Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 1, 2022
Easter 3, Year C, John 21: 1-19
To watch today’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 41 minute mark.
There is perhaps no deeper need in the human psyche than the need to know you are wanted, you are cherished, you are loved; that in spite of all the hardships life can throw at you and all the ways you can mess up, there is still a place where you belong and a people to whom you matter.
When we don’t have that it messes us up…big time. It sets us, not on a path, but on a treadmill… a treadmill where we are forever trying to prove ourselves and yet no matter how hard we run or how much we accomplish, we’re still left wanting.
And I wish I could tell you that the people who suffer from this sense of “not enoughness” are few and far between, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least a little messed up in this regard.
So if you’re one of the few who are all good, you can tune out for the next 12 – 15 minutes. But if you’ve ever doubted yourself or wondered if you’re truly worthy of love, belonging, or a place at the table – this table – please hear me when I say, you are not alone.
I could tell you any number of stories from my own life to convince you, but I do that a lot. So instead, I want you to hear this story from Kate Bowler’s new devotional, “Good Enough,” about her great grandmother, Gi-Gi, because this story went straight to my heart.
Marjorie Bebbington (as she was formally known) was “born in England around 1904.”
Around because (you see, Marjorie) was daughter number four and there was such a fuss about what to do with her (no one had the bandwidth to write down her date of birth. Such a fuss ) because her dad had plain run out of names for girls. Apparently you can run out. Of names, and of energy to pay attention to “another fiddlin’ female,” or so her father called her.
(Which means that) Marjorie grew up knowing that she was both too much and not enough (all at the same time, and that’s quite a burden for a child to bear).
But my grandmother Gi-Gi, as we called her, was a hell of a woman (says Kate). She was tough and kind and didn’t let anything stop her. She was the custodian of an entire apartment block, took care of her (whole) family, sewed, and knitted every piece of clothing, and still made their lunch every day to order. Bacon on the side, that kind of thing.
She loved to smoke, even though she thought none of us knew, and when she finally got around to something she couldn’t do – which is to say she was a deeply mediocre painter – she had a solution for that too. She went to the second hand store and bought an oil painting. Then she found a matching color and painted her name right over the artist’s signature …Ta-da!
I had that one hung in my house (says Kate) until I got old enough to (compare it to her other work and thought)…wait a minute…she really made some remarkable progress.
My great grandmother (laments Kate,) bought into a story of intense perfectionism (a story that taught her) she had to be everything, or she was nothing at all (p161-162).
I can’t help but wonder if we don’t all feel that way sometimes. That feeling of being both too much and not enough. The pressure to be everything or nothing at all. The weight of perfectionism.
I wonder how many of us have felt that way or struggled under that pressure? I wonder how many of us have walked away from something that could have been real good simply because we didn’t believe we were good enough?
I think Peter knew that feeling. I think he knew it all too well. In fact, I think it’s why, after his whole adventure with Jesus, even after everything turned out okay, he went back to fishing. Because, as you all know, Peter was anything but perfect. Peter messed up, big time. He is the poster child for anyone who has ever overpromised and then failed.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter is the one who boasted that he was all in. He is the one who promised that he would follow Jesus to the very end. “I will lay down my life for you,” he boasted, in front of everyone.
But then, the moment he felt threatened, Peter was the first to reach for his sword. Peter is the one who cut off the ear of the High priest’s servant. Peter was brave enough to follow at a distance after Jesus was arrested, but when the people outside the court asked if he was a disciple, it was Peter who denied he ever even knew Jesus…not once, not twice, but three times. They all messed up, but Peter is the one who failed in front of everyone.
By this point in the story, I’m sure he is deeply relieved by the good news of the resurrection, deeply relieved that after all has been said and done, Jesus has come though victorious. But after his own string of personal failures, after letting Jesus down over and over again, I think Peter feels unworthy to continue on in the work of being an apostle.
He has been tried and found wanting. He simply isn’t good enough and everybody knows it. He probably figured that Jesus was better off without him, so Peter went back to what he thought he was good enough to do…fish for fish and not for people.
Which is what makes the exchange in today’s gospel reading so profoundly beautiful and meaningful, not just for Peter, but for for anyone who has ever tried and failed…which, last I checked, is all of us.
Peter walked away from Jesus in shame. Peter walked away because he failed the one person who loved him most in this world. But Jesus didn’t walk away from Peter. Instead, Jesus appears on the beach in much the same way he did on that fateful day when they first met.
Just like that first time, the fishing is a bust until a stranger on the beach tells them to let down their nets one more time, at which point the catch is so huge their nets are in danger of breaking. Recognizing the sign, John says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” And Peter is so beside himself with joy that he puts his clothes back on before he jumps in the water to swim to Jesus.
He’s so pumped, that he personally drags in the net full of 153 fish all by himself.
153 fish!- which according to scholars could represent any number of things. I’m serious, everything from the number of known fish species at that time to the number of known nations at the time to a secret numerical code that somehow references the importance of Mary Magdalene at the time or maybe just her phone number or something. I don’t know. It gets a little nutty.
But what everyone agrees on, if nothing else, is that 153 was a heck of a lot of fish, an irrefutable sign that Jesus is back and he’s come back for them.
