“No Going Back”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 12, 2019

John 21:1-19


Maybe they believed that all was lost.  That the forces of death had won.  That the powers that be had triumphed.  That the way things were was the way things would always be.  After all, their friend, their teacher, their mentor, their leader, their Jesus—the one who had inspired them to follow and taught them that another way was possible—he had run straight into the lethal might of the Roman Empire and had not made it out unscathed.

Yes, the women had reported that the tomb was empty.  And yes, Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple had run to the tomb to see for themselves, and seen the linen wrappings lying on the ground and no body there.  And yes, the Risen Christ had appeared to them that evening, passing through the locked door without impediment, and spoken words of peace to them.  And yes, Christ had appeared again, a week later, to give Thomas what the others had already received, a chance to see and believe.

But in spite of all these signs and wonders, the world was still the way the world had always been.  When they dared to tell their story, most people scoffed and rolled their eyes.  It was easy to convince themselves that it had all been a figment of their over-active imaginations.  After all, dead people generally stay dead, and powerful rulers generally hold on to their power by whatever means necessary.  It was easy to believe that all was lost.


Maybe they had lost their nerve.  Maybe they were scared that what had happened to Jesus would happen to them next.  Maybe they were keeping their heads down, watching their backs, not sticking their necks out, keeping a low profile.  The authorities were surely still on alert for any sign that the followers of that rabble-rousing rabbi might stir up trouble in the wake of their leader’s death.  They had not hesitated to crucify Jesus; surely the same fate would await those who went on causing disturbances in his name.  There were many reasons to be afraid.

Maybe they were confused, uncertain, unsure how to set about the work that now belonged to them.  When they were following Jesus, they could muddle along in his footsteps.  But now, with him gone, they had to find their own way, and it was hard to do.  Maybe they needed to find a way to center themselves and find their footing again.

Maybe they were ashamed, stuck in the painful memory of their failure.  Peter especially, he who had denied his relationship with Jesus three times while Jesus was being dragged through a mockery of a trial—but all of them had abandoned Jesus when the going got tough.  Maybe it was too hard to face what had happened, what they had done, what they had left undone.

Maybe they were suffering from impostor syndrome, that thirsty parasitic voice in your head that tells you you’re not enough somehow.  Maybe they believed that their mistakes disqualified them.  Maybe they believed that without the deep well of wisdom and connection to God that Jesus had embodied, they did not have what it took to continue in his way.


Whatever the reason, after the horrifying events of what we call Holy Week—after the inexorable slide from betrayal to denial, from denial to false accusation, from false accusation to unjust conviction, from unjust conviction to cruelty and torture, from cruelty and torture to death and burial… and after the unbelievable events of Easter morning, the empty tomb and the witness of the women… and after two appearances of the Risen Christ in their midst…  After all that, after these things, the disciples, or at least the seven of them mentioned in today’s story, sought refuge in the old familiar.  They went home.  They returned to Galilee, from whence they had come.  They tried to pick up where they had left off, to do the thing they knew how to do, to slip back into their old line of work as fishermen.

But they quickly discovered that there was no going back.

They had the muscle memory for rowing or sailing.  They still knew the tricks of the wind on the lake.  They still knew the spots where the water was shallow and a boat could run aground, or where a swift current could catch you if you were not careful.  They might have been three years out of practice, but they still knew how to throw a net.  And yet, they fished all night and caught nothing.

They tried all the things that used to work, fished the spots where they knew the fish liked to gather.  But time after time, the nets came up empty.  And though perhaps none of them dared to say it out loud, I think they all knew that they were just going through the motions.  The work that used to feel purposeful to them now felt empty and meaningless, the way things do when you know it isn’t what you’re really meant to be spending your life doing.

There was no going back to the way it was before.  No return to how things used to be in the good old glory days.  No settling in to “we’ve always done it this way.”  The old ways no longer fed them (metaphorically or literally).  There was no going back, for the three years they had shared with Jesus had changed them irrevocably.  They were not the same people they had been before.  They had grown deeper in their friendships.  They had built up the muscles of their faith.  They had tasted the sweetness of God’s love.  They had felt the purposefulness of work that matters.  They had discovered more of who they truly were.

They tried to go back.  But there was no going back.  And then Jesus showed up.

He taught them.  “Children, you have no fish, have you?”  “No.”  “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”  

He fed them.  “Come and have breakfast.”

He called them forth again.  “Do you love me?  Feed my lambs.  Do you love me?  Tend my sheep.  Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.”


In the other three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the authors and compilers put their call stories earlier, right at the beginning, at those dramatic moments when the disciples leave their former lives behind and set out to follow Jesus.  But here, in John, at the end of the book, in the very last chapter, when they’ve tried to go back to the life from which they had been called, we get another call story, another dramatic narrative that ends with Jesus saying, “Follow me.”  Because John knew this truth:  that just as surely as there is a call for us in times of newness and beginning, there is a call for us in times of ending, too.  That those friends of Jesus had to move from being disciples, a word whose Greek root means students and followers, to being apostles, whose Greek root means those who are sent out—and that is no easy transition.  That they were entering the unknown, and things would not be the way they used to be.  And that they would not face that unknown future alone, but in company with one another and in the strong presence of the Spirit of Christ.

Because there on that Galilean lakeshore, the Risen Christ was as focused on the mission of God’s radical and all-transforming love as Jesus had been in his earthly life.  And those apostles—they had work to do.  They had hunger to feed.  They had wounds to heal.  They had relationships to restore.  They had good news to share.  They had people to love.

Whether they had lost their hope or lost their nerve, whether they were confused or ashamed—whatever the reason they had tried to go back, they still had a mission to fulfill.  And they were called to that mission by the One whose Spirit was always stirring, moving, summoning them—is always stirring, moving, summoning you—forward into the future God has in store.

My friends and colleagues who write for the Salt Project put the words of Christ this way:  “Feed my sheep.  Put your love for me into action.  For you are made in the image of the God of Love-in-Action.  This is the life you are made for!  This isn’t about your failure or your fears.  Do you love me?  Then feed my sheep!  Stop dwelling on what you did or didn’t do in the past, or even what you can or cannot do in the future.  Stop focusing on your limits, and focus on your love.” 

Stop dwelling on what you did or didn’t do in the past, or even what you can or cannot do in the future.  Stop focusing on your limits, and focus on your love.

May we have ears to hear and courage to follow.


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