Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a coffee drinker.
Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a computer nerd.
Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a stay-at-home dad.
Hi, my name is Greg and I’m lactose intolerant.
Hi, my name is Greg and I love cheese.
Hi, my name is Greg and I voted democrat for our previous president.
Hi, my name is Greg and I voted republican for the president before him.
Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a Christian.
Just listing those few things about me, you are probably creating an image of me in your head. Heck, me coming out and just standing here…many of you have already made assumptions and categories about me. And, as I listed those things…some of them may not have matched up very well for you. This is, honestly, part of our nature as humans. Our brains work really hard to filter, categorize and size up any situation to determine if something is going to be a threat or not. Our brain filters out distractions or other things it deems non-threatening. Looking for that “sabertooth tiger in the weeds” that might jump out and kill us. Our brains know that the swaying grass isn’t dangerous…but the glint of an eye in the weeds just might. Or, is that weed edible or deadly. Or…is that person part of my tribe or not? If not…are they friendly or not? Will they share with me, or will they try to kill me and take my stuff? Our brain makes millions of judgements and categorizes things for us, practically automatically, so that we can live our lives as efficiently as possible. These categories and judgments are inherently reductive as they never tell the whole story about someone or something. But it helps with making decisions quickly. Sometimes that works great, sometimes…not so well.
It’s tempting for us to reduce our understanding of things, and even people, to these simple categories and judgements. It makes life easy and reasonably predictable. As long as things continue to fit into those specific categories we’ve created, we feel safe. Trouble comes when things start to not fit into any categories. Or, when something we’ve categorized one way suddenly seems to not be fitting into our categories or judgements anymore. This can lead to questions and confusion on one end…and doubt and fear on the other.
There were two followers of Jesus who wrestled with some doubt about Jesus when their categories about who Jesus was didn’t seem to be working. One of these followers was named Judas. Judas was a revolutionary. He followed Jesus because he felt that Jesus was going to militarily and/or politically lead a revolution against the Roman government who was occupying the country of Judaea that Jesus and his disciples were living in. One of the other followers was Peter. Peter probably had similar assumptions about Jesus. Peter was the only disciple to proudly admit he had a sword ready, just in case.
As Jesus ministry progressed, it started to become clear to Judas and Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a revolution in the way they were expecting. Jesus wasn’t fitting into their categories, and they both experienced significant doubt. Judas initially responded to this doubt by betraying Jesus, handing him over to the authorities, possibly hoping to push Jesus into some kind of revolutionary action. As Jesus was being handed over, Peter pulled out that sword he had and injured one of the guards attempting to arrest Jesus. Peter was then surprised to hear Jesus chastise him for using his sword, and then Jesus healed the man who was trying to arrest him. Jesus’ actions here did not fit for Peter and Judas. They both began to doubt their categories of who Jesus was and what he was expecting Jesus to do. This doubt would lead Judas and Peter to walk away from Jesus. Peter even denying, through swearing and cursing, that he ever knew Jesus.
Often, in the stories of doubt we seem to regularly hear today in the Church, the story ends here. People walk away, doubting their understanding of Jesus. For them, the category of “Christian” has broken…and they often walk away confused. For Judas, this was the end of his story. After betraying Jesus, he walked away completely. Believing that he had gone so far into doubt and fear that he could never come back. The Bible tells us he committed suicide. Nothing made sense to him anymore, and rather than try to reframe and redeem his perspective on Jesus…he gave up completely. He was so committed to his categories about Jesus that he wasn’t willing to reframe his category…or to allow Jesus to reframe it for him.
Peter’s story could have ended here as well, but it didn’t. Peter, like Judas, had given up everything to follow Jesus. But, Peter returned to his old life as a fisherman. With his categories about Jesus broken, he thought that it was better to return to the safety of what he knew. It was while he was fishing, that he saw Jesus, resurrected, cooking fish on the shore. Peter didn’t avoid Jesus, Peter didn’t try to awkwardly hide like you would when you see someone walking on the street you don’t want to talk to. Peter, probably still wrestling with his doubt and fear, did not allow that to define him. Peter immediately jumped out of the boat and swam to Jesus. The, over a shared meal of grilled fish, Jesus spoke to Peter lovingly and helped him reframe his categories about Jesus.
When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.”
He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
John 21:15-17 (CEB)
Jesus didn’t condemn Peter for mis-categorizing Jesus and his purpose, but re-directed him and gave him new purpose.
Peter’s initial category and doubts about Jesus were reframed and redeemed by Jesus. Peter’s doubt when his categories failed led him to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was and how Peter fit into those new categories. Instead of seeing his doubt and denial of Jesus as an unrecoverable failure (like Judas), Peter kept the relationship open. He kept the opportunity for conversation open. Jesus then takes that doubt in Peter and transforms it into a new, and deeper, understand of who Jesus really was.
Some of us, may have begun to doubt the category of “Christian”. Or, maybe for others, the categories and understandings we had about our life, our jobs, our friends, our culture or our country is starting to crumble. The categories we’ve had before are no longer fitting. Doubt is creeping in. Fear may even be settling in as the certainty we felt like we had before, is crumbling under the weight of our doubts.
But, we have a choice. We can act like Judas and keep running and walking away when our categories fail, and let our doubts rule us. Or, we can act like Peter. When those categories crumble, when we begin to doubt, when we are tempted to lash out, when we hide and run away…
…we can still be on the lookout for Jesus in the midst of all of that. We can jump out of our boat and have a meal with him. Will we then allow Jesus, like Peter, to redeem and reframe our broken categories and our doubts.
“Do you love me, more than these?…Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me?…Take care of my sheep.”
“Do you love me?…Feed my sheep.”
This is the text of a message I shared for the Renew worship service at Fremont Presbyterian Church on 10-13-2019.