By Lynn Stein
Sometimes ideas for sermons come in funny ways. This sermon was supposed to be about being thankful “in all things”, inspired by comments recently made by Doneva Bolen. She spoke of all the great care and compassion from family, friends, church and the medical community while her husband, Kerry, has been battling pancreatic cancer. Despite their challenging circumstances, the Bolen’s have found many silver linings in a thunderstorm of problems. They agreed to let me speak with them about their journey, but what I expected to inspire me was entirely different than the a-ha moment that finally prompted this sermon. At the end of our conversation, I asked both Bolen’s, “What is your favorite Scripture?”
Doneva rattled off about three. She is female after all, so when it comes to Scripture and shoes, choices are difficult. The one most germane to today’s message, however, is Jesus’s command: “Love one another.”
Considering Kerry’s state of health—which is mercifully better now—I figured that his favorite verse would be something like Phil 4:13: “I can do everything through Him Who gives me strength”; or perhaps a line from Isaiah 41:10 “…do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.” Those are great verses, aren’t they, for times that rock our world?
But Kerry’s favorite verse is “Feed my sheep.” Truthfully, that one gave me pause. I didn’t know what to say offhand except a very profound “Hmmm.” This Scripture asks nothing of God. It is very “other” oriented, not unlike “Love one another.”
It requires something from us, not God. For Kerry, it means, “What can I do for YOU, Lord?”, when Kerry has every reason to ask the Lord what He can do for Kerry!
So, I read John 21, and what emerged was this: Despite the attention and energy that Kerry’s cancer requires of them, neither Bolen has been distracted or deterred from serving and loving the Lord. They heard God’s voice long ago and are still heeding His call to “Feed my sheep” and to “Love one another;” and, they make it abundantly clear that they do it all in the Lord’s name and for His glory. It’s not hard to be inspired by that.
Will you join me in reading today’s Scripture: John 21:1-19?
John 21:1-19 NIV
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way:
2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee,
and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said,
“We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did,
they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard
him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped
into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far
from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish
on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”11 So Simon Peter climbed back into
the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.
12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They
knew it was the Lord.13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This
was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know
all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself
and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else
will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death
by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
“Love to the Rescue”
In case you haven’t noticed, our lives have become filled with distractions. Maybe you’re so distracted by distractions that you don’t even recognize them as distractions anymore! Busyness and overflowing schedules, TV, computers, phones, the news, social media jobs—those are just a few of the most obvious culprits that vie for our attention. If I had a dollar for every time I got distracted…I wonder if I let the dog out this morning….
But do you know what the most insidious distraction is in our lives? Sin. Sin muddies our thoughts so that we can’t pray effectively because we’re ashamed. It ambushes our purposes and goals. Our energy is zapped, our stress levels go up, and our joy and happiness tank. In other words, sin takes a physical and emotional toll on our lives. More to the point, sin disrupts our relationship with God. Unfortunately, sin has a partner: guilt. Guilt makes us feel unworthy, so we either don’t do anything, or we go back to what’s familiar and safe. Guilt can stunt your growth—your spiritual growth, that is. Our inner selves cry out for relief from guilt at some level.
Just ask the disciples. They know all about sin and guilt, especially Peter. You know the story. Before Jesus’s crucifixion, all the disciples fled, deserting Him. Peter, however, verbally denied his association with Jesus after making a vow that he would NEVER leave Jesus—that he would even die for Him. In that culture, if a man wanted to divorce a woman, he publicly renounced her three times. Peter, by denying three times that He ever knew Jesus, divorced himself from his relationship with Jesus. In other words, he had separated himself from God—a breach that needed repair.
Although the disciples have seen Jesus twice since His Resurrection, they are spiritual wrecks. They have lost focus of the mission of spreading the Good News for which Jesus has prepped them for three years. Verses 1-14 set the scene for the heart of the matter, which is a matter of the heart, leading to Peter’s reinstatement as a disciple.
For now, not knowing what to do with the bag of guilt that he is carrying, Peter does what any shame-faced, grieving, directionless man would do—he goes fishing! The other disciples follow his lead, because Peter is the unofficial, yet obvious, leader of the group.
Their vocation as evangelists is momentarily waylaid, so the disciples return to their former occupation as fishermen—a temporary distraction from their guilt and lack of direction.
