Sermon from 04-25-10: “Life’s a Beach, Part 2”

May 4, 2010

Sermon Text: John 21:15-25

[Press the play button below of click here for a downloadable podcast of the sermon.]

Daybreak at the Sea of Galilee.

One of my favorite sounds in the world is the sound of my children singing together. It touches me right in the heart. Recently, Lisa’s car stereo was malfunctioning—the CD was stuck in the CD player and it couldn’t play the radio. Fortunately, one of the greatest albums of all time was in there, Odessey[sic] and Oracle by the British Invasion band the Zombies. On a long car trip, we listened to this CD over and over again. My kids loved a song on it called, “A Rose for Emily.” Before long, they learned the melody, and they knew the words better than I did. So we’re driving home one night and from the back of the minivan are the three most beautiful voices singing, “A Rose for Emily”—in key! Is there anything better?

Well, there is! I recently wrote and recorded a song about turning the Big 4-0. Forty! I burned it on a CD and was listening to it in the car last week, and my kids were there. And they wanted me to play it again and again. I heard Townshend and Ian in the back seat singing along to the chorus of the song! It was great! These were my words, my melodies, that they were singing!

Do you know what it means to be a Christian? What it really means? Here’s a way of thinking about it: It means learning to sing the song Jesus teaches us to sing. It means learning to play the song Jesus teaches us to play. He is our composer, our songwriter… His words. His melodies.  We may sing lead sometimes; we may sing a harmony part. We may play one of the instruments. (We may also run the sound board.) But we all have a part. If we sing, we’re going to sing it in our own way—in our own style. Some of us will sing like Pavarotti; some of us will sing like Sinatra; still others will sing like Willie Nelson. All great vocal stylists in their own way, all very different. We get to write our own arrangement of the song that reflects our unique voice, but the song belongs to Jesus.

And—get this—we want to sing and play these songs that our Lord has written for us because why? Because it makes us happy! It brings us great joy! But we have to learn how to play and learn how to sing. That takes discipline. That takes hard work and long hours. One of Lisa’s students, a high school kid, is a violinist. She played her instrument in a recent community theater production recently. After one of the performances, I complimented her. My compliment ended up offending her a little. I said, “You sounded great on that violin! You didn’t sound screechy at all!” Because you know how difficult it must be to play violin well, and let’s face it: a lot of 16-year-old kids in high school orchestra are… well… a little screechy.

(Speaking of which, how do we even know if someone plays bagpipes well? Even at their best, the bagpipes sound like strangling twenty cats very loudly and off-key.) Sorry. I mean no offense to our Scottish friends.

Anyway, I came to find out that this young woman practices her violin four hours a day every day. Four hours a day—and she has for many years. She is aiming to be nothing less than a world-class professional musician. To say that she merely doesn’t sound screechy is to damn her with faint praise! That’s not what I intended. Can you imagine being that disciplined? That devoted to something that you love? But you know what that means for her? She can play practically anything she wants on that instrument! Hardly anything is too difficult for her! Nothing stands between her and the joy of playing the music she loves. Nothing stands between her and this thing that she wants to do more than anything else. And because of all the hard work of practice, of trying, failing, and trying again, day in and day out, she is free to do this thing that brings her joy. Can you imagine?

The New Testament, including John’s gospel, talks a great deal about freedom. Jesus said that the truth will set us free. Jesus said if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. But freedom doesn’t mean what we Americans often think of when we say the word: We think of freedom as being free to make choices—the more choices the better. Even sinful and destructive choices. But that’s not the biblical or Christian view of freedom. Freedom for us Christians means freedom from sin, which means freedom to be our truest and best selves; freedom to reach our true potential; freedom, as in the analogy of the violinist, to play that piece of music that brings us the most joy—without our own limitations and deficiencies standing in the way.

In the same way, we have to overcome sin in our lives. And like the violinist, that takes time and practice and devotion and trying and failing and trying again. At the “Ribfest” on Thursday, Dr. Don Martin told the men gathered there that we’re all “trying to be Christian.” Trying to be Christian. I like that. In a way, we’re all in the process of becoming Christians. We Methodists shouldn’t be accused of hypocrisy, because we know that we haven’t arrived yet.

The theological word that we use for this process is sanctification, but what it really means is learning to live and love the way Jesus lived and loved. “Simon, son of John,” Jesus asks in verse 15, “do you love me more than these?” The word “these” referred to the other six disciples, who were nearby on the beach, finishing their breakfast. What kind of question is that? Why was Jesus asking Peter to compare his love for Jesus to the others? What did it matter?

It mattered because Peter himself was quick to compare his own love for and loyalty to Jesus with other people. In Mark 14, when Jesus predicted that he would be abandoned by his friends in his time of trial, Peter became indignant “Even though all become deserters, I will not… Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Well, we probably know how that worked out for Peter, huh?

