Gospel of John (22) — Recommissioned

            This morning, we bring our study of the gospel of John to a close.  In just a little bit, we’ll be in chapter 21.

            But first, I want to talk with you about the idea of being recommissioned.  And I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear that term, I think of ships, specifically navy ships that are commissioned and sent out into battle, then at some point are decommissioned or brought back out of service.  And, on some very rare occasions, a ship may be recommissioned — prepared and sent back into battle once again.

            For example, the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey was decommissioned after World War II, and then it was recommissioned during the Korean War.  After that war, it was taken back out of service, but then it was recommissioned again during the Vietnam War.  And then it was recommissioned a fourth time to assist the Marines in Beirut in 1982.

            Recommissioning ships may be a rare thing, when you read through the Bible, you find that it is a very common thing for God to recommission people.  Perhaps the best example in the Old Testament is the prophet Jonah who was commissioned by God to go to Nineveh and preach.  But then he took himself out of service, before God brought him to his senses and then recommissioned him a second time to go to Nineveh.

            You may have heard it said that our God is a God of second chances, but we know from history that our God is a God of multiple chances!  Whenever we take ourselves out of his service, God wants nothing more than to forgive us and to recommission us.  Which is wonderful news for all of us, because we’ve all messed up.

            As we’ve seen throughout our study of John’s gospel, the apostle Peter was someone who messed up – over and over.  He knew what it meant to “open mouth, insert foot.”  And, of course, as we saw just a few weeks ago, his absolute worst failure was his denial of Jesus.

            And we can all relate to Peter, because we all mess up, we all fail.  But the good news is that God can and he does work things out for our good despite our failures.  That’s one of the wonderful things about our God.  He is a God who specializes in second chances.  He not only forgives us of our past mistakes, but, in fact, he can use our failures to make us stronger.

            I love the story that I heard about Tom Watson, who was the founder and leader of IBM for many years.  According to this story, there was a young salesman in the company who had made some bad decisions that cost IBM about a million dollars in sales.

            Shortly after that, this salesman got called into Watson’s office, and you can imagine how he felt.  He was just overwhelmed with guilt and fear.  He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was going to be fired, and so he just went ahead and wrote out his letter of resignation, and when he went into the office, he put it on Watson’s desk.

            But Tom Watson handed his resignation back to him and he said, “Why would I accept this when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?”

            I love that story because it describes the kind of God that we have, and we see that in our text this morning.  If you’d like to follow along in your Bible during the video, we’ll be starting in chapter 21 with verse 1.

            VIDEO

            So, as our story begins, there are seven of Jesus’ disciples that are hanging out together when Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” (John 21:13).  Now you need to understand that fishing didn’t mean the same thing to Peter that it would mean to us. 

            My brother-in-law is an avid fisherman.  He loves to fish, and the last time we went by for a visit, he took me out to show me his fishing boat.  He showed me all his fancy rods and equipment.  And when Mike says he’s going fishing, everybody knows what he means by that is that he plans to get out on the lake and relax a bit. 

            But Peter wasn’t out there fishing for fun, for relaxation.  Keep in mind, he was a fisherman by trade.  So, when Peter said, “I’m going fishing,” he almost certainly was planning to fish and make some money.

            And there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that.  It would appear that Peter was perfectly within his rights, that he needed to pay his bills and the best way to get money was to go fishing.  What’s the problem?

            The problem was that Peter and the other apostles had abandoned — at least for a while — the task to which Jesus had called them.  Back in Matthew 4, we read, “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20).  Jesus said, “Follow me”, and then they “left their nets” to follow Jesus. 

            Which could not have been an easy decision for Peter.  Peter was being asked to leave everything behind – his family, his job, everything — and follow Jesus who knows where.  When Peter left his fishing boat to follow Jesus, he was serious about his commitment.  And Peter gave an accurate description when he said to Jesus in Mark 10:28, “We have left everything and followed you.”

            But, of course, we know the story – how Peter failed Jesus when the real test of devotion came.  He slept while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He watched as the soldiers came and took Jesus, and then he ran into the night.

            Peter wanted to be close to Jesus to see what would happen, so he stood by a fire in the courtyard, trying not to be recognized.  But when challenged, Peter denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was – to the point of swearing.

            Then Peter heard the rooster crow and he realized what he had done.  And Peter left the courtyard in tears. He walked away totally humiliated and ashamed, knowing that he had denied his Lord and Savior.  And now, here it was, two weeks later.

            In spite of his commitment to Christ, Peter had failed Jesus when it really mattered.  And his heart was broken, his spirit was crushed.  And I would imagine that Peter felt like he was no longer of any use to Jesus.  He had disappointed Jesus far too many times.  And like that salesman at IBM, he expected to be fired and so, he just turned in his resignation and was ready to go back to his old job as a fisherman. 

