mission;
And may the Holy Spirit fill you with light and love and purpose.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul composer: Charles Wesley