Do We Love the Lord More than These?

Pieter van der Borcht (ca. 1540-1608), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Just as the disciples tried to go back to their old way of life after Jesus’ crucifixion, many have tried to go back to “normal” after recent events have “crucified” their old way of life – with disappointing results. How can we move from hard labor on the lake of self-reliance to the calm shores of God-reliance?

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.

Scripture: John 21:1-19

The gospels report that on the days following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and some followers who all struggled to make sense out of his crucifixion and to believe the reports of his resurrection. The events that took place severely tested their faith and hope.

Cleopas and his companion, traveling down the road to Emmaus, recounted the events from their worldly perspective, which offered them nothing more than a sense of futility and defeat. Even Jesus’ disciples struggled to believe that he had risen – especially Thomas, who refused to believe until he had seen Jesus with his own two eyes and conducted his own forensic investigation of Jesus’ wounds.

They all had doubts. They all struggled to understand what Jesus had taught them. And on the evening of his arrest, most of them deserted him. According to Luke 22, Peter, one of the first disciples Jesus called, denied him three times and was living with the terrible memory of those denials.

Then after Jesus’ crucifixion, they were all hiding out cowering in fear of being arrested, and Jesus suddenly appeared to them saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

How do you think they felt?

How many of you remember the show “Welcome back Kotter?” This show first aired back in 1975, and it was one of my favorites. How many of you can still remember the theme song? Hah! Now’s it’s going to be stuck in your head all day! Anyway, Gabe Kotter returns to his old high school as a teacher, and he’s put in charge of a classroom full of students called the “Sweathogs.” They’re a band of wisecracking, underachieving, incorrigible students.

The disciples probably felt a lot like the Sweathogs. They had been in Jesus’ school for three years, and when the final exam came, they pretty much flunked. But like Gabe Kotter, Jesus sees tremendous potential in his little band of doubters, deniers, and deserters.

Our scripture reading for today reports that the disciples attempted to go back to their old way of life. This story reminds us of when Jesus first called them to be fishers of men. Before the Lord showed up, no matter how long or hard they labored, the results were disappointing.

But there they were – at it again. Didn’t Jesus say to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you?” Did he then say, “Go ye therefore and be fishers of fish!” No, he didn’t. In Luke 9, Jesus invites some people to follow him, but they all had other things to do first. Jesus commented, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The disciples had all been called out of their old lives to follow Jesus. They had put their hand to the plow of cultivating the vineyard of the human race, but now they were looking back, and it would only be a matter of time before they would go back permanently.

We can understand their frustration. With their perceived failure as Jesus’ disciples, they had lost their meaning and purpose, and the smell of the sea brought back the memory of an old meaning and purpose that had once made them happy. So, they figured, “Well, we can always catch fish.”

So, that evening, they got into their boats, shoved-off, drifted into position, and cast their nets, eagerly longing for that exhilarating feeling you get from catching fish and the return of that old meaning and purpose for their lives. But all night long, and not a single fish.

Then as the sun rises, Jesus appears on the beach. You or I might have yelled out, “Hey! Did you catch any fish?” But Jesus already knows the results. He says, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”

That reminds me of the first time I made a cake. Mom specifically told me to use baking soda, but since that was on the top shelf of the cupboard, and I didn’t feel like getting a chair to stand on to reach it, I decided to use something within reach on the bottom shelf: baking powder. I figured it was close enough – only a difference of one little word.

When I took the cake out of the oven, mom said, “It didn’t rise, did it?”

The disciples didn’t listen to Jesus either. Without reaching up higher for the baking soda of God’s purpose for their lives, all their efforts would turn out like my cake – flat. We think that we can work things out with our own power, might, and ingenuity, but if we’re not where God wants us to be, the results will always be disappointing.

What do you think the disciples thought about their fishless night? You know how it is: When fishermen catch fish, they call it “skill.” When they don’t, they call it “bad luck,” or they blame it on the weather, or the temperature of the water, or the bait. And even if no fish were caught, there’s always the ego-preserving fish story entitled “the big one that got away.”

