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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Folks Like Us - Peter


John 21:1-19

“Folks Like Us: Peter”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The sermons for the month of April are all about the Bible characters in the Easter Story. Each week, we're looking at one of the people from the story and seeing what they can teach us. This week we're talking about the Apostle Peter.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our high schoolers came up to me in the hall after worship and said she had decided Peter was her favorite apostle. This isn't something teenagers say very often, so I was intrigued. “Why's that?” I asked. She said, “Because Peter was always messing up.” And that's true. Even when Peter's trying to do the right thing, he's always getting in over his head. So, as the unofficial patron saint of teenagers and people of all ages who are always messing up, Peter is folk like us.

The Bible doesn't tell us what kind of a kid Peter was, but we know he was predictably bold and impetuous. So, I'm thinking Peter was the kind of boy who had a lot of broken arms. I'm thinking he watched his dad and his brothers out in the fishing boats. I'm guessing he wanted to prove how big and grown up he was, that he could throw the nets just as far, and catch just as many fish as they did. I can see him when he was Children's Sermon Size, jumping in a boat when his dad and brothers had their backs turned, and rowing out to prove he was big enough to go fishing, too.

You ever watch these kids on, like, National Geographic Channel, who throw fishing nets from primitive looking boats? Sometimes they'll film it in slow motion, against the backdrop of the setting sun, and it looks like this arcing ballet of balance and beauty. I've never thrown that kind of a fishing net, but I'd guess there's a substantial learning curve, that the first time throwing wasn't so pretty.

So I can see Peter's dad and brothers on the shoreline, tapping each other on their shoulders and saying, “Hey, look, the kid's gonna give it his first throw.” And they nudge each other and smile, because they've all been here. It's kind of a rite of initiation. So they watch little Peter stand up, grab the net, bite his lower lip, make his windup, and twist and heave with all his might as this wad of a net wobbles into the air, and then the boat wobbles, and then Peter wobbles into the air and out of the boat and into the water with a belly-flopping splash. I can just see his little scrunched up face as he dog-paddles away from the capsized boat, back to shore, with all his brothers laughing until they cry.

Like I said, I've never thrown a fishing net from a boat. I have stood up in a boat – little fishing boat, canoe – and tried to walk from stern to bow. So I know from experience that if you're going to stand up and do anything in a boat – much less throw a net and make it spread out in all directions in a fluid, natural motion – if you try to stand up and do anything in a little boat, what's the one thing you've got to have? Balance. You've got to have a sense of balance. You've got to know the boat's going to rock beneath your feet, and you've got to compensate for that rocking. You've got to anticipate and use your body to counter-balance the waves. You've got to have balance.

But here's the thing: If you're going to learn how to do anything in a boat – walking, throwing a net, whatever – if you're going to make your time in the boat worthwhile, you've got to let the boat get out of balance. Which means you might mess up, you might look stupid, people might laugh at you. But if you never let things get out of balance, and if you don't learn (usually the hard way) how to regain balance, you'll just sit there, and drift along.


Have any of you ever lost your physical sense of balance? Whether through an ear infection, or vertigo, or something like that? Even when you lie down and close your eyes the room keeps spinning – have any of you experienced that? What words would you use to describe it? Awful. Nauseating. Terrible. Sickening. Helpless. When you physically lose your equilibrium, it's all of those. Have any of you ever lost your emotional sense of balance? Have any of you ever lost your spiritual equilibrium? If you have, you know that feels awful, nauseating, terrible, sickening, and helpless, too.

