The Epilogue Community

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This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in John 21:1-19, 24-25.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

I love the final stories of the Gospel according to John.

I really do. I love how this Gospel ends. It’s intriguing, giving us interesting images and conversations with Jesus on the beach — one who is known to us and recognizable, and yet, one who is also mysterious, beyond us, unrecognizable – one who calls us to follow him and venture into unchartered waters of discipleship.

I love that this passage closes in a rather open ended way. We don’t know what will happen next, and yet, the Gospel closes with us knowing exactly what will happen ultimately, though we can’t even come close to summing it up:

Jesus is going to keep meeting us, feeding us, walking with us, and calling us to follow. Jesus is going to do more things in and through the lives of countless disciples – Peter, John, the disciple whom Jesus loves; disciples all around the world, us too – healing, shepherding, teaching, reconciling. . . I suppose if we could write down all the things that Jesus has done and is about to do among us, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.

But the stories are still being written all the time. Jesus’ story with us is an ongoing, unfolding narrative. The Risen Christ is shepherding us into shepherding others with love and care, with redemptive stories that are still being written. You and me and countless others. . . we are narratives of reconciliation that are still being written. . .

For all of these reasons, I love how this Gospel ends. These final stories are interesting, and they’ve intrigued scholars for a long time too. The Bible wasn’t written with ready-made chapters and verses. The church added those many years after all these books were written. But this final chapter of this Gospel, chapter 21, has been especially puzzling for students and scholars of the Bible over the centuries. And one of the main reasons for this is that we don’t know who wrote it!

As you know, authors have specific writing styles. For instance, it’s not hard to tell the difference between William Shakespeare and Michael Crichton. If we sat down and read their works, we wouldn’t even have to know who authored them in order to tell that Romeo and Juliet is not quite the same as Jurassic Park (though there is a certain level of tragedy to them both). We wouldn’t even have to know who wrote them to say, “Yep. There are different authors here!”

Something similar is going on with chapter 21, the last chapter of this Gospel. For the first twenty chapters, we get a particular writing style, and then, William Shakespeare becomes Michael Crichton! Well, okay, okay. . . it’s not that dramatic and different. But the style of writing in the original language suddenly changes, and scholars feel confident that a different author or set of authors has taken the reins in this storytelling adventure. Chapter 21 with its concluding stories of resurrection, fish, and conversation is an epilogue. The chapter is a holy epilogue, a conclusion to what has come before it and an opening toward ways of imagining what might come next. That’s what epilogues do, and that’s part of what’s happening here.

Now the metaphor between William Shakespeare and Michael Crichton eventually breaks down because we certainly don’t have a situation of dinosaurs pairing themselves into warring factions of Capulets and Montagues. Shakespeare and Crichton don’t only have two different writing styles. In their case, we’re talking about two completely different stories!

This holy epilogue is not like that. There might be a difference in the authorship and writing style, but the story is a deliberate continuation of what has come before it. In fact, I find myself amazed at the ways that this concluding chapter circles back to include images and allusions to the beginning of Jesus’ narrative with his disciples. I’m amazed at how beautifully it weaves themes and symbols together from many stories that unfolded among the first community of people who followed Jesus.

There are many stories within this epilogue that are connected to other stories, and each one of them could be the focus for a sermon. (Don’t worry, I won’t preach them all! But let’s touch upon them).

After experiencing the emotional whiplash of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and sudden resurrection into new life, the disciples were in the midst of figuring it all out. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like. So Peter decides to go back to the basics. He and many of first disciples were common fishermen before they started following Jesus. So they get back to the basics and go fishing. They can’t catch a single fish until the mysterious Jesus on the beach tells them to cast their nets differently.

Do you remember another time that Jesus did that? Do you remember that when Jesus first called Peter, James, and John as disciples, they were in a boat, fishing? They couldn’t catch a single fish until Jesus told them to try one more time in deeper water, and then their nets could hardly pull in all the fish. In that first encounter with Jesus, Peter, for once in his life, was speechless. And Jesus said some words that would mark the course of his life: “Follow me. From now on you will be catching people.” Do you remember that?

Peter wanted to get back to the basics of fishing, but instead, he got an opportunity to get back to the basics of his life-calling. After they caught all that fish, another disciple recognized the mysterious stranger on the beach as Jesus, and I love what happens next. I think it’s hilarious. The story says that Peter “put on clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea!” What a funny image! Peter is so stunned at it all that he puts his clothes on only to plunge overboard and get them all wet.

Funny. But beyond humorous images, several foundational stories weave their way through this epilogue. Jesus feeds them the fish and bread on the beach. . . remember how he once took a simple meal of fish and bread and multiplied it to feed 5000 people?  Remember how he took bread and cup among his disciples and said, “Eat and drink. This is my body and my life-blood given for you?” Remember that?

And then, there’s a connection to a heavy story. Do you remember how Peter betrayed Jesus by denying him three times, right when Jesus was on the verge of condemnation and death? Do you remember how gut-wrenching that denial was? I wonder if Peter feared that he had ruined that relationship with Jesus. I wonder if he feared that he may have marred his own call to the point that it was no longer available for him.

After the miraculous catch and a holy meal on the beach, Jesus does what he so often does. Jesus engages in a ministry of reconciliation. Peter denied Jesus three times, and now, three times Jesus restores Peter with a foundational question. “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me, Peter? Peter, do you love me?” “Then feed my lambs.” Jesus reconciles Peter for a life of reconciliation, for a life of shepherding people through Jesus’ love.

So this is our epilogue, the holy epilogue with stories of the past, retold again in new ways to launch us into the future. .

I’ve already told you many times in this sermon that I love this epilogue. I do. But do you know what I might love the most about it? Most scholars believe that this epilogue was written by a person or a set or people who represented a community– a community that had immersed itself in the stories and theological language of the Gospel of John. And the words of this community close the Gospel of John by telling us that the story is still being told, and that if we could possibly write down all the stories of Jesus’ presence and ministry among us, the whole world could not contain the volumes that would exist! That’s probably what I love most.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

“Then feed my lambs.”

“Get out there and love with a Love that rewrites the world’s story! Be my story! Be a ministry of reconciliation in this world.”

Friends, do you know that we’re an epilogue community too? Do you know that Jesus is still writing stories of ministry and reconciliation among us? Jesus’ story with us is just one of those volumes, but we’re really in that library! We’ve seen it. We’ve heard it. You have personal stories of being reconciled to God in amazing ways.

This is a place where God writes our story and says, “I call others to myself.”

This is a place where God says, “Come, bring your story. Tell us of the great love and great pains you’ve experienced in your life. Come and experience healing and love here right here, and be in ministry with us.”

All of these stories are a part of God’s narrative for us.

And there may be unchartered waters for us too, stories that are still being written in our uncompleted volume. I wonder where they could take us. . .

Let’s give great praise to the author and finisher of our faith. Jesus is the author of so many stories that the world cannot contain them. Let’s live that praise as a reconciling, story-filled church.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Renee Roederer

[1] This photo comes from gettyimages.

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