Left with a Love Song

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from April 10, 2016. Listen along here.

The gospel according to John, the twenty-first chapter:

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.


My mother recalls a time when I was a teenager that I fell head over heels for a particular love song on a music album. My thirteen-year-old-self was really moved by the melody and the lyrics. I had just made the jump from cassette tapes to CDs, which meant that I could play this favorite song on repeat. I played it incessantly, I’m told. My mother says that a particular crooner’s voice was floating across the hallway from my bedroom when she fell asleep, and the same crooner’s voice was the first thing she heard in the morning. I contend the phase didn’t last very long—a few months at most.

We all have tracks playing on repeat, so to speak. Some of them are songs we choose; some of them are given to us. They are highly conditioned by gender, race, and culture; by ability, age, and family; by religion, geography, and economics. I hear y’all describe these tracks in my office, in the Community Room, and in the emails you write week after week. Some tracks are wonderful and say things like: I am loved. I have gifts to share. My voice matters. I can participate in the healing of the world. The tougher tracks say things like: I am not enough. This grief will never soften. I’m sick. I have no purpose. I really messed up this time. This arc cannot be bending toward justice. My kids. These—and others like them—are often the melodies to which we fall asleep; they’re the first voices we hear in the morning.

We cannot know for certain how the disciple Peter would title his track at the end of John’s gospel, but we can make some pretty good guesses. In order to catch the fullness of today’s beautiful gospel story, we need to remember that Peter was the disciple who publicly denied his relationship with Jesus. Not once. Not twice. But three times. He abandoned his dearest friend when his friend most needed him. The rooster crowed, just like he was told it would, and his friend was crucified by those who didn’t like the changes his very presence demanded. From that point on, I have to imagine that Peter’s was a song of shame and regret and sorrow and fear that none of us would want on repeat, though I suspect some of us are familiar with its melody.

I bet Peter’s song was playing that hazy morning on the Sea of Galilee while he was out fishing with his friends. Jesus had appeared to them in the Upper Room and said “Peace be with you.” And then disappeared. And then appeared again to Thomas, who had missed him the first time around, and let Thomas touch him so he might believe. And then Jesus disappeared again. At this point, the disciples were no doubt wondering if they were delusional or if Jesus had really been raised from the grave. They made the sensible decision to return to the lives they knew before they impulsively went on the road with Jesus. They go back to fishing. And all the while Peter’s song played.

Suddenly in the text we hear Jesus shouting instructions from the shoreline, “Drop your nets on the other side.” The naked fishermen do as they’re told. They catch 153 fish, which in bible talk is a gazillion fish. And in that moment they know that Jesus is back. He’s managed to find them, again. Peter gets dressed and jumps in the water. Bible commentators say it’s kind of a silly move. I, on the other hand, think it’s one of the most beautiful confessions I’ve ever seen played out on paper. Peter starts swimming toward the one who can forgive him, toward the one he knows—despite all of his missteps—will offer him a new tune. We see Peter show up on the shoreline wet and out of breath and filled with hope that shame and regret and sorrow and fear aren’t the end of his story.

Jesus asks a question that he already knows the answer to. Why? Because it allows Peter three opportunities to say, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” It’s so merciful. Fredrick Buechner says that “what we really want in our deepest need is not proof that there is a God somewhere who exists or even scientific evidence that a resurrection happened some time ago in history. What we need is a God who is right here, knee-deep in the mud and mire of human existence—a risen Christ who comes to us every day to give life and hope.” Here we see Jesus taking Peter’s spinning record of shame and regret and sorrow and fear off of the player. Peter is no longer bound by a melody that undermines his ministry. At the end of the scene, all that Peter is left with is a love song.

Let’s be very clear, this isn’t the sentimental love song I played on a silver boom box as a teenager. This is the love song of the Risen Christ. In the wise words of musician Nina Simone, this is a love song with “a purpose far more important than the pursuit of excellence.”

It’s a love song that locates itself alongside the hurting and oppressed; a song that finds its way to the Samaritan woman’s well and to the tax collector’s table; a song that freely forgives the follies of others.

This is a love song that—as far as I can tell—doesn’t believe in privilege that isn’t equitably shared; a song that honors the interdependence of the community; a song that’s always rooted in the pursuit of justice for those who have been denied justice.

This is a love song that empires always want to squelch; a song that is willing to suffer for the sake of the neighbor; a song that says all creatures everywhere are blessed.

In this end, this love song isn’t about honor or recognition—it’s not even about comfort; this is a song that is always imagining a way out of no way; a song that that demands engagement, leads with mercy, and opens doors—these days, even North Carolinian bathroom doors.

Jesus sends Peter out to sing the song they had been rehearsing all along. It’s the tune that led to Jesus’ death; ironically, it’s the same track that sounded from the grave on Easter morning. This is the love song the Risen Christ leaves with all those who follow him—Peter, you, and me. May it be the melody to which we fall asleep, and the first voice we hear in the morning.

AMEN.

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