A Meditation on Discipleship and John 21:1-19.
The large man who asked us to baptize him, this week, at the county jail, is going on trial next month for murder. And I honestly don’t know whether he committed the crime or not. But I caught myself Tuesday, just the same, holding this cup of water high over the big man’s head, and wondering, what kind of difference does it make. To be baptized. To follow Jesus. You know what I mean? What happens when we make that decision to follow?
We huddled around this serious man: inmates in orange jumpsuits, and five of us from the church. And he talked about wanting to start over, and knowing he really couldn’t. And he talked about leaning on Jesus and learning from Jesus and living and forgiving like Jesus. And then we all laid our hands on the big man’s shoulders.
It was a first for me: baptizing a man accused of killing another. And I have to tell you it shook me—a little; it made me question the sacrament in a whole new way. Standing there with this gorgeous cup full of water. Looking this man in the eyes. And feeling surprised—by a strange kind of kinship. Faith does some funny things. Because here’s the thing. I’m not going to trial; but if I’m completely honest, if I’m laying it on the line, I’m violent too. It’s not just this guy in an orange jumpsuit. But I’m violent too.
You see, it’s easy enough for me to grieve the violence in the ‘hood, drug deals gone bad, drones raining fire on Afghan villages, too many dads beating too many kids. But I caught myself Tuesday, holding this cup of water over the big man’s head, and wondering about the violence that stirs in me. What about my own tendency to judge? What about my temper? And what about my complicity in a system that impoverishes children and venerates violence and wages war against the poor all over the planet? I’m standing there in the jail, with this big man, with this beautiful cup filled with beautiful water. And I’m thinking: I’m not going to trial…but I’m violent too.
And now I’ve got this Flannery O’Connor line running through my mind. She was paraphrasing another couple of verses in John’s gospel this way: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free; but first, it’s gonna make you flinch.” So I guess I flinched a little on Tuesday. Surrounded by inmates in orange jumpsuits. Turning this beautiful cup in my hand.
And I want you to know what happened in there—because baptism is a sacrament of the church. The whole church. It’s not a little blessing we do privately; it’s a celebration of grace, a dynamic promise made by God, and a commitment we make to one another. It’s a sacrament of the church. And yes, I believe, I want to believe, it makes a difference.
So we stood there together—in the middle of the room—and I took this cup full of water and I looked him in the eyes. And then I poured it out—the whole thing—on his head. And the water ran down his forehead, and then into his eyes, and then down his cheeks, and then across his jumpsuit. All over the floor. And you could have heard a pin drop. Moments of complete and sacred stillness.
I have to tell you, quite honestly, that the big man looked a little stunned. That we were gathered around him in that way. That we were praying for him in that way. That we were anointing his body, his spirit, his life in that way. But I looked him in the eye at that moment and I saw not a killer, not a jumpsuit, but a brother. Jesus had baptized both of us—and anointed both of us. The same faith. The same mission. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says. Not because you’re better than anyone else or even more peaceful than anyone else. But blessed are the peacemakers—because the truth might be hard, but the truth’s going to set you free. The truth might be hard, but it’s going to set you free. And there was a kind of freedom in the room on Tuesday afternoon, the kind of freedom that Jesus cares about most. Even the kind of freedom that makes it possible to heal and forgive and embrace love as the only way, the only way, to peace.
Now during that baptism Tuesday, we read the same story we’ve read here this morning. You remember how Peter hears that it’s the Lord on the beach, and he quickly puts on some clothes, for he is naked, he’s been fishing all night without his clothes on, and he jumps into the lake. Fully clothed. Crazy with gratitude. Just jumps into the lake. How about that? Peter’s baptism. Total immersion. Peter choosing love and only love. Peter leaping into the lake. Surrendering to a brand new day. This is the life-altering moment. This is the love-expanding encounter. This is where peace heals a broken heart and grace absorbs even Peter’s betrayal. Even Peter’s.
Because we remember Peter’s betrayal. How he left Jesus to hang there, executed by empire, Good Friday; how Peter turned his back that day on love and discipleship. Violence was everywhere and everything. It was the way things worked: cultures, religions, governments. In Jerusalem and everywhere else. Peter had seen enough to know things would always work that way. Violence and despair. So he—gave up. And left Jesus to hang there alone. There’s something about Peter’s impotence, about his betrayal, that seems so contemporary, so modern, so personal to me. Violence does that to us. And Peter walked away.
Then the long night on the lake. Casting nets and catching nothing. Their little economy in complete collapse. Their families, anxious and powerless.
And now—this. Just after daybreak. Something wildly new and wholly unexpected. A fire on the beach. Jesus is alive. Jesus is love. Jesus is back. Not because God is magic. Not because God contradicts the laws of nature. But because God is generous. Because God is love. Because God wills life.
The sun is rising. After a long night. Thin rays of light find Peter’s face. Fish—suddenly—all over the place. Fish everywhere. One hundred fifty-three fish. “So he puts on some clothes, quickly, for he is naked, and Peter jumps into the lake.”