But the disciples didn’t offer any excuses or fish stories. They simply answered with a truthful one-word confession – “No.” Sometimes it’s hard to admit failure. Maybe they thought, “Yeah, we can’t even catch simple fish, and he expects us to catch men!”

Once they admit failure, Jesus offers a solution. Throw the nets on the right side of the boat. In metaphysical philosophy, the right side is the side of Truth, the side of power. The results are immediate – tons of fish – the net was so full of fish that they couldn’t even haul it in.

And that’s when Peter experiences déjà vu. Now it may seem a little strange to us that he put on his outer garment before he jumped over the side, but it was a show of respect. He had probably been working in just a loincloth and that wasn’t enough to wear when you approach a teacher.

I’m sure their enthusiasm over finally catching some fish was amplified by their growling stomachs, but by the time they had all gotten to shore, the Lord had a meal already prepared for them. Fish was cooking over a charcoal fire, and there was some bread for them to eat also. Jesus knew that they were hungry and hurting, so he provided what they needed – food and communion with Him.

Peter grabs the net full of fish, 153 of them, but they didn’t need any of them because God had already prepared a blessing for them without the toil. And the same is true for us. God has a place of food, rest, and fellowship always waiting for us. All we have to do is accept His purpose for our lives.

That was the question Jesus had for all of the disciples, but he directs it specifically toward Peter. He asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” 

What was Jesus referring to by the words, “more than these?” He was asking Peter if he loved him more than the sea, his boat, his net, and the fish. He had once called Peter out of that life and into a new life, and now he’s asking him to make a choice.

The “lambs” refers to fledgling believers, who are essentially defenseless. Those who are young in the faith can easily fall prey to lies because they don’t know any better. They need to be fed the Truth about who God is, who they are in relation to God, and why they are here.

The second time Peter professes his love for the Lord, Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” The “sheep” refers to veteran believers, and in using the word “tend,” he’s asking Peter to be their shepherd.

Sheep need a shepherd because frankly, they aren’t too smart, they are prone to wander, and they can’t defend themselves from predators looking for a late-night snack.

Now, the “sheep” comparison might not seem very flattering to us older believers, but we are still vulnerable in many ways. The personal self is very tricky, and we all have one. It’s so easy to be deceived by its bad advice. So easy to wander away, end up lost, and become prey for the predators of this world.

Peter feels hurt when the Lord asks him the third time, “Do you love me?” So, he says to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” Now, he’s asking Peter to help his sheep find pasture – a place of food and fellowship like he was providing for them on the beach.

Peter felt bad that the Lord asked him three times if he loved him, but we can easily figure out why. Peter was burdened by the guilt of his three denials. By giving Peter the opportunity to profess his love for him three times, the Lord gave him a way to cleanse his guilty conscience so that he could forgive himself and move on with the new life, the new meaning, and the new purpose into which he had been called.

What does this story have to say to us today, in these times? Well, I believe it has a lot to say. Many events that have recently taken place have severely tested our faith and hope – particularly the pandemic. It has brought to the world an extreme degree of uncertainty and groundlessness.

In many ways, it forced us out of our old way of life. Many lost their jobs, but we all had to limit our spending and our activities due to lockdowns. Some people tragically lost family members and struggled to meet their basic needs. We pray that they will find the strength and comfort of the Lord within them to rebuild their lives and to restore their peace and joy.

But for others, the pandemic wasn’t so tragic. It only felt that way because it was an assault on the personal self’s insatiable desires for bodily pleasures, worldly treasures, and the freedom to do whatever it darn well pleases despite the harm.

Those who hoped that Jesus would be a political savior who would save them from the Romans viewed his crucifixion as a disaster. In the same way, the pandemic felt like a disaster to those who are addicted to and those who profit the most from American workaholism, consumerism, and rugged individualism.

Because the longer the restrictions lasted, the more time people had to realize that maybe they didn’t really need to work so much, buy so much, and go out so much. In fact, when they didn’t work so much and spend so much, and actually spent more time at home cultivating meaningful relationships with those closest to them, life was actually … more satisfying.

