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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 21:1-19
“Love Your Work?”
April 12, 2015 - Second Sunday of Easter

         The question to the audience was, “What is success and significance for you?” I turned to the young college woman seated next to me and her answer was, “Loving what you do and making a difference.” I don’t think she was a Christian, but my guess is that many Christian students might give the same answer. I wonder if it’s a good answer.

         I don’t have the benefit of the dialogue supposed to happen last Tuesday in the EMU Ballroom on the university campus. We went to hear a Christian and an agnostic professor exchange views on whether one can have both success and significance in life. But the Christian presenter got stranded by bad weather in Minneapolis on his way here. So the dialogue was postponed until April 30. But I do wonder if the measure of success for Christians is in fact loving what you do, loving your work.

         We’re going to spend the next few weeks thinking and studying Scripture together about work and Christian life and how our faith carries into our workplaces. So let’s begin by asking if work for a Christian is supposed to be something we really enjoy, if we’re supposed to go about it with a “passion,” as people like to say these days.

         As I said on my blog this week, I’ve always like to imagine the disciples started out with the perfect occupation to love, about which to be passionate. They were fishermen. What could be easier to love than a lifetime on the water doing what most of us only get to do for recreation? They had my fantasy job, professional fishing.

         Which is why our text is one of my favorites in all of Scripture. In my imagination it shows that even Jesus risen from the dead so loved fishermen and their craft that He wanted to spend a morning beside the lake with them, catching and even counting one last huge haul of beautiful glistening fish.

         Jesus found them fishing, I imagine, because they were at a loss to know what to do after Easter. They’ve seen Jesus risen from the dead, they’ve touched His hands and side, they’ve received His blessing and assurance, but now He’s a bit scarce. He’s not constantly present to direct what they do next. So John tells us that under the leadership of that inveterate and, according to at least one popular writer, biggest fisherman Peter, they just went back to doing what they knew and loved best. As verse 3 puts it, he just said, “I am going fishing,” and the rest said, “We’re in!”

         I really love this story and I’ve got a whole other sermon which focuses quite a bit on the fishing miracle which happens next. With what we know from Luke’s Gospel we see the whole time of Peter’s experience with Jesus while He’s on earth is bookended by two great and miraculous catches of fish. When I would go fishing back in Indiana with my friend Jay and they weren’t biting he would always say that we needed what Peter had, Jesus to come walking along the shore and tell us to throw our lines on the other side of the boat.

         My fantasy, of course, is pretty much false. This story is not about how much Peter loved fishing, but about how much he loved Jesus. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that the apostles were not passionate anglers waving handcrafted bamboo fly rods pursuing a glamorous sport. They were commercial fishermen trying to make a living. That kind of fishing is hard and dangerous and often unpleasant.

         A friend once told me about the summer he spent on an Alaskan salmon fishing boat. He described being wet and cold and constantly exhausted. His hands would crack and bleed, his muscles would ache and his stomach was in agony from heaving over the side. He said, “Never again.” It didn’t matter how much money he made. It’s not work you are likely to love. It’s work you do because you have to, because it puts money in the bank, food on the table. I think it was more like that for those disciples.

         Which is not all that different from many of us. Even if we are blessed, and I am, with occupations which give us joy and satisfaction, it’s not all good and pleasant. You may enjoy making those columns of numbers come out right, but have a supervisor who’s impossible to please. You may truly love seeing young faces light up as you instruct them, but still find grading papers or dealing with administration an ordeal. You may rejoice in the fresh air and the pleasure of seeing a building rise as you hammer together studs and joists, but the pain in your knees and the insecurity of the construction trade keep you awake at night.

         And some of us here probably have jobs which we dislike in almost every respect. It’s not what we went to school for. All the people around us are unpleasant. The pay is lousy, the hours are horrible. The actual work is boring. We don’t love it at all, but it’s all we can find to get by. I cleaned toilets and waxed floors to get through college and even graduate school. The reality is that down through the ages and even today most people in the world have had to do work that’s more like that, more like plain hard labor than like some deeply satisfying meaningful dream career.

         So if the measure of success is to do what you love and to do something that makes a difference, is truly significant, then many of us are simply going to be failures, most of the time. But as we see here in this text and as we’ll see in the next couple weeks, that’s not what the Bible teaches about work. It’s not what God expects of us in our careers.

         Let me say it plainly. Peter did not love his work. He loved Jesus. When all those fish swam into his net in verse 6, he didn’t care. It only mattered to him that Jesus made it happen. So in verse 7 he didn’t wait for the boat to get moving. He threw on his clothes and jumped into the sea to swim or wade ashore and meet the Lord he truly loved.

         Now that’s not at all to say that our work, even unpleasant, difficult work, is not important. Peter loved Jesus and for at least the second time in his life left his nets and boat to come to Him. But those other six disciples out there still needed to get the fish in. They couldn’t pull them into the boat, so they had to tow the net to the shore and then haul it up the beach. It couldn’t have been easy.

