Sunday, May 5, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Peter?"

John 21:15-19

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week Three

The anonymous adjunct college English professor, writing his memoirs about, as he titled it, toiling away “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” reserved some of his most poignant commentary for the day that students alternately welcome and dread—the day grades are due:

I went to the campus to turn in my grades after that first semester…in the registrar’s office, little knots of instructors…drank coffee and did last minute averaging.  The air was thick with weary sigs, sarcastic commentary, and the click of calculator keys.  (They) required instructions to turn in an additional form when a student received an F.  The office floor was littered with these things, discarded forms with mistaken entries and blank extra copies…the helpful secretary had a big stack of the things on either end of her counter.  “Anybody need more?” she asked.  “Anybody need more F forms?”  Several instructors wondered aloud: when were they getting rid of these things?  It really was too much of a burden to have to fill out so many. (emphasis mine)

I braced myself for the howls of outrage.  I thought surely I’d be fired; I waited for the torrent of irate emails from the students.  But no such response came.  The students were silent.  They were used to failure.  They’d been failing for years.  This was just another bad report card, although now there was no requirement that they have a parent sign it.  Not a single student complained. 

Some weeks later I got an official looking letter from the college.  I worried until I tore it open to find my contract for the following semester.  A helpful adhesive arrow at the bottom showed me where to sign.

The anonymous professor confesses that in one semester, he had to flunk nine of fifteen students in one of his classes: a fail rate of a full 60%.  In this professor’s stories, you get the distinct impression that there is something wrong here, a cycle of failure that leads to horrific feelings of inadequacy for teacher and pupil alike.  And after his thrice-declared denial of Jesus during the Passion story, Peter is probably feeling like he, too, might be somewhere in that same cycle of failure and inadequacy: failure at his having denied Christ, and inadequacy for everything that means to him.  And if you have ever felt the same way, you may well be a bit like Peter as well!

My intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we began the series with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  Last week, we turned to the beginning of a very famous and well-loved story, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus to two followers: Cleopas, and Cleopas’s anonymous companion.  And this week, we will explore an equally well-known story: Jesus’ exhortation to Peter, towards the very end of John’s Gospel, to “feed (His) sheep,” which is traditionally taken hand-in-hand with Jesus commissioning Peter as the rock the church is to be built upon.

Peter, of course, is not his real name.  His given name is Simon, but Jesus renames him Peter around the same time Jesus also says he is that rock of the church.  Why?

Because Peter—Petros, in the New Testament Greek—literally means “rock,” and more specifically, it is a commentary on Peter’s thick nature.  Jesus is channeling His inner Charlie Brown and saying to Peter, “You blockhead!”  Jesus is, in so many words, calling Peter stupid.

So Peter might be a few beans short of a full burrito, or a few fries short of a Value Meal.  Fair enough, nobody ever said that following Jesus requires a Mensa-level IQ.  Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself—it’s really pretty straightforward.

Except that it isn’t.

Because what happens when our deeply programmed, ingrained-in-our-bones instinct for self-preservation conflicts with either one of those teachings…which it will do all the time?

For Peter, this happens, like I said, during the Passion when he is asked three times if he knows Jesus of Nazareth, and three times he demurs.  Here, in John 21, days (if not weeks) after that low point of Peter’s discipleship, the three times that Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” are meant to mirror the three previous denials Peter uttered.  The same is true of the thrice-repeated exhortation from Jesus: “Then feed my sheep.”

But of course, Peter is not meant to grasp the poetic and Scriptural significance of the three-times bit.  And perhaps it is unfair to expect him to.  Instead, how he responds is perfectly human: he feels hurt.  He feels slighted.  He feels, dare I say it, inadequate, as he senses the need to declare, with increasing vociferousness and emphasis, his love for Jesus.

And Jesus, with swiftness and brevity, deflects each escalated layer: Feed.  My.  Sheep.

The reply is brilliant in its simplicity.  As the New Testament scholar Gail O’Day puts it: “Peter’s former denials do not prevent him from participating in the work to come.  Yet, Jesus’ repeated commands make it clear that there must be a direct relationship between love for Jesus and Peter’s actions.  Peter’s care for the sheep will show his love for Jesus.”

The same is true for us, and that, too, makes us Peter.  Our care for the sheep will show our love for Jesus.  The sheep remain Jesus’, which is what makes it selfless of us—we must care for that which does not, cannot, and never will belong to us.

And you know what the tendency is for us to do with things that we borrow, that don’t really, in the end, belong to us: to borrow from that awful restaurant manager in Office Space, it’s to only do the bare minimum!  We are meant to feed the sheep, but if they’re not our sheep, well, deep down, we’re probably fine with stuffing them full of Pixie Stix and Twinkies rather than on actual food (hey, I was in high school once, too, I know what we will sometimes eat for lunch).

So the trick, then, is to not only avoid spiritual high-fructose corn syrup for ourselves, but also to avoid spoon-feeding everyone else with whatever the religious equivalent of Twinkies is.
And that’s tough.  That takes a lot out of a person, which is precisely what Jesus follows this up with: Peter might feel invincible now, in his youth, but this ministry that he is about to undertake in Acts of the Apostles will use him up, leaving him old and weary.

And sure, Peter could just stick the apostles in front of the TV tuned to The Bachelor or Khloe and Kim Take Miami or whatever crap people watch today (I probably just offended someone by calling their favorite show “crap.”  To them, I say: please stop watching dumb TV). 

But Peter doesn’t do that.  And neither should we.

Despite our own inadequacies—real or perceived—we still have to care for one another.  Not because we belong to each other, but because we also belong to God.

And that means something.  It means we can’t just take care of each other in the easy ways, the ways that don’t leave us weary and tired.  It isn’t enough to simply proclaim our love for our pet dog by clicking “share” underneath a “SHARE THIS IF YOU LOVE YOUR PET DOG” graphic on Facebook.  It isn’t enough to simply text someone a chain message telling them how to find good luck if they forward this to X number of people while reciting the alphabet backwards.

We don’t get let off the hook that easily.

And sure, now I sound like such an old fuddy duddy now, going off on modern technology and whatnot.  But that misses the forest for a tiny, tiny tree.  Rather, the world we live in is set up to create these cycles of failure and of feeling inadequate.  It makes us think that we can never, ever be good enough—not for ourselves, not for each other, not for our families and friends and co-workers and classmates and teachers and students, and certainly not for God.

And sometimes, that may well be true.  But that does not mean it has to be universally true.

It was true for Peter at one time—when he lied about knowing Jesus of Nazareth.  But that doesn’t mean it had to be true for him here, when Jesus asks Peter only if he loves Him.

Am I Peter?  Well, if confronted by a God asking me the same question Jesus is asking here—do you love me—then yeah, I’m going to feel insecure and inadequate.  Because despite my best moments, there are other moments when I’m a real petros—when I’m a real blockhead.

And if that’s the way you sometimes feel too, then the Resurrected Christ has something important that He wants you to do, and that He instructs you to do through Peter:

Feed the sheep.

It ranks right up there with love God and love your neighbor.  It’s not complicated. It’s just love.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 5, 2013

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