"The Ministry of Resurrection"
Scripture - John 21:1-19
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, April 14, 2013

What do you do when life throws you more than you think you can handle? Take to your bed? Head to the mall to purchase temporary relief? Reach for a drink to anesthetize your pain? Plead with God to straighten everything out?

After Jesus was executed by the Romans, his disciples were devastated and absolutely stumped about what to do. They had been robbed of their teacher, their counselor, their source of security. The future they had envisioned was scrubbed out. Dazed and disoriented, most of them went back to what they were doing before their three-year adventure with Jesus. They went back to fishing. It was familiar and provided them a modicum of comfort.

This morning's passage picks up the story of Jesus several days after he had been crucified. Seven of the remaining eleven disciples are in a boat about 100 yards offshore. They have been casting their nets into the deep blue the entire night, but have yet to land a single fish.

At sunrise, Jesus appears on the shore, but the disciples fail to recognize him. He calls out to them and instructs them to throw their nets off the starboard side of their vessel. When they do, bonanza! They capture a school of fish so enormous that their nets are at the brink of ripping apart. In the midst of the excitement, one of the disciples says to Peter, "That has to be Jesus!" Peter plunges into the water and swims ashore. The others follow by boat, dragging their prize catch with them.

Once all are onshore, Jesus invites them to gather around a charcoal fire where he serves them breakfast. After they finish, still gathered around the smoldering embers, Jesus turns to Peter and says, "Do you love me?" Peter replies, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus says, "Feed my lambs."

Jesus questions Peter a second time, "Do you love me?" Peter replies as he did the first time, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus says, "Tend my sheep."

A third time Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Perhaps a bit exasperated with Jesus for asking the same question three times, Peter replies, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." And Jesus says, "Feed my sheep."

Why do you suppose Jesus tosses Peter the same question three times? Is a blowing wind and a crackling fire making it difficult to hear Peter's response? Doubtful. Is he skeptical of Peter's answer and wants to make sure Peter means what he says? I don't think so. Then, what is it?

I did a quick word search of the New Testament and found that there are only two places that a charcoal fire is mentioned. Both references are in the Gospel of John. This morning's text is one of them. The other is when Peter is standing around another charcoal fire. This one was outside the house of the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest, where Jesus was being interrogated after his arrest. Three times, standing around that charcoal fire, Peter said, "Jesus? Never met him."

So in today's reading, a post-resurrection beach scene around a blazing charcoal fire - Jesus takes the opportunity to set things right with Peter. Three times Peter had denied Jesus, so Jesus generously gives him three opportunities to set the record straight. It is Jesus' way of forgiving Peter for his earlier denials.

However, Jesus does not stop with making things right with Peter. He wants to go beyond forgiveness. Peter and the other disciples had seen their dreams die on the cross. They were pathetically lost and did not know what to do next, so they went back to what was familiar. But Jesus appeared on the shoreline of their lives to give them a new purpose.

Three times he says, "Feed my sheep." In effect, Jesus said to Peter and the other disciples, "You are not going back to your old, familiar patterns. Do you not understand? My resurrection means it is a new day! You are to pick up where I left off. You are to carry on the work of resurrection!"

There is a story about Jesus arriving at the gates of heaven. The crucifixion is complete; the resurrection has happened. Jesus has now ascended and Abraham meets him at the gates of heaven. Abraham says, "Welcome. Terrific job! But, tell me, who is going to continue your work now that you are here?" Jesus says, "My disciples will carry on my work." Abraham's face drops and he says, "What is the backup plan?" Jesus says "There isn't one."1

We are it. We are the plan!

