Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) In the second half of this reading, Jesus addresses Peter three times. And each time Jesus addresses him, he calls him “Simon, son of John.” There is something about that identity. This is the third and final time since the resurrection that the disciples have seen the risen Lord in the Gospel of John. Peter previously tried to deny Jesus three times. He has tried to go back to fishing. But, during breakfast, with the familiar smell of a charcoal fire wafting in the air, Jesus really gets to the heart of the matter: identity.
What is your identity? Maybe the better question is how many identities do you have? How many of those can you wear at one time? I have several: pastor, wife, mom, friend, daughter, sister, Bearcat, activist, and on and on. But, my most important identity, at least to me, is my baptismal identity. I am Jealaine Rae, child of God. As great as that sounds, I don’t always remember that my baptismal identity is my primary identity. But, it is my baptismal identity that allows me to respond to all of my other identities. It’s easy to forget that though. When I’ve gone from a day of visits, to a council meeting, to home in time to hopefully read stories and do bedtime, grab a late dinner, put a load in the laundry, I forget that in all of that God claims me. I forget in all of what I do that God knows me.
A challenge also arises when we desire to forget, leave behind, abandon, or even deny our identity. While Jesus was on trial and Peter was in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire, those gathered around asked Peter “you are not also one of this man’s disciples are you?” And Peter responded with “I am not.” (see John 18:17, 25) Talk about a denial. But when Jesus appears to Peter and the others after the resurrection, he does not desire to shame or guilt Peter. You notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter for an apology or ask him to repent; neither does Peter offer it. And it may be easy to think that Jesus asks this question of “do you love me” three times to remind Peter that he denied Jesus three times. But, this is not the case. Jesus is simply reaffirming who Peter really is, who Peter has always been, who Jesus needs Peter to be now.
I believe there are times when we all desire to deny our identity. Any parent will tell you that there have been days when you want to scream “my name is no longer mom” (or “dad”). The ladies who helped with Lucille’s funeral can attest that I came back from the burial, grabbed my lunch, and went to seclude myself into my office. I actually said “I can’t people anymore.” At the same time, there may be those times when we flex our identities a little more. My dad is a fan of the idea that whatever he says goes, because “I’m the papa!” For extra emphasis, he’ll sing like he’s in “Fiddler on the Roof.” There has been more than one occasion when I introduce myself I make sure that I emphasize that I am “PASTOR” Jealaine Marple.
But there are those times when we desire to deny our identity out of fear. There is the worry that we won’t meet expectations. There is the fear that we will meet expectations and then more will be expected of us. There is the fear of disappointment. There is the desire to deny our identity because we may be judged on that identity or even rejected. And that hurts. And if we’re going to be honest, sometimes we deny who we are because there is a fear that we won’t be liked or even loved for who we truly are. We don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to be without a community or support system. So sometimes, identities get denied. What happens when we wish to deny our identity of “child of God.” Moreover, why might we want to deny that identity?
Jesus lays it out for us in this conversation with Peter. Just in case you thought this conversation was just for Peter, it is for us too. The resurrection has happened and we are faced with the “now what.” If we profess and confess to love Jesus what is that going to look like on a practical level? If we believe that “God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) what will that look like as we encounter the world on a daily basis? Jesus is the good shepherd. We hear that in John 10. Jesus even says in John 10:16 that there are “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Meaning, there are sheep, people, who have not yet come to know Jesus but Jesus is going to make them part of his fold as well.
So we fast forward to this conversation and Jesus says to Peter, “feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” For Peter and for us, this is our identity as disciples. This is our identity when we say we are children of God. This is our identity in Christ. We are to care for one another. We are to feed one another. We are to love one another. With an assignment like that, I can understand why Peter may not want to be a disciple. I can understand why going back to fishing, even on a bad day, looked a bit more appealing.
I can understand this because the world can be really hard to love. The problems of this world seem impossible to solve. Hate, violence, injustice, war, and power all seem to be the preferred language. If we’re going to be honest, our identity as children of God and as disciples has the power to just break our hearts over and over again. We are going to run into broken systems, people who feel broken, corruption, and what may feel like speed bump after speed bump. That much hurt has the power to not only make us deny our identity but leave it behind altogether. Sometimes, yes, it would be easier to operate in the world as someone who doesn’t know Christ. Sometimes it would be easier to turn and look the other way. It would be easier to not care.
But Christ calls us to something better and deeper. And yes, it’s going to break our hearts. And God is going to take those broken pieces and use them and keep us moving forward. We don’t do this discipleship thing on our own. While we may desire to leave behind our identity as children of God or identity as disciples, God has made a permanent mark on us. As much as we may try and ignore it, God’s love projects us forward into service to others in the world. The problem with our Christian identity is that we see the world as Christ sees it. The joy of our Christian identity is that we see the world as Christ see it. Our identity in Christ is secure. God has a firm grip on us, even on the days when we struggle. God has a firm grip on us even in the moments we’d rather have nothing to do with God. Peter has seen what life in Christ looks like: abundance upon abundance. We have seen it too. This is what discipleship is: to witness God’s abundance upon abundance and then make that happen for others.
It’s not an easy identity. It’s not a glamourous identity. But our identity in Christ is quite possibly the most rewarding identity we have. We may not see or experience that reward until we are in God’s kingdom, but the promise is there. We have seen the empty tomb. We have experienced the risen Lord. Soon we will be fed. Then Christ sends us out to feed the world. Our identity is love. Our identity is hope. Our identity is intertwined with the proclamation that alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)