You Are Not Alone: Week Three
John 21: 15-19
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
January 24, 2016
What is loneliness? We’ve been talking about it for 3 weeks but we’ve never really defined it. So what is it? Well, I think if you boil it right down to its core, loneliness is about connection. And this is why anybody can be lonely. Married people can be just as lonely as single people. Extroverts can be just as lonely as introverts. Young people can be just as lonely as old people. Everybody can be lonely, because being alone is not related to how many people are around us. Instead it is related to the depth and power of our connection to the key person or people in our lives. I always tend to think of loneliness like a power outage. You know, when you don’t have any power at your house, you are still surrounded by all your stuff. The tv, phone, internet, lights, refrigerator, those things are all still there. They just don’t do you any good. So when we talk about loneliness, what we are really talking about is connection.
And if you look through Scripture, it’s not hard to find lonely people. The Gospels are littered with lonely people. All those lepers and sick people, lonely. Nicodemus. Lonely. Mary and Martha. Lonely. Jesus. Lonely. But in all of Scripture nobody that I can think of cuts a more lonely figure than Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest. Jesus has been arrested and Peter has followed his friend as far as he can. As Jesus is questioned, Peter waits outside, and we can imagine him silently hiding himself on the periphery. But he isn’t very good at it and people see him there, and worse, they recognize him. Jesus was something of a celebrity and people have a way of remembering a celebrity’s right hand man almost as much as the celebrity himself. So, one of the others there in the courtyard says to him, “You are one of the man’s disciples.” But you know what happens next, Peter denies it. Then another says to him, “You are not also one of the man’s disciples?” Again Peter denies it. Finally, a third person says, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter denies it a third time, the cock crows, and he fulfills Jesus’ prophecy that Peter would deny him 3 times.
At this moment I always imagine Peter has hit bottom. He is alone, disconnected from those around him by his love for Jesus, but now disconnected also from Jesus by his love for himself. And here we see something that is very illuminating and important for those of us who follow Jesus. Loneliness is not just relational, it is also spiritual. Peter was already physically separated from Jesus. In the literal sense of the term he was alone. It was only after he spiritually severed his ties to Jesus, however, that I believe we can see true loneliness overcome him. I believe we should understand the loneliness we experience in our lives not just as a physical condition or a symptom of a broken relationship but as a spiritual condition. It is tough to experience true loneliness if we feel strong in our faith. When we are strong in our faith, when we feel truly connected to God, things like prayer, worship, Scripture and spiritual community have profound effects upon us. But when we feel truly lonely, we begin to convince ourselves that these things are incapable of helping us in our loneliness. In these moments, we become like Peter in the courtyard. And it is a dark place to be.
But Jesus did not leave Peter in the courtyard. Jesus knew Peter would betray him, but he also knew that this would not be Peter’s legacy. And it is not. There is no doubt that the two passages I have read to you today are linked. Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is matched by Jesus’ threefold inquisition and command to Peter a few chapters later. This conversation is very different than the ones Peter had in the courtyard. Here he is talking to someone who knows him intimately, but who may be a bit angry with him. Notice how Jesus opens the dialogue, “Simon, son of John.” He uses Peter’s proper name, not his nickname, to address him. Think about your state of mind when you use your kid’s full name when you speak to them.
It’s usually not good for them. Jesus asks him three times, do you love me? Three times Peter says, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And then Jesus tells him to do something, and each time the command is a little different. First, he tells him, “Feed my lambs.” Then Jesus tells Peter to “Shepherd or tend my sheep.” Then finally he tells him to “feed my sheep.” The core message never changes even as the words change so slightly. Jesus tells Peter to respond to that act of love by caring for, looking after, tending his sheep.
In this passage we see that something important has happened to Peter. He has, in effect, been rehabilitated by Jesus. Three times Peter rejected Jesus, now 3 times he affirms his love for Jesus and seals it with the promise to feed his sheep. So what does this all mean for us? It’s pretty simple really. When we feel alone, truly alone, and we slip into a spiritual separation from God, Jesus reminds us that we, like Peter, will never be abandoned to our loneliness. Jesus tells us that we too have a pathway out, if we can only see it. So if you are feeling alone today, or even if you aren’t but can remember the feeling, let me ask you, “Do you love Jesus?” If you do, then feed his sheep.
If loneliness is about connection, then relationship is about collaboration. When we collaborate with others, whether it be with a loved one or a stranger, we are brought into relationship with them. Nothing builds relationships more than a shared goal or mission. Think about it for a second, think about the times in your life you have felt closest to another person. How many of those occasions were marked by your shared work together, whether it be something as simple as a project at work or as vital as the collaborative work of raising children. We exist together most perfectly as we collaborate with one another. And here is the beauty of what Jesus is saying to Peter, and, by proxy, us.
Jesus, you see, calls us not just to relationship but to collaboration. Can you see it? It is right there in the story of Peter. Peter affirms his love for Jesus by caring for the people Jesus sends to him. Who are the sheep? They are not Peter’s. They belong to Jesus. Just as you belong to Jesus, the people who we tend also belong to Jesus. When we look outwards, away from ourselves and into the world and into the eyes of the people around us, we open ourselves to collaboration with the work of Jesus Christ in this world. You can collaborate with Jesus in his work in the world! Think about that for a minute. Jesus doesn’t tell Peter to sit back and watch, he tells him to get involved. He tells you to get involved in the lives of other people in a way that is nurturing, sustaining and loving. That’s deep. That’s a big deal. And that is also a surefire cure for loneliness.
And there is nothing stopping you from caring for another person. Nothing. You’re not too old to do it. You’re not too poor. You’re not too simple. The Gospels are clear about the fact that following Jesus is not a passive act but it is a collaboration. It is a collaboration with our brothers and sisters. It is a collaboration with the Holy Spirit who calls us forward. And it is a collaboration with Jesus himself, who continues to work in this world. If you are lonely, if you feel isolated, separated, alone, then listen to these worlds from Jesus. No one was ever more separated from Jesus than Peter, and Jesus brought him back through the work of collaboration. Raise your head and look at the people in your life. These are people Jesus Christ has brought into your life. Feed them. Tend them. Love them. You are not alone. We are with you. The Spirit is with you. Christ is with you. Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep. Amen.