Denying our identity as disciples of Jesus is a major problem with Christianity in America today. If all the Christians in this so called “Christian nation’s” identity was in Christ, there wouldn’t be children in cages at the border and there wouldn’t be racist language in our politics and there wouldn’t be such a big and ever growing gap between rich and poor.
We have in many ways become like Peter. This is a moment in which Jesus needs us the most and instead of taking on Jesus’ ministry and becoming his representatives in the world and reaching out to the poor and the outcast and working for justice and peace we are more concerned about protecting our own power and privilege, our own well-being, our own comfort and structures. So the mission God has given to us, God’s agenda, is at the bottom of our list of priorities, only for when it is convenient and won’t cost us anything.
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Our worship series “A Place at the Table” continues today with this story of Jesus making breakfast for the disciples on the beach...now the common way of looking at this story and I have preached it this way more than once, is to see it as a story of divine forgiveness…
To point out that Jesus makes a place at the table for Simon Peter, of all people, Simon Peter who turned his back on Jesus when Jesus needed him the most...Simon Peter who had looked Jesus in the face and said, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you” then went on to deny him not once, not twice, but three times…yeah, I know…talk about face palm emoij, talk about total failure…
You would think there is no coming back from that, three strikes and you’re out, that is certainly reasonable, except there is this story of Jesus making breakfast for Peter on the beach and having this awkward conversation with him in front of everybody in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him…so the common thought is this is Jesus forgiving Peter…
The thought is there is some sort of divine math going on here, and Peter has to affirm his love for Jesus three times to make up for the three times he denied him…
So Jesus is giving Peter that opportunity and for a long time that has made sense to me, it seems so gracious of Jesus to offer Peter this moment of reconciliation, but the more I think about, the more I realize that interpretation doesn’t align with my theology, doesn’t align with my understanding of God and here’s why: I don’t think Jesus keeps score.
I don’t think Jesus has this excel sheet on each of us keeping tabs on our sins and if we have repented or not, I don’t think there is this divine scoreboard we better hope is in the black by the time our time on earth comes to an end…I just don’t buy that, I don’t think Jesus works that way, that’s not the God I know in Jesus the Christ…
The God I know in Jesus asks God to forgive us even when we don’t know what we’re doing…and the God I know in Jesus flat out says: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ to people when they need forgiveness whether they ask for it or not.
Jesus doesn’t say ‘I forgive you,’ to Peter…instead we have this question “Peter, do you love me?” and look: it’s just not like Jesus to play games with people, you know, or to make them feel guilty or try and test them, that’s just not the Jesus I see revealed in the gospels, not the Jesus I know in my own life, and so:
There must be another way to look at this story…
And there is.
To look at it another way we have to go back to Peter’s denials in John 18. Let’s look at exactly what Peter did…and maybe that will give us some insight into what is really going on here between Peter and Jesus.
15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
Notice what Peter doesn’t say. He doesn’t say: Who are you talking about? I don’t know the man you’re talking about. He doesn’t deny knowing Jesus. What does he deny?
Peter denies his identity as a disciple of Jesus.
Let’s look at it again.
The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I AM not.”
Peter isn’t denying Jesus. Peter is denying the call Jesus has placed on his life to be his disciple. Peter is denying who he is, Peter is denying his true identity, his true self, he is denying who Jesus needs him to be; Jesus needs him to be Peter, the rock on whom he will build the church; Jesus needs Peter to be the shepherd now and Peter says: I am not.
Let’s look at his second and third denial, starting at verse 18:
18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself…They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Are you one of his disciples? I AM not. And then even the slave tries to help him to remember who he really is and whose he really is by recalling the time Peter was right there by Jesus’ side, Jesus’ go-to disciple, and Peter says, “I AM not.”
I am not…the real denial, the real rejection here isn’t Peter rejecting Jesus, Peter does nothing to Jesus, there is no breach, no break in the relationship between Peter and Jesus, so there is nothing Peter needs forgiving for from Jesus…if anything, Peter needs to forgive himself for failing to live out of his true self, his true identity.
What Peter really needs is to accept himself for who he was made to be, who Christ has called him to be, he needs to accept that he is the one Christ has chosen to build the church, to be one of Christ’s representatives in the world…
I have to tell you I think denying our identity as disciples of Jesus is a major problem with Christianity in America today…because if all the Christians in this so called Christian nation’s identity was in Christ, there wouldn’t be children in cages at the border and there wouldn’t be racist language in our politics and there wouldn’t be such a big and ever growing gap between rich and poor and…
We have in many ways become like Peter, this is a moment in which Jesus needs us the most—and instead of taking on Jesus’ ministry and becoming his representatives in the world and reaching out to the poor and the outcast and working for justice and peace…
We are more concerned about protecting our own power and privilege, our own well-being, our own comfort and structures, so the mission God has given to us, God’s agenda, is at the bottom of our list of priorities, only for when it is convenient and won’t cost us anything…and this makes me sad, you know...
Kinda like Peter who is so obviously sad after denying his identity as a disciple of Jesus not once, not twice, but three times--of course he is sad, he knows this is not who he is supposed to be, he knows he is not living how he should be living, sometimes I feel that way when I look at our country, don't you?
But if we look closer at Peter perhaps we can see ourselves in him and learn from him and his journey because he goes from being in denial to being determined to carry on Jesus' mission...he goes from running away from his call to becoming the rock he was always meant to be for Jesus.
