Identity, Belonging, Purpose

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on May 3, 2020

•John 21:1-19•

He wrestled with himself as much as he seemed to wrestle with others. On the basis of his strength and strong personality people saw him as a leader — and yet it appears that there was a wavering on the inside. In one moment he was certain and the next unsure. He was impetuous and felt orientated upon himself and his own desires. Re-orientating Peter was going to be no easy task.

I’ve been rereading a book entitled Growing Young. The authors’ hope is to help congregations reach and engage young people well. They mean to inspire a new vitality throughout the whole congregation, not just a single youth worker or pastor. Their desire is that whole church will feel compelled to grow young in whatever role they play, whether it is staff, volunteer, worship participant or whatever.

I so appreciate their focus on each person’s participation in the young person’s journey toward identity, belonging and purpose. For the reality is it is a journey that never ends. In fact, each of us is on our own journey toward identity, belonging and purpose. And it seems to me this journey is front and center in our reading today.

Throughout the Gospel Peter has been on a roller coaster ride. Sometimes the Rock, other times the shifting sand. At the end of chapter 13 Peter promised Jesus that he would lay down his life for Him, only to have Jesus tell Peter, “no. You will deny me three times.” And then Jesus’ words came true just as he said they would. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter came into the courtyard of the high priest and sought to warm himself at the fire and denied he was Jesus’ disciple.

We are not told the inner thoughts of Peter as this happens. Perhaps he was terrified that what was happening to Jesus would happen to him. Maybe he was unwilling to admit his identity because he wasn’t ready yet. We don’t know.

What we do know is that denying our own true identity is an all too often reality for most of us. We deny who we are because we worry that we won’t meet expectations. We deny who we are because we are afraid to disappoint people. We deny who we are because we are afraid we will be judged, even rejected, for who we are. We deny who we are because we do not believe that we will be accepted or that we can be loved if we are truthful.

And so we end up playing it safe. We pretend our way through life and we wrestle with ourselves. We become adept and reading situations and presenting ourselves in a specific kind of way. We are not sure who we can trust. And fairly soon we can lose sight of who we really are. And, if this is the way we feel with people in our lives, even those closest to us, it stands to reason the same would be true of our relationship with Jesus. At some point in our faith journey there is a struggle to believe that Jesus could really believe in us — could really love us.  

But Jesus can and Jesus does. And like Peter, Jesus invites us to know ourselves. Jesus hosted a meal on the North shore of Galilee. And in the conversation around that meal, Jesus let Peter know Jesus not only knew who he truly was — Jesus loved him still. And not only that, but Peter was exactly who Jesus, the world and God needed. That moment on the beach was a re-establishment of identity. An identity that would continue to be shaped by the Holy Spirit.  

But beyond identity, also came a sense of belonging. Peter was reconciled by Jesus in the midst of the rest of the disciples. So it is with us in the community created by Jesus. For while we have our identity within us, belonging comes from outside ourselves. We all need to be drawn in by a larger group in order to have a stable sense of self and identity. Now that may sound strange, when our culture regularly states that we can be self-made, but we were not created to be islands. We were created to be in community — we were created to belong.   

And the  belonging Jesus creates comes in a peculiar way. Jesus questioned Peter three times as to whether he loves him. On the outside it seems like a painful scene. But here is the thing — Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he loves his sheep. It is about whether Peter loves Jesus. We can sometimes get confused thinking belonging is about our feelings. That it is about whether we like one another. That it is up to our effort. But again, Jesus creates community in a different way. It starts with Jesus love of us. Then our love of Jesus. Which binds us together and moves our belonging to a sense of purpose.

And we all need a sense of purpose in our lives. A purpose that comes out of our sense of identity and belonging.  We want to know what we do matters. We desire the understanding that if we didn’t show up that people would notice. More than money, fame or power — purpose, the belief that you have something of value to contribute to the world, is the great motivator that can move us through the challenges of life.

Which why I have to imagine that after each confession of love, Jesus responds by giving Peter good work to do. Feeding Jesus’ lambs. Tending Jesus’ sheep. Feeding Jesus’ sheep. Peter’s purpose is not naked fishing as he had been doing, but rather he is to take upon the mantel and care for God’s people. His purpose is to care and lead the community. 

Reconciled and sent — and it begins in a meal hosted by Jesus. It is a new day in Peter’s life. Another chance. And despite the lack of wine in this shoreline feast, it sure seems like a Eucharistic moment to me. Jesus showing up in the midst of their turmoil — in the midst of this challenging moment when they weren’t sure what to do — in the midst of their working through their grief. Jesus showed up and offered them something to eat. And out of that meal comes a moment of grace in which Peter journeys toward his truest identity,  into a deeper sense of belonging, to be sent with a God-given purpose. 

That is the power of a meal hosted by Jesus. It is a moment of grace. It is grace to be drawn in and reminded you are beloved. It is grace to belong to all those who have come before and all those who will follow. It is grace to be sent with real purpose to share God’s abundant love with the world. This is the work of Jesus.

It is the grace present in our reading. The meal is a moment of grace in which Peter is reminded that his journey into identity, belonging and purpose is still developing. He will be the rock on which the church would be built, but not a rigid rock. Rather Peter is one shaped by grace to offer God’s fiery word at Pentecost, to confront the church leaders, to be transformed by Cornelius, to be delivered from prison and finally according to tradition, to be martyred for his faithfulness in living into his his truest identity,  deep sense of belonging and God-given purpose. 

And the same is true for us. As we eat and drink and remember Jesus this day, it is a moment of grace in which we are reminded that despite our own denials. Despite the turmoil we face. Despite the challenge we feel. Despite the grief we are going through. We too are given the grace of another day in which we can “follow him” wherever it may lead. For Jesus has been raised and comes to offer us a meal — a meal which will shape our journeys toward our truest identity, into a deeper sense of belonging and our own God-given purpose. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

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