text :: John 21: 15 - 25
theme verse :: “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:21b)
‘Tis the season for transition. Jesus moved from death to life. The disciples moved from followers to leaders. Our seniors are moving from high school to… whatever comes next. Any transition to a new existence comes as a test to all we know and all we are. Real life shepherd, James Rebanks, writes, “You can always tell how alien someone is to our world [of shepherding] by how terrified of the muck they look.” Any threshold of promise also comes with a struggle. On this Senior Sunday, we consider the many transitions in our lives and what it means to shepherd one another forward in faith. If we’re doing it right, people may say of us, “They smell like sheep.”
anthem :: 'I'll Fly Away' (arr.C.Courtney) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director; Susie Monger Daugherty & Marilyn Rhodes, piano
offertory :: 'Brother James' Air' (J.Bain) :: Benjamin Schwartz, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Cameron Gough
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
closing :: 'Living Hope' (P.Wickham) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader; Andi Gross, lead vocal
15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 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, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, 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.
Get up and get out! I’ve heard of some parents who say this to their graduates after high school. Like a mother bird nudging her babies out of the nest … and surely before those babies feel like they are ready to fly… there is some parental instinct that says, “It’s time. You’re ready. Fly.” It’s hard to believe, I can imagine, that the time has come. Time flies, of course, and that ornery little booger now towers over you and clears your pantry daily of anything that looks and smells of food.
My parents were in town for a bit watching our kids as Carrie and I spent some time away. Mom sent me a picture of our seven-year-old, Hayes, who had crawled up in a chair at some craft store they were in to find some supplies for a school project Dane was working on. (Nanny’s and Papa’s are the best, you know?) Mom snapped a picture of Hayes who was making a goofy face as he is oft to do. It was only after I got home and mom blew up the picture for me that I noticed the artwork hanging next to him that read, “All of God’s grace in one tiny face.” Oh the grace, my friends; the grace required to love and raise a child well… and for them to allow you the grace of mistakes, missteps, and the gift of growing alongside of them. I’ve learned from many of you that this grace never ends.
I was listening to Dr. Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, do an interview for some research she had done and her book, Growing With, that was coming out. She told a story about a friend of hers… a woman in her sixties… who had been concerned for her father, now in his mid-eighties and struggling with some serious medical issues. There came a season, however, where her dad was strong enough that she wanted to share something with him that wasn’t just about getting his medical care sorted out. She took her dad to the beach. After a time of getting settled in some beach chairs and relaxing a bit, this sixty-plus year old woman decides to take a dip in the ocean. While she’s out in the water, frolicking a bit, she peers back to the beach where she notices her dad has gotten up and is frantically waving his arms and staggering toward the water from his chair. She dives forward and swims with all she’s worth fearing that her father was suffering some kind of medical event… “This was a disastrous idea!” she was thinking as she swam. “How stupid to do this!” She was beating herself up; out of breath making her way to him. She finally gets close and she’s hollering, “Dad! Dad! Are you okay?” And as she gets closer to him, her eighty-something dad hollers to his sixty-something daughter, “You were out too far! Come in. It’s not safe!” She’s now out of breath. He’s just fine. And all she can think is, “I’m a sixty year old woman and he’s still trying to parent me.” Transitions are hard… and we don’t always know how best to move through them but none of us can escape the truth that transitions do come no matter how hard we might resist them.
The transition staring us in the face today is graduation. ‘Tis the season! Our high school seniors have reached one of the biggest moments in their lives where they will soon leave behind what they’ve known for something new, something bigger, something different. The great American architect, Louis Kahn, before beginning any design always asked, “What does this building want to be?” It’s not a bad question to ask of ourselves in times of transition. What does this soul long to be? What is aching to come to life from within me in this time, this new season? Parents of graduates transition themselves in this same season. We honor and pray for you all today as you navigate this time with all the feels that accompany it. But transitions are constant and all around us. Some are still transitioning through seasons of loss and grief. Others are transitioning from one job to the next or to no job at all. Others are stepping up a relationship status or sorting through the transitions of fractured relationships. Transitions are essentially a piercing of monotony. From this to that… from there to here to somewhere else… the routine is shook. Monotonous days have been pierced. Each of us is in some state of transition and so I pray there is a meaningful word this morning for each of us as we continue in this season of Eastertide and the major transition the disciples find themselves in – leading the movement forward without the physical presence of Jesus who had navigated them this far.
