Well, last week we witnessed the creation and the commissioning and the complete empowerment of the new missionary community. And this week, that new missionary community, has, apparently, decided to kick-off the ministry by going on a fishing trip. Or, maybe not kick it off at all, and just go fishing instead. Last week, when the new missionary community was established by Jesus, the disciples were still in Jerusalem. This week, they’ve gone back home to Galilee.
I can almost imagine how this fishing thing happened. The disciples are back home in familiar territory. They are all sitting around together one afternoon, and Peter up and announces that he is going fishing. And everyone agrees that this is probably a good idea. And so they gather up gear that has most likely not been used for about three years, and they go out, as the new missionary community, to proclaim the good news of the Gospel to the fishes. Except that the fishes are making it clear that they have no interest at all in the message.
I don’t know why this new missionary community has gone fishing instead of engaging in the ministry for which they have been so recently equipped. My first reaction is to wonder, how stupid can they be? But then, I think of myself. And in the disciples, I see an awful lot of me. The same Holy Spirit that breathed through the disciples and empowered them for ministry breathes through me and empowers me for ministry. But there are times in my life when I am terribly unresponsive to that power. There are times in my life when I would rather be proclaiming the Gospel to the fishes than doing what God has called me to do. There are times in my life when I am dead; spiritually dead, spiritually unresponsive, with no resurrection life in me at all. I’m human. I’m a sinful person. I’m a failure, just like Peter and his companions in this story. So I dare not judge them, lest I be judged with the same ferocity. Besides, Jesus himself does not judge or criticize his disciples for their failure. He’s a little sarcastic, perhaps, but not terribly critical. “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
That sort of says it all. They’ve been out all night, very reminiscent of the morning that Jesus first called them to become his disciples; and they have once again caught nothing. Jesus called his disciples away from their nets that first time, and now he’s calling the new missionary community away from their nets once again. As Yogi Berra would say, it’s deja vu all over again. And the lesson is very nearly the same in both stories. Jesus is saying, I’m shutting the business down, boys, just like I did at the beginning of my ministry. There was work to do then, and there’s work to do now. I intended then for you to become fishers of people and I intend now for you to be doing the very same thing. Fishing is a noble vocation, but as noble as it is, I’m calling you away from it. It’s time to leave your nets permanently, and it is time to get on with the work of the new missionary community that I’ve created you to be. So have one, final blessing on your old vocation, and move on into the work that I’ve called you to do.
But there is still, apparently, one bit of final business that needs to be taken care of, and it seems oddly out of place. In the gospel of Wayne, this business would have been taken care of before the creation of the new missionary community. But now, the disciples have already received their commission, and they’ve been given the Holy Spirit and the divine the authority and the power to accomplish it. But there is a bit of a something going on between Jesus and one of these guys that still needs to be resolved, and Jesus intends to get it cleared up because that bit of a something has already hindered the ministry.
After breakfast, Jesus and Peter probably took a walk so that they could be alone. There’s a hint of that in verse 20. And as they walked along, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” And already we can tell that something is up. Jesus rarely called Peter “Simon”. Simon is the name that Peter’s mother and father gave to him. It is his real name. “Peter” is a nick-name that Jesus gave to him. It means “rock”. But now, Jesus is calling him “Simon”. Jesus is starting this conversation by going all the way back in time to a place in Simon’s life before he and Jesus met: before Simon became a disciple. And that’s because Simon and Jesus need to meet again, as if it were for the first time. And that is because Simon is no longer a disciple of Jesus. He is no longer one of Jesus’ followers.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus asking? Is he asking, Simon do you love me more than the rest of your companions love me? That’s not a very good option, because it doesn’t exactly encourage the truth. We would jump at that question. Or maybe Jesus is asking, Simon do you love me more than you love your fellow companions? That’s a little bit better of a question; Jesus does require us to love him unconditionally and above all others in our lives, but still, I don’t think that’s the best option. I’m convinced that Jesus is getting right down to the nitty-gritty here. The real question, given the context, is Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love your life as a fisherman? It was, after all, Simon who initiated this fishing excursion. It was Simon who encouraged the new missionary community to step away from its calling. “Yes Lord, Simon replied, “You know that I love you.”
And so a second time Jesus says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Just a straight forward question this time. “Do you love me?” And the same reply from Simon, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” And then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” And at the third question Simon becomes distressed and hurt, and blurts out in frustration, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
And oh, the depth of the realization that must have thundered through Simon’s heart when he finally realized what Jesus was asking. Oh, the grief, the sorrow, the loss, but more than anything else, the sure and certain hope of forgiveness and restoration!
Three times, on the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter vehemently denied any and all association with Jesus. He had knowingly and angrily asserted that he was not one of Jesus’ disciples. He even claimed to have never known Jesus. That night, Peter erased Jesus from his life, as if there had never been any relationship at all. And so the question becomes, Simon son of John, man who has renounced all association with me, person who has denied being my disciple, do you love me? Would you like to become Peter once again?
This conversation moves me beyond words, because it is a question that Jesus is constantly asking of us. No matter how often we remove ourselves from the company of the disciples, no matter how often we abandon the missionary community that Jesus has created us to be, Jesus will always be willing to lovingly reinstate us. Would you like to become Peter again? The invitation to Simon from Jesus is very clear. It is simply “Follow me”. Get on the path. Become one of my disciples. Simon took Jesus up on that invitation. He became a follower and a disciple of Jesus once again. That also is our invitation.