Sermon: The Disciple Who Walked Away

What happens when a disciple walks away? We used to be so active in the church, so excited to serve the Lord, but now we have faded. We used to want to walk closer and closer to Jesus, going where he leads, but something happened, and now…What happens when a disciple walks away from the call, walks away from following Jesus? 

This morning I want to share with you a true story from the book that we love, the Bible. It is the story of a man who did just that – walked away from the call, walked away from following Jesus. This morning I want us to look at his story as it runs alongside all of our stories whenever we begin to walk away from following Jesus. 

In this story, a man called by God, walks away from the call and gets into a boat and goes out on the sea. Eventually, the man jumps overboard into the sea and is brought out to dry land, where God restores to him his calling. And there are large fish involved. It’s John 21, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Lord, speak to us this morning. Dig out our ears that we may hear your word, and work in us by your Spirit that it might be planted in good soil and bear an abundant harvest – thirty, sixty, a hundredfold – for your kingdom. Amen. 

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God: 

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, Nathaniel 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 know 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?” 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 arms and someone else will fasten a belt around your 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.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

What happens when a disciple walks away? 

We can walk away from being a disciple of Jesus in small and in big ways. 

In small ways, we start by saying there is something wrong with the conditions. Right now, it is just too hard to really follow Jesus. I will when things change, when things look up. Right now, we are too isolated, work is too busy, the kids are too crazy, my life is too unsettled. Later, when things change, I can go back to following Jesus. 

In small ways, we start by saying there is something wrong with ourselves. I cannot do what Jesus is saying, I can’t follow all of what he says. I am too young, too old, too weak, too broken, too lost, too tired, too busy, too me. If only I was more, then I could follow Jesus.

Or, we can walk away from being a disciple in big ways. Those moments where you absolutely know that God is calling you to do something, to talk to someone, even to say ‘no’ to something. It’s like a fire in your bones, but you just say ‘No’ and go a different way. 

I remember being in high school and dating a girl who was not a Christian. Not long into the relationship, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that God was telling me this needed to end. But I wouldn’t do it. I liked having a girlfriend. Outwardly things went well, but for months, I was miserable. I made all sorts of excuses. Maybe she will learn about Jesus from me – a little ‘missionary dating.’ There was nothing wrong, we weren’t doing anything sinful. But I knew that I had heard the voice of Jesus and turned my back and went my own way. I chose what was close and comfortable, but ultimately what was far from Jesus. 

What happens when a disciple walks away?

This is where we find Peter at the beginning of our story this morning. He has walked away from the calling of God, walked away from being a disciple. For three years Peter had been the most passionate of the disciples, part of the inner circle. He was the one who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. He was the one who dared to speak when Jesus stood transfigured on the mountain with Elijah and Moses, even when he didn’t know what he was saying. Peter was bold and passionate, always the first in. Peter was the one who drew his sword when Jesus was arrested and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Peter was the one who told Jesus he would rather die than ever deny Jesus.

But Peter was also the one who followed Jesus into the courtyard after Jesus was arrested. Peter was the one who, when asked, would claim he never knew Jesus. Peter was the one who would call down curses on his own head as he swore he never even knew Jesus. 

Peter the disciple has denied he ever knew Jesus. On Easter morning, Peter hears Mary Madgalene’s message that the tomb is empty and runs to it, entering the tomb, to find the linen cloths lying there, and Jesus gone. As our story starts, Peter is with the other disciples, including Thomas, who had Jesus appear to him and ask him to touch his hands and his sides. 

Peter has heard the testimony that Jesus was raised from the dead, that he appeared to the disciples in the locked room. Peter has heard it all.

But happens to Peter? What place is there with Jesus for the one who denied he ever knew him? What happens to the disciple who walks away?

So Peter goes fishing. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathaniel 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.” 

Peter goes fishing. He grew up a fisherman. In fact, Jesus met Peter as he was fishing on this very sea. It was here that Jesus called Peter and he left his nets to follow Jesus. But now Peter has gone back to the nets. He has gone back to life before he knew Jesus. 

He went back to something comfortable, something he knew. Ironically, it was even something close to what Jesus had called him to, since Jesus had told Peter that he would be a fisher of men. But when Peter gets on that boat, he is giving up and walking away from his role and calling as a disciple of Jesus. Likely he thinks his denial in the courtyard made him too broken or too weak to be a disciple. He had blown it too badly to ever come back. 

So he leaves on a boat, headed in the opposite direction, headed away from Jesus. 

Before we heard our scripture passage, I shared the outline of the story in a way that I hope caught some of your attention. A story of a man called by God, who walks away from the call and gets into a boat and goes out on the sea. Eventually, the man jumps overboard into the sea and is brought out to dry land, where God restores to him his calling. And there are large fish involved. If you feel like you have heard this story before, perhaps you have. The story of Peter is also the story of Jonah. Jonah, the prophet called by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s word to the nations. Peter, a disciple called by God to be a fisher of men. Jonah and Peter both turn their backs on the calling, get into boats and head out to sea. It is the same story, playing out again in Jonah and Peter and us. 

We hear God’s call and, in big or small ways, turn around, get on a boat, and head in the other direction. We have all kinds of excuses, Jonah sure had them, and I bet Peter did too. But it is the same story being played out, we walk away. 

But what happens when a disciple walks away? 

For Peter and the other disciples, their work gets them nowhere. They strain and work all night and catch nothing. Not a single fish after a whole night’s work. Peter runs away from God and has nothing to show for it. 

