Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
John 21:1-19

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our risen Lord Jesus Christ.

It has been an intense few weeks in our worship life here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church as we have observed Holy Week and Easter.

On Good Friday just over three weeks ago we commemorated our Lord’s crucifixion. We heard how Jesus sweat blood in the garden, how he was betrayed and arrested and mocked and beaten and then nailed to a cross. Before he bowed his head in death we heard him say: “It is finished!” And in a sense, it was finished. Jesus had died for the sins of the world. But there was still some unfinished business to take care of.

On Easter Sunday we celebrated the good news that CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! We heard how two messengers in dazzling clothes told the women that Jesus had been raised. We also heard how the disciples thought it was an idle tale and did not believe it. And so, although sin, death, and the devil had indeed been conquered by Jesus’ resurrection, there was still some unfinished business to take care of.

And so last week we heard how Jesus appeared to the disciples. We heard how he said, “Peace be with you.” We heard how he showed them his hands and his side, how breathed on them, giving them his spirit. We heard how he sent them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now the disciples rejoiced. Now they believed. But there was still some unfinished business, because Thomas wasn’t there! Jesus came back again the next week and took care of Thomas, but even then there was still some unfinished business to take care of – which brings us to today.

The unfinished business was between Jesus and Peter. While Peter came to believe in the resurrection and rejoiced in Jesus’ presence, there was still some unfinished business between them.

Peter is a hot mess throughout the gospels. There was the time he tried to walk on water out to Jesus but got scared and so he sank. He witnessed the glorious transfiguration of Jesus and responded by blurting out a strange building proposal, not knowing what he was saying. When Jesus asked who people said he was, Peter showed a glimmer of competence. He said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” But when Jesus went on to explain what that meant, that he would have to die and rise, Peter thought he knew better than Jesus. He doubted Christ’s Word. And so Jesus said to him, “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind on human things and not on divine things.” When Jesus knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet, first Peter said “No way!” and then he said, “Wash all of me!” At the Last Supper, when Jesus said his betrayal was at hand, Peter said that even if all the others deserted him, he would never desert him. He claimed to love Jesus more than the rest. “Even if I have to die for you, I will never leave you,” Peter said. When Jesus was arrested, Peter lashed out with his sword and cut off someone’s ear before Jesus scoldingly told him to put his sword back into its sheath.
It’s true, Peter is a hot mess throughout the gospels – but he saved his worst failure for last. After Jesus was hauled away to his death, Peter was warming himself beside a charcoal fire. He was trying to blend in with the crowd, but someone thought he looked familiar. Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus. He responded: “No.” Again someone asked: “Hey, aren’t you a disciple of Jesus?” And again he said he was not. He was asked a third time, and the third time Peter responded by saying he didn’t even know who Jesus was.

Jesus had died for Peter’s sin – all of it! – but there was still some unfinished business between them. Peter needed to have the forgiveness Jesus had won for him applied directly, like a salve on what was still an open wound. In order for that resurrection life to take hold of him, Peter needed to be restored

And so the risen Jesus came for his fourth and final resurrection appearance in the gospel of John. After filling the disciples nets with fish and sharing breakfast with them, Jesus strikes up a conversation with Peter. They just happened to be beside a charcoal fire. Could this be a coincidence? I don’t think so! Jesus was symbolically meeting Peter back at the scene of the crime! But Jesus had a question for Peter that took him back even farther, a question that took them back to the Upper Room during the Last Supper: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” It was a piercing question. Remember what you said, Peter? “Even if all these desert me, I never will.” Remember what actually happened, Peter?

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Peter replied. “Feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. Then Jesus asked him again; “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Again Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep,” Jesus told him.

And then Jesus asked him third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” If it wasn’t clear before, it was certainly clear now. Jesus asked him three times, once for each of the denials that happened beside that other charcoal fire. Jesus touched a nerve here. We are almost never told how people feel about anything in the gospels, but we’re told here that Peter was hurt that Jesus asked him a third time. Jesus hurt Peter’s feelings!

Sometimes the medicine stings, right? Sometimes we need to hurt in order to heal. And that’s what Jesus was doing for Peter. He was healing him. He was restoring him. He was addressing the gaping wound, the unfinished business. And it was in this this moment, in this conversation alongside a charcoal fire, that Peter was fully restored. He was given a calling. Jesus would use him! Jesus would work through him to care for his church! It was this moment, along with a generous outpouring of the Holy Spirit a little later, that turned Peter from a bumbling disciple to the bold preacher we read about in the book of Acts. It was this moment that turned Peter from a flailing, fearful disciple into one who would eventually make good on his promise to bravely give his life for Jesus, just as Jesus said would happen. It was this moment that Christ’s forgiveness took root in Peter so that he could begin to live in the power of the resurrection.

We are three weeks into the season of Easter. Is there any unfinished business between you and God? On the one hand, everything is finished – Christ already died and rose for you. But on the other hand, there’s almost always some unfinished business between us and God as we continue to fall into the sin that prevents us from living in the power of the resurrection.

Like Peter, we flail about in our unbelief and our fear. Like Peter, there are times we think we know better than Jesus. We doubt the Word he has given us, or think we can improve upon it with better ideas. We set our mind on human things and not divine things. Like Peter, sometimes we lash out at others with swords of anger and spite. Like Peter, we make bold claims about what we’re going to do for Jesus, but then whenever it might actually cost us something, we act like we don’t even know him. Do you have any unfinished business with Christ, like Peter did?

My wife and I named our second son Peter. Sometimes as I’ve preached on all the Apostle Peter’s foibles I’ve wondered if that was a mistake. I don’t want my son Peter getting a complex for being named after one of the biggest failures in the whole Bible. At least we didn’t name him Judas, right? I’ve tried to be very intentional in explaining to my son from time to time that although Peter made a lot of mistakes, Jesus restored him. Jesus forgave him. Even though Peter outright denied him, Jesus loved him and did great things through him. We named you Peter, I tell him, because you are loved and forgiven and because we believe that even with all the mistakes you are going to make in life, God is going to use you to bless others. In fact, he already is.

This is true for all of you too, no matter what your name might be. The risen Jesus continues to come to his people through the ministry of the church. He comes to feed his lambs. He comes to tend his sheep. He continues to come through Word and Sacrament to take care of any unfinished business.

Sometimes he takes us to a charcoal fire. Sometimes he asks questions that sting. We shouldn’t avoid this. I went to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Chicago in 2007 and heard a prominent church leader say we should stop talking about sin so much, because people don’t like to hear it. Well, no kidding! But a dentist does his client no favors when he doesn’t talk about cavities, does he? A doctor does her patient no favors by not talking about cancer, does she? In the same way, the church does no one any favors by not talking about sin. We should use gentleness and tact, to be sure. We should always speak about it from a place of love, but to not talk about it is to cease to do the very ministry our Lord Jesus called us to do. It is to cease to be the church. It might hurt, like Christ’s word to Peter hurt, but sometimes we need to hurt in order to heal. Jesus only ever touches the nerve so that he can heal it.

Whatever unfinished business there might be between you and Jesus today, he comes this morning to heal it. He comes to restore you through his word of forgiveness. He comes to feed you – not with fish and bread, but with his own body and blood. He comes to make you his own once again, so that you might begin to live in the power of the resurrection, in peace, in hope, and in joy. In spite of the mistakes you have made in life, your risen Lord is going to use you to bless others. In fact, he already is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church