Rising Strong: Breakfast
I’ve been thinking about learning how to swim this week. I was not a strong swimmer as a child. We never had more than a wading pool at home, and although we’d go to Delta Lake State Park often enough, I never really moved beyond a determined doggy paddle. The first time I cared about my swimming ability was the first summer I went to Camp Aldersgate. The swim area there is still set up more or less the way it was when I was a child. There were three sections, roped off with buoy lines and docks. The front section was for beginners. It was large, wide, but the water didn’t get up much past my waist when I was a first time camper at 9 years old. The intermediate section was next, a small section, with water that went a bit over my head at the back side of it, and then there was the advanced section, where the water was all over my head, and there was a floating dock in the corner off of which you could dive and jump to your heart’s content. When you got to camp, you had to take a swim test, and then you’d get assigned a colored tag to hang on the board that showed which level you were allowed to swim in. Advanced swimmers could go in any section, but of course they always hung out on the dock, in the deep water.
After my first swim test, I was given a beginner tag. And I was crushed. Sure, I wasn’t a great swimmer, but I was embarrassed to be stuck in such shallow water. Even though I wasn’t the only one who got tagged as a beginner, some of my friends made it to intermediate, and if we wanted to swim together, they’d have to hang out in the shallows with me. I knew what a great sacrifice I was asking of them! And then I heard a rumor that you could retake your test, and try to do better. I worked hard, and was determined, and by the end of the week, I made it into the intermediate section.
The next year, I finally made it into the advanced section, which included passing the part of the swim test where you had to tread water for a whole minute - a task that seemed impossible, but which I managed to survive, sputtering though I might have been by the time I was done. But although I became a passable swimmer, I was still not a strong swimmer by any stretch. I never had lessons. I never really learned how to do any of the different strokes the correct way. I watched how others did it and tried to imitate what I saw.
By the time I was a teenager, we had moved to a home that had a swimming pool, and my skills rapidly improved. I would swim basically every day it was remotely warm enough to get in the water. I learned how to dive, and got really comfortable in the water. And then I applied to be on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and they wanted to hire me. But there was a catch. They wanted to hire me as a lifeguard. I was not a lifeguard. But they would pay for me and a few other potential staffers to go to a one week crash-course lifeguarding class. If I could pass the class, I could be on staff as a lifeguard. But I had to be ready: on the first day of training you had to swim 20 lengths of the large pool without stopping, and tread water for two minutes while holding a ten-pound brick out of the water. As much as I had improved, I knew, of course, that I’d never be able to do meet those goals, unless I got to work right away. I had about a month before the lifeguarding class, and I got permission to start going to a swimming class during gym instead of to my regular class. The swim class was for beginners, but the swim coach let me just stay in my corner and swim laps all period long. She’d occasionally wander over and give me pointers. And finally, by the time I got to the lifeguarding class, I was ready.
I’ve been thinking about my determination to get from the shallow waters of the beginner’s section to deeper waters, to grow from someone who could barely really swim to someone who would be responsible for the safety of others as they swam. I’m not always so determined, I’ll admit, to work hard, to improve my abilities. I don’t always have the discipline I need to develop a skill. For example, I’ve been imagining in my head for years that I would learn to play the guitar - what a handy skill that would be! But I don’t know any more now than I did when I learned two or three chords in music class in eighth grade. I’ve talked about learning guitar, and thought about it, and admire the skill in others, but despite what I say, I apparently don’t actually want to learn enough to do any of the work required to make it happen. Do you have some things like that in your life - something where you were determined to learn and grow and improve, like I did with swimming? And things that you keep saying you’re going to learn about, but never do, like I’ve done with playing the guitar?
What if we ask these same questions when it comes to our life with God, our journey of faith? I started thinking about learning to swim when I was reading our gospel text for today from John, and thinking about Jesus and the deep waters of faith. I think most of us would say that we want to grow in faith, that we want to be closer to God, that we want to align our lives with God’s hopes and dreams for us - that all sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure, let’s follow Jesus! But sometimes I wonder if, when it comes down to it, we don’t find that we’re actually content to just splash around in the shallows of faith life, rather than going through all the work that it will take us to get out into the deep water. After all, that deep water can be dangerous. You can get in way over your head, and the ground is not always firm beneath your feet. What will be for us, when it comes to our faith? Are we growing? Or are we content to be eternal beginners?
