One of the things I found fascinating about the pandemic was the coping mechanisms people developed. For some coping took the form of fitness or wellness – instead of exercising a couple days a week, a daily run or walk was the way many kept their sanity. For others, picking up new hobbies, like baking bread, did the trick. We even had shortages of flour and yeast so many people were baking. For others they turned to less healthy outlets – shopping (online, of course), drinking one more glass of wine, or binge watching one more show, sacrificing sleep and anything else productive. All those coping mechanisms did just that – helped us cope with a world that was falling apart around us. And since we could not control the availability of vaccines, the mandates for masks, the requirements to isolate, what we could do was the familiar – go for a run, use our baking skills, escape into the familiar.
Coping is exactly what Peter does in our gospel lesson today. His world has been upended, his hope destroyed, his shame irrecoverable. The finality of the cross breaks him, the empty tomb leaves him dumbfounded, and the resurrected Lord standing with his wounds before him has him in shock. And so, he mumbles to the other disciples, “I am going fishing.” The other disciples go with him – likely relieved for the sense of familiarity, grateful for something to do that they are actually good at, and likely a bit afraid to stay where they are doing nothing.
We did a similar thing here at Hickory Neck during the pandemic. In March of 2020, as the bishop was closing all church campuses for the first time, I was in a hospital waiting room, cancelling a Vestry Meeting, messaging our staff, and trying to listen to post-operation care for my daughter from the nurse. The world was imploding and like a dazed Peter I said, “Let’s worship anyway. I mean, I know how to use Facebook Live.” And so that is what we did: we worshipped online – not just one day, but every day; we offered pastoral care – not in person, but on the phone, by text, by email, and by card; eventually, we figured out how to help others and began offering to pick up groceries, care for the sick remotely, and deliver prescriptions.
But a funny thing happened along the way. As we dove into our coping mechanisms, albeit in creative ways, we started reaching new people. When Pop-Up Prayers started, people we had never met before – sometimes people who are literal next-door neighbors – started tuning in to our prayers. People who had always wondered about us were finally able to take a peek without having to cross our threshold; and they liked what they saw so much they started coming in person long before our longtime members ever did. People who moved here during the pandemic and were longing to find a new community of support were able to come here – either virtually or masked and distanced. They were willing to sacrifice discomfort just to find a sliver of comfort here. What initially felt like a coping mechanism suddenly transformed our ministry altogether.
One of the more dramatic parts of today’s gospel is the conversation between Peter and Jesus over a charcoal fire. The only other time a charcoal fire is mentioned in John’s gospel is the one Peter warms himself by as he denies Jesus three times. In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter denies that he knows Jesus; in John’s gospel, he denies his very discipleship.[i] “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” was the question they had asked him three times. And so, Jesus asks Peter three questions as a mirror to those three questions Peter was asked. Many scholars argue this interaction is Jesus’ way of forgiving Peter, or Jesus’ way of reinstating Peter as a disciple, or even Peter’s rehabilitation after a failure of loyalty. But as Karoline Lewis argues, “None of these summaries adequately recognizes the significance of Jesus’ request of Peter. Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple, but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way.”[ii]
Our work this week is to figure out how, in the midst of a post-pandemic Eastertide, how are we being invited to redefine our discipleship. I know as we have returned to the altar rail and begun to share the common cup, many of us have sighed with relief. Some of us have been begging to drop the annoying gift of Zoom, and some have wondered if we really have to keep thinking about livestreaming everything. And yet, when Jesus asks Peter to feed his sheep, “Jesus essentially asks Peter to be the good shepherd for the sake of God’s love for the world when Jesus cannot be…the demands of discipleship take on a more acute and critical role.” In other words, as Lewis says, “Jesus is asking Peter to be the ‘I AM’ in the world.”[iii]
That is our invitation too. Just this week I experienced two church and diocesan meetings where people would not be able to participate without Zoom. Just this week, I visited and spoke with suffering parishioners who said the livestreamed services are their lifelines right now. And just last week, a visitor explained how perusing our website helped in the decision to take the next step through our door. This pandemic has stretched us, challenged us, and invigorated us. But the reward of getting through to the other side is not to go back to “normal.” The reward is we have learned a new way to be disciples of Jesus – and Jesus is asking us to consider how we – corporately and individually – can be the “I AM” in a world that wants to know God. Jesus promises today to help us along the way – showing us where to cast our nets again, feeding us abundantly, and reminding us again and again how to be love in the world. Our invitation is to consider how Jesus is already transforming our coping mechanisms into gifts of love for the world. And then, in our discomfort, to stand up and follow him. Amen.
[i] Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 255.
[ii] Lewis, 256.
[iii] Lewis, 256-257.