Third Time’s a Charm
If you were listening when the Scripture was read a few minutes ago, you heard a rather strange dialogue between Jesus and Peter, a dialogue, by the way, which most Bible scholars feel was “tacked on” to the original ending of the Gospel of John in order to make some points the early church felt were important. Read it, in other words, as a theological story, a kind of parable. The setting for this carefully constructed dialogue is on the shore of Lake Galilee where Peter and some other followers seem to have gone back to business as usual after the death of their beloved Teacher. It may be only an accident that there are seven of them, but I doubt it. Seven is the Biblical number of wholeness, and in this appendix to John’s Gospel I think the seven disciples are meant to stand for the whole church and how it is expected to act in the physical absence of Jesus.
Peter is always the compulsive one, so it’s no surprise that he should be the one who suddenly blurts out, “I’m going fishing.” A lot of strange and terrible things had been happening in the past few days, but the lake is an old familiar friend to all of them and what better way to heal than to get out on the deep, clear water and try their luck. But as every fisherman knows, the fish are not always cooperative, and although the seven worked hard at it all night long, they caught nothing. This story, please keep in mind, is also one of the church’s post-resurrection stories, so when morning broke on the lake the exhausted little group see a man standing on the beach who turns out to be Jesus. He tells them to let their net down on the right side of the boat, and when they do it they catch so many fish they can’t haul up the net. When they finally drag it up on shore, special emphasis is given to the fact that it should have broken under such a load, but didn’t — the point being that this is not only one of the church’s post-resurrection stories but a miracle story as well.
Jesus, in this story, has bread and some fish cooking on a charcoal fire, and invites them to eat a meal with him. The last time he and his disciples sat together at this lake, it was the scene of another significant meal: the feeding of the 5,000, and just as he had done in that account, the author of this story uses language the early church used in communion — “Jesus took the bread and gave it to them.” Once again it is in the act of eating together that Jesus is completely recognized as being with his disciples, and it is worth noticing that neither Peter nor any other disciple is singled out for special attention at this meal. As it will be throughout the church’s future, all share equally in the meal that celebrates the presence of the Lord.
But primarily, this appendix is interested in saying something about Simon Peter, the one who lied on the night Jesus was arrested and then went out into the night to weep bitterly about his cowardly betrayal. Peter became prominent in the early church, and some readers feel our story this morning alludes to that by having him be the natural leader who goes back to the boat and pulls the heavy net ashore all by himself. And now comes the section of this chapter I would like to examine in detail. Three times, after breakfast, Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times — no surprise about the number, if you know how deeply influenced the Biblical stories are by numerology. Each time Peter says, “You know I love you,” and after each one of those declarations Jesus responds: “Then feed my sheep.” (Not our metaphor, of course. For us it would read: Take care of my people.”)
Because of some remarkable parallels, Bible scholars feel that this story sets out very deliberately to salvage Peter’s sorry record on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Just as he denied even knowing Jesus three times on that hideous night, he now gets a chance to declare his love for Jesus the same number of times. Each of Peter’s previous failures is now erased by an admission of love — it really does look like a symbolic blotter, an undoing of the 3-fold denial, something that would be extremely important to a church in which Peter had become prominent. Even the reference to a charcoal fire reminds us that there was a charcoal fire in that courtyard where the great betrayal took place. When I first began to preach I would have said, “Hold on! This is literal history, not symbolism, and the repetition of three’s, and the charcoal, and the rest of it are simply coincidences.” A lifetime of careful reading makes me think otherwise — that this strange final chapter was added as a way of honoring one who by the time it was written had long since become a great leader in the church. You realize after a while that parts of the gospels are LITERARY constructs rather than history.
But all this is textual scholarship and you want more than that from a sermon, so let’s bring the text to life in terms of the way we live our own lives. Whatever the three questions and the three responses and the three commandments may have meant to the author of this story, we have a saying that deals with the importance of repetition. “Third times’ a charm,” we say to a nervous fellow passenger after the pilot has told us twice there will be a short delay while an electrical problem is fixed. “Third time’s a charm,” my neighbor Joe across the street tells his little boy after he has crashed his new bike twice in the driveway. “Third time’s a charm,” the baseball player’s wife whispers to herself when her husband already has two strikes against him.
If there is anything a teacher or a minister knows for sure, it’s that directions have to be repeated before things seem to register. “Don’t forget to take out the garbage” — “Be sure to clean your room“ — “Time to go to bed now” : how often did your children do those things after only one admonition? The fisherman disciple in our story has a future, not just a past, and three times Jesus has Peter speak his love before he tells him what that future is going to be. We can relate to the repetition because saying “I love you” once is never enough. It’s just the beginning of the most important relationship we have with each other, and we must say it over and over, and hear it over and over, before we feel all the weight of the love that lies behind the words.
The future church is getting a sermon in this 21st chapter of John about what it actually means to love Jesus. I know a minister’s wife who fumes at those songs that say, “Oh how I love Jesus” and who bristles when she hears a preacher tell people in sugary tones that they must love Jesus. She means no disrespect. She says, “I’ve never met this person. We’ve never had a conversation. How can I talk about loving him as if he were my husband or my children?” What she understands intuitively is that loving Jesus is not so much an emotional response as it is an act of will — that to “love” Jesus is not the sweet and sentimental thing it is made out to be in so many sermons, but the tough and demanding lifestyle Jesus himself pointed to when he said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
So in this story he does it three times: Do you love me? Yes. Prove it! We like to hear — we need to hear — “I love you” from a parent, a child, a partner in marriage, but if deeds do not prove it, it ceases to have any meaning. The point was made in a New York Times ad that had a picture of Jesus and the following caption: “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?” The list of questions like that is endless: “How can you worship an honest man on Sunday and defraud your customers on Monday?” “How can you claim to love a man who honored truth when you are afraid in your Sunday sermon to risk your job by speaking the whole truth?” Loving like an adult is a tough, realistic commitment that goes far beyond saying the words.
We have a relatively new grandchild in the family and it has been fun for me to watch how the love confessed for that little boy, and the love expressed, can take such radically different forms. His mom and dad and his two older siblings do a huge amount of what I call “noodling” — holding, and kissing the peach-soft little cheeks, and chortling how much they love him. But their love really proves itself when all of them spend not-so-sweet moments changing diapers, walking the floor when he has colic, sitting up when he’s sick in the middle of the night. Loving a spouse can mean going to the ballet when you’d rather be at the basketball game….or vice versa. And having a dear friend can mean warm, happy moments of coffee and conversation, but it also means driving to that friend’s house in Dallas, as Billie and I did last week when word came of a terminal illness. “Do you love me?” he said to Peter. “If you do, take care of the ones I love.”
Three times, he said it, and that can remind us how important simple repetition is in the patterns of living. That little grandson was in our house over Christmas and liked some twinkling lights I had wound in among a couple of large plants. He’s been up two or three times since and each time he heads straight for the living room, points to both places, and says, “Yight, yight” and repeats it — like Jesus to Peter — until Iget the message. He learns to talk by endless repetition, ours and his. He traces the same paths around his house or mine until he knows exactly where things are, when to duck, when to step around something. Repetition turns into ritual, and ritual makes us feel consistency and comfort in life. It seems especially important in the mornings, when we swim up out of sleep and forgetfulness to start a new day. Now that I am finally part of the computer age , I have a new analogy for that business of starting the day with personal rituals: we are “rebooting” — telling ourselves who we are again, putting ourselves back together so we can start to work. Not surprisingly, I think the ritual of worship on Sunday morning is a vital part of faith life but it shouldn’t be the only part. It would make a significant difference in your attitude if you silently thought a prayer of thanksgiving each time you walked into your home. It deepens your investment in this place just to look over at the church steeple when you pass by on the expressway. Look and say, “That’s the home of my highest self, and I love it.”
But the message of this odd little story from the Gospel of John is that words are not enough, that you have to prove it over and over. You have to deliver even when you don’t want to, at times when it may be inconvenient or even risky. Joe Garagiola, an excellent major league catcher turned announcer, tells about a time when his team was playing against Stan Musial when that great hitter was at the peak of his career. Stan stepped up to the plate, settled in with that famous wiggle some of you will remember, and Garagiola signalled to his pitcher for a fastball. Young and nervous, the pitcher shook his head. Joe signaled for a curve, and the pitcher shook him off again. Joe than asked for one of the pitcher’s specialties, and still the new young major leaguer hesitated. So Joe called time and went out to the mound for a conference. He said, “I’ve called for every pitch in the book. What do you want to throw?” In a shaky voice, the kid said, “Nothing. I just want to hold on to the ball as long as I can.” Sometimes, husbands, wives, parents, children, churchmembers….sometimes you have to deliver, whether you want to or not.
Because the whole point of this sermon is that “I love you,” spoken or felt, is that you take a chance and commit yourself to someone else. If you say it to this church, by joining it, then you begin to do things for it instead of waiting for it to do things for you. In his book Leaving Home Garrison Keillor writes about Larry, a resident of Lake Wobegon. Larry was saved 12 times at his Lutheran Church, an all-time record for a church that never gave altar calls. There wasn’t even an organ playing “Just As I Am” in the background, but over a few short years Larry Sorenson came forward anyway, 12 times, weeping buckets and crumpling up at the communion table — much to the surprise of the minister, who had just delivered a very dry sermon on stewardship. Now he and the church had to give special attention to Larry, and Larry who liked to say how much he loved God seemed to many of them to be loving himself a lot more. They were ready for him to dry his tears and join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace and the village poor. But Larry just kept repenting and repenting.
Now, to be fair to the Lutherans, here is a true story from Cross Lutheran School in Yorkville, Illinois — a story that illuminates what Jesus meant when he responded all three times to Peter’s declarations of love by saying, “Then love those I love.” A boy named Mark Lowry, 13,was diagnosed with leukemia. By the end of the week when the 15 other boys in his class learned Mark would undergo chemotherapy and lose his hair, only two of the 16 had any hair left. One was waiting for the weekend to get clipped, and the other was Mark, who came home from his first treatment with a full head of hair. How long did the others plan to look like the Starship Enterprise’s Jean Luc Picard as a show of support for their classmate? The response was unanimous: “Until Mark grows his hair back.”
Purely personal now, for a moment. Billie and I drove to Texas last week to be with and comfort a very special friend who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Two other dear friends who are present this morning flew in from California to join us, because all of us love one another and have for a long, long time. I knew our farewell might be painful, so at breakfast – having to leave soon – I said: “I’d like to ask a favor. Billie and I would like to just leave the table and walk away while the rest of you stay and talk a bit. Please humor me.” But my friend sad, “No, I want you to humor me” – and he was the one who mattered, so we waited. He said, “I wsant to sit in a chair and have each one of you put your hand on my head, and say a prayer. You don’t have to ask God to heal me, but just to be with me.”
If you knew this brilliant wsrioter, who has no use for sweet and easy religion, you would understand how we felt when he smiled and said, “I guess I sound like a Christian.” So we stood around the chair because he hoped that some psychic energy – some of our love – would flow into him. That the aura from each of us, who had loved him since we were college classmates a few aeons ago, would be communicated. I asked that he be strengthened and comforted and sustained…and one by one, each of us said, shaking with tears, “We love you.”
A. C. Green was never a hugger or a toucher. If you were gong to know he loved you, you had to know it some other way. He kept the world at a proper distance by a dry and sometimes biting wit that some were afraid of. So when he reached up, as our heads were bowed, and took my hand, nothing could have moved me more.
The simplest and profoundest of words were all we had left. “We love you,” we told him over and over, because in the end, my dear church, there is nothing else left. Don’t wait too long to say them to those who count in your life. And remember: The ways to show the love we talk about are endless. We came today to remind ourselves to find some of them.
We are forever collapsing in upon our own center, gracious God,
forgetful of others, obsessed with ourselves. Help us hold the
mood of this moment and be of use to someone else this week.