Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019
When I was a graduate student At Binghamton, NY, the administrative assistant for the director of graduate studies had a sign posted behind her, right at eye-level of the students who would come to explain to her why they hadn’t yet completed some paperwork, or registered for master’s exams, or submitted book orders for their freshman writing class, or done any of the dozens of things that graduate students are responsible for and chronically put off. The sign was a circle labeled “Round Tuit.” You have one in your worship bulletin. And it said:
I think Peter is looking for a round tuit, some “thing” that he needs to obtain or accomplish before he can resume his calling to follow Jesus. Just to recap his story a bit:
- On Palm/Passion Sunday, we heard him deny Jesus three times and weep bitterly when the cock crowed.
- On Easter Sunday, we saw him run into the empty tomb, and return home dazed and confused.
- Last Sunday, we saw him huddled with all of the other disciples frightened behind locked doors.
Peter is stuck and frustrated. And when we are stuck and frustrated, we often fall back into old, habitual patterns of behavior. Peter and six of the other disciples are going fishing, falling back into their old, habitual line of work from before Jesus called them to follow him. And they’re not having any luck at it. Being stuck and frustrated causes us to do that: we shut down because we can’t see any other course of action.
I think Peter is at his lowest point here. I think this might be worse than falling asleep in Gethsemane, worse than cutting off the soldier’s ear, worse than denying Jesus three times, worse than losing Jesus’ corpse, and worse than cowering behind closed doors. Not even the old way of life is working out for Peter, and he is shut down because he can’t see any other course of action. He has fallen into a small and constricted view of himself and his life that is paralyzing.
In an old and very influential book called Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes this dilemma as circles of concern and circles of influence. Peter feels stuck because his concerns and worries and problems exceed his reach. This idea of circles of concern and circles of influence is illustrated on the back of your round tuit.
- Our circle of concern contains the issues, problems, and struggles in our lives that cause us worry or pain or grief.
- Our circle of influence contains the issues, problems, and struggles in our lives that we actually have some direct or indirect influence over—things we can actually do something about.
Peter’s concerns exceed his influence right now, and this is precisely when Jesus shows up. Some Bibles and commentaries call this story “Peter’s Reinstatement,” but it doesn’t seem to feel that way to Peter. He’s on the verge of tears by the time Jesus asks him for the third time “Do you love me?” And Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” If Peter was stuck and frustrated earlier, now he feels stuck and frustrated and tormented. I don’t think it’s lost on Peter that Jesus has asked him this question three times in answer to the three times Peter denied him. And I don’t think that this is intended as forgiveness or amelioration or restoration. I think that Jesus is saying to Peter something like, “Yes, I remember your history. But I don’t care about your past. I care about your present, and I have a job for you to do.”
Peter is so much like each of us and all of us together. He dives headlong into things he doesn’t understand and makes promises he cannot keep . . . You are the Messiah, the son of the living God! . . . Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. . . . Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water! . . . Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you! . . . Lord, it is good for us to be here. . . . Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man! . . . We have left all we had to follow you! . . . You shall never wash my feet.
We confess our faith one day and spew curses the next. We take on disciplines one day and fall back into old habits the next. We believe with all our hearts in miracles one day and fall into despair the next. We vow to change the world one day and by the next morning we are crying out, “I’m just one person! What can I do?”
But the good news here is that Jesus doesn’t care about our frailties and sinfulness. Jesus knows and remembers our past mistakes . . . but he calls us anyway. Jesus knows how impulsive and forgetful we are . . . but he calls us anyway. Jesus knows how weak and lacking in will we are . . . but he calls us anyway. Jesus knows how faithless we can be . . . but he calls us anyway. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be perfect or good or even mildly agreeable. He calls us in spite of our imperfections and evils and unruliness. He does not need us any more than he needed that miraculous catch of fish, but he knows that we need him, and we need to be forgiven by him, and we need to be called by him to feed his sheep . . . because loving others is how we love Jesus.
“Feed my lambs . . . tend my sheep . . . feed my sheep,” Jesus says. In this one command, there is so much that can heal Peter—and us—when we feel stuck and constricted. Becoming unstuck and effective means not simply ignoring those things that we cannot influence, but acting on those things that we can and by so acting, expanding our circle of influence. Jesus’ command to Peter is liberating because it focuses on doing rather than having, it acknowledges his past mistakes and gives him a corrective course of action, and it gives him a nearer, narrower goal that is within his reach.
I think we can learn from Peter whenever we feel stuck and constricted.
- When we feel like denying or hiding or pretending past mistakes never happened, Jesus shows up on the beach with bread and fish and one question: Do you love me?
Everyone makes mistakes. No one gets through life without having at least some regrets. The mistakes we make and the regrets we have exist out there in our circle of concern. Because they’re in the past, we no longer have any power to change them. And if we don’t face them and learn from them, they become endowed with tremendous power over us. But we can learn from them and change ourselves.
- When we feel like we could be more effective if we just had more members or more voices or more money or more energy, Jesus shows up on the beach with bread and fish and a job for us to do . . . Feed my lambs.
Focusing on what we do or do not have places responsibility for our actions “out there” on someone or something else. It empowers external forces to have control over our life together. Focusing on what we can do or what we can be places responsibility for our actions firmly on ourselves. It empowers us to change what’s out there.
- When we feel like the burdens of the world and pains and worries and hurts are more than we can take on, Jesus shows up on the beach with bread and fish and one thing to do that is well within our reach: Cast the net one more time.
We grow in influence and empowerment when we make promises we can keep or set goals and work to achieve them. Keeping a promise or achieving a goal helps us to discover and develop talents and resources that we may not ever have known we had. Making promises and setting goals involves risk-taking and taking risks can be scary. But if we begin by making smaller commitments or setting nearer goals, then—little by little—we can stretch into larger commitments and further goals.
In a few minutes, we are going to gather around this table. Usually we do that metaphorically. Usually an elder and I bring the elements down from the chancel and we stand among you and offer the bread and the cup as you come up to us one by one. But today we’re going to really gather around the table—just as the disciples gathered around Jesus that morning on the beach—because I want us all to be together just as we are with all of our faults and frailties. I want us to be around the table because it helps us to see just how small and limited we are, and just how much we need to be fed by Jesus so that we can go out and feed his sheep. I want us to be around the table so that we know in a deep and tangible way that we are all in this together, and that maybe
- what one of us lacks in faith, the other supplies
- what one of us lacks in commitment, the other supplies
- what one of us lacks in discipline, the other supplies
- what one of us lacks in strength, the other supplies
- what one of us lacks in will, the other supplies
- what one of us lacks in goodness or patience or generosity or love, the other supplies
And we all obtain these things from one who waits for us on the beach with a crackling fire and bread and fish to feed us so that we can go out and feed his sheep. We obtain these things from the one who did not withhold himself but gave his very life so that we might have life. We obtain these things not of our own resourcefulness, but from the one who sustains us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We obtain these things from the Lamb God who takes away the sins of the world . . . our sins. We obtain these things from the one who died and rose and reigns at the right hand of God.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! . . . To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! . . . Amen!