“Follow Me”: A Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
[John 21:1–19, NRSV]
This simple, two-word phrase is how it begins and ends.
Jesus spoke these words to his first disciples, shortly after being baptized and beginning his time on earth proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Jesus also spoke these words shortly after the Last Supper. Earlier in the gospel of John we read of this pivotal event. Jesus gives his followers a new commandment, to demonstrate their disciple-hood by loving one another, and then he departs.
Peter follows him out and asks where he’s going, and Jesus lays it out for him: “Peter, you can’t follow me now, but you will follow me later.” Peter, being Peter, swears quick loyalty and makes a rash promise he won’t be able to keep… and Jesus, being Jesus, calls him on it. “You’ll deny me three times before the rooster crows,” he says.
We know how the story goes from this point. There’s an arrest and a mockery of a trial. The disciples are scattered. Peter denies. And denies. And denies a third time. A rooster crows. All is lost.
We just relived this story during Lent. The tortured road to Golgotha. The nails. The crown of thorns. Jesus raised up on a cross to broadcast his shame to the world. The darkness. The Divine Abandonment. The cry of agony. The torn veil.
The dead Messiah.
The waiting. The funeral. The tomb. The darkness…
The Easter morning! Daring to believe. We thought all was lost, but we were wrong! All is found!
And that’s where we pick up the story today, when the Resurrected Christ reminds Peter who he is with a miraculous catch of fish, and then provides an opportunity for restoration. Peter denied three times; Jesus restores him three times.
“Feed my lambs.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”
And then, in the last two words of today’s reading, Jesus renews the call:
Okay, okay! We get it, Jesus! We’re supposed to follow you!
This part of the story continues beyond what we heard today, though. Immediately after hearing “Follow me,” Peter points to another disciple and says, “What about that guy?”
Jesus’ response is classic Jesus: “Who cares? You take care of you. I told you to follow me, so handle your own biz, Pete. Follow me.”
The point is: Jesus calls his disciples by telling them to follow him. And it’s a call he repeats. And it’s a call he gives to all of us.
So what does that mean for us? Here and now? Can we use that phrase as a blade to carve out a philosophy for life?
Sure. We can do that. I’ve done it. Many’s the time I’ve earnestly bowed a knee and furrowed my brow and said, “Jesus, I just wanna follow you.” And I meant it!
I’ve prayed it on the last night of church camp, surrounded by billowing clouds of red Texas dust, humidity hanging on me claustrophobically, the air of our outdoor “tabernacle” filled the distinct musk of hormones and bug spray.
I’ve prayed it while in college, moping on my way to class on a brisk morning, terrified I would never get a girl to like me back, resigning myself to isolation and loneliness.
I’ve prayed it standing on a stage, the weight of a guitar pressing down on my shoulder while nerves rise up from within at the sight of a beckoning microphone.
I’ve prayed it while clutching a one-way boarding pass.
Have you prayed it? When? How often?
When you’ve used “Follow me” to carve your philosophy of life, what shape did it take?
Did it make sense?
Did you know what was ahead?
Did it seem easy?
The problem with “Follow me” is that it’s easy enough to say, and it’s enough to pray, and it’s easy enough to convert into a meme or an inspirational poster.
But when it comes to the stuff of life, “Follow me” can hurt.
“Follow me” can keep carving. And carving. Sliver by sliver, shavings collecting on the floor and being carried away by the winds of this world.
“Follow me” can whittle you down to nothing.
And then what?
What if you followed and it all went wrong?
What if you followed into a new career path, only to have the company go bankrupt and downsize you a few months later?
What if you followed onto the mission field, only to have your child contract malaria and die?
What if you followed, and you followed, and you followed, and it’s years later and you’re exhausted and you feel like you’ve done nothing but follow? You have no bullet points for a catchy newsletter, no vibrant ministry to talk about, nothing but a quiet faith and a lifetime of steps that feel like they may have led nowhere?
What if you followed Jesus into his new commandment, the one to love one another in a demonstration of love that is meant for the world to see? And what if that love wasn’t reciprocated? Or what if it was done clumsily or thoughtlessly and one or more of you got hurt? What if you showed the world the wrong kind of love?
The temptation then is to do what Peter did, there on the beach. To point to another and say, “What about them?”
But even then, the call remains: “Follow me.”
What if you don’t know how to follow? What if you’ve thought you were following but now wonder if you got it all wrong? What if that career went bust because you followed yourself instead of Jesus? What if that child got sick because you should’ve stayed home instead of moving to a third-world country? What if your lifetime of steps feels empty because fear convinced you to turn down opportunities to fill them with something big?
Those kinds of “what ifs” are poison, but a poison we all-too-willingly drink. This poison tastes like despair, like doubt, like futility. It’s a poison that, honestly, tastes a lot like spending a night fishing, catching nothing while your recently crucified rabbi rots nearby in a borrowed grave.
It’s a strong, concentrated poison. But grace dilutes it.
Grace comes along in a form that seems familiar yet unrecognizable. Grace stands on the beach and calls to you. Grace says, “I know you’ve had a long night full of doubts and questions and a whole boat full of nothing, but give it one more shot. Throw your nets again.”
And then grace fills the nets to bursting. If we let it, grace pours in and overwhelms and dilutes the poison, renders it tasteless and ineffective. And then grace cooks you breakfast out of your abundance and that tastes like a literal, mundane miracle.
Grace is what makes us able to follow.
Jesus, stepping away from his disciples and into his inevitable death, told Peter that he couldn’t follow right away. “You can’t follow me now,” Jesus said, “but you will follow me.”
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he’s calling us to follow him. He calls us into a relationship of trust that bypasses our brains and digs into our souls. He calls us into an itinerant ministry that may seem unrecognizable from our point of view. He calls us not to look around or to make plans or to pepper him with questions like children on a road trip.
He calls us just to keep him in focus. To take one step and then another. All the way through Galilee, through Jerusalem, down the Via Dolorosa, up to Golgotha, onto a cross, into a tomb… and then out of it.
And we are able to follow him through all of these, knowing that, wherever he leads us, we do not go alone. He is with us.
When we follow him, we shouldn’t be surprised. We know what we’re in for. We knew the risks when we signed on for the mission: We can be sure that “Follow me” will lead to death.
But the promise of this Easter season also makes us sure that this same “follow me” will lead, inevitably, to resurrection.