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Total Re-call

Christopher Vogado

Christopher Vogado is the senior pastor at Salem Presbyterian Church in Salem, Virginia.

They catch a large amount of fish, no question. Not unlike the large amount of top-shelf wine Jesus made for a wedding reception as dry as the Sierra. Not unlike the large amount of leftovers after feeding a “great multitude.” It is this pattern of abundance that leads the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to say to Peter and the others, “It is the Lord.” Jesus is recognized by what he does and what he creates—always more than enough.

Are you carrying shame that makes you feel as empty inside as the disciples’ nets prior to Jesus’ appearance? Let this table be for you a fire not of fear but of God’s immense grace that says you are wonderfully made in your own skin exactly how you are.

Preached at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, North Carolina, on May 22, 2022.

Purify My Heart, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge

Read John 21.

It doesn’t seem that Peter is handling the aftershocks of Easter particularly well. It is never a good sign to be found naked in a boat. Your reaction may be like mine—this is risky content for the Bible, and this is not even the first story in the Good Friday/Easter narrative to mention someone without clothes! In Mark’s Good Friday account there is a “certain young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth” who, while fleeing the Gethsemane garden, “left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Now we read that Peter is fishing naked while the other disciples in the boat with Peter are presumably fully clothed. I can just imagine Thomas leaning over to Nathanael with concern, “I think Peter is really struggling in this post-resurrection world.”

Certainly, a lot has happened to all the disciples since Mary found the tomb empty—this is the fourth time Jesus has appeared outside of the tomb in John’s Gospel. Peter, in his own way, has been involved in all Easter encounters. He was present investigating the empty tomb on Easter morning only to go back home after the sunrise. He was part of the eleven who met Jesus twice in a locked room and among those who received the Holy Spirit from Jesus, the very breath of God.

The disciples process their post-resurrection encounters with Jesus in different ways. Mary at the tomb says, “Rabboni,” and preaches the first Easter sermon: “I have seen the Lord!” A persuaded and practical Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” after his very fleshy experience of Easter. What then is Peter’s response to all these appearances of the resurrected Jesus? Is it a grand articulation of faith: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”? No, it is simply, “I am going fishing,” a response that does not seem to have the same spiritual profundity as Thomas’s or Mary’s after meeting the risen Lord. But let’s not give Peter such a hard time. I’m sure many can attest that fishing is a healthy way to process strange or difficult events. Henry David Thoreau once remarked, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Maybe Peter is after closure, the kind that comes after resignation from some great struggle. It may be an uneasy closure, but he needs closure nonetheless. Peter has given all his hopes and hard work to the cause, but the project has not worked out how he dreamed it would. Jesus appeared and indeed, as John said earlier, the disciples “rejoiced” when they met the risen Lord. But what Jesus’ appearance means to the disciples is not yet known. “Jesus may well be alive,” could be Peter’s inner dialogue, “but the Jesus movement seems as dead as ever.” Was all that time following Jesus, traveling from town to town, ministering and healing, worth anything? Disciples are now going home walking their Emmaus roads or, like these seven disciples, taking a boat ride back to the home they knew on the sea. Could Peter’s lack of clothes indicate that he just simply needs to be free from it all? To get back to his fishing business, to his life before Jesus?
Business, however, is not going well in the post-Easter world. What used to make sense for the disciples does not make as much sense now. They are all a little rusty at fishing, and the disciples’ track record in boats hasn’t been the best. Although John does not record it, in Luke’s Gospel, the first meeting between Jesus and Peter shares much in common with this story. At this point Jesus is still a stranger approaching them to offer random fishing advice, which results in so many fish that they nearly swamp the boat. As it was in Luke’s account of the first meeting years before, here the disciples pull a net so full they are hardly able to haul it to shore.

They catch a large amount of fish, no question. Not unlike the large amount of top-shelf wine Jesus made for a wedding reception as dry as the Sierra. Not unlike the large amount of leftovers after feeding a “great multitude.” It is this pattern of abundance that leads the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to say to Peter and the others, “It is the Lord.” Jesus is recognized by what he does and what he creates—always more than enough.

Peter responds to this news as he usually does—he is quick to act and slow to follow through. At word of Jesus’ appearance, Peter gets (un)dressed for the occasion and jumps into the sea. Once on land he turns back around and boards the boat he just exited to haul in a net full of fish. It is nervous energy which Jesus thankfully has come to address, but it may not be good news for Peter right away. Though Peter has seen Jesus resurrected, the last time they spoke was on the night Jesus was betrayed. Warming himself by a charcoal fire that night, Peter said, “I do not know him.”

By that courtyard fire they asked Peter three times, “Are you not also one of his disciples?” He denied it, “I am not.” Now, as Peter drags that full net out of the boat, he is met with another charcoal fire. Beside this second charcoal fire is the risen Jesus. For the others present this fire is just a means for cooking fish and bread, which Jesus is already doing. But Peter knows exactly what this fire means. This fire brings memories of the previous one. This new fire becomes the very light Peter needs to burn away his shame into who he will become, like sunlight burns through a mountain fog opening to vast and clear views.
Just as he did when standing around that other charcoal fire, Peter now again receives three questions, as if Jesus is seeking Peter out and re-calling him. Peter denied Jesus three times, and Jesus calls Peter three times. He calls him to love him and then commissions him. This commission is different from earlier ones. It’s not a commission to go and fish for people. It’s not a calling to “come and see” or to leave the nets on the shoreline. It’s a very specific calling to feed Jesus’ beloved sheep.