Too many followers of Christ act as if the resurrection of Jesus is the end of the story. Jesus has new life after death and we will too. After our clock runs out with whatever unfinished business we still have hanging, we will have new life in God's everlasting kingdom. That is a key component of our faith, but the writers of the New Testament declare that after the resurrection of Jesus, he appears to his followers. These appearances are not simply for the sake of confirming that there is another dimension of existence beyond the physical world. Jesus appears to his followers in order to commission them and all who seek to follow him. He gives us the ministry of resurrection. Not only does God intend for us to live new lives, but God expects us to pour new life into seemingly dead situations.

At Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, the congregation created a homeless shelter with over 100 beds. It is called New Genesis and it provides an opportunity for men who have had the harsh experience of the streets to gain a new life. Using a tough love approach, the men are given thirty days to change the direction of their lives. They are given a great deal of help, encouragement and counsel. The message to them is clear: Do not hold onto the past. Let God help you live a new life. New Genesis ministry resurrects over 600 men each year."2

A colleague tells about a friend who "went to medical school and at the tender age of 21 found himself, for the first time in his life, in a delivery room where a mother was giving birth. The young man had always assumed that giving birth was a somewhat painful experience so he was very surprised that the mother entered the final stages of delivery screaming €˜Joy! Joy! Joy!' A couple of hours later, with the baby safely born and the mother now holding the treasured new life, the med student had the chance to speak with her. He said, "I was so moved to hear you shouting for joy with all your heart." The mother replied "You really do have a lot to learn. I was shouting for Joy because I was in agony. Joy is the name of my midwife!"3

Giving birth to something new is work - sometimes strenuous and painful work. But the result can be so satisfying that it is easily worth all the discomfort and effort required.

Jesus calls us to the ministry of resurrection. He challenges us to turn away from death and to strive for the things that nourish life. He urges us to be generous with people in need; to weep with those who weep; to advocate for the poor; to push for justice and to do something for peace.

Two years ago a group of Presbyterian ministers from Wilmington had lunch with the rabbis of six local Jewish congregations. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been critical of the policies of the Israeli government for destroying Palestinian homes and building Jewish settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods. We wanted the Jewish rabbis to understand that we are not anti-Semitic and we support the nation of Israel, but the policies of the current Israeli government are deepening hostilities and creating greater barriers to peace.

After a couple of hours of honest exchange, we agreed to work together on a peace project in the Holy Land if we could figure out what to do. Within a few weeks, an idea surfaced. We learned that University of Delaware music professor, Harvey Price, had begun steel drum bands with young Ethiopian Jews in Israel and he was excited about the possibility of steel drum bands comprised of Jews and Arabs. Since then, several of us from Westminster have been working with members of the Jewish community on a project we've named "Peace Drums." We hope to create steel drum bands for middle school students in the Galilean town of Ibillin. Each band would be comprised of 20 middle school students - 10 Jewish children and 10 Arab children who are Muslim and Christian.

Why a steel drum band? Because it has no history with either Jewish or Arab culture. It is something new that originates from the islands - Trinidad to be specific. And, second, because it is such joyful and hopeful music. It's fun! It lifts your spirits!

Learning to make music together and performing together is a way for Jewish and Palestinian young people to really get to know each other. It's an opportunity for their parents to get to know each other and to learn to work together for the good of their children. And as they work together, we hope they will remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham. We all worship the same God and our scriptures tell us that God wants justice and peace. And once the bands are good enough to perform public concerts, they will serve as a model for others who live in this noxious environment, that it is possible to make beautiful music together.

It is simply not enough for politicians to negotiate and hammer out legal agreements. Adversaries must take risks to forge new futures together if peace is to become a reality.

We who have been given the challenging, but thrilling ministry of resurrection are called to work with God in breathing new life into places where the prospects are dim and death seems inevitable. We dare not give into despair; and we dare not leave it to others. God calls us to lean forward into a future of new possibilities where the dead can be raised and new life can flourish.


  1. Source unknown.
  2. Susan R. Andrews, "The Tears of God," (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), p.67.
  3. Sam Wells, "The Discipline of Joy," Journal for Preachers, Easter 2011, p.9.