Easter 3 April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6                                                                            

Revelation 5:11-14                                                            

John 21:1-19

If we were one of those churches that put our sermon title out on its sign board, or even had sermon titles, the title for this morning might be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Happiness. I don’t mean happiness in some shallow, sugar-high way. What we’re about is way too serious for that. We could say “on the Way to Heaven,” but that sounds too focused on the hereafter. By happiness I mean what we seek most deeply and ultimately in life: fulfillment, salvation, purpose, peace, healing, forgiveness. There are lots of words we use for it, but they all point to the same thing, so let’s call it happiness. Deep happiness. It’s what we all want, in our hearts. What lies behind the struggles of our lives.

“Come and see,” Jesus said to people. The people were those who noticed him, heard about his message, about the mighty acts and signs he was performing. The people who saw in him something different, something that indicated that he might lead them on the way to this deep happiness. “Who are you?” they would ask. “What is your secret? Tell us so we can have it too.” And always Jesus would say to these people, “Come and see.”

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus said “come and see” to a pair of brothers, Andrew and Peter. They were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. And the story is that they and others like them dropped their nets, left their ordinary occupations, and just up and followed Jesus. Now maybe it wasn’t really all that simple. For most of us it isn’t. And indeed for Peter, who became known to history as Saint Peter, there were a lot of ups and downs in his commitment to Jesus. For Peter, some funny things happened on the way to happiness. And we want to take a look at them this morning, because they tell us what may happen when we come and see what the way of Jesus is all about.

Like all of us, particularly when we’re young, Peter wanted the kind of happiness that we call success. On his very first day with Jesus, he was overwhelmed by the crowds that gathered, the healings that Jesus worked. We get the sense, reading about it, that Peter saw in this the potential for personal fame and fortune. That he saw himself as Jesus’s right hand man, sharing all this worldly glory. But what the Bible tells us is that when he urged Jesus to capitalize on this initial success, to come back the next day and minister to the crowds, Jesus told him no – that they had other places to go, that they needed to move on. So the invitation Jesus offers to all of us to come and see isn’t about the happiness of simple success. That was Peter’s first let down, and it’s ours. No quick fixes; no sugar highs.

Peter didn’t turn back though. He followed along, seeking that deeper happiness he saw in his Master. There’s the story of the time that Peter and the other disciples or followers of Jesus were crossing the Sea of Galilee on a stormy night in an open boat, the waves high, all of them terrified. Suddenly Jesus came to them, walking on the waters. Inspired, ashamed of his fear, Peter called out to Jesus, “Bid me come to you across the water.” In other words, I want to share this miraculous power you have, this faith that conquers fear. And he stepped out of the boat and began to cross the waves to Jesus. Then he looked down and was seized with fear and began to sink. A story about fear and faith, faith and fear – always companions on the way to ultimate happiness. Peter and the others were to learn so much about fear and faith. As we do, when we come and see.

There were other moments along the way for Peter. There was the time when Jesus gave him the name Peter – Petrus in Latin, which means Rock. His name had been Simon, simple Simon. “You shall be called Peter,” Jesus said to him, “and on this rock I will build my church.” Now forget that popes through the centuries, and the institutional Church, have seized on this story to build their own claims to power and authority. If we read the story in context, it isn’t about that at all. It’s a kind of gentle joke. Peter isn’t a rock at all, you see. He’s a frail, ordinary human being, back and forth in his commitment like all of us. But “on this rock” – on you and me – Jesus builds his Church, his community of faith and love. We’re all he has to work with, but we’re enough. We learn the truth of that gentle joke when we come and see.

This morning the gospel reading comes at the very end of Peter’s time with Jesus. After Jesus’s death, after his resurrection. It’s a time of defeat and shame for Peter and the other disciples. They deserted Jesus when he was arrested. Peter denied even knowing him – three times, the story goes, just to rub it in. So now they’ve gone back to their fishing, to the way life was before Jesus ever entered it. They’re disillusioned; their hope destroyed. And sometimes that’s how it is for us on the way to happiness. Sometimes, indeed, it’s the Church that lets us down.

But suddenly there is Jesus, on the shore, calling out to Peter and the others. Telling them to put down their nets once more, “on the right side” – and they haul in this miraculous catch of fish. We don’t really know what the number signifies, 153, but the best guess is that symbolizes all the fish in the sea — ultimate happiness. Try again, Jesus is saying. Never give up. Always come and see.

And, most poignant of all, those final words to Peter – that if he loves Jesus most of all, he must feed his sheep, feed us, feed the little ones. And he must allow himself to be bound and led where he does not want to go, where he is not in control. The reference, mystically, was to the death Peter was to die — crucified like his Master, but upside down. Final happiness.

Today if you go to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, under the high altar where the pope celebrates the great Masses, and you look down through an opening to the crypt below, you will see the tomb of Peter, two thousand years old. Peter the simple fisherman, Peter the rock, Peter who followed Jesus to come and see.

And as you stand there, among the thousands of pilgrims, you will understand that the journey to happiness, for Peter and for you, turns everything upside down. That in the God of Jesus Christ happiness itself is redefined.

That’s why we’re here, my friends. To change our lives. Come and see.

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