            Perhaps, at some point in your life, you’ve found yourself in a similar situation.  In spite of your commitment to live for Christ, in spite of your insistence that you’ll never let him down, chances are you have.  And there may have even been times in your life when you couldn’t even imagine that Christ would even want you back.  Times when you neglected to pray because you were too embarrassed to face God.

            It’s not that we willfully turn our backs on God.  We would never think of doing that.  It’s just that, if we’re not careful, we let other things take up more and more of our time and attention.  Our focus slowly gets turned from spiritual priorities to other less important responsibilities.  And, over time, we can become so involved in our work or our hobbies that we have no time left for God.  It can happen, and it sometimes does happen.  And when it happens, we forget what God has called us to do.

            At that point in our lives, we need what Peter needed – we need to be recommissioned.  We need to be reminded, as Peter was here, that we have been called to be “fishers of men”.  We have been called to be followers of Jesus Christ.

            There’s an interesting detail in this story.  We’re told that when the disciples got to shore with the fish they had caught, “Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them.  And although there were so many, the net was not torn.” (John 21:11).

            First of all, I just want to give some props to whichever one of the disciples stood there counting all of these fish.  But it makes me wonder, why is it so important for us to know that there were exactly 153 fish?  There are probably about 153 guesses as to what hidden meaning there might be in that number. 

            One of my favorite interpretations is that of Jerome, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Jerome said that at the time John’s gospel was written, it was widely believed that there were 153 species of fish.  So, 153 fish represented all the nationalities and races of people. People from every tribe and tongue will be saved through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And if Jerome was right, then it would also make sense that the 153 fish didn’t break the net, because the church is able to make room for all people.

            As I said, that’s one of my favorite interpretations, but personally, I think the reason the text says that there were 153 fish is because…..well, that’s how many fish there were.  I think there actually were 153 fish; and when the net didn’t break, the disciples were just really impressed by that.  Sometimes 153 fish is just 153 fish.  Even in John’s gospel.

            But it’s what happens next that is so important.  “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’….Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.” (John 21:9-10,13). 

            If you get the feeling that this story sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that.  Back in the 6th chapter of John, Jesus fed 5,000 people a meal of what?  Fish and bread. And he did it where?  Right beside the Sea of Galilee.            And here in this story, Jesus feeds his disciples a meal of fish and bread.  Right beside the Sea of Galilee.

            But that’s not the only story that comes to mind.  We’re reminded of the time when Jesus called Peter and other apostles to, “Follow me.”  He said, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17).  And where did that happen?  Right beside the Sea of Galilee.

            But it’s in the 5th chapter of Luke where we realize we’ve heard another very similar story.  In that story, Jesus found Peter and two other fishermen —James and John — frustrated. They’d been fishing all night, and had nothing to show for it.  And so, Jesus told them where the fish were. And they dropped their nets where Jesus said, resulting in a catch was so huge that their nets broke (Luke 5.6).  Which is the biggest difference between these two stories.

            But, there’s one more detail in this story that reminds us of a previous story.  John tells us that Jesus fed his disciples fish and bread that morning. But John is very specific when he tells us how the food was prepared.  When the disciples came ashore, they saw Jesus next to a fire — specifically a charcoal fire.

            This isn’t the first time that we’ve read about a charcoal fire in John’s gospel.  In chapter 18, we’re told that there was a charcoal fire the night that Jesus was arrested.  While Jesus was inside being questioned by the high priest, outside, the servants and the guards made a fire — specifically a charcoal fire — because it was cold.  They were all standing around it, warming themselves, when Peter joined them, standing by the fire and warming himself.

            And it was right there, standing beside that charcoal fire, that Peter denied that he even knew who Jesus was. Three times.  And I would imagine when Peter came ashore and he saw that charcoal fire burning next to Jesus that morning, all he could think about of was that night he had publicly disowned his friend and his Lord.

            I can picture Peter sitting there, staring blankly into the fire, not even noticing the aroma of the fish and the bread cooking on it.  As Jesus saw him looking into the flames, he knew what Peter was thinking.  In fact, I’d be surprised if Jesus didn’t set the whole thing up.

            Peter had stood by the charcoal fire while Jesus was being questioned. And now, beside another charcoal fire, Jesus began to question Peter. 

“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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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.”….And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-17,19)

I don’t know if you’ve ever considered why Jesus specifically asked these questions of Peter.  After all, the other six apostles who were there had also let Jesus down.  But I think this was an opportunity for Jesus to help Peter to overcome his feelings of guilt.  After all, Peter was absolutely devastated when he realized what he had done that night.  Three times, Peter denied Jesus.  And now, three times Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to re-affirm his love.

But Jesus didn’t just ask Peter, “Do you love me?”  He asked him, “Do you love me more than these?”  Which raises the question — more than these what?  There are several things that Jesus could have been meant by that.  Maybe he meant, “Peter, do you love me more than you love these other apostles?”  But that doesn’t seem very likely. 