         Then another minor miracle happened. We know how many fish they caught. As David James Duncan points out in one of my favorite books, that’s not so surprising given the fact they were fishermen. What is surprising is that they made Jesus the risen Lord of the universe wait around while they counted the fish.[1] And the history of interpretation of this passage offers a couple dozen wild and crazy explanations of the significance of “153.”

         What really counts, though, is that they counted the fish, whatever the number was. As Peter totally realized, their priority was Jesus, but Jesus didn’t want them to waste that wonderful catch. He expected them to do what they did, count the fish and save them to feed their families or the poor or whomever. The Lord even asked for some of those fish to add to the breakfast He had cooked for them. Now there’s a dream I can truly get behind, fish for breakfast with Jesus. But the fish still needed to be caught and cleaned and cooked. There was plain, simple, even crude work involved.

         So the work matters, but it’s not necessarily what you are supposed to love. That’s why Jesus talked with Peter that morning as we read in verses 15 to 19. It’s a series of questions and answers about love, about loving Jesus. Three times Jesus asked Peter some variation on “Do you love me?” The first time He asked, “Do you love me more than these?”

         The explanation I’ve always liked makes it out that “these” referred to the boats, the nets, the fish, the sun on the water, the wind and the waves and the whole happy trade of being a fisherman. Jesus supposedly asked Peter whether he will give up this occupation he loves in favor of Jesus, in favor of a mission to bring the Gospel to the world, to be a “fisher of men” as the old translations of Matthew and Mark put it.

         The problem is that we’ve already seen that Peter loves Jesus more than his fishing. He’s the one who jumped in the water to leave the boat and the fish and everything behind so he could be with his Lord. As I’ve been saying, it was perfectly clear that Peter loved Jesus more than he loved his work.

         No, what Jesus was asking Peter was whether he had gotten over the pride and self-importance Peter expressed just before Jesus was arrested and crucified. In Matthew 26:14 Peter said that even if all the other disciples were to desert Jesus, he would not. But of course all the Gospels tell us that Peter did desert Jesus, even denied that he knew Him, not once but three times. It’s one of the saddest moments in the whole Good Friday story.

         That’s why Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?,” asked him three times, “Do you love me?” He asked if Peter still thought he was superior to the others, still imagining his love for Jesus was better and more faithful. He asked if Peter was still making the boastful and foolish claim that he loved Jesus more than all the other disciples did.

         The sweetness of this scene is that Peter had learned his lesson. He didn’t claim to love Jesus more than anyone else. He just quietly and humbly said that Jesus already knew the answer. Peter did love him. It’s an often repeated idea that there’s some significance to the different Greek words John chooses for “love” in writing this story, but it’s pretty unlikely. Those words were generally interchangeable, synonyms, as Augustine pointed out long ago. But if those different words for love have any point at all, then it’s just this. Rather than boast that his love is greater than any other, Peter is only going to claim the humblest and simplest love for Jesus. And Jesus thought that was good.

         When Jesus asked Peter whether he loved Him, it was not to draw out some profound and deep affirmation using the word for the highest form of love. It was to show Peter who denied Him three times that He was three times forgiven and that Peter’s love for Jesus now needed another form of expression. So Jesus told Peter how to show his love using again three slightly different ways of saying the same thing, “Feed my lambs,” “Shepherd my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” There’s the new, the real work for Peter, to show his love for Jesus by loving those whom Jesus loves.

         And there’s the first lesson about work for you and me. Whatever work we have, whether it’s changing the world or changing diapers, our real work, our true work, our Christian career is to love Jesus by loving others, by caring for them, feeding them, tending and shepherding them toward the same love for Jesus which we enjoy. They may be our children or co-workers or customers. But loving them because we love Jesus is the work we all have to do within and through whatever other work God gives us.

         None of us ever get to do only what we love. That’s what Jesus was telling Peter there in verse 18 about getting old. When you were young you got dressed and went and did what you wanted. Maybe it was even sometimes work you loved. But when you get old that isn’t going to be possible anymore. You don’t get to do so much what you love anymore. You don’t get to go where you want. But that’s O.K. If you’ve loved Jesus and His sheep, loved your Lord and His people more than you’ve loved your work, it’s good.

         Work is hard. Sometimes it’s even dangerous and deadly. It was for commercial fishermen back then and still is for those in that business. And even with OSHA looking over our shoulders, our work will bend our backs and ruin our health and drive us into depression. That’s why work is not what we love most. We save that love for Jesus. We give that love to others around us in Jesus’ name. That love is the good and true work Peter was told to do at the end of verse 19 when Jesus said, “Follow me.”

         Love Jesus and follow Him to work, whatever your work is. And you will find Him walking alongside you there, telling you where and how to cast a net of love.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] The River Why (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983), pp. 14-16.

Last updated April 12, 2015