For a moment, let’s go back to Jesus’ very first encounter with the disciples, which is best described in Luke. The disciples were washing their nets by the sea when Jesus called them to be “fishers of men.” In that instance, Jesus got into Peter’s boat to preach to a crowd onshore. Afterwards, Jesus told Peter where to cast his net to catch fish. Despite Peter’s doubts, he threw the net as instructed and brought in a haul. Fast forward to this third and final appearance by Jesus. The disciples have returned to the sea, and the story is eerily similar. Their journey with Jesus has come full circle.
Here, instead of being in the boat with the disciples, Jesus stands on the shore—still helping, still empowering—but at a distance. Then Jesus calls to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” The disciples don’t immediately recognize Him. His question draws attention to the disciples’ failure to catch anything on their own. The implication, of course, is that without Him, their labor yields nothing. Not only is fishing work they weren’t called to do, they were doing it without His provision. However, Jesus tells them where to drop the net as He did when he first called his disciples to follow Him. Again, the net is filled almost to the breaking point when John recognizes Jesus.
But it is Peter-the-Bold who flings himself into the water and swims ashore first. Why would you be so eager to go to the Man whom you betrayed? Wouldn’t you want to hide under a rock in shame? But we know that Peter is more of a knee-jerk kind of guy than a contemplator. He probably doesn’t realize it in the moment, let alone be able to put it into words, but his love for trumps the shame of his denial of his Master. Peter’s lips have uttered betrayal; and now his heart longs for forgiveness and reconciliation. The severing of relationship that sin causes is painful at best.
Sinning doesn’t just hurt God; it boomerangs and hurts us right back! But I’m preachin’ to the choir, aren’t I?!! If you’re like me, as time goes on and my love for the Lord increases, so does the angst I feel when I violate our relationship by sinning.
Despite the disciples’ transgressions, Jesus welcomes them, inviting them to join Him around the fire and to have breakfast with Him. Interestingly, the word used here for fire or charcoal is the same word used for the fire by which Peter warmed himself the night he denied Jesus. This word is only used twice in the Bible, so the connection is subtle but intentional. The fire smells like shame to Peter and is a reminder of his sin and the folly of self-confidence. Before restoration can be made, sin must be addressed, namely through Peter. He is the disciple who verbally broke ties with Jesus, after giving his oath to follow Jesus unto death if necessary.
Even though Peter is accountable for his sin, the Lord’s purpose is not to shame him, but to humble him. No one can shepherd a flock without humility. Jesus previously taught them the humility of serving, such as when He washed the disciples’ feet. Modeling humility once again, Jesus invites them to share a simple meal that He has prepared, painting again a picture of what He wants THEM to do and to be: to serve humbly.
In the Eastern culture of Jesus’ day, an invitation to “come to my table” meant that friendship was being offered. In addition to fulfilling physical needs, mealtime was an opportunity for community and fellowship. Teaching moments and imparting wisdom came when Jesus shared a meal with others. Partaking in a meal also said, “I want to connect with you.”
My daughter-in-law, Aneliese, who is a teacher, asked her seventh-graders, “How many of you sit down and have dinner together?” In a class of 17, two raised their hands. In the interest of bonding and connection, our homes would do well to revisit the table tradition. Once again, Jesus happily eats with sinners. Despite Jesus’ hospitality, there is tension around the campfire, because no one wants to address the elephant in the room. But after they have eaten, Jesus singles out Peter for two reasons. First, Peter is the group’s natural leader; and, secondly, his sin is the most egregious in denying relationship with Jesus.
However, Jesus doesn’t humiliate Peter. There is no “What WERE you thinking?” moment. Instead, firmly but tenderly, Jesus confronts Peter with his sin by asking him three times if Peter loves Him. Peter answers three times, “…you know that I love you,” counteracting the three denials Peter made on the night of Jesus’ arrest.
Verses 15-17 give us some wonderful insights into the depth of sin to which Peter has fallen, and the wonder of God’s grace. God’s revealed character is always one of love and compassion.
The word for love that Jesus uses in his first two “Do-you-love-me?” questions is agape, meaning sacrificial love—the kind of love you have for a person for whom you would die—the kind of love Jesus had when He shed His blood on the cross for us. The form of love with which Peter replies is phileo, which is the form of love for friendship or affection. The third time Jesus asks “…do you love me?”, He uses the friendship form, too, graciously meeting Peter where he is. Here, Peter is grieved and replies, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Indeed, Jesus does know all things, and so He also knows how Peter feels about Him. It’s Peter who needs to know how he feels about Jesus, so this exercise is for Peter’s benefit, not Jesus’. Jesus is helping Peter overcome his own doubts about his love for Christ. Showing some maturity, Peter is hesitant to overstate his commitment to Jesus as he did hours before the crucifixion. In agony at this point, Peter replies with caution. He is mindful that the measure of his love for Christ is not shown by the words from his lips, but by the conduct of his life. How many people do you know that are good at “talking the talk” but who fail miserably at “walking the walk”?