John’s gospel really tells the best story in this regard… it has all the makings of an Oscar Award winning conclusion. Baffled as they were by the death and resurrection – the disciples just needed to do something familiar. Do you know how that is? After a loss or a change or even a time away, you have some longing for a familiar meal, or your go-to workout class at the gym or even your favorite couch that has learned the very contours of your body. Peter makes the announcement: “I’m going fishing!” and a handful of others follow along, tackle in hand. What happens next is something we’re sliding through quickly this morning to get to the ending so pretend we are fast forwarding the show that we’ve DVR’d to see how it all ends. Quickly…fishing is bad. All night like they cast the nets and come up empty. Nothing like struggling at the very thing you went to do to bring back some familiar comfort. Morning comes and a voice from the beach cries out, “I’m hungry! What’s for breakfast?” Unamused, the fishermen respond sternly, “We ain’t caught nothin’!” “Have you tried the other side of the boat?” the voice calls back. “Uh, yeah, bro!” but they cast the nets off the other side almost in mockery. As the story goes, the nets bust at the seams with fish and John peers back at the shoreline with his binoculars: “It’s the Master!” Peter bails off ship and swims to shore while the rest responsibly get the boat docked. So they have a big fish breakfast with Jesus. But then comes the piece we’re looking at this morning. DVR back into normal play mode.
This passing of the mantle moment between Jesus and Peter is such a beautiful scene. Fresh on both of their minds was the three-fold betrayal of Peter telling the village folks that he had no clue who Jesus was. Jesus had been arrested and people were saying to Peter, “Hey – you were with him, right? You’re one of his guys, right?” “Not me,” he said, “and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ask me again.” But here they stand on the beach – eye to eye; soul to soul. No chit chat. No jokes. Just Jesus asking Peter as he peered into his eyes, “Do you love me?” Pete looks away, ashamed perhaps, but answers, “Of course I love you.” “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says. Peter looks back at his friend’s face and Jesus asks again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter has enough courage this time to look Jesus in the eye thinking, “Okay, he’s gonna make me say it again… I deserve that.” “Jesus, yes. I love you… you know I love you.” Jesus responds, “Okay. Take care of my sheep.” And even nodding in agreement, Jesus says again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Now upset, Peter says, “Jesus. I don’t know how else to say it. You know me better than anyone. You know all there is to know about everything. You know that I love you.”
Before we get to Jesus’ response, consider the drama of this moment. Besides the strings playing in the background here as the climax of the scene is coming, isn’t it interesting that Jesus calls Peter, “Simon, son of John?” He’d already renamed him Peter in a big scene earlier in the story. Why the formality here? “Simon, son of John.” Very formal. Some have argued that this was Jesus being cold to Peter, harboring some feelings about the betrayal but that doesn’t seem much like Jesus to me. Some have said, No… this formality is similar to the seriousness of a swearing-in ceremony; like when taking an oath. Or maybe a graduation ceremony where your full name is read aloud … you walk up one side of the stage a student, your first, middle, and last name are read, and off the other side you go, a graduate. This is a baton passing moment. Another says, by calling Peter, “Simon, son of John,” Jesus is speaking of knowing Peter and Peter’s people. He knows where Peter comes from… who raised him, who nurtured him. Jesus knows Peter fully in context, fully enough to entrust Peter to feed and shepherd the flock. Maybe, it’s most comforting to us to know, that in spite of knowing Peter and his context fully, he’s still calling him to feed and teach and lead and take care of his people. They’ve been through some stuff together… the ups and downs… and here is a monumental ask – “Take care of this.”
