Jesus and his disciple Peter had a “reckoning” on the beach, where Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” and tells him to “Feed my sheep.” Even though Peter denied Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t “cancel” Peter, but reinstated him as the leader of the early Church. Jesus never gives up on us and promises to be with us every step of our journey. Is there a “reckoning” that we need to have with God or with someone else in our life?
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 21:1-19
Wherever I’ve lived and served in pastoral ministry, I’ve always enjoyed getting to know pastors of other churches in the area. Here in Fairfax, the pastor I’ve gotten to know best is Mike Han.
Mike is pastor of Table Covenant Fellowship, a church that we have had some joint activities with in recent years, like our Easter service last year as well as a virtual Lent discipleship group.
We haven’t done as much lately with Table Covenant because they’ve recently started meeting regularly with their ‘mother’ church in Springfield.
Anyway, I was having lunch with Mike a couple of months ago, and we got talking about some of the current issues in our society and in the church, and the word “reckoning” came up.
Now in some parts of the country, people use the phrase “I reckon”. In that sense, it basically means “I think”, like “I reckon I’ll go shopping this afternoon.”
Then there’s the word “reckoning”, which can be used to describe settling a financial account. And then there’s the use of reckoning that Mike and I were talking about,
Which is a reckoning where an issue or a situation comes to like a head, the tension is high, and something has to be done about it to deal with it and settle it.
Mike and I talked about how in our society right now, there seems to be a reckoning over racism, and also over democracy.
In the Church, it seems like we’re at a reckoning point regarding Christian Nationalism and the Church’s relationship with government and political power.
In our Mennonite Church and several other denominations, there’s a reckoning happening over same sex marriage and our relationship to the LGBTQ community.
In a few weeks, I’ll be going to a special delegate session in Kansas City where they’ll be some resolutions that will be discussed and voted upon. There could be some tense moments, but it’s something that we need to “reckon with” right now.
This scene at the beach in our scripture today is a reckoning of sorts. It’s the third recorded appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. In the second appearance, there was a reckoning between Jesus and Thomas-
Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them, and when they told him they had seen the risen Jesus, he doubted them, saying that he would never believe unless he could touch Jesus’s pierced body with his own hands.
So when Jesus appeared to them again, he had a face to face encounter with Thomas and had Thomas touch his body where it had been wounded, and when he did, Thomas became a believer in the risen Jesus.
That was Thomas’ reckoning with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
And now here at the beach, Jesus has a reckoning with Peter. As you might recall, Peter’s original name had been Simon, and Jesus had changed his name to Peter, which means “Rock”, because Jesus said that Peter would be the “rock” upon which the Church would be built.
But then in the Garden of Gethsemane, and there was this reckoning between Jesus and the authorities and he was arrested, three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus in order to save his skin.
So now over breakfast, here in the beach, because of Peter’s denial of Jesus in the Gethsemane, there is some unfinished business, a reckoning that needs to take place.
But before we get to the conversation between these two, let’s look at a couple of details in this story. I mean it’s a fish story, and we all know how interesting and colorful fish stories can be, right? Especially if there are actually some fish that are caught, which is the case here!
So after all the drama and surprises surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ fishermen disciples went back to their livelihood, to what they were familiar with, which was fishing in the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, as it’s called here).
After fishing all night, they have nothing to show for it. And just like the scene back when Jesus first called them to follow him, Jesus tells them to let their nets down, and just like back then, they haul in a huge catch of fish.
Then and there, they recognized who this stranger on the shore was—it was Jesus! And Peter, true to his impulsive, excited style, jumps into the water and swims to the shore as fast as he can to be with Jesus.
The others come in the boat, and Jesus takes some of those fish out of that net, and slaps those fish into a charcoal fire that he had already got going.
(I wonder, if Jesus were around today, would he be a guy who was a grillmaster? I’ve got a brother who has one of those Big Green Eggs, and he’s always talking about the steaks and ribs and fish that he cooks up in that thing.)
Anyway, Jesus had brought along some bread to go with the fish, and they all sit around the fire and have breakfast together.
One more thing before we get to Jesus and Peter’s reckoning.
Did you ever wonder why John includes how many fish were in the net? He said there were 153 fish, no more, no less. Did he really take the time to count them right then and there?
I did some google searching and found that there are all kinds of theories people have come up with to explain the significance of 153 fish in this story. There are all these math calculations people have done, which I won’t bore you with.
Here are a few non-mathematical theories about the fish: One is that 153 was considered the number of known fish species in Jesus’ time. Another is that there were 153 different ethnic groups in those days, so 153 signifies that God sent Jesus for all of humanity, not just some of them.
One last reason that John includes 153 fish might be to prevent the other disciples from exaggerating how many fish they caught that day. Maybe some of those guys would tell their family and friends that they caught hundreds or thousands of fish that day, and John wanted to prevent those “big fish stories” from taking place.
OK, enough of that! I don’t want the number of fish to become a “red herring” that distracts from what’s really important in this story. Which is the beach breakfast reckoning between Jesus and Peter.
So Jesus pulls Peter aside and he asks him the same question three times: “do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” And each time Peter responds, “Yes, Jesus, you know that I love you!”
It’s kind of in a tone of voice, that’s like “of course, I do; I’m not sure why you’re asking me, you should know that already.
It reminds me of that classic song from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, where the Tevye asks his wife Golde “Do you love me?” And her response is kind of in the tone of what I imagine Peter’s to be-
“Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your food, done all these things for you, stood by your side through thick and thin; if that’s not love, then what is?”
In other words, Golde had proven her love to Tevye by the ways she had served him and the family, how she had lived sacrificially and been faithful to him.
But in the case of Peter, there had been a glitch in his faithfulness to Jesus- he had betrayed his friend and master by denying that he knew him, he abandoned Jesus when Jesus was at his lowest point and could have used his support the most.