It seemed to me that for the addicted, that time was excruciatingly painful, and for the profiteers, the thought of people realizing this was absolutely terrifying. So, they pushed us back into the old ways as fast as they could. Now, like the disciples in our story, many are back in that old boat toiling away.

And the Lord is standing off shore, waving at us saying, “Ahem children! … the same old same old is giving you the same old disappointing results, isn’t it?”

The disciples worked all night long with no results. Some people work eight hours a day, five days a week. Some work a lot more than that – around the clock, tons of overtime. What are the results? Lots of cash in the bank account? Plenty of stuff? A bigger pension or 401K?

Are we busting our butts storing up riches so that we can enjoy life … someday?

That reminds me of a documentary I saw recently. It was about ravens and how smart they are. One scene took place in Holland in the dead of winter. Since food is so scarce, hunters purposefully gut their kills in the woods and leave the entrails there to feed the wildlife. As soon as one buzzard landed and started to enjoy its feast, another buzzard divebombed it, and they both started fighting over the pile.

While those two buzzards were busy fighting, the ravens and all the other scavengers and birds of prey who needed to eat swooped in, took a piece, and flew away. Swooped in, took a piece, and flew away. So that by the time the champion buzzard returned to the pile it had worked so hard to defend, it was like, “Hey? Where’d it all go?”

It’s hilarious, and it’s sad because we humans often act just like those dumb buzzards. In our fear and greed, we work so hard to store up and protect our stash, but it doesn’t make us happy. Cast your net on the right side of the boat. The truth is that we can enjoy life right now – any time we choose – if we accept God’s purpose for our lives and trust in Him to provide.

The Lord knows what kind of work feeds our souls, so he asks us to feed his lambs, tend his sheep, and feed his sheep. That kind of work is truly meaningful. It’s called service.

Meaningful work is what many people are beginning to realize they really want. They don’t want a meaningless job that don’t pay. They don’t even want a meaningless job that does pay unless they can use it as a temporary bridge to something more meaningful. They don’t want to be rich; they simply want a meaningful job that at least provides them with a livable wage. And they won’t settle for less.

You might ask, “But Pastor Joan, why are so many leaving the service professions in droves?” They are leaving because they feel as if they can’t serve. They want to serve – badly. It’s just that many of our current systems are making true service very difficult if not impossible, and many no longer want to be part of a system that does not truly serve.

That is absolutely maddening to those who are addicted to and profit from the old ways, but those who are looking for work that truly serves can rest assured that they are doing nothing wrong. Within their hearts, they have heard the Lord’s request, and they are responding, “Yes!”

So, we need to honestly ask ourselves if the work we are doing is truly working for us. Even those of you who are retired may be working part-time or perhaps engaging in volunteer activities. Is our work feeding our souls? Or are we toiling too much on the turbulent lake of self-reliance when the Lord has everything we need already prepared for us on the calm shore of God-reliance?

And are we providing pasture for ourselves? The old proverb to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else put theirs on is relevant when it comes to taking care of souls. We can’t provide pasture for others if we don’t provide it for ourselves first.

Coming here on Sunday morning to spend time with the Lord and to fellowship with one another is one type of pasture, but we need more than just this. We need daily pasture, and we can do whatever works for us to commune with the Lord and feed our souls. We need this time every day to study, reflect, pray and meditate on the Lord’s teachings.

If we do this regularly, we can become a pasture for others.

It’s not easy to transcend the personal self. It’s very challenging, especially when many are still gripped by it and look at us like we’re nuts. It’s hard not to cave into the pressure of what we know doesn’t work when everyone else thinks it works. If you think it’s easy for me to practice what I preach, think again. It’s just as challenging for me as it is for every other human being.

But no matter how much we struggle, no matter how many times the Lord has wave at us, it’s a worthy challenge because it’s calling us back to calm shores and the peace and joy of our true nature. And the longer we stay there, the better the likelihood that we will stay there permanently.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we love you more than worldly pleasures and treasures and our own self-reliance. We say “yes” to tending to and feeding your flock because we know that our souls long to serve. We are ready to trust God for all our needs. AMEN.

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