Graduates – anybody going through transition – it’s good to be known like this. It’s good to have walked through some stuff with people you trust… family, church, teams, friends. This is what it means to be grounded. It’s important to be grounded because life on the other side of the transition can be challenging and trying and less smooth than it may be playing in your head right now. And you may be determined – ready to tackle the world; take the reins of the kingdom, and that determination can carry you for a while. Always some good people holding motivational signs when you’re running a race. Saw one that said, “Run like someone just called you a jogger!” Runners will get this insult. How dare you! I’m no jogger. I’m a runner! And there’s a little added pep in your step. You’re pumped for the journey. But life on the other side of transition is hard work.
James Rebanks is a real life shepherd … they do exist!… in the Lake District of England where his father and grandfather tended sheep before him as have generations for thousands of years. You sort of expect, given the advances in technology and modern tools, the sheep herding life has followed suit but it’s basically the same as it’s always been – it comes down to the sheep and the land and a get-up-and-get-out spirit. Rebanks has written a book about his experience called The Shepherd’s Life. He admits that not everyone is cut out for the work. There were some would-be-shepherds who rented a farm nearby to try their hand at the work and others who had made half-hearted attempts at shepherding. Rebanks said, “The get-up and get-out voice in their heads isn’t strong enough and they just don’t care enough about the sheep and the land to sustain their initial enthusiasm once the going inevitably gets tough. Things fall apart, and they soon leave.” The path is tough. Jesus knew this too. He was moving Peter and the gang from a fishing metaphor – which was all about catching to a shepherding metaphor which is all about tending. Fishing is a momentary haul; Shepherding is a lifetime commitment. When Jesus accepts that Peter’s oath is heartfelt, he gives Peter a little more, “It’s going to be tough, man. Much harder than you can imagine. The work will take you places you never imagined going. And some days, you’ll be ready to quit… but that’s when your grit needs to kick in. That’s when you need to hear my voice again and press forward.”
Sheep are tethered to the voice of their Shepherd. You may know this already. A guy watched three shepherds moving their flocks through a village together and when they found a clearing, one hollered “follow me,” in his language and his part of the flock parted from the rest. The second did the same and his sheep followed suit. Before the third did the same, the man observing said, “Can I try?” “Of course,” the shepherd said. The man said the same words but not a single sheep moved as he was leading. “Huh,” the man said, “Do they ever follow another voice?” Very poignantly the shepherd says, “Oh yes. Sometimes a sheep will get sick and then it will follow anyone.” There are plenty of voices out there willing to tell you what you ought to do, what you should do, how you’ll want to navigate this new territory… but stay grounded. Know your Shepherd’s voice.
Graduates and fellow transitioners of all kinds, when you’re not sure how to navigate this new territory you find yourself in, sometimes you’ve got to just throw yourself into effort at hand. My buddy says it this way: “Kick the closest shark.” It’s easy to be overwhelmed and shut down. But pick one thing and dig into it and it’s not always about what feels easy. Shepherd Rebanks’ first rule of shepherding makes this clear right out of the gate: “It’s not about you. It’s about the sheep and the land.” For you it’s about the task at hand. Shepherds have to sacrifice their own agenda at times to get up and work the field no matter the weather or the date. Rebanks says it’s easy to tell the difference between a dedicated shepherd and a poser: “Everything and everyone is at times covered in [dung] and snot. You learn to accept that you will get spattered in [dung] at times, or slaver, or afterbirth, or snot. That you will smell of your animals. You can always tell how alien someone is to our world by how terrified of the muck they look.” This is why it is said that shepherds smell like their sheep. They are daily in the mix. Jesus says, “That’s what I need from you all too.” People will come to faith in a mess. Don’t be terrified of the muck.