Or he could have meant, “Peter, do you love me more than these other apostles love me?”  Remember that at one time, Peter was very quick to compare himself with the others.  In fact, he had said to Jesus the night before his crucifixion, “Even if all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble” (Matthew 26:33). 

“Lord, some of these guys, I can picture them letting you down, but not me.  No siree, you can count on me no matter what.”  So, Jesus may have had that in mind when he said, “How about it, Peter.  Do you still think you love me more than they do?”  If that’s the case, Peter was much humbler in his response, because he doesn’t mention the others.

But let me offer a third possibility as to what Jesus meant.  He could have been referring to the things around Peter:  “Peter, do you love me more than you love these things?”  The fish, the nets, the boats.  In other words, “Do you love me more than fishing?”  “Because if you do,” Jesus seems to be saying, “what are you doing here?  Forget about the fishing business!  Get back to the business of following me!”

Three times, Peter said, “Lord, you know that I love you!”  And I can feel the tears welling up in his eyes as he spoke those words.   You probably know that Peter used a different word for love than the word Jesus used.  The first two times Jesus asked him, he used the verb of the Greek word “agape”, the highest form of love:  “Peter, do you love me with an intense love – the kind of love that God has for mankind?”  But Peter answered by using the Greek word “phileo”, a word that means love for a friend or brother. 

And I think we need to be careful not to put too much emphasis on this difference of words, but it does seem to me that Peter was saying he loved Jesus, but he wasn’t so bold as to claim that he had love in the highest sense of the word.  There was, in his response, a tone of humility that was a bit unusual for Peter.  Peter couldn’t seem to bring himself to express a full commitment to Christ because he knew that he had failed him.

But Jesus basically says to Peter, “In spite of your failures I can still use you.”  And so Jesus challenged Peter to get busy helping others:  “Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.”  Jesus says, “If you truly love me, then help others.”  Because I think maybe Peter was so focused on how he had messed up that he couldn’t concentrate on what he needed to be doing for others.

Then, Jesus challenged Peter to get back to the work to which he had originally called him.  He says in verse 19, “Follow me!”  Which is how it all got started several years earlier when Jesus called Peter the first time.  And now, Jesus puts him back into service.  There’s forgiveness and restoration and Peter is recommissioned to follow Jesus.

But, for just a moment, I want you to forget about Peter and allow Jesus to speak to each of us individually.   Allow Jesus to ask you the question that he asked Peter — “Do you love me?”  How would you answer that question?

But, more than that, Jesus wants to know, “Do you love me more than these?”  Because, you see, Jesus doesn’t just want any place in our lives; he wants first place.  “Do you love me more than these?”  More than what?  You fill in the blank.  More than anything which is tempting enough to keep you from doing the task to which Jesus has called you.  Do you love him more than fishing?  More than football?   More than your work?   More than the beach?  More than your friends?  “Do you love me more than these?”

But there’s more thing in our story that I want us to notice.  After Jesus told Peter to follow him and what it would be like for Peter when he got old, Peter turned to the apostle John and he said, “Lord, what about this man?”  And Jesus said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?  You follow me!”

            And I love this part of the story because it’s so human.  Peter tried to turn the attention away from himself by asking about John, “Lord, What about this man?  If I am going to die because I have chosen to follow you, what’s going to happen to him?”

            We can get so preoccupied at times worrying about other people.  When our children were younger, and I would send one of them to bed early, I knew exactly what they would say:  “But what about the others?  Do they have to go to bed, too?”  And my response to them was exactly the same as Jesus’ response here to Peter.

            Jesus told Peter not to worry about anybody else.  “Don’t worry about what’s going to happen to John.  You just make sure you follow me!”  Peter needed to forget about others and make his own personal commitment to follow Jesus all the way.  That doesn’t mean we ignore other people.  But it does mean we don’t allow others to distract us from following Christ.

            So often, we’re tempted to keep our eyes focused on others.  “I’ve never seen brother so-and-so do any work around here.”   Or that all-popular excuse, “I’m not going to go to church because there are so many hypocrites there.”  Jesus says, “Don’t worry about other people.  You just take care of your own responsibility.  You do what you know you ought to do.  Follow me.”

            Sometimes, like Peter, we all get off track.  And this final story from John’s gospel gives us a word of hope.  It lets us know that Jesus doesn’t give up on us, just like he didn’t give up on Peter.  That Jesus comes to us where we are, and offers his friendship again.  That Jesus makes a place for us at his table, and offers us nourishment.  That Jesus forgives us, and he takes the initiative to draw us back into fellowship.   Even today — as we break the bread of his body, and drink together from the cup of his life spilled for us — he asks me, and he asks you:  “Do you love me?”

            Whatever mistakes you may made, no matter how much you’ve let God down in the past, Jesus is ready to forgive.  Ready to draw us back into fellowship with him and with each other.  And ready to give us some meaningful work to do.  Like Peter, he tells us again, “Follow me.”  So, this morning, let us make the decision to follow him.  Let us recommit our lives to follow Jesus and glorify God.

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