So really, Jesus had a good reason to ask Peter if he still loved him. And he needed Peter to say it, maybe not so much for Jesus’ sake but for Peter’s own sake, to verbalize that he loved him and that he was willing to recommit himself to the role that Jesus had called him to as the rock, the leader of the early Church.
In a way, this reckoning is a reinstatement of Peter to that role, made possible by a Jesus who was willing to give Peter another chance instead of writing him off as a failure,
A Jesus who still believed in Peter and who wouldn’t give up on him, even if Peter might have been ready to give up on himself.
In today’s world, I wonder if Peter would have been disqualified once and for all in our “cancel culture” society. So many people’s careers and futures have disintegrated because they have been “cancelled” for something they did or said many years ago that was exposed by people looking for a way to bring them down.
Now I believe that we all need to be held accountable for the things we say and do. We need to take our sin, our mistakes seriously and be willing to see the pain that we cause others.
At the same time, I believe that if we admit our sin and confess when we mess up, there can be forgiveness, if we are willing to learn from our mistakes, there can be healing,
if we make amends with the people we hurt, and go through a process of restoration, there there is the possibility of experiencing reconciliation in our relationships, restoration of trust that has been broken, and maybe even a reinstatement of our roles and responsibilities.
The way that Jesus treats Peter shows us that we serve a God who doesn’t cancel people, but who shows grace and gives us second, and third, and fourth chances.
But for the grace of God we live and move and have our being, and we are called to be gracious with others as God is gracious with us.
And in this kind of climate, we can carry out whatever ministry God has called us to. Jesus had called Peter to be the leader of the people in those very first Christian communities, and here on the beach Jesus tells Peter that his responsibility is to feed them, protect them, take care of them like a shepherd feeds and protects and cares for his flock of sheep.
I’ve gained a new understanding and appreciation for those who take care of sheep as I’ve seen how the Suter family from our church treats their flock of sheep and the baby lambs on their farm .
Cory and Allison and Jonathan and Caleb pour so much of themselves into feeding them, and providing them shelter in the barn, and tending them when they’re not feeling well. It can be humbling and exhausting, and sometimes heartbreaking. (like when they lost a baby lamb a couple of weeks ago).
So Jesus calling Peter to take care of his sheep takes a lot of work, dedication and most of all love for those sheep, sacrificial love.
And then Jesus say something to Peter that flies against the normal way that the world operates. He says:
“when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (vs. 18)
Now if we take this in the context of the book I read to the children—Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie DePaola, this can make sense—when we get to a certain old age, we may need other people to do things for us that we used to do for ourselves.
(It may even be this kind of role reversal, where the very people we helped learn to do certain things like walk like Bob did for Bobby when he was a young boy, now are doing the same thing for us, like Bobby helping Bob learn how to walk again after his stroke.)
But I think that Jesus is referring to Peter not when he becomes an old man, but rather as he begins his ministry at a pretty young age. And I take this to mean that God will lead Peter into places and situations that can be scary and even dangerous as he shares the good news of Jesus, and as he tries to feed and protect the sheep in a world that was hostile to people who claim Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar.
Being a witness for Jesus and the countercultural values of his kingdom can be risky business and can encounter a lot of opposition.
I got a small taste of this several days ago when I was sharing about our Beating Guns event with someone I know who is a strong advocate for the 2nd Amendment, and who see any kind of gun control as taking away our “freedoms”. This person scoffed at the idea behind the Beating Guns event.
But along with the challenge in the words that Jesus said to Peter, there is comfort. When he said that “someone will take you where you do not want to go”, he’s telling Peter that he doesn’t go alone, that God will be with him every step of the way.
At the same time, Peter has to do something that most of us have trouble doing—letting go of power and control, and putting our trust in someone else to lead us.
It means being in a vulnerable place, dependent upon someone other than ourselves. As people who value independence so highly, then can be a hard thing to do.
One author who talks a lot about vulnerability and giving up control is Henri Nouwen. This is especially a recurring theme in the books he wrote after he left a prestigious teaching position at Harvard and chose to move into a group home for adults with mental disabilities called Daybreak in Toronto, Canada.
This book, In the Name of Jesus, is a reflection on Christian leadership, but I think it applies in so many ways to all of us who seek to faithfully follow the way of Jesus.
In the book, Nouwen relateds the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness to Jesus’ calling of Peter to feed his sheep in John 21.
Throughout the book, Nouwen weaves in stories of his experience living in Daybreak, and how the residents there taught him so much about learning to live with trust, and humility, and the need to depend upon other people in life.
Here are a few words from Nouwen’s book, that I think can apply to all of us, not just those called to be leaders:
“I am speaking of a leadership where power is constantly abandoned in favor of love…Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. No, they refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.” (p. 63-4)
And we know from what we read in the book of Acts of the Apostles that this is the kind of life that Peter led as he spread the good news and cared for the new flocks of believers in the early church.
He proved his love for Jesus by following and trusting him, to the point of giving his life in sacrificial love for the sake of the sheep and for the Kingdom of God on earth.
Jesus’ question to Peter is the question for all of us today: “Do you love me?” And to say “Yes” to that question is to respond by living our lives, making choices, caring for others, that flesh out our love for Jesus.
Maybe there’s a reckoning of sorts that you’re facing in your life—in your relationships, in your job, in your faith, or something else.
No matter what you’re facing, remember that you aren’t facing it alone, that Jesus promises that he will be with you every step of the way.
I invite us all to take a moment of silence and imagine Jesus saying to us, “Do you love me?” And if we say like Peter “yes, I love you”, let’s reflect on what does it mean for you and I to step out in obedience to Jesus and do what Jesus is calling us to do.