“Dying for Jesus?”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
April 10. 2016
One of my fondest memories from childhood is the smell of bacon on Saturday mornings. We couldn’t always eat dinner together as a family since my dad commuted to Manhattan and often got home after we’d eaten, so these Saturday morning or Sunday after church meals meant a lot to us.
In addition to bacon and eggs, there’d be toast or English muffins with some kind of homemade jam. Tracy and I keep this tradition alive at our house whenever we can. To this day, there’s something about the smell of bacon that reminds me of family togetherness and family love.
Whenever I read this passage from John, I see in it the same kind of tenderness. The disciples were very much like a family and Jesus was a father figure of sorts. And here he is, making the family a yummy breakfast. Not of bacon and eggs, but of their staples: grilled fish and bread.
He is nourishing them in body and in spirit. We know from earlier passages in the Gospel of John that bread and fish are more than food for the body, but symbolize the spiritual food that Jesus offers his followers as well.
This is a communion image. There is some speculation that early communion consisted not just of bread and wine, but of bread, wine, and fish. I was thinking of introducing fish to our monthly communion, but things might get a little smelly!
Anyway… When we feed one another, we offer not just a meal, but affection and the chance to reconnect. We did that for one another last night at the Progressive Dinner. Jesus does the same here with this breakfast on the beach.
And that’s not all. Before the meal, he offers them advice about fishing. All night, they’d had no luck. He tells them to throw the net on the other side of the boat and they catch so many fish, they can’t even haul them in because the net is so heavy.
It’s worth noting that, at the very beginning of the gospel story, when Jesus first calls his disciples, he tells these fishermen that he will teach them how to fish for people. Jesus doesn’t mean converting people to Christianity or even to Judaism. From start to finish, Jesus’ main objective is to draw people into closer relationship with God and to get them to treat one another with compassion, the hallmarks of God’s new world.
But here he is, helping his old friends to catch actual fish. Why is that? Most scholars say that the author of the gospel of John is using this image of this massive haul of fish to remind us of Jesus’ real priority – the gathering of people into loving, spiritual community.
It’s also no coincidence that there are seven disciples on the beach that day. In scripture, the number seven is very special. Just as there are seven days in a week, the number seven is supposed to communicate fullness and completeness.
So, even though some of the disciples are missing, the seven are enough to do what needs to be done, whether it’s catching fish or catching people or continuing Jesus’ movement. Isn’t that true of the church as well? On any given Sunday, a good chunk of our church family is missing, but when we gather, no matter how many of us, we are enough and we are the church.
John also wants us to know that the presence of the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for the disciples to be who they are called to be and for the church to be who we are called to be as well. The net was not torn and neither will our community be torn if we remember who is at the center of things.
After breakfast, Jesus continues to give of himself, but in a different sort of way. He pulls Peter aside to continue the conversation, one on one. And it’s not an easy exchange.
When Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, he is reminding Peter of their deep and enduring connection. Scholars are unanimous in saying that Jesus is also rebuking Peter for the three times that he denied knowing Jesus on the night of his crucifixion.
How is this a gift? When the people we respect the most find a loving way to remind us of who we really are and how me must improve, even though it hurts, it is a tremendous gift. As parents, especially when our kids start to push back, it feels easier to hold off and avoid rocking the boat. But they need us to remind them, in a loving way, to be their best selves, even if they don’t want to hear it in the moment.
Jesus continues the conversation with Peter by telling him to feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep… To all four gospel writers, Peter represents the church as a whole – you and me and all clergy and all churches.
This commissioning is directed at us and it is so very important. I hope we can hear it. The author of John is reminding us of who we are when we are at our best. As a church, we are called to nourish one another, and that takes intention and it takes consistency.
When it comes to regular food, three or four smaller meals a day is way better than one huge meal once in a while. The same is true of love and spiritual encouragement. We are a much better church when we offer ourselves to one another and to our neighbors day by day, week in and week out.
Jesus finishes the encounter with Peter with a strange saying:
When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt
and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you
will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a
belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
This is generally true in that, as we age, we tend to lose control of our lives. But I think there is more to this. I think Jesus is asking Peter to voluntarily give up control of his life and allow Jesus to lead him. When he denied knowing Jesus on that terrible night, he was trying to preserve his own life; he was avoiding having to die for Jesus.
So, here Jesus gives Peter a chance to get it right, to live in such a way that he could lose his life for the cause. Though it doesn’t say so in plain language here in the Bible, oral tradition has it that Peter was eventually crucified as well.
What’s the message for us here? Is Jesus calling us – you and me – to die for him? Well, yes and no. If dying for Jesus means putting ourselves in danger of being executed, I don’t think so. While it definitely happens in other parts of the world, I don’t think you and I will have to be martyrs.
But if dying for Jesus means giving up our egos for the sake of a humbler walk with God, then yes, we are called to die.
If dying for Jesus means giving up some things in order to do a better job of feeding one another spiritually, then yes, we are called to die.
If dying for Jesus means letting go of the notion of scarcity and living more generously, then yes, we are called to die.
Our culture tells us every day, There’s not enough for everyone! Grab as much as you can for yourself! We deserve to have enough, but they don’t and we have to keep it away from them! If we can die to those notions and remember God’s love and care for every human being, then, yes, we are called to die — and to live again, each day, for the One who loves us best, and for our brothers and sisters, both known and unknown to us.