Where the Bible picks up today, Peter has lost his sense of balance. This time it's not his physical balance, but his emotional and spiritual balance. Jesus, his teacher, his Savior, his best friend in the whole world has died a horrible and tragic death on the cross. And yes, Peter and the other disciples have had experiences of the risen Lord, but you know how experiences of Jesus can be. You turn around and he's gone, and you think, was that who I thought it was? In scripture today, we get this story of Peter and the other disciples sitting around by the sea. We don't know what they're doing. But what do you do after someone so close to you dies? A lot of time you don't do anything. You just sit there. Because emotionally, spiritually, your legs have been knocked out from under you. We might think that after these post-Easter encounters with the risen Lord, the disciples would be saying, “How can we get the word out? Let's form an evangelism committee! Let's build a church!” But they're not saying anything like that. These are normal people, folks like us, whose world has been rocked. So instead of setting great, saintly long-term goals and objectives, Peter says, “I'm going fishing.” Peter's spiritual equilibrium has been pulled out from under him, so Peter decides to do something he knows how to do because he's known how to do it since he was a wobbly-kneed kid. “I'm going fishing.”

I was talking on the phone early last week to a friend of mine, another pastor, who lives in South Carolina. He's actually one of the ministers who made calls on Caroline Owen for us while she was in Greenville. Anyway, he'd made it through Easter. Which makes all ministers sigh deeply. But on top of that, in the weeks prior to Easter, his daughter, who's about 10 years old, had had surgery in Atlanta to remove a non-cancerous cyst about the size of a baseball from one of her lungs. Their daughter's doing great, now, by the way. My friend said he and his wife knew what to expect, emotionally and spiritually, but what they didn't expect was how physically exhausted they'd be. He told me, “I'm just ready for life to get back to normal.” He said, “So, I'm taking Peter's advice. I'm going fishing.” He said he and some of the guys at the church were just going to go fishing for a couple of days, to let life get normal again. My friend wanted to regain his sense of balance. Peter wanted to regain his sense of equilibrium. So he said, “I'm going fishing.”

Family therapists will tell you that the most powerful force in any family is the force of equilibrium. I think it's true for any group – churches, too – but you can see it so clearly in families. Other people's families, I mean. It's the force of normal. It's the drive to make things normal, whatever normal looks like. And this is one reason why change is so hard. Because if you decide you're going to change yourself – even if it's for the better – the change is still destabilizing to the family's equilibrium. And even if they want to help you, those other people in the family also want to restore their own sense of what's normal, of what feels like balance. This is why families end up fighting when things are happening that are good. This is why so many people who are in terrible family situations go back. This is why people bring another beer to the family member they know needs to stop drinking. It's because rocking their little family boat, even in a good way, still knocks out the equilibrium. So even if we know what's normal to us isn't normal, or isn't healthy, we still do it because we know how to do it. We know what to expect. We've learned how to stand up and maintain our balance even in a rotten boat.

But even if your normal is healthy and good, when you try to learn how to do a new thing – throwing that fishing net, for example – your boat's gonna get rocked, and it's going to be scary. The pull of the old habits, the fear of messing up, the fear of your family, or church, or co-workers laughing at you – that's incredibly strong stuff. That's why if you are going to try something that destabilizes your balance, even in a good way, it's good to have someone there to catch you if you fall.

And then even if your physical, emotional, and spiritual balance is pretty good, like grown-up Peter's must have been, the world has a way of throwing waves – tsunami-sized waves at you, out of nowhere. Peter witnesses the horrible, tragic death of his best friend. His balance is capsized. And just about the time he's starting to accept that reality as normal, Jesus returns, resurrected. Peter's equilibrium gets spun around 180. Peter's world has been spun and rocked in biblical proportions. How could he possibly even know where he is? I'd want to go fishing, too. At least there, you could be alone, in the calm. Balanced.

I don't personally know any students at Virginia Tech. But those students, the teachers - everyone there and in Blacksburg – has to feel like their legs have been knocked out from under them. Whatever sense of balance, whatever sense of normal they had, has been capsized. This was the worst shooting incident in the history of our country. So we all have a share in the grief. We all watch these folks like us. And our hearts go out to them. Because our sense of equilibrium, too, our sense of normal has been stolen. Why? Nobody knows why. Why Norris Hall, why those classrooms, why those beautiful, promising kids and teachers? No amount of investigation, no amount of blame, nothing can ever make sense out of something so senseless. So many parents have come and taken their kids back home – home to whatever relative safety's there, home to something normal, home to some kind of sense of equilibrium. How do those people, how does that school ever get back to normal?

