Be Bold in Listening – Sermon on John 21
A note on the translation:
Our scripture today describes a conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter, a Disciple of Jesus. Simon Peter has a unique name, because his first name, Simon, means “Listener,” and his second name, Peter, means “Rock.” Pay attention to when Jesus addresses him as “Simon” (listener) and when the text refers to him as “Peter” (rock).
Our scripture today also includes 2 Greek words that are both translated as “love” in our text: agape and phileo. Agape love is unconditional love – it is a love you give no matter what you think about a person, whether you admire them or not, or whether you know them well or not. Agape love is described as the type of love Christians should have for one another, and the love God has for us. Phileo is slightly different – it is a more personal and intimate type of love. It comes from a place of admiration and genuine affection. You can love someone unconditionally and not like them. Similarly, you can agape love someone and not phileo love them. The use of these two different terms may or may not be significant to the meaning of the text, but the two translations are included in brackets so that you can decide for yourself.
Scripture: John 21:15-25
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me, [unconditionally] more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Master; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Feed my little lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me [unconditionally]?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me [like a brother]?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me [like a brother]?” And he said to him, “Master, you know everything; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Master, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Master, what about him?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Sermon: “Be Bold in Listening”
Peter’s world revolves around Peter.
Of course it does.
All of our worlds revolve around us.
We can’t help it.
We only see the world through our own eyes.
And Peter’s world view is specific to his time and place.
Peter is a stereotypical man’s man. He is a man of muscle – a fisherman who uses his hands, who has strong arms, who smells like the sea and hangs out with the guys.
He’s arrogant, stubborn at times, and he’s a man of action.
Hence his nickname, “Peter,” which means “rock.”
His first name, “Simon,” means listener.
But Peter is what he is usually called, because the nickname “rock” fit so well.
Peter likes order and control. When Jesus appears to Peter along side Moses and Elijah, Peter’s first instinct is to build a building there to hold onto that moment.
He’s also brave. He’s the only Disciple who tries to follow Jesus and walk on water. And he does it, at first, until he began to doubt, and then he sinks. Like a rock.
Despite his hesitation in the sea, it is clear that he is loyal to Christ.
When the soldiers and priests came to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and cuts off one of their ears.
He is solid, strong, and stubborn. He doesn’t budge. He doesn’t waver in his opinions.
Until he does.
Peter loses his center.
Jesus is arrested.
And while Peter is standing around a charcoal fire with officials waiting to question Jesus, Peter denies even KNOWING Jesus.
Three times he denies him.
Shortly after, Jesus is convicted, crucified, buried, and then on Easter morning, raised from the dead.
Our story today takes place in the time shortly after these events.
We’re not sure whether this is a literal appearance of an embodied Jesus or a vision, but either way, Peter is again sitting around a charcoal fire, the same type of setting as the last time someone asked him 3 questions about his relationship with Jesus.
Only now, it is Jesus asking the questions.
And Peter has a chance to redeem himself.
Jesus asks him, “Simon, Listener, Do you love me unconditionally?” Agape. Do you love me without conditions?
Because remember, that for Peter, in the past, there were conditions. Peter was the most loyal and steadfast Disciple, until… he wasn’t. There were conditions on Peter’s loyalty. There were conditions on Peter’s love. When Peter’s own life and reputation were at stake, Peter denied even KNOWING Jesus. And so here, Jesus is giving Peter a second chance.
But Peter, the rock, whose ears and world view are closed off, misses the opportunity.
And Peter responds, “Jesus – of course I love you. I love you like a brother.” In other words, I admire you. I respect you. I love you because of who you are and what you do and what you represent. I love you for a reason.
Jesus responds, “Then feed my little lambs.”
Which to Peter, must have been a bizarre response. Remember, Peter is a stereotypically macho guy. He’s a fisherman. He’s a fighter. And here Jesus is asking him to care for the baby sheep…?
Peter is a straight-forward, literal kind of guy. He says what he means. And so he takes Jesus’ words literally too. Jesus is asking Peter to feed baby sheep. How bizarre. In the worldview of Peter, babies are women’s work. And shepherds – they’re thieves and outcasts. Peter already has a good job as a fisherman. Why would he leave it for a dirty job with animals?
