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Apr 19, 2020

Looking for the New Normal

Passage: John 21:1-17

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Covid-19 Challenges

Keywords: service, habits, calling, change, waiting, career, peter, new normal


In times like these when everything has been upset and you don't know when it's going to get back to "normal", it's possible to be thinking and living in both ways that lead to greater growth and renewal as well as ways that lead us back into old patterns that are not necessarily helpful. Peter's experience of life in between the crucifixion of Jesus and when Peter would take up leadership of the Jerusalem church was just such a time. His experience has a lot to teach us about how to prepare for the "new normal" when it arrives.


Looking for the New Normal

John 21

April 19, 2020

Behavioral psychologists tell us that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit.  Others say that, depending on how major or minor the activity is, it may take as few as 21 days and as many a 254 days. 

            So since we’re only in Sunday #5 of not coming together to BE the church…and since gathering together as the body of Christ every week is a very deeply ingrained personal habit of mine…you don’t have to worry about me actually adopting the habit of doing church via video for another 4.7 years (or 249 more times).  My concern as a pastor is that if gathering together at least weekly isn’t a real habit in your life, some of you may be just 16 more Sundays away from going digital permanently for your church experience!  Hopefully this lock-down won’t continue for 4 more months!  (I can almost hear the screams of agony from here!) 

            Some of the supposedly really smart people in this crisis are fond of telling us that we’re not going to be getting back to “normal” as we knew it.  Some things are going to change… permanently. 

            That’s really not such astounding news.  They might as well be telling us the weather is going to change this week.  No kidding?  Life, like the weather, is always changing!  And so are we.  So I’m not afraid that I can’t go ‘back’ to what normal was 6 weeks ago.  I’m more concerned that what we all go forward into is even better than what used to be normal.  I want my relationship with my wife, or my grand kids, or God himself, or you…to be getting better every day. 

            But every now and then something happens to life that really upsets the apple cart.  Life changes so dramatically that it takes a while to find your equilibrium again.  You feel rather disoriented.  You may be at a loss as to what to do next.  You may just try going back to doing what you’ve always done…but it may not work out the way you thought it would. 

            We’re all going to be feeling that in the coming weeks.  We’re all going to be looking for the “new normal,” whatever it is…whenever it arrives. 

            The same was true with the Apostle Peter at the resurrection of Jesus.  We caught part of that story last week when we looked at Mary Magdalene and her desire to figure out where Jesus corpse had disappeared to and how she could hang onto the previous relationship she had experienced with Jesus prior to His resurrection. 

            Peter had apparently been in a bit of a foot race with the Apostle John to get to the empty tomb. Mary was the first to tell them that the body of Jesus was missing.  So both Peter and John high-tailed it to the tomb to see for themselves.  John got there first but his account tells us that it was Peter who pushed past him and went right into the tomb to see for himself.  His inspection confirmed the accuracy of Mary’s news, at least the part about the corpse no longer being there. 

            Jesus eventually appeared in His resurrected, immortal body to Peter that evening when there were all barricaded in the Upper Room trying to avoid the Temple Police.  Then Jesus appeared again some 8 days later (Monday) to the disciples in their private gathering.  Thomas, who had been missing the week before and refused to believe Jesus was resurrected unless he ran his own touch-test, had his doubts completely overwhelmed by the evidence and made that bold declaration, “My Lord and my God.” 

            But for today, I want us to come at this next account from Peter’s experience.  Prior to this story in John 21, there is no indication that Peter had any personal conversation with Jesus about the events leading up to the crucifixion.  He’d been the bravest of them all there in the Garden of Gethsemane as he drew his sword and took a solid swing at one of the servants (goons?) of the High Priest who had come to arrest Jesus. 

And Jesus last words to him for that loyal and potentially life-threatening action were a rebuke, not a congratulation.  He told Peter to put away the sword.  Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that He didn’t have need of any of Peter’s protective measures as He could have summoned thousands of angels to fight for him any moment.  Then, like the other disciples, Peter had melted into the night.

But unlike all but one of them, Peter must have still wanted to influence whatever nefarious plans the Temple soldiers and Sanhedrin had in mind for Jesus that night.  So he followed at a distance and, when he could go no closer to Jesus in the High Priest’s house, he hung around the courtyard trying to blend in with the servants and the assembled crowd. 

Then came those terrible questions he would never forget. Three questions that could tie him to Jesus…and three denials that would rend his relationship with Jesus like nothing else he had ever said or done. 

When the crucifixion finally came, Peter might not have been there.  There is no clear evidence that he was.  If he wasn’t, where was he and what was he thinking about?  Was Satan tempting him with the same lie that Judas had swallowed, that the world would be a better place without him…such a weak man, such a terrible friend, such an awful follower.  Had not Jesus said, “But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven,” (Mt. 10:33)?  And had he himself not called down curses upon himself when he denied the Lord Jesus?

If Peter had somehow forced himself to watch the carnage of the crucifixion that horrible afternoon, surely he would have been a part of the crowd watching from a distance.  Did he stand apart because of continuing fear of what others could do…or was it out of shame for what he had just done hours before? 

Surely Peter must have heard the mocking, jeering taunts of the religious leaders assembled there like a pack of wolves…and wondered if there was any difference between his own denial and their deadly deceit. 

