April 14, 2013
One of my favorite Olympic moments comes from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. I didn’t watch many of the events that year, but I happened to be watching when Kerri Strug helped the US gymnastics team win the gold in the vault. In case you don’t remember or you didn’t see it, Kerri had two chances at a vault to win the gold medal. One of her teammates had just fallen on both landings. Kerri also fell on the first one, so it had to happen on the second try or it wasn’t going to happen for the US. She ran. Made a near perfect vault. Nailed the landing. Stood up long enough for it count. Then she went down, crawling because she was unable to stand. She'd severely injured her ankle. There is a famous picture of her coach, Bela Karolyi, carrying her out to the medals podium to the wild cheers and applause from the crowd. It was a great moment, an Olympic moment. It was the kind of moment that many of us hope for during the Olympics because it reveals the power of the human spirit to overcome physical and emotional obstacles. Olympic moments like this, like the one Kerri Strug experienced, reveal determination and persistence, the power of hard work, and even courage.
These moments are exciting and we wait and hope for them every Olympic year. Sometimes we get them and sometimes we don’t. Either way, life goes on. Olympic moments are exhilarating; they provide fodder for discussions around the water cooler, and they often get turned into Top 10 Olympic moments lists, but they don’t really change anything. They may change the life of the Olympian who has the moment. They may help, in some ways, the country the person hails from. But do they really change the world? Do they change people’s hearts and minds? I don’t think so.
But just two weeks ago we observed something that was supposed to have changed everything. We celebrated, we continue to celebrate, an event that should make the greatest Olympic moments seem silly and quaint—the resurrection. But just as it happens every year Easter Sunday arrives with great flourish, ceremony, celebration, music, singing, alleluias – and then on Monday, the world moves inexorably on. People still die tragically and too young. Wars refuse to cease. The chains of poverty and oppression haven’t been broken. And there are times in the midst of this that our attempts to be faithful, to answer the call to be disciples, seem at best futile. The reality seems to be that people are still more excited reliving past Olympic moments than they are to tell the story of Jesus being raised from the dead. And I’m not referring to non-believers. I’m referring to us, the ones sitting in the pews and the one in the pulpit.
It looks as though even the disciples, the one who were witnesses to these dramatic events, have gone back to life as usual. Our gospel lesson from John gives an account of another post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to the disciples. But think about where they are. Seven of them are gathered by the Sea of Tiberius. They’re not there preaching. They’re not there coming up with a plan for evangelism. They’re just there. Perhaps they were feeling lost, afraid, confused. We don’t really know. But Simon Peter makes a decision to go fishing, and the others follow his lead. It’s as if they all think, “Well, Jesus is resurrected but that’s not going to put food on the table, so back to the boats.”
Back to the boats they go. They sit in the boat all night, but catch nothing. Just after daybreak Jesus stands on the shore. In spite of the fact that they’ve seen him twice before, they don’t recognize him. Jesus speaks to them about their predicament and tells them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat. They do this and suddenly there’s more fish than they can haul in. Now the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus. When they come ashore, dragging their full nets Jesus is waiting for them with a fire, bread and fish. Jesus instructs Peter to go out and bring in the fish he had caught. He does. And Jesus breaks bread with them, offers them fish, and as the gospel writer puts it, “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
After this breakfast of fish and bread, Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves him. And three times Peter answers, ‘I love you Lord.” The third time Peter is hurt because Jesus continues to ask him. The third time he answers he says, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds as he has twice before, “Feed my sheep.”
It is widely accepted that the purpose Jesus had in asking Peter three times if he loved him was an act of canceling out Peter’s three denials of Jesus before the crucifixion. Peter denied him three times; Jesus gives him three chances to restate his love. Jesus offers Peter forgiveness and also commissions him with ministry. Feed my sheep.
I think a lot about Peter in this moment. I think his guilt and shame must have been overwhelming. Jesus told him that he would deny him, but Peter swore he never would. Then, almost without realizing it, he does exactly as Jesus predicts. He denies his teacher, his Lord. He must have been swimming in guilt. I think it’s interesting that in the verses before these Peter not only decides to go fishing, he decides to do it naked. I don’t have an explanation as to why Peter would fish naked. I suspect it was more of a common practice than we might think. It’s hot. It would be difficult to haul nets and fish in a long robe that hinders movement.
But when Peter realizes that it is Jesus standing on the shoreline calling them in, he throws on his clothes and jumps into the sea. Perhaps it was shame, not just at his being without clothes, but shame for his actions, shame for his denial. Regardless, Peter is given another chance. For every time he denied Jesus, he is given another time to declare his love, and to accept the commission to serve, to feed that Jesus gives him. If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, try again.
I wonder if this is what this third resurrection appearance is really about. It’s not about proving that Jesus is real or that the resurrection really happened. I think it may be about showing Peter, showing the disciples that the resurrection does not mean an end to the work, an end to the ministry. No, in fact, it’s just the beginning. They’re going to have to try again. They’re going to have to keep going. They’re going to have cast their nets out again and again. They know the truth about Jesus the Son of God. But others don’t. There are still sheep that need to be fed, still flocks that need to be gathered. Life may seem to go on as relentlessly as always, with nothing changed, but everything is changed. They have to try again.
Trying again will take all of their persistence, all of their determination, all of their love and fortitude and perseverance. But trying again also takes courage.
We know the disciples find their courage, because they go on to teach and heal and preach and participate in the miraculous ways of God empowered by the Holy Spirit. They feed Jesus’ sheep and so much more.
But what about our courage? Courage isn’t just something that comes in the dramatic events of life. It’s not only found in the amazing physical feats of the Olympics or of the life-giving courage of first responders, the ones who run in while the rest of us evacuate. Courage isn’t reserved for the battlefield or the witness stand. Courage comes in the small moments, the everyday moments.
We’ve been trying to be faithful disciples, to live out the gospel, to do work in God’s name that is meaningful and reaches the least of these. And so often it seems that we’ve failed. Our efforts have been pointless. We can give up or we can try again. There are days, many days, when giving up is the far more tempting option. But somehow, someway, we try again. It takes courage to try again. It takes courage to say that as long as we’re lucky enough to keep breathing, we’re going to try again. It takes courage to get out of bed in the morning. It takes courage to be here when so many other ways to spend a Sunday morning exist and so many other voices proclaim that there are better things to do with our time. It takes courage to try again when so many other people say they used to be here but it’s just not worth it. It takes courage to put money in the offering plate when you’re not sure if you can pay your bills. It takes courage to believe that no matter how many times you fail and feel defeated, you still get up every day and try again. It takes courage to have faith when the odds seem stacked against it. It takes courage to not only believe the resurrection makes a difference but to live as if it does. It takes courage to do the big things in life, but it takes just as much courage to do the small things. It takes courage to try again.
May our courage to try again, to live as Easter people, be renewed this day and every day. Alleluia! Amen.