But it was just like Peter to believe that he would stand strong. Peter had a way of overestimating himself, being bold to the point of arrogance, of thinking he had it all together, only to be knocked down to size.

It was Peter who boldly proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, before anyone else got it… only to have Jesus call him “Satan” for refusing to see that being Messiah meant suffering and death. It was Peter who boldly asked to take those steps of faith, out of the boat, walking on water to meet Jesus, only to sink and cry out for Jesus to save him. It was Peter who boldly took out his sword when Jesus was arrested by the high priest and cut off the right ear of one of the arresting officers, only to realize that Jesus’ kingdom didn’t operate under those principles of violence. Peter was bold, brash, strong, resolute, confident—sure of himself… and often dead-wrong.

And yet, Jesus says of this same disciple, “I’m going to name you Rock, or ‘Rocky.’ Because you’re like a rock.” It seems ironic because when we think of a rock we think of something steady and sure, solid and unmovable. How does this describe Peter? Did Jesus know what he was doing when he gave him this nickname—or, more to the point, when he gave him this commission to feed and tend to his sheep and lambs—by which he meant to continue carrying out the ministry and mission of Jesus himself?

No, Jesus knew exactly the kind of person that Peter was. He knew this when he called him Rocky in the first place. He knew this when he commissioned him in this chapter. He knew how Peter had failed him—big-time—by denying him three times when the stakes were highest, when everything was on the line. And he knew that Peter would fail him again in the future—the Book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows us some ways in which Peter had some more growing to do. Yet he made Peter his point man; he was the chief apostle.

I wonder what he saw in Peter, which wasn’t evident from so much of Peter’s words and actions up to this point? Here’s one thought: These character flaws in Peter, which we preachers are so quick to point out and criticize, are the very attributes that—with a little bit of tweaking, a bit of softening around the edges—would become a source of Peter’s great strength. You know this is true! That headstrong, take-charge, attitude! That confidence! That decisiveness! Don’t you think that in Peter’s ministry, those things served him well?

I heard a sculptor once say that making great art was simply a matter of removing the unwanted stuff: There’s a buried work of art within every slab of marble. And you know that’s true for you and me! When we give our lives to Jesus through faith and baptism, it’s as if the Holy Spirit begins a re-construction project, a renovation project. I wish we could snap our fingers and become these beautiful works of art all at once, without the struggle and the pain. But whether we like it or not, the struggle and the pain are good for us sometimes. The struggle and the pain that Peter experienced in this passage was good for him. Jesus clearly wants to remind Peter of his failure and his sin. There’s the asking three times if he loves him, a reminder of Peter’s denying him three times. Not only that: there’s a reference earlier to the charcoal fire by which Jesus cooked the fish. Do you know what happened last time Peter stood near a charcoal fire? When he stood in the courtyard and denied that he knew or followed Jesus.

Jesus is asking him three times if he loves him with the smell of charcoal in the air. You think Peter makes the connection? Of course he does. Jesus wants him revisit this painful memory: Peter knew he failed; he knew he let Jesus down. What kind of friend does that? What kind of disciple does that? What does it mean to simply say, “Jesus is Lord,” when—after it’s really put to the test—you demonstrate that’s it’s all just talk? Do I love Jesus? How can I say that I do when I fail to follow him time and time again?

Listen: if this passage means anything, it means, “Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up! Don’t hate yourself! Jesus hasn’t given up on you! There is a second chance, and a two-hundred-and-second chance.” And while you’re at it, don’t give up on other people. Jesus hasn’t given up on them, either. There’s a Dylan song that says, “You say that you’re all washed up, you got nothing left to give/ Seems to me you never figured out how long you’ve got to live.” If we still have life in front of us, and we still have time, we still have time to change—because God will change us if we let him.

Jesus doesn’t want us to stay in this place of pain and failure and fear and self-doubt: “Go forward!” he says. “I’ve forgiven you! You’ve got work to do! You may never be perfect, but trust me… You’ll get better. I’ll see to it. But you don’t have to be perfect to do the good work that I have in store for you—any more than Peter had to be perfect. And you’ll do this work not out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but out of a sense of gratitude because I’ve forgiven you and given you new life!” Jesus asked him three times if he loved him, but he didn’t ask him four times; he didn’t keep on asking.

There’s a time to let go… and move on. And that’s what Jesus was telling Peter to do.

And that’s what Jesus wants us to do.

This commission that Jesus gave Peter—it wasn’t really so different from the commission that Jesus gives all of us. “As the Father has sent me,” the resurrected Lord told his disciples on Easter, “so I send you.”

Do you love Jesus? What will you do about it? How will you live it out?

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