Hope in the Struggle

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole.


Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.


So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.


The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.


The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.


Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.


What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.


Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives.


If God allowed us to go through our lives without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. We could never fly!


When we read the gospels, they are stories of struggle: Jesus struggles on the cross, the disciples struggle to figure what Jesus is talking about, the religious authorities struggle with what to do about Jesus, and Jesus struggles to make himself understood.


Life is struggle. We would think that after the resurrection that all would be clear and all would be well. Well, it wasn’t.  Even after the resurrection the struggle continues.


Jesus was conspicuous and not conspicuous after the resurrection. He was very selective as to time and place he would show himself. And he was unpredictable. Jesus’ appearance in John 21 was just such a time.


Some of the disciples returned to Galilee and did what they always do. They had not earned “an honest day’s living” for three years. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two unnamed disciples went out on a boat to fish. They caught nothing, maybe because they were fishing at night.


You know when you try to do something and the more you do it and it is not working, you get more frustrated? That’s the disciples on the boat. They struggled getting their nets in the water, pulling them up, and not seeing a thing in them.


Dawn comes. Now they can see their failure. They struggled for naught.


A figure calls to them from the shore, “You have no fish?” Is this guy a smart aleck? The stranger puts salt in the wound of their failure. At least one of them admits their failure to the stranger. The stranger tells them to try their net on the other side. Why not? They have nothing to lose.


load of fishThey find that their net is so full of fish that they cannot pull it in. They struggle to pull the load in and they don’t want to sacrifice even one fish. They tug and they tug.


For at least one of the disciples, a thought process like this was likely happening: We couldn’t catch a thing. A man tells us to cast on the other side. Now we have more fish than we know what to do with. This smells fishy. I know of only one person who does these kinds of miracles. I want a good look at this man. “It is the Lord.”


With those words, Peter gets decent and jumps into the water, heading for shore. They continue to struggle against the weight of the net. And now their strongest has decided to put his clothes on and go overboard.


Peter leaves the others to struggle with the net and get the boat back to shore. I wonder what grumbling was happening on that boat after Peter left them high and dry. Now they have no choice. They must drag the net full of fish to shore, dangling over the side of the boat.


When they arrive, they see Jesus cooking a breakfast of fish and bread. There seems to have been a Last Supper, but Jesus isn’t through with meals. Now you know where lox and bagels came from. (I’m kidding.) Jesus asks for some more fish from their catch to add to the meal. Adding another weird element to the story, Peter goes to the boat and hauls the net full of fish to shore all by himself – the same net the disciples were unable to haul up. I wonder if Peter rolled his eyes up at their struggle to get the fish to shore.


After Jesus invites them to breakfast, John adds an interesting note. Now remember that the whole doubting Thomas thing is in the recent past for them. Yet John says that none of them, maybe especially Thomas, dared ask who it was that was serving them breakfast. If any of them did, maybe Jesus would roll his eyes up. “As theologian Michael Welker likes to say, after the resurrection you don’t find anyone casually clapping Jesus on the shoulders and saying with a grin, ‘We’re so glad you’re back, Jesus!’”[1] Instead, it’s “are you really Jesus?”


This was Jesus’ third appearance since the resurrection. The first was the night of the resurrection when Jesus appeared while Thomas was out. The second was a week later when Thomas was present.


The really good part happens after breakfast and it takes a little study of the Greek to put it into context. The crux is the English word “love” that, in ancient Greek can be one of four to seven words, depending on who you ask. In the New Testament, four are used. For the dialogue between Jesus and Peter only two Greek words for love are used: agapao and philio. Agapao maybe more familiar to you in another form agape. Agapao was used in Greek literature to designate the love a god has for a human or a parent for a child. Philio express a fondness for another person. One is hierarchical and the other is familial.


do you love meJesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. The first time Jesus asks if Peter agapaos him. Peter replies that he philios him. So Jesus tells Peter “Feed my lambs.” Jesus repeats his first question and Peter repeats his answer. Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” The third time Jesus asks if Peter philios him. And Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I philio you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus gives Peter a parable about Peter’s death and then tells Peter, “Follow me.” Peter likely did not think he had the necessary status to reply to Jesus using agapao. Jesus was the master, the teacher, the rabbi. The third time Jesus places himself on Peter’s level. Jesus is no longer the master but a brother.


Faith is a struggle. Life is a struggle. Whether we struggle with faith or life or both, we do not have to do it alone. Jesus’ message to Peter and the rest is that we have each other and we have Jesus. We gather here, in community, to be reminded that Jesus has our back and we have each other’s back.


If we find ourselves lost or we can’t seem to get where we want to go, Jesus can point the way. Sometimes it can be just as obvious as trying the other side of a boat. Being experienced fishermen, they could have written off a landlubber from the shore. Instead, they trusted and succeeded. They were willing to accept that they didn’t know it all and swallow their pride for help.


It is not enough to know that Jesus loves us, as Peter came to know. We need to express our love for Jesus. And after we have had our meal, then we can go and take care of Jesus’ sheep. We are Jesus’ sheep. We need to take care of each other. We need to take care of those who are not of our fold. In so doing, we might catch some sheep for the fold.


It is in the meal of the Eucharist that we are spiritually filled. Once we are spiritually filled we have the necessary sustenance to do God’s work in the world. We can feed Jesus’s lambs. We can tend Jesus’ sheep. We can feed Jesus’ sheep. It can be a struggle, but we have faith in the result and no matter where we go, Jesus will be there.


Text: John 21:1–19

[1] Hoezee, S. (2001). Third Sunday of Easter, Year C. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 600). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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