Could it be that the good news in this post-resurrection world reassures us, too, that just because we love Jesus does not mean we are able to avoid suffering or failure? Just because we love Jesus does not mean that we will not ever disappoint ourselves or deny that which we hold most dear? Peter cried around that first charcoal fire because he cared, which should be an example for us all. Around the second, Jesus gives him a second chance. God knows that a commissioning to serve Jesus also grants us opportunities to fail, however seriously we take our commitments to discipleship. Still, we are called and re-called to love what matters most to God, to take responsibility for our neighbors’ well-being.

We are not so different from the disciples who were back in the boat many weeks after Easter. We have heard the same news: “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.” But by now the flowered cross has been taken down. There are no more lilies in the sanctuary, and even the triumphant “He Is Risen” banner has been rolled up and put away to use again next year. Like Peter, we may want to return to “usual.” But like Peter, maybe we need to examine how God turns our own depths of denial into soaring affirmations of faith. So what can we decipher from this concluding story in John’s Gospel and the last post-Easter encounter with Jesus? What do we do as God’s re-called disciples?

We have no charcoal fires burning on this Sunday morning. If we did, we would probably assume somebody was cooking hamburgers for a potluck after the service. Peter’s symbol of his discipleship was fire, but ours may not be. We do, however, have a shared meal at a table where any Sunday we can meet the risen Christ. We find in this meal the one who says, “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens.”

Are you carrying shame that makes you feel as empty inside as the disciples’ nets prior to Jesus’ appearance? Let this table be for you a fire not of fear but of God’s immense grace that says you are wonderfully made in your own skin exactly how you are. Are you carrying a past failure that continues to haunt you and that you relive like Peter? May this table be a charcoal fire for you of God’s forgiveness. Or, perhaps you arrive at this table with more fish in your net than you know what to do with. May this table be a fire that calls you to discipleship and kindles in you a desire to share God’s abundance and feed others.

Our communion tables should be more like a beach bonfire, everyday a new location but the same question—how can we contribute our catch to the meal God is already cooking up? Far from the folding tables of a nimble beach bonfire, the tables we gather around in many of our churches may look weightier and more inflexible. Often the communion table can function as a barrier, a piece of furniture to protect rather than a piece of furniture we gather all the way around to share a meal in the presence of God. Here, we go to great lengths to keep our communion table shielded from all stains, wear, and signs of human contact. It’s covered in strong glass or a leather cover as though we are covering a backyard grill, not uncovering it for use. Instead, what if we saw the table as the charcoal fire that reminds us we are forgiven through the grace of God?

This way of thinking changed for me the night before Palm Sunday. As many of you know, there was a wedding in the sanctuary on Palm Sunday eve, something I now do not recommend! After the wedding reception concluded in the fellowship hall, I received a call from one of our dedicated elders saying the cleaning of the church was going “fairly well.” There was a strange tone in her voice that suggested I might want to come and see the cleaning efforts for myself. Upon walking into the sanctuary, I could hear the sounds of glass shards being picked up from the narthex. Somehow, during the course of moving sanctuary items back into place post wedding, the custom glass which had rested atop our communion table for decades had broken. While being carried, the cumbersome table tipped and like a glacier the heavy glass slid slowly but mightily off the lip of the table and shattered upon the floor.

Following the cleanup effort that night, we wasted no time placing another order for a custom sheet of glass. Still, there was a delay in production while our communion table sat like a hermit crab without its protected shell. It taught our church and me a few lessons about what it means to be a disciple while we were waiting for the new glass to arrive, lessons Peter had learned many years ago.

Serving communion now felt different. The bare wood was exposed to all the dangers a communion table encounters in our active sanctuary. Smudges of fingerprints made by roaming children appeared during the time with young disciples. Someone wearing a belt buckle haphazardly bumped into a corner and left a dent. There were old and faithful ecclesiastical scars like a drip from pouring communion juice and oil on the base of refilled candles. Something changed over this last month; the table took on a new character.

The table, upon closer inspection, was beautiful even with its flaws, and one could see the wood pattern and the skill of the hands who made such a fine table even in its imperfections. It made the table come alive when the barrier of glass was removed. It told a different story of what is supported. It was not a story of a fabricated cold and smooth glassy reflection but one of divots, knots, textures, patterns, and inconsistencies. Seeing those less than pristine parts actually told a greater story about the lives of the people who shared a meal around it. All the less-than-perfect people taking communion showing the vulnerability of being a disciple and knowing the forgiveness of our risen Lord.

Would seeing the raw wood grain of the place we continue to meet the risen Christ force us to ingrain an entirely different message of the vulnerability of being a disciple? It just might. How often does it feel like the best the greater church can do is interact with the world through reinforced glass like a bank teller, rather than like a friend across a well-marked table, the result of numerous meals shared? How often do we hold God at a distance? Could seeing a plain table remind us that the church also comes with dents and dings, failures and inconsistencies? Like Peter, through God’s grace, our lives tell a far greater story than a singular night of failure in a courtyard.

Jesus called Peter three times because that is how many times it took for him to receive a response that broke through whatever block of tempered emotions Peter was carrying. The line of Jesus’ questions was not to shame Peter but to have the opposite effect. It was to get the one Jesus called “the Rock” to soften just enough to feel the love of God that called him to a greater story. It took a little pressure of repeated questions to turn an average, rocky disciple into a gem that reflected Christ’s light.

No matter where we are, a beach sunrise breakfast or a meal where we celebrate the joyful feast of God for the people of God, we have an opportunity to be re-called and sustained by this meal. Around this table, we who are marked, chipped, and mended become disciples gathered together. Like any family table, our table in the family of faith tells a dynamic story, too. It speaks of the meeting place where all saints and sinners gather. It is the place for imperfect disciples to be in the company of their perfect Lord with no barrier in between. Here around the fire we again hear Jesus’ words, “Follow me.”

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