Jesus is alive. Grilling fish now on a charcoal fire. Fixing space for breakfast and conversation. So Peter pulls his pants on and hurls himself into the lake. You see? This isn’t magic. What this is is total immersion. What this is is baptism. That little fishing boat rocks wildly behind him. Nearly capsizes in the excitement. Nothing will ever be the same. Violence no longer victorious. Despair no longer inevitable. Because Jesus changes everything. Love rises like the sun on a new day. And Peter throws himself, hurls himself into the lake.
So here’s what I want to say to you about this story—whether it literally happened this way or whether it’s a gospel truth wrapped up good in the storyteller’s genius. This is your story. This is our story. This is the story of our brother in jail, finally coming to grips with violence in his life and turning now to Jesus for new start. This isn’t about magic; this isn’t some Halloween script about a zombie back from the dead. This is a story about baptism and discipleship. This is a story about following Jesus. In a world that’s tried out every imaginable strategy around violence and war. In a world that’s just plain exhausted from all the hurting and warring and all the people-hating and wall-building.
You see, we miss something of this story’s edge, and something of its invitation, if we forget what’s happening here. All the violence casting shadows across that lake, and across the bow of that little boat, and across the faces of its frenzied fishermen. There’s the economic violence of a bi-polar culture; something like the 1% chewing up the 99% and caring nothing for the carnage. There’s the armed violence of the raging Roman empire; and all the ways the threat of violence gets under the skin and into the hearts of the people. And there’s the theological violence of religion run amok. Prejudice and hubris and scapegoating in the name of God. All this violence—and the emblem of it all, the icon of it all is Jesus hanging on the empire’s cross, abandoned by his friends, left to die alone. Good Friday.
So in a sense, this morning’s story finds the disciples in a kind of extended Good Friday experience. Shadows and despair. They’re catching nothing. They’re frenzied and anxious and fishing all night long. Impoverished and bereft and hopeless. Violence casts long shadows on their lake, on their communities, on their faces and spirits.
Do you see what’s going on here? Jesus on the beach. The charcoal fire. Peter hurling himself into the lake. This is a story about following Jesus and resisting that violence, healing the violence within us and around us. This is about baptism and discipleship.
I think. Maybe. Because there are choices to be made. For Peter and for us. On the beach there, Jesus puts those choices to Peter as plainly and clearly as he can. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him, not just once, but three times. “Do you love me?” And, of course, Peter’s wiping the lake from his eyes, toweling off at the fire; and he says, “Hey, look at me, Jesus, I’m soaking wet here. Of course I love you!” His exuberance is great. Baptism is thrilling. But Jesus persists: Jesus is after more than exuberance and thrills. Jesus is calling disciples. Jesus is forming peacemakers. Jesus is after love.
Remember, Peter. Remember how I washed your feet that night in the upper room. I want you to do that for others. I want you to wash their feet. I want you to feed my sheep. And remember, Peter. Remember how we stood with that woman they wanted to stone in the city square. Remember how we stayed with her until every last stone was dropped. I want you to stand with the vulnerable, with the poor, with the forgotten. I want you to feed my sheep. Dedicate your life to feeding the hungry kids in villages far beyond this fire. Dedicate your life to forgiveness and nonviolence and justice and peace. “Peter, do you love me?” “Hey, Jesus, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says to Peter, to us. “Feed my sheep.”
So baptism can make a difference. It does make a difference. IF we read this story all the way through. IF we look Jesus in the eye and read his lips carefully. IF we take up the word and learn the practice he practices in the dusty roads and city streets of Palestine. Lay down your weapons, he says. Lay down your pride. Wash one another’s feet. Feed the hungry children. Love love and only love.
Next week around this time, nineteen of us will be walking the troubled streets of Hebron in the West Bank, Palestine. It’s one of the most conflicted cities in the world, Hebron. A place where orthodox Jewish settlers and armed Israeli military units dig in against puzzled Palestinian families. Settlers toss buckets of scalding water on Arab kids in the streets below their settlements; and Arab kids respond in kind, hurling rocks, stones, anything they can find at angry Jewish settlers. You want a picture, a symbol of the impotence of violence? The dead end. The destructiveness of it. Hebron’s your city.
We’re not going to Hebron because we’ve got all kinds of answers. And we’re not going to Hebron because we’re so much more peaceful, more loving than they are. I’m taking this delegation to Hebron because, for me, faith means looking violence in the eye. My violence, our violence, the world’s violence. I’m taking this delegation to Hebron because, for me, discipleship means finding a way through our violence to love and human kindness. We’re going to Hebron next week because giving in to anger, and giving in to bitterness is not an option. Not for Jesus. Not for people of faith. And not for us.
So I want you to think about today’s story not as a magical tale where a savior comes back from the dead, but as a discipleship story where love seeks us out and calls us by name. Where love seeks you out and calls you by name. I want you to think about this story as an invitation to new life and new love in a world tangled up in violence. This is a story about what it means to see love rising in the dim light of a new day. This is a story about what it means to give your life to that love, and to God. This is a story about gratitude and second chances and total immersion. Baptism, right? Pulling your pants on every morning and hurling yourself into the mystery and compassion and communion of God. Something like Peter. Something like discipleship. And in the end, Jesus says to you, to me, to every one who takes this stuff to heart: “Follow me.” It’s time to go. Follow me.