Sermon text: John 21: 1-19
In the movie Forrest Gump, which, can you believe is 28 years old now, there’s a scene where Forrest is returning to the docks on his shrimping trawler and he sees Lieutenant Dan. Lieutenant Dan waves. Then Forrest waves. And then he keeps waving as he jumps of the boat and swims over to Lieutenant Dan. Do you remember that scene? And then the boat goes crashing into the docks. That was the first thing I thought of when I read the gospel for this week as Peter jumps into the water to swim to Jesus.
But my next thought was this: Why are Peter and the gang back on the Sea of Galilee fishing? They have seen the Risen Lord. They know that about the Resurrection. Jesus had breathed on them the Holy Spirit. And they were still his disciples. Why are they on the waters, failing to catch fish?
So I tried to put myself in the disciples’ sandals. I tried to look at life through their eyes after Easter. They know that Jesus is Risen, but what would they do with that information? How do you make sense of life when you have seen death defeated?
More practically, what do you do with your life? The disciples have seen Jesus on this side of Easter, but it doesn’t seem like Jesus stuck around. Jesus keeps popping up at random moments with his disciples. In Jerusalem behind locked doors. And now in Galilee on the shore. What do you do with your life when the person you’ve followed for the last three years is no longer leading you around all the time?
Easter changes the rules of the universe. It’s a lot to ponder now, but I bet the original disciples had a much harder time making sense of all of it and applying it to their lives. You wonder if they thought life would be easier had Jesus just remained dead in the tomb. So it seems like Peter and all these other disciples went back to what they knew best. They went back to fishing.
And I wonder, during this hiatus, when the disciples were collecting their thoughts, in this time between Easter and their continued ministry in Christ’s name, did the disciples feel like they had a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose? Are they like Lieutenant Dan, searching for a place in the world?
Modern psychologists tell us that everyone needs these two things: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
I think we all know what it means to have a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and a sense of self. While our culture regularly tells us that identity is an individual affair, that we can carve out an identity by ourselves, it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us.
And to be clear, identity is different than fitting in. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group, just as you are. We all need to belong.
In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Three times. Can you imagine if someone you care about asked you whether you really love them not once, not twice, but three times! That would be painful. And Peter is hurt by this repetition. I suspect that only later did it sink in that Jesus isn’t testing Peter. Instead, he is reinstating him to the community of believers by allowing him to confess faith the same number of times he denied faith earlier. Jesus is drawing Peter back into a community to which he belongs and accepts him for whom he is.
That’s belonging, but we all need a sense of purpose too. We need the belief that what we do matters, that if we did not show up people would notice. Purpose is question I hear again and again, especially from my homebound members. Why am I still here? What is there for me to do? Purpose is one of the greatest motivators in the world. Purpose is more powerful than money or fame or power. When we believe that we have something of value to contribute it draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy.
So in response to each of Peter’s confessions, Jesus responds by giving him good work to do: Feed my sheep. Be a leader. Look out for these others. Devote yourself to this community.
Peter is reinstated into the community of the faithful and given a sense of belonging, and then he is given good work to do and given a purpose.
And guess what. This story is just one of the hundreds in the Bible that does the same thing by granting us a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. In fact, these two themes are so dominant in the biblical story that we’ve actually created theological terms to capture them.
For what else would you call justification—the promise that you are accepted for who you are by God’s grace alone? That is the promise of acceptance and belonging. By baptism we are also invited to be a part of a group where we belong.
And what else would you call vocation—the promise that God will use us wherever we are to take care of God’s people and the world? That is the promise of purpose. By our baptisms we are called by God to make a difference in the world that God loves so much.
Belonging and purpose. We all need these two things. And in this story from John we see the resurrected Jesus giving Peter these two things. And I believe that we have the opportunity to see and feel the same exact thing that Peter experienced.
Jesus invites us into community where we belong. Jesus invites us into a community where we are called into a lifetime of work worth doing for a sense of purpose. And we experience that together as members of the Body of Christ.
The Gospel of John ends with this line: 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.
You see, the story is not yet finished. There are so many other things that Jesus did that John couldn’t imagine writing them all. There are so many things Jesus is still doing through us that they tale of them would fill all the books of the world.
So let’s take Jesus’ invitation seriously. Let’s jump in, like Peter, and continue the good work. AMEN