Which, on the surface, seems great. They all head for the beach where they find a nice fire going and breakfast already cooking. Jesus breaks the bread. He passes some flounder. But although everyone is happy to see him, you get the sense that all is not well.
There is unresolved business that needs to be attended to and they all know it.
No one dares to speak until after breakfast when Jesus finally turns to Peter – in front of everyone – and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Now this is awkward on so many levels. I mean first, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than the other disciples right in front of the other disciples. That’s a little weird. Second, he calls him Simon…not Simon Peter or even just Peter.
Which is significant because there was a point in their time together when Jesus gave Simon the name Peter, meaning rock, and said “upon this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:18).”
There’s nothing like a good nickname to give one a sense of belonging, and to be called “The Rock,” to be designated as the future leader of the band, would have been a huge honor. But they all know Peter failed to be “The Rock,” so to have Jesus go back to calling him “Simon” had to have felt like a demotion.
Add that to the question, “do you love me?” and this would appear to be one of the most painful conversations in human history because, I mean, if you have to ask…uggh….you know things are not good.
But if you read this in the language in which it was originally written, you realize that what seems terribly awkward to us was even worse for them.
Because, you see, in English it sounds like Jesus and Peter are both saying exactly the same thing, and it seems odd that they would go through this exercise three times: “Do you love me…yes I love you.” “Do you love me…yes I love you.” “Do you love me…you know that I love you.”
But you need to know that there were at least three words for love in ancient Greek. Eros, which referred to romantic love. Philios, which referred to the affection between friends. And agape, a perfectly selfless, self-sacrificing love.
When Jesus says earlier in the gospel: “Greater love hath no one than this, that they would lay down their life for a friend,” he uses the word agape (John 15:13). And when Jesus look across the fire at Peter he uses agape again. Peter, “do you love me…love me enough to die for me?”
Unfortunately, everybody knows Peter doesn’t. So when he responds, Peter responds honestly. He uses the word, philios.
Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
And Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I like you.”
“Simon, do you love me, love me enough to lay down your life for me?”
“Oh Lord, (you know that I don’t) but I hope we can still be friends.”
Most scholars agree that Jesus asks three times, because Peter denied him three times, as if he’s giving him the chance to undo his denial. And I think there is absolutely something to that.
But the third time Jesus questions Peter, Jesus himself changes his word for love to philios: “Simon, do you love me as a friend?” And Peter is hurt, because of course he does: “Lord, you know everything, (you know that I failed to love you the way you deserved to be loved,) but of course I’m still your friend.”
Peter ran away because he was afraid. Peter ran back to his old life because he didn’t believe he was good enough. Peter ran away because he though he was both too much and not enough, that if he wasn’t perfect he wasn’t good enough to be a disciple of the one who was.
But Jesus shows him, in front of everyone, that perfection is not necessary. “Do you love me perfectly?” “Lord, you know that I don’t.” “Well, Peter, you can feed my lambs anyway.” “Do you love me perfectly?” “Lord, you know that I don’t.” “Well Peter, you can still feed my sheep.”
Peter knows he isn’t good enough, strong enough, or brave enough to love Jesus the way Jesus deserves to be loved, but – and here is the good news – right there in front of everybody, Jesus affirms that he loves him anyway in all of his imperfection.
Jesus meets Peter right where he is and takes what he can offer and makes it clear that he is willing to work with him and through him. That in spite of his imperfection, Peter still has place in Jesus’ heart and his ministry.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if meeting him on the beach, reenacting the miraculous catch, and calling him “Simon” and not “Peter,” wasn’t Jesus taking a dig at Peter, but his attempt to stage a big do-over.
As if Jesus is saying, in front of everybody, “Simon, even knowing what I know now, if I had to do it all over again, I’d still go back and choose you. I will always choose you. I will give you all I have and I will always take whatever you can offer, because this church will not be built on the rock of perfect people who never mess up but upon the lives of imperfect people who know what it is to stand on the rock of God’s unyielding grace.
Jesus doesn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here, not with Peter, and not with us. And friends, I hope we won’t either.
At the end of Kate’s reflection about her grandma Gi-gi she says:
We are living in a culture that celebrates the high stakes …of perfectionism…an unending pageant (where) the judges never tire. We (fear) we are nothing if we are not perfect….If only we could trust that the giving of ourselves, with all our imperfections, has a value beyond rubies…
If Gi-gi were still alive, I would take a tour through her life to tell her what was perfect – (and it would) not (be) the delicate oil painting in all its fraudulent glory. (Instead) I would remind her that she was a wonderful cook and a (good) person, (with) a soft heart and a quick mind. And, pointing to another of her paintings – a crudely rendered bunch of daisies – I would tell her that the best part of her wasn’t the best at all. It wasn’t even great. …the best part about her was that the way she tried and lived and loved was her true art (p 163).
The best part of us isn’t necessarily us at our best…it’s just us in all of our us-ness, if you will, and us in all our us-ness is enough for God.
Kate didn’t love Gi-gi because she was perfect or for what she was best at. Kate loved Gi-gi for her own peculiar, unique self. Just as Jesus loved Peter. Just as God loves you and God loves me…not most of you or me, or just the best parts of you and me, but all of you and me.
A God who will always choose us again and again and again, even when we falter, because unlike ours, God’s love never fails. Amen.