Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Third Sunday of Easter
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – May 5, 2019
15 or 16 years ago now, when I studied abroad in Freiburg, Germany, my roommates and I ate a lot of meals together. Of all the meals, breakfasts on Sunday were the best. Everything was closed down, but we’d get some take and bake rolls or I’d stop at the bakery on the way home from church and we’d all have breakfast together. Sebastian would take out his coffee mill and grind coffee beans for French pressed coffee. Barbara and I would make soft-boiled eggs. We’d get out butter, jam, marmalade, meats, cheeses, avocados… You guys, we ate avocado toast before it was a millennial thing. Everything you could imagine would be on the table and we’d take hours lazily eating and chatting. It was fantastic.
So when I think about breakfast on the beach with Jesus, I think about those breakfasts with my dear friends. I think of the joy the disciples must have felt as they came ashore to sit around a warm and crackling fire. I think about the smell of the fresh fish and the water. I imagine hearing the sound of the water lapping on the shore and the feeling of the bread, dusty with flour as it was broken and passed around. I imagine the feel of the hard-packed ground and rocky beach beneath me. And I imagine the disciples feeling excitement, confusion, hope, worry, fear, exhaustion, and wondering about what lay ahead.
Peter and the other disciples go back to fishing after encountering the resurrected Christ twice. They’ve seen Jesus and he’s even empowered them with the Holy Spirit, saying “‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” And yet, here they are, back at their old occupations. Maybe they were confused, wondering what the next steps were. Maybe they were waiting for marching orders. Maybe they were discerning what it meant to live in a world without Jesus’ constant physical presence and accompaniment. It should have been an easy transition back to what they knew, but to make things worse, they’re not successful. After a night of fruitless fishing, a stranger appears on the shore and calls out to them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. When they bring in a huge haul, they recognize Jesus for who he is. This was what Jesus did when he called them to follow him to begin with.
In all of this, it seems they’re suffering from an identity crisis. We were fishermen. Then we became disciples of Jesus and fishers of people. Then the rug was pulled out from under us at the crucifixion. Then Jesus returned, but he keeps leaving. Who are we and what are we supposed to be doing?
Just sitting down for breakfast together must have been a tremendous gift. It was not only physically nourishing, but spiritually, too. For emotionally spent disciples, the chance to do something normal with their friend and Lord must have been a wonderful gift. They returned to their everyday lives. And Jesus met them there. He met them with food on the beach. He sat with them. Ate with them. Talked with them. Only after he had fed them did he speak with Peter.
In John’s Gospel, when Peter denies Jesus, he doesn’t deny knowing Jesus like he does in the other gospels. He denies being a disciple. He denies his identity as a follower of Jesus. In doing so, he denies who he is as a person.
Jesus’ questions then are not an inquisition so much as they are a means of helping Peter claim his identity as a disciple and a leader. They’re a way of helping him forgive himself and recognize that Jesus, standing before him on the other side of death, believes in him. That Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Son of God, entrusts him with the important work of being a disciple in the world. In asking him, “do you love me?”, Jesus gives him the opportunity to profess his love and in doing so, realize that he does indeed wish to follow. Where he might not have been able to do so before, he will now make a lifelong commitment to discipleship. He can now serve as a shepherd and leader moving forward.
Jesus takes time to remind Peter of who he is by asking him questions. “Who are you, Peter? Do you love me? Do you love your occupation and comfort zone more than me? Do you love your brothers and sisters? Then show it in how you feed, tend, and care for them in my name. Follow me. Do what I do.”
Jesus has shown the disciples what love looks like in his own ministry: it’s sharing food with the hungry. It’s speaking with those on the fringes of society. It’s forgiving those who are in need of a new start, healing the hurting, and binding up wounds. It’s humbly washing the dirty and road-weary feet of a brother or sister. And it’s laying down our lives in sacrificial love for one another. He’s fed them physically and spiritually. He’s told them to touch his wounded hands and side. He’s literally breathed on them with the power of the Holy Spirit. And now they are to go out and do the same.
Jesus already had fish on the fire as well as bread. He helps the disciples do a new thing by casting their nets on the other side of the boat so that they can have fish, too. Then he asks them to add their fish to his. It’s an invitation to be a part of what he’s already doing in the world.
But sometimes we need help claiming our identities as followers of Christ and remembering what a gift that is. We need reminders of who we are and whose we are. Paul needed Ananais to help him claim his new identity as apostle. Martin Luther found comfort in remembering he was a baptized child of God, forgiven and beloved. At those breakfasts in Germany I also be more comfortable in my identity as a follower of Christ. That was the year I read through the Bible for the first time and worshiped in a Lutheran church regularly. Those breakfasts were times people asked what I’d heard in church and I needed to articulate not only what I’d heard in the sermon but also what I believed.
This exchange between Peter and Jesus has meant so much to me in my faith journey. These words helped me find faith in the midst of doubt the first time I studied abroad. In them I felt my call to seminary affirmed. And they took on new meaning years later in Munich when I began to doubt my call to serve as a pastor. I had been in seminary for 3 years and I was preparing my final paperwork for candidacy and first call. But could I really do this? I felt so incredibly unprepared and inadequate. One Saturday night, I went to church with my roommate. In St. Peter Church (nice touch, God!), I arrived looking for answers. I was having a hard time praying and longing to hear anything from God. The church, decorated with hundreds of candles and various opportunities for prayer, had baskets labeled “God’s word for you” filled with scripture verses. I took one and on a slip of paper were the words “Do you love me?” Well, I broke down sobbing in the pew next to my roommate. It wasn’t a direct answer, but I knew undeniably that yes, I did love Jesus. I might be inconsistent, imperfect, and flawed, but I loved God and I wanted to serve. And more than that, as I remembered that exchange on the beach, I knew that Jesus loved me, too, and could work with even broken vessels.
How often do we doubt ourselves? How often do we deny or downplay our own identities? Because we’re afraid we won’t be accepted? Or because we’re afraid we’ll disappoint? Do we hide our true selves from others or even from God? Do we struggle to believe we might have something to offer?
We may have a rough time believing this, but the truth is even if we may doubt or deny who we are or fail to claim our callings, God never stops loving us. We cannot evade God’s love or shake God’s belief in us. As Sara Groves sings,
At times, you’ll lose your faith in me.
You will lose a lot of things,
But you cannot lose my love.
You will lose your confidence.
In times of trial, your common sense.
You may lose your innocence,
But you cannot lose my love.
Knowing this, we are called to be ourselves and to follow Christ. Peter with all his brashness and often-misplaced confidence was called to be a leader in the early church. It was who God called him to be, even with his weaknesses. God was able to work through Peter to make disciples and build the church. God is working through you, even now. As St. Catherine of Siena would later write, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” Jesus helps Peter recognize himself for who he is – an imperfect follower of God, chosen and called to do amazing things in Jesus’ name. And Jesus helps us recognize who we are – blessed and flawed disciples chosen and called to do amazing things in his name.
Jesus asks us, “do you love me? I have work for you. As you are. Imperfect. Beautiful. Broken. Stumbling. Confused. Do you love me? My Holy Spirit will guide you and give you strength and wisdom. I will forgive you when you fall short. Do you love me? Come. Follow me.” Thanks be to God! Amen.