Sometimes there is a strange mercy when God frustrates our work. When we run away from God, sometimes he makes things difficult for us, makes life fruitless and hard, not simply as a punishment, but in order to stop us in our tracks and turn us back to him. If Peter had been successful fishing that night, he might have never wanted to look back. But the futility and frustration left him open to what Jesus was doing, instead of trying to continue to do life without Jesus. Sometimes, like Peter, failure can be a gift from God to call us back to him, to stop us from running headlong into ruin. 

If you know that you have been running or hiding from God, trying to work and live and breathe with no account for God, and you are finding yourself frustrated, finding your work unsatisfying or things just grinding their gears, then take a moment to consider whether or not this might be God’s way of calling you back to him. 

For just after daybreak, when the disciples had been straining all night for nothing, Jesus stood on the beach. Unbeknownst to them, but knownst to us, Jesus calls out asking if they have had any success fishing that night. ‘No,’ they reply. Jesus then tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. When they do, the net is so full of fish that they cannot get it into the boat.

Suddenly the blessing of success in the midst of frustration opens their eyes. The beloved disciple tells Peter, “it is the Lord.” Peter puts his clothes on and jumps into the sea. Like Jonah before him, Peter finally stops running and plunges himself beneath the waves of the sea. For Jonah it took a storm to stop him in his tracks, for Peter it was unexpected blessing. 

But here, Peter leaves his nets again, he leaves again the life he once knew, the comfortable and close life, the life without Jesus. With reckless passion, Peter leaves it behind and dives into the water. He abandons his boat in the middle of the greatest catch he has ever had for the sake of something better – Jesus. 

Peter comes up on shore to find Jesus sitting around a charcoal fire. The other disciple follow quickly in the boat, dragging their catch. Jesus tells them to bring some of the fish, so Peter climbs aboard and drags the net to Jesus, full of large fish. Then they, even Peter the denier, Peter the fisherman, have breakfast with Jesus. 

What happens to the disciple who walks away? 

Peter fled from his place as a disciple of Jesus to a place that was comfortable, back to the life he had known with its work and its simple patterns of life. But he found himself frustrated in this work. Having been with Jesus, life apart from Jesus, even just walking in his own way, was not a place of joy and fulfillment but difficulty and frustration. It was at the end of a fruitless night that Jesus’ voice rang out to Peter. Jesus blessed him with more of what Peter had asked for than he could have imagined, but Peter leaves it behind to run after Jesus. In doing so, Peter replays his own story of calling, Jonah’s story, and our story. 

We, too, in big or small ways can find ourselves walking away from Jesus. We can give up on our calling and try to return to so-called normal life. But it is when we find ourselves fishing again, find ourselves back to pouring ourselves into work into school, into all sorts of things apart from Jesus, sometimes even in the frustration of it all, that the voice of Jesus calls out to us again and we are called to jump out of the boat and come back to shore. 

Jesus did not leave Peter on the boat fishing for himself. Instead, Jesus called Peter back to be a fisher of men. He calls him back to the mission, back to the calling, back to the life of a disciple of Jesus. The same is true for you. Jesus does not leave us walking on our own, walking away from him. He does not abandon us even when that’s just what we want. Instead, after the long night, he stands on the beach calling to us at sunrise, bringing us back to shore. 

After breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter. Simon, son of John, do you love me? Three times Jesus asks, mirroring the three times that Peter told others he never knew Jesus. To the man who denied he ever knew Jesus, let along loved him, Jesus asks ‘Do you love me?’ By the third time Peter understands what is happening. Peter felt hurt because he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 

Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you. 

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed by sheep. 

Jesus restores Peter. Without saying the words, this conversation is an act of forgiveness. Peter is forgiven and called again to follow Jesus. After speaking about Peter’s death, Jesus ends by saying ‘Follow me.’ The same words Jesus first spoke to Peter by the fishing nets all those years ago, he says again to Peter. ‘Follow me.’ 

What happens to the disciple who walks away? Jesus restores him and Jesus says to him, “Follow me!” Jesus calls Peter from the shore, shares a meal with him, and then restores him to being a disciple. Peter is still called to follow Jesus. He is still a disciple. 

His mistakes were not too much. His circumstances were not too hard. Peter was not too far gone. Instead, Jesus graciously says, “Follow me!”

What happens to the disciple who walks away? Jesus restores her and says to her, “Follow me.” No matter how long you have been on the boat fishing, how long you have turn from the life of discipleship to go back to so-called normal life, jump out of the boat. Repent and turn to Jesus. Like with Peter, Jesus forgives and restores. No matter how long you have heard the voice of Jesus and decided to go your own way, jump out of the boat and come to the shore. Return to Jesus for he will forgive and restore you. 

What happens to the disciple who walks away? Jesus restores him and says to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turns and sees that the disciples whom Jesus loved is following them. Unable to help himself, Peter says, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

Basically, Jesus says, “Don’t worry about him. I will worry about him. You follow me.” So if you are hearing this message and thinking, ‘yes, I know someone who has been walking away and needs to hear Jesus calling them back,’ then share this message with them. But don’t think that you can avoid dealing with it yourself. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Whatever else anyone else has to say about the calling of Jesus, you have to answer it yourself. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Leave the boat behind, jump into the waters, and come to Christ. Follow me!

If this is the first time you have heard this wonderful news that Jesus forgives and calls us and you want to answer like Peter, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” If you have never done this before, I want you to pray with me in a few seconds and then I want you to go on our website and send me a message. I want to connect with you to follow up. 

However, if you have known Christ, like Peter did, but have found yourself in the boat out on the sea, wandering from God and long to come home, to eat and be with Jesus, and be restored and live again into the calling God has placed upon your life. If that is you this morning, pray with me in a few seconds and then also send me a message so I can follow up with you. 

What happens when a disciples walks away? Jesus restores and says, “Follow me!” May each of us hear the call of Jesus this morning. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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