Then came those hours of darkest despair…the hours after Jesus breathed His last and died…the hours when not only was the sun’s light blotted out but also when all light in Peter’s soul became a black hole of despair. 

Those hours when Jesus’ cold body lay in the tomb…the hours when Peter was convinced that he would not have another opportunity in this life to apologize to Jesus, to repair what he single-handedly had broken.  Those long, sleepless night hours and those gray, lifeless days while Jesus was in the tomb must have felt the closest Peter would ever know to hell itself.  Had not Jesus said himself that Satan was out to sift them all, sift them so he could own them as he had owned Judas? 

And then so early that Sunday morning, while it was still dark, some very faint glimmer of hopeful light began to appear on the horizon of Peter’s soul.  It certainly didn’t come with the news of Jesus’ missing corpse.  But something stirred when Mary Magdalene came back that second time with the news that she had actually seen the living Jesus. She had touched His actual body.  She had heard his familiar voice.  And He had told her to tell the other disciples that He was going ahead of them to Galilee and that they would see Him there. 

Yet as they all discussed what they should do that Sunday night around dinner, Jesus did what none of them had expected.  He showed up seemingly out of nowhere in that room no one could enter without permission. 

Where was Peter in that room…in the shadows hidden away in shame?  Was he leading the discussion about what they should do…or was he for once quiet, not wanting to even hear his own voice? 

There is no indication in the Scriptures that Peter had or took the opportunity to apologize to Jesus, to spill out the shame and sorrow of his heart for having failed Jesus so miserably that night.  But neither is there any indication that there was anything but forgiveness and compassion in the heart and eyes of Jesus, something that needed no words to pass between these two men for Peter to know as never before that no sin could be greater than Jesus’ power to forgive and heal. 

I tend to think that, as much as Peter may have hoped for just a few words alone with Jesus that first week, there were none.  Jesus probably came and went from His disciples at will, not searching out Peter specially among all the others. 

Eventually at least 7 of the disciples head up to the Sea of Galilee once again.  Though just about 100 miles away, it’s not a quick half-day trip.  Rather it is equivalent to a LONG 4-day road trip from here to, say, Orlando, Florida.  On foot, 100 miles is easily a 3-4 day trip, one with no radio, no books on tape, no I-pod or I-tunes, hour after hour for 4 days straight.  That’s a lot of time to think…and pray…and imagine conversations in your head that you would like to have with someone who has said he’ll meet you at the end of the trip. 

It is this story in John 21 that leads me to believe that Peter had not yet had any private conversation with Jesus since that night in the Upper Room before Jesus’ death.  So let’s read the first part of this story together and then we will see what it has to say to people like us who are going to be searching for a new normal hopefully very soon in our own crazy world.  John 21:1-14.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.

 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

So the 7 have arrived at some town on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee.  There they are, cooling their heels as they what for Jesus to just appear.  They may have all been sharing dinners together, expecting Him to show up like he did twice to them in Jerusalem.  Maybe they spent hours at the seashore, scanning the horizon to see if he was going to come walking down the beach…or perhaps on the water again. 

I’m also imagining that Jesus didn’t appear to them right away.  Maybe they waited patiently for a few days.  But waiting is hard!  WE’RE ALL discovering this, aren’t we?  You can almost hear the frustration in Peter’s simple statement, “I’m going out to fish.” 

He’s not talking about grabbing his rod and reel; he’s talking about going back to that family boat, that family business, that one profession he was doing when Jesus asked him to leave all and follow Him some 3 years earlier.  Peter was a man of action and lounging by the seashore was not his idea of a fulfilling life.   

Q:  So what do you do when a lifetime of dreams and 3 of your best years of life seem to be completely up in the air and utterly confusing?  Why would Jesus want them to go back to where He had first met them and called them now that He was risen?  Why would he pull them out of Jerusalem where He surely knew that His throne had to be set up someday soon if the Kingdom was truly to come?  And why would He drag them back to that place where Peter had first heard Jesus teach and had first felt his heart so powerfully moved that he would walk away from family and livelihood on the promise that the Teacher would make him a “fisher of men” from that point on? 

      What do most of us do when we are disappointed or frustrated with the way God works?  Don’t we fall back on what we are most comfortable with, on what we used to do before, those old patterns and habits we used to be so comfortable with that we can still are convinced can “put food on the table,” whether that ‘food’ is physical, relational, emotional or psychological?

      It was probably late afternoon or early evening.  As they headed out onto the water.  All the sights and smells of a familiar life were coming back to them now.  Maybe again something very familiar like this could bring them back to an even keel. 

      They start throwing the nets in the growing dusk…letting them sink…and then hauling them in.  The first few empty casts were nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing here?  Let’s move a little farther out…or a little farther over. 

      Over and over and over they do it again and again without so much as a single sucker fish being snagged off the bottom.  It was tedious work.  It got you all wet…and tired…and cold…and sore.  15…50…150 times they cast that same net. Seven guys worked all night for a combined time investment of probably 70-100 hours for NOTHING!  No minimum wage.  No unemployment. No fishing insurance or Corona-Cash…NOTHING. 

      I’ll bet Peter was in a really great mood about the time the sun started brightening the eastern sky!