So what do we do when our world's so out of balance? Do we open up the Bible and look to Jesus to calm the seas and smooth out the troubles? Well, in some Bible stories, he does. But look what Jesus does in this story, this post-Easter story.

Verse 4 begins, “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

You've got a group of men, all standing on one side of a small boat, all pulling up on a net so full of fish, so heavy that they can't haul it in – What happens to the balance of that little boat? You see, while Jesus was teaching, there's that story of him calming the seas, restoring peace and balance to the boat. But after Easter? After Easter nothing's normal. Jesus takes whatever balance the disciples have regained and rocks it again. And what does Peter do? He pulls on his skivvies and jumps out of the boat, which would have rocked it yet again, maybe made it come even closer to being swamped. And Peter swims back to shore, just like he might have swam back to his dad and his brothers so long before, when he was afraid and embarrassed and mad. But this time, he's swimming back to Jesus.

The week after Easter, people always ask me the same question. I suppose people ask every preacher the same question, and it's meant in a considerate, compassionate way, and I appreciate that. The week after Easter, people always say to ministers, “Well, aren't you glad Easter's over? Are you ready for things to get back to normal?” And I have to confess, most years I sigh heavily and say, “Yes. Thank goodness Jesus only gets resurrected once a year.” And a lot of church-goers think the same thing - “Whew. Glad that's over. Won't have to go back 'till Christmas.” But this year, I don't know, I just “got” Easter differently. So when these considerate, compassionate people (maybe you were one of them), asked me, “Aren't you glad Easter's over?” I said, “No! Easter means Christ is risen and has broken the power of sin and death. If Easter's over, that means we have to go back to the way things used to be.” And then they'd say, “Chilly weather we're having, isn't it?” I'm so sorry. Occupational hazard. You ask a simple question and get a sermon in return. Easter gives us totally different ground to stand on. Easter gives us standing in a whole different equilibrium. Easter gives us all a second chance at life in a whole new understanding of reality. Jesus doesn't just rock our world, he gives us a new world to put beneath our feet. Starting now.


Peter had a choice. He could have held onto that net full of fish. He could have tried to figure out how to restore the boat to balance AND haul in the fish. Or he could swim to Jesus. But he couldn't do both. And when you consider that it was the power of Jesus that was throwing Peter's boat out of balance in the first place, there's no way Peter could have regained control. So he did the only thing left to do. He jumped. Peter changed his world from one where he kept striving to maintain balance to one where he just swam. Swam to Jesus.

You and I have that same choice. We can try to go back to the way things were before Easter. We can spend all our physical, emotional, and spiritual energy trying to maintain control – Or we can jump out and swim to Jesus. What does that mean for you, how does that look in your life? I don't know. You've got to weigh your options in the balance. Or, forget the balance, altogether, and follow Jesus.

Before Jesus gets to saying, “Follow me,” in verse 19, he describes a very difficult life, difficult death, and even a difficult love. What Jesus is calling Peter to do – what he's calling us to do – isn't easy, isn't smooth sailing, isn't normal. And that doesn't mean the Christian life is supposed to be unpleasant, that we're always supposed to go around saying, “Woe is us, woe is the world, and, oh yes, Jesus loves you.” The Christian life is hard because the pull of the power of equilibrium is always there. That inborn drive to balance, the attraction of normal is always yanking us back to the way we were before Easter. It's hard to shrug that off, and swim only to Jesus. But I don't think Jesus would have called us to him, I don't think he would have stood on the shore and waited for Peter, if he didn't think we could do it.

Be like Peter. Be like Peter not because he's always messing up. But be like Peter because for the sake of Jesus Christ, he's not afraid of messing up. Throughout the gospels, Peter's more afraid of NOT messing up. Because to not mess up would mean going back to the same messed-up guy he's always been. Be like Peter, and let Jesus throw your life out of balance. Let Jesus bring you to a new sense of balance in his world.