Our gospel lesson from today comes from the last chapter of John’s gospel. Our scene takes place after the passage Rev. Pierce talked about two weeks ago, when Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other disciples. Sometime after that, before Jesus ascends to be in God’s home again, this scene unfolds. A handful of the disciples have decided to go fishing: Simon Peter, Thomas, James and John, sons of Zebedee, and two others unnamed. They go fishing all night and catch nothing. At daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach, but they don’t recognize him. You’ve probably noticed that this is a pattern with the resurrected Jesus - this Jesus embodying new life is hard to see clearly, so full of glory and eternity as he is. Jesus points out that they’ve caught no fish, and he tells them to try casting out to the other side. Even though they don’t recognize him yet, they do as he says, and then their nets are so full of fish they are not able to haul them all in. Peter exclaims, like Mary did on Easter morning, “It is the Lord!” He swims to shore, the other disciples following behind with the boat.
Up until this point in the narrative, if things sound familiar to you, they should. Because this scenario is very near to the scene where Jesus first calls to the disciples. There, too, they are fishing. There, too, they catch nothing. There, too, Jesus redirect them to try another way of fishing. There, too, the result is a miraculous catch of fish. There, too, Peter responds, moved by Jesus’ demonstration of authority.
So much has happened since Jesus first called them! They’ve been with him for years, learning from him, sent out in his name to heal and preach, and they’ve seen him be arrested and crucified and they’ve experienced the resurrection. And yet, despite three years with Jesus and a literally death-defying resurrection, the disciples have all gone back to fishing. I’m sure it was even tempting to just go back to their old “normal,” their safe place. They knew how to be fishermen. It certainly seems to take a while for the new reality of the risen Christ to hit them. How easy, how tempting would it be for the disciples to just return to that life, occasionally reminiscing about the good old days, when Jesus was around?
This time, though, something different happens next. Jesus and the disciples share some breakfast on the beach. And when they are done, Jesus says to Simon, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The “these” in that sentence is open to interpretation, but I take it to mean “more than all else.” Peter answers that he does. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” And then this exchange repeats twice more: Jesus asking if Peter loves him, and Peter affirming. The second time Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” The third time, Peter is hurt, thinking Jesus is unconvinced by his responses. “Lord,” he says, “you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus tells him again, “Feed my sheep.” He continues on to tell Peter that his discipleship will bring Peter suffering. But, Jesus concludes nonetheless, “Follow me.” A few verses later, and John’s gospel is at a close.
The two scenes – when Jesus first calls the disciples, and now after his resurrection – are so similar in their set up. But something has changed: before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied knowing Jesus, being associated with him, three times. And now, thanks to Jesus, he has the opportunity three times to recommit himself as a disciple. Each time he tells Jesus he loves him and agrees to serve him, he’s making the choice, choosing the path he was too afraid to take before. Karoline Lewis writes that Peter’s response this time around is not so much an act of forgiveness by Jesus for Peter – Peter is already forgiven by Jesus. Rather, it is a second chance for Peter to respond to the Jesus’ invitation. When he denied knowing Christ, he didn’t deny who Jesus was, but rather who he, Peter, was – a called disciple with a mission to carry out. This time, Peter accepts the invitation again to participate in the mission of Jesus, and he doesn’t turn back. (1) For a while, he was taking comfort in the shallow waters, having tried and failed to make it into the deep end, and figuring maybe he didn’t have what it takes. But Jesus gives him that opportunity to recommit, to take the test again, to see if he can improve, to practice, practice at discipleship until he gets it right, to go where the waters are way over his head, and the only solid ground he has to stand on is his faith in Jesus. This time, Peter says, “yes.”
I don’t know about you, friends, but I am tired of saying I want God to make all things new in my life, but then refusing to live in a new way each day. All the while, Jesus is asking me, is asking you: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my lambs! Tend my sheep! Feed my sheep!” I want to stop living like I can’t quite make out what Jesus is saying! I know that we all feel like beginners, sometimes, when it comes to faith. Sometimes when we’re trying to follow Jesus, we can tell that the path ahead will be so challenging, and it seems like maybe hanging out in the shallows is good enough. We can splash around, basking in God’s grace. That’s ok, I guess. But I think, in your hearts, we’re like I was that first year at camp. Standing in the shallow water, and anxious about the deep water, worried that you can’t even tread water for a minute, but knowing that if you can learn, if you can push yourself, if you can take Jesus’ outstretched hand, the deep waters are where the real adventures begin.
Let’s not stop at just talking about getting closer to God. Let’s start building some skills of discipleship that might actually get us there. Let’s practice, practice, practice our faith. Let’s find some teachers who will show us what we can do differently. Let’s set aside the time we need. Let’s channel the resources we have to making it happen. Jesus says, “Follow me.” He calls to us across the deep waters. Let’s go for a swim. Amen.
(1) Karoline Lewis http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4583