Peter has reached rock bottom, that place where repentance resides. The NKJV says Peter grieves, rather than saying he is hurt as NIV says. His heart is broken. Until our hearts break with sorrow for our sin, we are not ready for forgiveness. The prophet Joel says in chapter 2 of his book, “Oh that our sins would break our hearts.” Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him because He wants Peter to look within. Sinfulness is not primarily in one’s actions, but in one’s heart.
Sinning against God, especially by outright denying Him, may seem like a point of no return—a place of no hope of forgiveness. But in Acts 10:15, God said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” God is in the heart purification business, and He has just cleansed Peter’s heart.
Our love for God will inspire our service to Him. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ…cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.” In other words, we are forgiven so that we may serve Him.
During this conversation, Jesus adds another dimension to His questioning. Each time that Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” and Peter answers “…you know that I do,” Jesus gives Peter a commission. First, he says, “Feed my lambs;” then, “Take care of my sheep;” and, finally, “Feed my sheep.” This three-fold commission to feed Jesus’ sheep means “Take care of My followers.”
What a blessing this is for Peter! Psalm 32:1 states: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” Jesus has given him meaningful work to do, signifying Peter’s re-installment as a trusted disciple. This amazing, bittersweet moment of repentance, pardon, healing, and restoration is Peter’s personal testimony of the power of the Savior Whose love rescued him.
Therefore, he will preach what he has lived because of God’s amazing grace. This begs the question, what is your own personal testimony? This moment is a game-changer for Peter as he transitions from fisherman to under-shepherd. In fact, we are all “under-shepherds.”
Someone once said, “God has no hands in the world but our hands. He has no lips but our lips.” In other words, despite our dings and dents, He chose us to carry out His purposes, and our love for the Good Shepherd will be evidenced by caring for His most prized possessions: His sheep. Us.
Jesus’ message in verses 15-17 can be summed up in five words: “Feed. My. Sheep. Follow. Me.” These are cut-to-the-chase directives for the disciples, and, by extension, to us. Jesus’ question for Peter is His question for everyone. How, then, would YOU answer His question, “Do you love Me?” Our obedience—or lack of it— will be our answer.
Kerry Bolen’s game-changing moment occurred when he did “The Walk to Emmaus”, a three-day retreat in which “…participants are encouraged to find ways to live out their individual call to discipleship in their homes, churches, and communities.” (Emmaus website).
He said it changed his life by clarifying his purpose. Before moving to Enterprise, Kerry and Doneva, who both live mission-centered lives, devoted a huge chunk of their time shepherding a Hermiston youth ministry. Currently, Doneva continues to serve in the office at the Methodist horse camp, where, until this summer, Kerry worked with both horses and riders for many years. They joined JUMC because it is a mission-oriented church. Although Kerry’s cancer now limits what he can do physically, he and Doneva continue to inspire us with their courage, strong faith, and sense of purpose in tending God’s flock. Clearly, our roles in the flock are fluid. Sometimes we lead, sometimes we are led.
As with all of Jesus’ sheep, the Bolens are precious to Him as they continue to live out Jesus’ commands. On the other hand, the Bolens themselves have been blessed by these commands as many of YOU have stepped up to the plate to care for them, just as they have cared for so many others over the years. Like them, you are doing the job Jesus called you to do.
The greatest command that Jesus gives us is to love—first God, then, each other. If we do that, everything else will fall into place. Our love for Jesus will drive us to spend our precious time, energy, and resources doing the things most important to Him—namely, spreading the Good News in both word and deed, and taking care of one another. Scott Stabile said, “We are here to love. Everything else is a distraction.”
How, then, can we love one another today? You don’t have to do anything as grand as running a youth ministry or operating a horse camp, admirable as those things are. Put away the remote and listen to someone who needs an ear. Click off Facebook and give someone a ride to the doctor or grocery store. Say please and thank you. Be kind—especially to someone you dislike. If prayer is the only thing you can do, then do it. We should all pray for a spirit that longs to serve the God we love—and Who loves us.
Because Jesus first loved us, let us, then, go into the world and love others—one sheep at a time.