Lessons: John 21:1-19
A Lutheran pastor in Chicago writes that churches have spent millions attempting to cater to the young families in their communities. “’Come here! Bring your kids! We have a replica-sized Noah’s Ark with real, live animals – a coffee shop that sells Pumpkin Spice lattes – cupholders in the chairs and state-of-the-art acoustics.’” She confesses, as a millennial mom, that she knows families indeed like this stuff, especially the lattes. “But what we really want – ” she writes, “what we really need – might not cost a thing.” She re-started a moms group that had met at her church a while back. At first, she “wanted it to be Christian with a capital C.” She made tongue-in-cheek flyers with a black and white photo of a crying baby holding a Bible, and called it Babies and Bibles. It never really took off. She said she was in the process of giving it all up, when one day as she drove to church, God spoke to her: “Why are you holding this at the church?” God asked. “It should be at your house.”
As usual, God made a lot of sense. Our homes have more places to sit right there by the toys. They have space for nursing, and a kitchen where you can share coffee and snacks. You don’t have to work around the church calendar. In this Chicago pastor’s case, it made sense to open the group to her own neighborhood, which just happened to be full of babies. She remembered how a group of new moms that had been meeting for classes at a hospital after her son was born transitioned to meeting in homes. Not only did they save money; it turned their group from a casual, occasional bunch of overprotective mothers into an intimately connected group of friends. “At root,” she writes, “what we most needed as moms didn’t cost a thing. We didn’t need another class about baby dentistry or reading to your 2-week-old. What we most needed was each other.”
So Bibles and Babies would be held at her house, except she changed the name. She named it after the street that wrapped around her neighborhood, in order to welcome moms of other faiths. She says that as a pastor who loves Jesus deeply, this was counter-intuitive. “Everything we do has to be about Jesus, right? But,” she writes, “sometimes being about Jesus starts with His grace rather than His name.”
Grace is exactly where we meet Jesus on the beach this morning. The disciples seem to have decided to go back to their old life as fishermen, and mysteriously, Jesus shows up on shore and points out they might do better if they fish on the other side of the boat. They take his advice, not knowing who he is at this point. Much to their surprise, they catch so many fish they can barely haul them into the boat. An abundance of fish! It’s as though Jesus is saying, “Remember this? Remember the joy and abundance and grace of life in the kingdom of God?” Maybe this does jog their memories, because they recognize him. They hurry back to the beach, where Jesus has a fire going. He invites them to share a breakfast of bread and fish – he feeds them – and then he asks Peter three times whether he loves him.
Three times. Imagine if someone you care about asked whether you really love him or her not once, not twice, but three times. Understandably, Peter is hurt by this repetition. Biblical scholars interpret Jesus’ three questions as an echo and reversal of the night he was arrested. That night, also by a charcoal fire, Peter denied three times that he had anything to do with Jesus. What strikes me, however, is how Jesus in this scene offers Peter what many contemporary psychologists contend every one of us needs, what that pastor in Chicago figured out we need – families, older folks, kids, every one of us – and that’s a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.
We all need a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and sense of self. We might think of our identity as something we create or claim for ourselves in our individualistic culture, but it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us. And, just so we’re not confused, belonging is different from fitting in. In fact it’s the exact opposite, as many of us will remember from adolescence. Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is when you’re acceptable just as you are. We all need to belong. Here on the beach, Jesus is drawing Peter back into belonging, back into a community that accepts him for whom he is. Peter needs another invitation, an invitation to participate in sharing the good news of the abundance of God’s kingdom. He needs the reminder that the events leading up to the crucifixion didn’t change that.
He also needs, as we all do, a sense of purpose, the belief that what we do matters, that if we did not show up people would notice. Purpose, as it turns out, is one of the great motivators in the world. More powerful than money or fame or power, believing that you have something of value to contribute draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy. And so in response to each of Peter’s confessions, Jesus gives him good work to do: feed my sheep. Be a leader. Look out for these others. Devote yourself to this community; help create and continue the community the Jesus started to do his work. Peter is reminded he’s part of the community of the faithful and given a sense of belonging, and then he is given good work to do and given a purpose.
