Rev. Teri Peterson
The Shape of Life
John 21.1-17, 25
14 August 2016, Pentecost 2-5 (overflowing: love)
The Gospel according to John is the last of the four gospels to be written—perhaps as much as 30 to 40 years after Mark wrote. John tells the story of Jesus from a cosmic perspective, looking at the big picture from before time until the end of time. It is a story primarily of God’s action—God’s word become flesh, God drawing people into relationship through Christ, God painting a picture of what life in the kingdom is like.
Today’s reading is from the very end of John, the epilogue in chapter 21. After Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning, he appeared three times to his other disciples, and this is the third of those encounters. It provides a nice bookend to Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and it names disciples who were also named in the beginning, so the story ties the whole gospel together as one narrative. Just as the opening chapter of the gospel sets the stage, so the closing chapter reviews all the themes that John wants us to remember as we go to live as disciples. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the reading on an insert in your bulletin.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; 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 lake. 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 and 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.’
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.
Over the course of my life so far, I estimate that I have had somewhere around 6,200 family dinners. Every night when I was growing up, each of us would take our seats—the same one every night—with my mom closest to the kitchen, of course. We would eat dinner and talk about stuff, and whenever one of us talked with our mouths full my parents would flick us on the cheek, or if we put our elbows on the table then we’d get a little flick of the elbow instead. My brother and I took turns being in charge of setting or clearing the table, helping with cooking and helping with clean up. And in addition to learning table manners, we heard and created family stories, absorbed values, and were shaped, night after night, into the people we have become.
At the time, it didn’t seem like anything special. It was just the way things were—every night, around the same time, we’d be at the table eating and talking and learning and sharing. And if someone else was at the house—friends or neighbors or family, whether just visiting for the afternoon or staying for the summer—they would have a place set for them too. Occasionally something would come up—baseball practice, orchestra rehearsal—and we would shift the time, but it was a rare thing to not eat together.
I couldn’t tell you now about the topics of conversation, or what we ate every day, or which tablecloth was out on any given night. All those nights, whether they involved chicken cordon bleu or hamburger helper, conversation about school or sports or hopes and dreams, run together into one picture of love and belonging and understanding what is expected of me as a part of the family. What seemed so ordinary has turned out, in retrospect, to be perhaps the most special and formative part of my growing up years.
I’ve been thinking about formative experiences because of something I read about this conversation between Jesus and Peter. Here they are, on the beach near the place where Jesus had previously fed a crowd of more than 5000 people with just a few loaves and fishes, and he has done it again, turning their scarcity into abundance and then feeding them with bread and fish baked over a campfire. Peter’s cloak was probably still damp from his excited hundred-yard-dash in the water from the boat to shore—so eager to see Jesus that he was caught in between his desire to be properly clothed to meet the rabbi and his desire to be there rightnow.
It had been at least a few weeks since that Easter morning encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and Jesus had since appeared to his disciples two other times. This third time held all the marks of being final—a completion of their time together. It was early in the morning, just like that first Easter, when Jesus found them in the midst of their emptiness. After a night of nothingness, there was suddenly an abundance of fish in the exact number that many people think was the number of known countries at the time, symbolizing the disciples fishing for people across the whole world. Jesus had fed them, just as he always did.
And then the after-breakfast conversation. Three times, Jesus asks Peter—do you love me more than the other disciples do? He calls Peter by name, and Peter recognizes the good shepherd’s voice and proclaims his love…but for Jesus, just saying “yes, I love you” isn’t quite enough. He wants to see love as alive as he is, so he gives Peter a task. And Peter, really, stands in for all of us as he hears Jesus’ command: to put our faith into practice. As one scholar said, “to love Jesus is to shape one’s life according to Jesus’ life.”
If you love me, Jesus says, your life should look like mine. The shape of your days should match the shape of my love. Having been found and fed, now you follow.
How do we shape our lives to look like Jesus’ life?
The shape of Jesus’ life is the shape of the cross. Just as the cross reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also reminds us how he lived his life, and gives us a shape on which to model our lives. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, he drew for us a cross of vertical relationship and horizontal relationship.
Throughout the gospels we see Jesus constantly connected to God the creator—he goes off by himself to pray, nurturing that connection. Throughout the book of John especially, Jesus repeatedly says that anything he does comes from the Father, and the people who come to him are called first by God. He shows us what it means to love God with every fiber of our being.
At the same time he also models how to love our neighbor. He reaches out and touches people who are sick or unclean. He gathers together the hungry and feeds them. He goes out to the edges of society, and beyond, showing people how much God cares for them.
And we, who love Jesus, are to do the same. To draw the shape of our lives—not just our thoughts or feelings, but the way we live and move through the world—in the same shape Jesus did: simultaneously vertical and horizontal.
At the center of this shape is Christ, standing on a hillside or on the beach or in a kitchen, handing us the bread of life, showing us what this relationship looks like. The meals Jesus shares with people are an expression of his relationship with them, and that is still true. When we share a meal with our neighbors, we also share it with Christ. Every table is a reminder of God’s grace and abundance, and an opportunity to be formed and re-formed until our lives look more like Jesus’.
So what are the formative experiences of our Christian life? How are we formed—shaped—to live a life that looks like Christ’s?
At the family dinner table. Here, where Christ is the host, over and over again we hear the stories, we absorb the ethos, we come to understand how much we are loved and how we belong. We practice including strangers, and stretching to have enough for everyone, and being amazed at how much is provided. Sometimes it’s a fancy and special holiday or occasion, and most of the time it’s just the regular 6000 nightly dinners whose specialness may only be seen when we look at them all together, seeing how that pattern of life shapes us into who we are—children of God, growing into life with Christ, reaching up and reaching out, overflowing with love.
May it be so. Amen.
 New Interpreter’s Bible page 864