There are two layers to our gospel lesson today. In one layer, there is a lot of movement and action. We have disciples fishing, a man shouting about where to put nets, Peter leaping out of a boat to swim ashore, breakfast sizzling in a pan over a crackling fire, and Peter and Jesus having this strangely repetitive conversation. This layer of the text is really distracting. There is so much happening that by the time we get to Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs, we forget the part of the story about Peter getting dressed to jump into water. The frenetic nature of the text leaves us with more questions than answers. Why is Peter fishing at a time like this? Why is he naked? Why do the disciples not recognize Jesus at first? Why is Jesus cooking breakfast? Why does Jesus repeat his question to Peter three times?
In truth, I think there is so much activity in our gospel lesson because the disciples are a little frenetic themselves. They had all settled into certain identities in their lives – many of them were fishermen, many of them had families that they worked with, and all of them had homes where they resided. Their lives were simple and predictable. Then this guy came into their lives and their identity and purpose got totally out of balance. They had no consistent daily routine, they left behind everything they knew, this man they were following was compelling but also completely confusing, and they were being asked to totally change their lives. And just when they had found the rhythm of managing their unpredictable lives with Jesus, then everything turns over on its head again, and they lose everything – their leader, their purpose, and their identity. So in an effort to find something to hang on to, the disciples become punchy with action.
We all do this. I know that I am particularly stressed out when I find myself intently scrubbing something in the house. I may not be able to solve some problem at work, or I might not be able to fix some relationship that needs mending, but I can have a clean floor. I might not have responded to the forty-eight emails and the twenty-nine items on my to-do list, but my desk will be cleared of all clutter and looking freshly dusted. My neurotic behavior is cleaning, but we all have some neurotic behavior. Some of us need to find a mall to clear our minds of all the stuff going on inside of us. Somehow finding the perfect dress or pair of shoes takes away our other anxieties. Others of us get out in the garden and dig our way to peace of mind. Something about a freshly weeded garden makes us feel like something was accomplished, even if the rest of us is in shambles. Still others hit the gym. There is nothing like sweating away anxieties or feeling the burn to take away the other feelings going on inside of us.[i]
What is interesting about all the activity and noise found in our gospel lesson is that there is another layer of this text that is completely quiet. We start with the disciples silently staring at that Sea of Tiberias. There is nothing left to say among them, because they have talked this whole resurrection thing to exhaustion. Then we find the disciples on the boat fishing in the middle of the night. I do not know the last time you went fishing, but fishing is one of the more quiet, uneventful activities you can do. Despite the splashing of Peter to swim to Jesus, once they all gather on the beach, no one says a word. The air is only filled with the quiet lapping of water and the sizzling of a pan over a fire. The disciples have questions, but no one says anything. Even the conversation between Jesus and Peter has a quiet tone to the conversation.
In some ways, I think this is where the text is really pointing. The disciples, who have irritated Jesus to no end, finally fall silent. No more asking about who shall be first, and nor more asking what Jesus means or who he is. No more crazy proposals like building booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, and no more insisting that Jesus wash all of their bodies, not just their feet. No more insisting that they would never betray Jesus. There is nothing left to say. And so they stare quietly, they fish in silence, and they answer in hushed voices.
This layer is the most important because this layer marks a shift. The disciples stop trying to muscle their way to discipleship, and they finally learn to let Jesus take the lead. They have become so physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted that they stop trying to control everything, and they simply wait for Jesus to tell them what to do. This is a critical moment in the disciples’ journey with Christ.
I think many of you know this about me, but I love to dance. I grew up doing all sorts of dancing, but the most difficult form of dancing I stumbled into was formal partnered dancing – the fox trot, waltz, etc. In the other forms of dancing I learned, I was responsible for myself, learning the steps, and making sure I knew the rhythm so that the dance looked beautiful. But in partnered dance, especially as the woman, you have to learn how to follow. As someone with pretty good rhythm and memory for steps, you have no idea how incredibly frustrating it is to follow a man who does not know what he is doing. The tendency is to want to use your arms or legs to start guiding the man, or even to whisper the directions. But the role of the woman is to follow where the man leads – perhaps the only time in a woman’s life that she is forced to do this! But what I also found in this kind of dancing is that when you have a really good partner, he can make you feel like the most graceful, beautiful woman on the dance floor. In fact, you stop worrying about the steps and the count, and you start moving with fluidity and ease. The price for such a feeling is total surrender and trust. But the payoff is that you find a joy so strong that you will hunt down that partner and beg them to save you a dance.
This is the kind of submission the disciples finally master on that beach. No more trying to muscle Jesus into the way they want him to behave. No more trying to talk their way through their relationship with him. They surrender all they have to him, longing for the clarity that only he can give them. And when they finally do that, in the quiet of that morning, they finally hear the words of purpose for their lives. “Follow me,” Jesus says. They are the same words Jesus said to them at the beginning of their relationship with him. But now they finally hear. And now they can finally respond with their whole being. Jesus’ words are as clear as they can be. Jesus’ words give their life meaning. And their spirit is finally in the place where they can hear and respond. They are truly and thoroughly ready to follow him.
This is what Jesus invites us to do as well. This morning, as we sit in the sacred place, Jesus invites us to shove those piles off the desks of our minds, to rip out the weeds blocking our hearts, and to drop our armfuls of distractions and to listen to his simple words for us. The words are there waiting. The direction is clear. The peace and comfort of clarity and purpose are ours for the taking. So when you come to this table for the Eucharistic feast, quietly listening for Jesus’ words for you, you will be able to hear those words, “Follow me,” and do just that when you walk out those church doors. Amen.
[i] Gary D. Jones, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 420.