A Sermon On The Feast of Charles Simeon, 12 November 2016
- Isaiah 12:1–6
- Psalm 145:8–13
- Romans 10:8b–17
- John 21:15–17
He flung the net into the pre-dawn mist, it rose in a perfect arc, as it had so many times before, splashing down in a perfect circle. He thought about how his father had taken him and his brother out on this lake, from the time they were little more than toddlers. He thought about how his father always seemed to know just where the great schools of fish moved in those dark waters. He thought about the rope, and how it rubbed across the rail at the stern. But mostly, he thought about Jesus’ eyes.
The way they narrowed when he had said that no matter what they others did, he would never run away. The way they flashed in anger when he had slashed off Malchus’ ear. The way they sliced through his soul, from across the courtyard outside Annas’ house, after he had denied even knowing him.
Even now, even after the mysterious apparition had appeared when they were all locked in the upper room, even now, when his heart wanted to dance, he could not shake the darkness in his heart. Those eyes.
Then, from the shore, came a voice. “How’s the fishing?”
Everyone froze. That voice sounded familiar, yet somehow stranger, deeper, far away and inside them. A figure on the shore, barely visible in the early morning sun.
“Terrible!” one of them called back. “Been at it all night, and haven’t caught a damned thing,” shouted another with a chuckle born of frustration.
“Why don’t you try the other side of the boat?” They looked at each other, rolling their eyes. They had been on the other side of the boat, in front of the boat, behind the boat. The had been up and down the shore and out to the middle of the lake. They had fished high, they had fished low. There were no fish today. Some days are like that. Sometimes you just go hungry.
But who cares, right? The stranger had a point: might as well try one more time, before calling it a night. So they hauled the net back in, and Peter flung it out, his naked body glistening in the pink of dawn.
And the rope went taut. There were fish. Oh, how there were fish. They pulled and tugged, fearing that the old net would burst with the writhing bodies of fish. As they stared at the, gurgling mass of fish in the net, someone said, “It’s the master.”
The mysterious stranger on the shore. They grabbed the oars and laughing, turned towards the shore. Peter could only think about Jesus. He wanted to look him in the eye and ask him to forgive him. When they hit the beach, all of them tugged the net to the sand. And turned to face the stranger.
It was Jesus, sitting on a log, in front of a fire, with a couple of tilapia broiling on a rock. He smiled. “Come have breakfast.”
There were hugs and backslaps, the joyous cacophony of friends united. As the sun turned from pink to rose to gold to yellow, Peter sat in silence next him. He wanted to say it. He couldn’t say it.
Jesus nudged him gently, nodding towards his laughing friends. “Simon Johnson, do you love me more than they do?” He was looking into the fire. This was it. Jesus was going to forgive him.
“Yes, master. You know that I love you.” His eyes searched Jesus’ face. Jesus just stared at the embers as the little flames began to sigh in the cool morning air.
He nodded. “Feed my lambs.” His eyes took in the other six, still laughing and retelling the night story. “Simon Johnson,” he began again, still not looking at him, “do you love me?” Why wouldn’t he say “I forgive you, I understand?”
Peter touched his arm, “Yes, master,” he moaned, “you know I love you.” Jesus nodded again, “Tend my sheep.” Peter felt his heart breaking.
Jesus was quiet for a moment. The laughter faded and there was only the sound of the water lapping against the hull of the boat. All eyes were on him. “Simon Johnson,” he said, his voice cutting through all treachery, pain, loss, disbelief, anguish, denial, faithlessness, “do you love me?”
Tears were pouring down Peter’s face. All he wanted was to hear that Jesus still loved him, that he was forgiven, that everything was going to be okay now. But that question, that question kept lashing at him. Sobbing, he cried, “Master, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Finally, he turned to him, as he had in the courtyard that terrible night a month or a lifetime ago. His eyes were full of tenderness. “Then feed my sheep.”
It was only then that Peter knew he was forgiven. Three weeks later, he would tell the Jesus story, the story of love and heartbreak, of pain and forgiveness, of grace and hope. Three thousand people would hear it and, in the hearing, be fed. One of them was a man of the Disaspora, a Hellenic Jew named Stephen. It’s a long story, too long for now, but Stephen fed Jesus’ sheep too, literally and metaphorically. One of them was named Saul. And he loved Jesus like few others ever had. And he fed Jesus’ lambs and tended his flocks like few others ever would.
Today we celebrate the life of Charles Simeon, who bore Peter’s last name and carried his legacy of feeding Jesus’ sheep. He was considered one of the greatest preachers that the Church of England ever produced. It’s a long story, too long for now, but one of the young men who studied at Cambridge under Charles Simeon, who heard his amazing preaching and his call to tend the flock, abandoned his studies as a priest. Now this wasn’t as you might assume, because he was abandoning the Jesus movement. Quite the opposite actually, he saw that his call was in the world, not in the Church. He pursued a juris doctor and ran for Parliament.
He became England’s most powerful advocate for the poor, for public education, for political reform and for the most important political movement in the history of England: the abolition of slavery. He worked as his life, and through his entire political career to end the practice of human trafficking. Four days before his death, William Wilberforce saw the English Parliament finally pass a bill outlawing slavery throughout the British Empire, once and for all.
Today, it’s especially important that you and I understand what Jesus was asking Peter to do that morning on the Galilean shore. He was telling him to forget about the failures, the fears, the sadness and the disbelief. He gave him a mission: feed my sheep, tend my flock.
We all woke up in the cold, foggy dawn Wednesday to a new America. An America where all are not welcome, where it is okay to hate your neighbor because she’s transgendered or because he’s Muslim. An America where intimidation and threats are the new normal, where everything has been turned upside down and inside out, where old friends might be enemies and old enemies might be friends. The foundations have been shaken. We stand on hill in the early morning darkness gazing at a corpse nailed to a tree.
We have to move to the beach and sit down by the little flickering fire. We may be called upon to do difficult things, dangerous things. We must not forget those little ones, the orphans and widows in their trials, the immigrants with nowhere to turn and nowhere to go. The weak and dispossessed, the hungry, the hopeless, who need our comfort, our encouragement, our love, our lives.
This morning Jesus has only one question for us: Do you love me more than anything else? If we do, if we can just muster the strength through our tears to say, “Yes, you know we love you,” Jesus’ eyes will look us full in the face on the sand in the early morning sun, and we will hear his voice: “Then feed my sheep.”
And that’s all we need. Amen.