“Feed my sheep,” said Jesus. “Create for my flock that sense of belonging and sense of purpose that they knew with me.” He certainly intended this for Peter, who, by the time John’s gospel was written, had already emerged as one of the strongest leaders in what was becoming the Church. But, as I said to the children, it is also the task of each of the disciples. Feed my sheep. And while worship and sermons on Sunday feed people in one way, Sunday morning tends not to be the way we draw people into community, the way we give them a sense of belonging and purpose and make each person feel valuable to the whole.
I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus had this challenging conversation with Peter after they’d finished breakfast – after they’d shared a meal. When you share a meal with people, you get to know them. We experienced this here during the REST shelter, the homeless shelter we hosted on Friday nights for nine years. We’ve experienced this in the small group dinners that Martha Wall organizes; I can’t thank Martha enough. If you don’t know about the small group dinners, you should; watch for announcements to sign up. It’s one of the best vehicles we have for offering a sense of community and belonging that breaks through the anonymity of worship and even coffee hour.
And we experienced it this weekend at the annual women’s retreat. Besides the meals, where we enjoy casual, getting-to-know-you conversations, the retreat, like the officers’ retreat, almost always involves small group work. As one of the retreat organizers said, every year she learns something new about people she’s known for years. The retreat topic this year was “Words to Live By,” which is perfectly vague enough to let people wander where they need to wander. In one of my small groups, we were supposed to be talking about which words from Scripture or faith spoke to us, and one person said that while people like me, preachers, deal with Scripture all the time, she didn’t feel as though the words of our faith were nearly as meaningful to her as the actions of our faith; actions like working at the REST shelter or making prayer shawls for people who need tangible evidence of God’s love and presence in grief or illness. Another woman said she agreed, and that it was the words from hymns that stuck with her more than Scripture. She described how the words from the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul,” came to her at the moment her beloved husband died. That vulnerability allowed another person in the circle to open up about her deep grief at a recent loss. She expressed both her pain and her gratitude at having a place to share it, and another woman offered wisdom from Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story.” Now, those are some words to live by. The five women in the small group affirmed that we’d sat down as relative strangers but when time was called, we felt like sisters, soul mates. Not only did we have a sense of belonging, but we’d discovered a purpose: being there for each other in processing grief, in healing, in relieving the agony of the untold story; in communicating, “Whatever your story, you are not alone.”
In a church like ours, filled with activists, offering so many opportunities to do, to act and to feel a sense of purpose, it might be less obvious or harder to find the ways we offer a sense of belonging. But when it comes to Jesus’ instruction to “Feed my sheep,” and his call to follow him, it is no less important, and it isn’t an either/or. In fact, people need community – support, encouragement, a place to share sorrows and celebrations – in order to keep on keeping on with the good work God gives us to do. The Christian church started in believers’ homes in Greece, Palestine, Rome, and Turkey. People of all backgrounds gathered together and shared a meal. They told each other about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their fears. It was radical then and it’s radical now.
Feed my sheep, says Jesus. The One who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves knows that people are hard to hate close up. So we are called to move in. Those are words to live by, too.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Angela Denker, “What Families Want – And How the Church Can Help,” Sojourners, November 21, 2014, https://sojo.net/articles/what-families-want-and-how-church-can-help
 Lose, ibid.
 “It Is Well With My Soul,” lyrics by Horatio G. Spafford (1876), music by Philip P. Bliss (1876), Hymn # 840 in the Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, which notes, “This text is a remarkable expression of faith born in grief. The author, an active Presbyterian layman who had just lost his four daughters in a tragic shipwreck, wrote it while sailing to Paris to meet his wife, who had survived. The tune [Ville du Havre] was named for the ship that sank.”
 Denker, ibid.
 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (New York: Random House, 2017), 63.