And so while Peter is sitting there confused, Jesus asks again, “Simon, Listener, Do you love me unconditionally?”
And Peter, the rock, the stubborn one, says again, “Of course I love you, Jesus. I love you like a brother. I love you because of who you are and what you do and what you represent.”
And so Jesus, who isn’t getting anywhere with the “feed my lambs statement,” softens his request a little bit. “Care for my sheep,” he says.
But Peter still doesn’t quite get it. And he’s hurt that Jesus isn’t hearing him. And he’s not used to this nurturing role Jesus is asking him to take on.
Jesus, wise man that he is, figures out that Peter isn’t ready for the care-giving role. And Peter isn’t READY to love Jesus without conditions. And so finally, Jesus meets Peter where he is. And Jesus asks, “Simon, LISTENER – do you love me like a BROTHER?”
And Peter says, “Yes, Jesus! That’s what I’ve been saying! I love you like a brother!”
“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says.
Now, Peter understands, as a fisherman, how to feed people.
He gets that. And so Jesus is finally getting through.
Jesus then tells him, Peter – follow me. Follow my example. Your path is to follow me all the way to the cross.
At which point, Peter gets distracted by his ego again.
Wait a second, Peter says. I’m going to die? But what about that other guy? Is he going to live forever? How come I have to be the one to die. I thought I was the rock, your right-hand man? What happened to me being the one upon which the church is built, Jesus?
And Jesus basically says, Peter – it’s not up to you. Stop worrying about everyone else. I’ve told you your path. Now follow me.
I don’t know if Jesus was entirely successful in communicating his message to Peter. It’s difficult to talk to a rock.
And at times, that’s what talking to Peter felt like, I’m sure.
And at times, I imagine we can relate to the struggle Jesus had with him.
Doesn’t it feel like we’re talking to people like Peter sometimes? Rocks that just won’t listen and just won’t get it?
These past few weeks, I’ve had some conversations where people have just said the craziest things. And I’ve tried to gently and compassionately correct their obviously ridiculous views.
But we all know how well THAT works.
When you’re talking to a rock, one of the worst things you can do is try to push on them harder. Or to try to break them open.
Because the way people tend to work is that when you push against someone that’s pushing, they simply push harder.
They get even more defensive, they dig in their heels, and they shut down.
So how do we communicate with people like Peter? What does the Bible advise?
Well, the example Jesus gives is excellent.
He begins with a big request – feed my little lambs, Peter. You who have denied even knowing me – I want you to love me unconditionally, and to be nurturing to the most vulnerable.
But then, when he recognizes Peter isn’t getting it, he softens his request.
And ultimately, he meets Peter where Peter is.
He doesn’t give up on his opinions or his requests, but he starts from somewhere closer to where Peter already is.
In other words, he doesn’t ask someone who’s never run in their lives to run a marathon tomorrow.
He asks them to get off the couch and walk a block.
And he doesn’t ask someone who’s never been to church to be baptized this week. He asks them to come to a presentation or to visit.
This is the example of Jesus over and over again.
He challenges people, but he does so with baby steps. And with genuinely curious questions that invite the listener to move ahead on their own accord.
The challenge is, in order to meet people where they are, we have to KNOW where they are.
Is someone testing us? Are they lashing out because there is pain somewhere in their lives that has nothing to do with us? Are they making these statements to push buttons? To right a wrong?
Without asking where people are coming from, it’s nearly impossible for us to know how to meet people where they are.
Jesus knew everything. He had an advantage from the beginning. And he still had to work to get Peter to listen.
It’s going to take a lot more for us to get there.
So my challenge to us this week is to work on our Christian, compassionate communication.
Instead of jumping to conclusions about people’s choices, I challenge us to ask, “Could you walk me through how you came to that conclusion?”
Instead of attacking people’s views as bigoted, which they very may well be, let’s approach them with Christian compassion and ask, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”
We may still end up disagreeing with them. But perhaps we will get better at the practice of understanding them and loving them…
With curiosity and compassionate questions, perhaps we’ll soften the hearts of those rocks in our lives. And perhaps, we’ll even do the miraculous work of softening our own.
Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
October 14, 2018
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