And while Peter’s getting ready to step in deep and you’re trying to take that bold next step in school, or at work, or in relationship, or with a child, or in retirement, you also need to know Rebank’s second rule of shepherding: Sometimes you can’t win. Despite your hard work and every possible effort, set backs will come. Road blocks will be set so high you’ll wonder if you can ever get over them. I was on the turnpike heading to visit family in Missouri one time when I saw a turtle attempting to claw its way up the concrete barrier in the middle of the turnpike. It’s miles and miles of concrete hurdle. I thought about how hard that turtle fought to make it half-way across only to encounter this impossible barrier. Been worried about that turtle ever since – it’s only been about six years. I’m starting to sleep at night again. This is what Jesus is telling Peter. “Dude… you don’t even know. This call will take you places you don’t want to go.” And your life will put you through some things. In fact, I wonder if it is the roadblocks in our lives that are the reason we aren’t able to see our future. I’ve sat with so many people who said, “If I’d only known I was going to go through this, I would have quit a long time ago. I’d never choose to go through this.” And we wouldn’t. And we don’t.
We have some friends we met on the ball fields a few years back – their son played on our son’s team at the time. A young, vibrant, healthy family. The mom was diagnosed with a tricky and difficult-to-treat cancer last year. It was devastating of course. She’s video-blogged much of her journey through treatment and it’s had all the set backs you can imagine … bad updates and great illness and surgeries and extra hospitalizations… and some needed moments of levity sprinkled in too. But she said this week, “If I would have known now what we had to go through, I don’t think I could have done it.” But of course, she could… and they did… and she was deemed cancer free this week. She’s a person of strong faith and named a song called Prophesy your Promise that guided her in the toughest times. The song says, “You [God] set a table in the middle of my war. You knew the outcome of it all. When what I faced looked like it would never end, You said, “Watch the giants fall.” When I only see in part, I will prophesy Your promise. I believe You, God, because You finish what you start. I will trust you in the process. I believe you God.” Later the song says, “Fear can go to hell…and shame can go there too. I know Whose I am. I belong to You.” While our friend is ready to be done with this fight, she said, “I don’t want to go back to what normal was… to who I was… to who we were… before all of this. We’re stronger now than we’ve ever been.” Life isn’t the roadblock. True life is how you respond to the roadblocks. Which leads to Rebanks third rule of shepherding: “Be quiet and go do the work.” Well… that’s a little harsh, perhaps…he says it even more direct than that. But this is the get up and get out principle.
As Peter is soaking in what Jesus is asking of him, he looks back around the campfire where the team is still frying fish and he focuses on John. Peter looks back to Jesus and motions over at John: “What’s gonna happen to him?” And Jesus says, “What’s it to you? Worry about yourself.” I personally think that Peter is looking after his friends and teammates but at least in this interpretation, it is more like Jesus is saying, “Don’t compare yourself to what everybody else is doing. You be you. You’re the only you we’ve got.” In the era of Social Media, we’re quick to compare our lives to our classmates, peers, and even acquaintances who we tend to downplay our relationships with them by saying, “Well… we’re Facebook friends,” as if to say, “We’re not that close.” And yet, we’ll compare our grades, our jobs, our families, our homes, our abs, to each and every one of them. Not knowing yourself – the true, authentic, God-created, unique self – is among life’s greatest tragedies. Prophesy your promise. Imagine your goals. But fall in love with the process. You’ll spend most of your life in-process so it’s good to come to love the day-to-day journey – not just the mountaintop moments.
Winning an Oscar for cinematography, the end of John’s Gospel does it up right. John, named here as the disciple Jesus loved, is our narrator. You hear the closing lines in his voice as the camera pans away from the scene, Jesus and Peter, locked forehead to forehead in their reconciling pact to forgive, forget, and grow forward as the other guys lick the tarter sauce off of their fingers as they enjoy the feast of their big catch. John’s voice says: “There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books.” And scene. Isn’t that epic? I love it. It leaves space for your story and mine and what Christ is, can, and will be doing in your life as you transition forward. So… smell like that which God has entrusted to your care… battle through the struggles believing in the promises yet to be fulfilled, and one and all – get up and get out there… you are made to fly.
 Rebanks, James. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District. Penguin Books, 2015. Rebanks three rules are found here and introduced to me by Allison Byerley who contributed these pieces via “The Hefted Shepherd” found via the resource, Homiletics. The exegetical support concerning the Peter and Jesus encounter on the beach also found via Homiletics – Rev. Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer.