Can you believe that Saint Peter had to get dressed before he jumped off that fishing boat? What was he thinking?
That disciple whom Jesus Loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. Jn 21:7
In 1992 a cargo ship in route from China to Seattle was hit by a raging storm. The sea was so violent that twenty containers of cargo were tossed into the ocean. When the cargo carriers burst open upon hitting the water, 29,000 bright yellow rubber duckies and other water toys took a plunge into the ocean. Now we should not mourn for these bathtub voyagers because, as it turns out, they survived and embarked on an epic journey across three oceans and half the globe. They have been floating in the currents for nearly three decades now. In fact, one of them washed ashore on an Island near Alaska.
At one point, oceanographers expected the little yellow duckies to hit the east coast of North America, and the toy company who imported these battered plastic waterfowl offered a $100 savings bond to anyone who finds one of the squeaky toys on the shoreline of the U.S. East Coast. But the ocean currents changed again and those now faded rubber duckies headed in a different direction. Oceanographers came to believe that the duckies left that part of the Atlantic and were headed for Great Britain. But nobody knew for sure because the currents can always change.
One of the ways that rubber duckies are different from people is that rubber duckies can’t create their own currents, but people can, and in fact DO all the time. Toy duckies, however, move only in the direction that the current takes them!
In this Gospel lesson, The Risen Christ calls to the disciples from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, “Children, have you caught any fish?” When Peter finally realizes who it is that is calling, he’s so excited that he almost jumps overboard clad only in his birthday suit. But this is the Lord Jesus! After all one must have some decorum when meeting the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. So, Peter has the presence of mind to throw on his robe, and THEN he takes his duck dive into the sea.
I don’t think he just floated on his back in the currents of the sea, No the oh-so-excited Peter fights the currents and splashes against them and thrusts his legs and feet to head to only one destination: Into the arms of the Risen Christ.
What must have been running through his mind as he made his aquatic journey to the shore? I lied and denied him three times in front of a warm fire while he was on trial for his life. I deserted him when he needed me the most. Will he ever be able to forgive me? He comes up on the shore dripping wet and he waits for Jesus to yell at him, Where were you when I needed you? How could you have done this to me? But as we all have come to expect, Jesus’ response was gentle and compassionate. Jesus hardly ever scolds, which makes me wonder why so many today seem to think it’s the job of the church to scold people into right behavior. Peter, you see, discovered the greatest mystery of the grace of Jesus, it is a mystery that I think very few Christians actually get. It is the mystery of the love of the Father of the Prodigal Son. Peter discovered that he didn’t need to beg for forgiveness because he had already been forgiven! Our God is so magnanimous that forgiveness is forthcoming while we are still far off standing naked in our guilt and our shame.
Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and three times Peter answers in the affirmative. In response, the first time Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” The second time he said, “Tend my sheep.” The Third time he said, “Feed my sheep.”
Someone has said that the three “R’s” of learning are “repetition,” “repetition,” “repetition.” Jesus must have subscribed to that theory, at least that morning on the seashore. “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my Sheep,” “Feed my lambs.” I think maybe Peter was beginning to get the idea. Millions of people tuned into The Apprentice some years ago to hear two frightening words repeated over and over again: “YOUR FIRED!” I’m sure Peter expected to hear those words, but instead he heard, “YOUR HIRED, “feed tend feed, feed tend feed, feed tend feed.”
The Sacrament of Baptism in the church does not initiate one into a probationary period, but into a life work from which you cannot be fired, and from which there is no vacation or PTO time either! St. Paul tells us that when we take that dive into the sea with Jesus, we drown there so that we can wash ashore to a new life where we are called to “feed, tend and feed.” We don’t christen people into the church, we baptize them; we literally wash them into new life!
I am reminded of the cartoon I saw some years ago that showed a very young priest holding a broken bottle of champagne in one hand and a baby cradled in his other with a huge bump on the baby’s head, and the rector leaned over and said to him, “Fr. Hennesey, remind me to tell you the difference between christening and baptism. Symbolically, through the dedication and promises of their parents, those baptized jump overboard into the water and fight their way to Jesus on the shore.
One of the most consistent criticisms of our Episcopal Church, especially of late, is that we Anglicans tend to just go with the most recent currents and flows, that we are like those 29,000 rubber duckies that fell overboard on the way to their destination. I think that is a misreading of our church. I think what our church does most of the time is to downplay the currents that are of lesser importance than the overriding current of feeding, tending and feeding. That’s the current, that’s the wave, that’s the swell that our Gospel makes clear is of the most concern to our Lord, Jesus Christ. We aren’t called to pass judgement on the Peters who stand before us. We are called to forgive quickly, and then to “feed, tend, and feed!” That’s what baptized disciples of Jesus do.
If you read closely the baptismal vows, you will find that it is mostly about “feeding, tending and feeding.” Jesus said it three times which I think means that we are not permitted to ignore it.
So, when we look around our churches, can we say that all of our ministries fall within this rubric that Jesus laid out for us on the shore of Galilee shortly after that first Easter? If we are drifting in the currents of mere cordiality, courtesy or sociability, then we have formed a neighborhood potluck, not a church of Jesus Christ! Feeding and tending certainly means putting food on the tables of the poor and roofs over the heads of the homeless.
But. . . sheep and lambs are vulnerable, so it also means accepting, nurturing and loving the lambs entrusted to our care.
Those baptized in Christ are hired to shepherd the vulnerable. This may mean that we, as Christians, may have to go against the current. We may find ourselves facing some stomach-churning situations as we fulfill our mission to feed, tend and feed. Madaleine L’Engle tells the story of one Sunday some years ago when she visited an Episcopal Church in New York. A man stood up at announcement time and said, “I hope this is appropriate to say, I was an abused child, and I’m terrified that I’m becoming an abusive father. I need help, I need prayer.”
L’Engle went on to say, I knew right then and there that this was a church I could stay in because people are willing to be vulnerable and to admit that we are all broken.
We are not called into a debate over whether it is appropriate to hate the sin and love the sinner, for that is a meaningless debate as we stand before the Risen Christ. We are called to feed, tend and feed. Period! More than good music and clever sermons, more than a welcome wagon at the front door and user-friendly liturgies, feeding, tending and feeding will make us a vital church full of resurrection life. If the waters we plunged into at our baptisms carry us in that current, and if we fight and splash and kick to stay in that current, with the enthusiasm of a Peter, then no matter what shore we wash up onto, it will be the right shore.