Why does he deny he is Jesus' disciple in the first place? Why do we deny our identity...Peter knows that claiming his identity as a disciple of Jesus is going to cost him something:
he’s going to have to change, he’s going to have to teach and travel from the only home and way of life he's ever known and he’s going to have to lead, and he's going to have to speak out for the widow and the outcast and that's not too popular and he's going to have to care for the poor and build community with people who are different than he is...
and it is all so messy and so not easy, it is much easier to sit on the sidelines and I think Peter convinces himself that he is not the one Jesus needs right now...he reasons it out in his mind: I don't have that much to offer, really; I'm sure someone else will take care of it.
I am not, Peter says when the woman comes to him and asks: “Are you one of his disciples?” I am not...
What we don’t know is why she asks him…what her motive is…
I picture a woman who is desperate for someone to come and help her with her sick child and she has heard about Jesus and his followers and how they can heal in his name and so she is hoping this Peter is the one who can help her child: Are you one of the disciples, she says to Peter and he says: I am not. Where does she go now?
I learned this week that in our Richardson Schools over 60 percent of our students are below the poverty line…where do parents go for help with school uniforms and school supplies? Imagine a young mom of two Dobie preschool students coming to you, like the woman who came to Peter: are you the one?
Do you love me? Jesus says. Peter says yes: you know I love you. Jesus says: Feed my sheep.
Last week a woman who doesn’t go to our church but whose children came to our Vacation Bible School reached out to me after she heard the announcement about how we are collecting uniforms and backpacks and supplies for our Dobie students and she had picked up one of the shapes on the Dobie board that lists what is needed and she said: I can’t afford to buy all of this but I can buy some backpacks, is that ok? My kids and I want to do what we can.
She has kids she has to get ready for the school year…and her answer to the question: “Are you the one?” is yes. Yes.
Do you love me? Jesus says. You know I love you. Jesus says: Feed my sheep.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is asking Peter to carry on his role as shepherd of the flock. You are the one to feed my sheep now, Jesus says.
This is a spiritual examine, Jesus is doing with Peter—he’s asking Peter to examine who he is and if who he is, his identity as a disciple, is aligning with his actions.
Have you done this, have you had moments when you are become conscious of the fact that your actions are not aligning with your identity as a follower of Jesus?
I had a moment the other day when I was shall we say negotiating with the power company about our rate for electricity…it was the moment when the sales person asked for my email address and I gave them my non Arapaho address which starts with: pastorblairthompson…and he said: “did you say pastor?” and I said: oh yep. And I went over in my head how I had treated him…and I thought: oh Lord.
Now this is a fairly benign example, but you get the point: when I am consciously aware that I have denied my identity as a disciple of Jesus through my actions or inactions, I say a prayer asking for God’s forgiveness and for God to help me to become more like Jesus…and God does.
There is a word for this: the word is grace. Jesus makes it possible for us to see how we have denied our true identity and at the same, we are given what we need to become more like him: more loving, more compassionate, more self-giving.
Do you love me? Jesus says. Feed my sheep. Jesus says to Peter: remember who you are and start acting that way. He reinstates Peter as the shepherd of the flock. He says to Peter:
Look, you may have messed up and denied who you are but I remember who you are and I want you to remember, I need you to remember, you are the one I have called, the one I have chosen to carry on my mission.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep, Jesus says. By the way, he doesn’t say: If you love me, then make sure everyone believes this set of doctrines. He doesn’t say: if you love me, then make sure you build a church that has lots of rules about who is in and who is out. He doesn’t say: if you love, sing lots of sweet songs about loving me.
No, Jesus says: If you love me, feed my sheep. This is Peter’s one command and it is ours, too. The way we show our love for Jesus is to show our love and embrace of others.
Sometimes we show our love for Jesus by actually feeding people. Every time we have a funeral here, every time, we do a reception of cookies and punch afterwards so the family can stay and visit and receive the embrace and love of their family and friends, and just have time together—
And so all these people from our congregation bring in cookies and sandwiches for the reception and I remember one family member one time looked at the nicely decorated tables full of food and said: I don’t think I even know anyone who made this food for us, I can’t believe they would do this for us.
Those who bring food are responding to Jesus’ call: Do you love me? Feed my sheep.
Next Sunday we will serve breakfast at Austin Street Center, the homeless agency downtown Dallas, and some will be involved in bringing food and some will go and serve the food to nearly 400 people who will come through the line and they will smile and they may never say the word Jesus but those who bring food and those who serve, they are doing Jesus’ work, they are responding to Jesus’ call to feed my sheep.
They are feeding Jesus’ sheep.
What I know is there is all kinds of hunger and there are a lot of hungry people today and we may have denied in big ways and small that we are the ones to get involved but we are the ones to get involved…Jesus isn’t giving up on us, Jesus is giving us our calling again as he called Peter again—we were made for goodness.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu and his daughter wrote a book Made for Goodness and in it they included these words written as invitation to listen to God speak to us. I want you to hear these words for you today:
You are a child after my own heart.
Seek out your deepest joy and you will find me there.
Find that which makes you most perfectly yourself and know that I am at the heart of it.
Do what delights you.
And you will be working with me,
Walking with me,
Finding your life
Hidden in me.
Ask me any question.
My answer is love.
When you want to hear my voice,
Listen for love.
How can you delight me?
I will tell you:
The tough, unbreakable, unshakable love.
Are you looking for me?
You will find me in love.
Would you know my secrets?
There is only one:
Do you want to know me?
Do you want to follow me?
Do you want to reach me?
Seek and serve love.
Do you love me? You know I love you.
Feed my sheep.
So may it ever be.