A Sermon from John 21:1-19
©January 2, 2011 ~ Tom VanderPloeg
We’re starting into a new year. And with the New Year comes a variety of commitments to start new habits, or maybe stop some old habits. Many people mark the New Year by putting together a list of new years’ resolutions in hopes of becoming better people. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe it’s just something about flipping over the calendar that gives each of us the feeling of being able to make a fresh start. We look at the year ahead and see ourselves with a s ort of blank slate for the months ahead.
Well, as we kick off this new year here at Horizon, I’d like us to begin with a closer look at spiritual growth. Maybe there are some of you who make a resolution this year to grow closer to God. Maybe you think of that in terms of a more vibrant spiritual life. Maybe you think of it in terms of a more meaningful devotional life. Maybe you think of it in terms of deeper, richer relationships with other Christians. However you may think about taking a relationship with God to the next level, it all falls under the category of discipleship.
You know, we could start the year by talking about all the wonderful things God may want from us in this coming year. We could talk about the ways in which each of us could be a part of helping this church to grow by reaching out to new people. We could talk about the ways in which God wants us to share the blessings we have received so that his kingdom may grow. We could talk about being better spouses, better parents, better grandparents, better children, better siblings, better friends, better workers, better students…whatever the case may be. But it seems to me that all of these things are inseparably tied to a higher goal: discipleship.
If we make it a priority to grow closer to God, if we set our sights on being better followers of Christ; then all these other things I’ve mentioned will be changed as well. If we devote ourselves to being better disciples of Jesus, then God will use us to grow this ministry here at Horizon, he will show us opportunities to share the blessings we have received, he will mold and shape our hearts to become better spouses, better parents, better grandparents, better children, better siblings, better friends, better workers, better students…and the like.
What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple?
So what does this mean? What does this look like? You see, this affects all of us. Discipleship is a calling in which every single one of us here has a part. Not a single person can ever say, “Oh I don’t need to grow any closer to God; I’m good with God right where I am now.” No matter how old you are, no matter how young you are; there is always space in your life to follow God more closely. As long as God gives you life and breath on this earth, our most important obligation is to walk with God.
How do we do that? How do we shape a life that walks with God every day—and gets better at being the disciples God has called us to be. We’re calling this series of messages “Mythbusters” because there are some assumptions that many of us carry into our path of discipleship—assumptions that may not necessarily be true. For instance, there are people who may think that if I just read my Bible more and if I just pray more then that’s all I need to become a better disciple. Nothing else except Bible and prayer will get me closer to God. But is that all it takes? Is there more? Or there are other people out there who don’t belong to a church, but they will say that they don’t need the church to be a Christian. But is that true? Can a person really spiritually grow without the support, nurture, and correction of a group of believers? Can you spiritually grow without having regular, dedicated relationship with other Christians?
This month we are going to take a look at some of these myths about discipleship and spiritual growth so that we can start off the year on the right foot in our walk with God. And this morning we begin by thinking together about what it means to make a fresh start.
What is a fresh start?
You know, I’ve been to these Bible retreats—or in the days of when I was a youth pastor I took teens to these kinds of conferences where speakers would challenge people to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ. Rededicate; I thought that was just a term that the speakers would use at Christian conferences in order to get a bigger response from an audience that had mostly already become a Christian at some point. I mean, once you’ve dedicated your life to God, would you ever need to rededicate yourself? Is that really necessary?
But it seems to be the case—doesn’t it—that this is how we are as broken, sinful human beings. We make mistakes, we fall short, and sometimes we need to get up and start over. Or to be absolutely certain about it, the story we read today from John 21 illustrates something of a rededication. We even see it in the Bible. In fact, we even see it happening with Peter—one of the disciples who would go on to be the leader of the New Testament church! What I’m saying is this: having to make a fresh start from time-to-time in our walk with God doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t mean that I am a failure at being a follower of Jesus if I have to rededicate myself to my journey of discipleship every now and then. Maybe that’s the temptation. We might think that if I need to make a fresh start with God, then I’m admitting to God—and others—that I have wandered a bit. But even the great apostle Peter had his wanderings. No, there’s always room with God to come back. And there’s always room in his church for us to come back. This is what God is calling us to.
Let’s take a closer look at the passage we read today and consider how this story displays for us some of the truth discipleship takes rededication—it takes a fresh start every now and then. Jesus leads Peter to a fresh start by asking him several times if Peter loves him. But let’s consider that for a moment. Love is word in the English language that has completely lost its meaning. Here’s what I mean: I can say that I love my family. I can also say that I love pizza. But are those the same things? Is loving my family and loving pizza the same kind of love? When we say that we love a certain song or love a movie it’s not the same as loving a person, is it? Love is a word thathas so many different meanings in the English language—it has so many different nuances—that it ends up not really meaning anything clear at all.
So we need to take a closer look at this conversation between Jesus and Peter here in John 21; because something significant is happening there. In the Greek language there are three different words that all translate into English as “love.” There’s eros – this is considered a romantic kind of love. Eros is the kind of infatuation feeling that we associate with a boy and a girl falling in love together…it’s romantic. Then there’s phileo – this is a close friendship kind of love. It’s the bond that takes place between groups of people who grow close together. It’s where we get the name for the city of Philadelphia…the city of brotherly love. It means I like you a lot, I enjoy being with you. And then there is agape – completely self-sacrificial love for another person. Agape is when we love someone else without any condition whatsoever. We would do anything for that person without any thought or need for anything in return. That’s agape.
Well, in this conversation between Jesus and Peter, there are two different Greek words for love being used—and we completely lose that in our English Bibles. So let me tell you the story as it really happens here.
Insert John 21:15-19
Did you catch it? Jesus is asking Peter a question and Peter is not really answering the question that Jesus asks, is he? Peter does not live up to expectations, and he knows it. More than that, Jesus knows it too. But look at what the story illustrates for us today. Even though Peter admits to Jesus that he has not demonstrated an agape kind of love, Jesus calls him anyway. Peter’s past failures to follow Jesus don’t disqualify him.
Here’s where it comes together. This is what we see. Being a disciple of God does not require perfection. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean we will never make a mistake or never lose our focus from time-to-time. Eugene Peterson describes discipleship like this: Peterson says discipleship is “a long obedience in the same direction.” A long obedience in the same direction. He goes on to describe that long obedience as being full of ups and downs. Discipleship is marked by often taking three steps forward and then two steps backward. And when we get hung up on the little steps that sometimes move up and sometimes move back, then we lose sight of the bigger picture. All these steps—over the long haul—form a life that takes us bit-by-bit closer to God.
Jesus came to Peter and saw that he had gone back to his old life—he was a fisherman before Jesus called him. Peter had taken three steps forward, and then had taken two steps back. And Jesus comes to him and says, that’s okay. You can still be my disciple. You can still follow me. You can still make a fresh start. A long obedience in the same direction is a jounry filled with potholes, detours, breakdowns, and the like. But even with setbacks and disappointments, we still get there. God still brings us forward…even if it’s very slowly.