Peter’s Recommitment and Ours: A Message to Army Chaplains about Loving Our Vocation

A message given at the opening of the Chief of Chaplains’ Preaching Conference, September 13, 2010 at the US Army Chaplain Center and School, Ft. Jackson, SC

John 21.1-22

It is customary to begin a relationship like this by saying, “I am honored to be here” or something like that. But I want to tell you why I really am.

There are four reasons why I feel extraordinarily honored and humbled to be with you for the next three mornings to speak on renewing your passion for preaching. First, I am one of you. I am a chaplain in the US Army Reserve. I treasure the privilege of wearing our nation’s uniform and also wearing the cross of Christ and being His ambassador to the military community, even if it is in this reserve capacity. Second, I am one of you in that I am a minister of the Gospel, in need to hear from God’s Word about a fresh encounter with the Christ who called me so long ago to Himself and to preach the Gospel I once blasphemed. Third, I am speaking to you at most critical time in our nation’s history in which you are playing a great part. For that reason, I feel very much like Peter Marshall in that unforgettable scene from A Man Called Peter,[1] when actor Richard Todd portrayed that great Scottish preacher as he walked into the pulpit at the Naval Academy chapel on December 7 1941, and looked into the eyes of all of those midshipmen who would soon be on the front lines of defense of our nation in World War Two. I am looking —even if it is through this lens—at the chaplains who will be there with our soldiers, who will guide their hearts and minds, pray with commanders, and support communities left behind at installations all over the world.

Ministry in the Word of God is not impersonal, theologically detached from life, but like the very life of our Lord, incarnational. We cannot begin to speak of renewing our passion for preaching without asking that God touch the deep, inner chords of our hearts and begin to play again the song of His voice that first called us. Sometimes when I counsel married couples having troubles, I will ask them to remember their courtship. Then I will ask them to remember the song that was “their song.” Invariably, the husband in this troubled marriage will say, “What song?” And the wife will kick him. “You know,” I prod them, “your song.” When I finally get him to admit they had a certain song that was sort of the soundtrack of their courtship, I ask them to sing it. They look at me like I am crazy. “No,” I say, “go ahead and sing it!” It is barely heard at first, but then she kicks him again, and he sings like a bird, “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean, higher than any bird every flew, Longer than there’ve been starts up in the heavens, I’ve been in love with you.”[2]

You see what I am trying to do is to help them fall in love again with their calling as husband and wife. I make no bones about it. In Renewing Your Passion for Preaching, I pray that we will all, by coming into contact with the God who called us, the God who sends us, and the God who never lets us go. We will re visit the lives of Peter, Moses and Paul to seek God’s anointing for our ministries. Through these series of messages I ask God that we each fall in love with our calling again as pastors, as chaplains.

And the first place we go to sing our song of vocation is the shore of Galilee, and our Lord and a man named Peter.

We all love to beat up Peter. He is unbridled, braggadocios, cocky as a bullfinch, to use Dylan Thomas’ phrase, embarrassingly bold, and at times violent. But he is also a man who is greatly used of God, to preach at Pentecost, to lead the Church at Jerusalem, to minister to the Church at Rome, to minister to suffering saints in Asia Minor. In other words he is like us. He leans on self to minister at times and then has to turn again, or even be turned by Paul, to lean on grace. He is just a preacher. This morning, I want to read the account of Peter’s renewal and re-commissioning by Jesus in John 21.1-22.

John 21.1-22

After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. John 21.1 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 2 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. 3

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. John 21.4 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 5 He said to them, “Cast the net on 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 of the quantity of fish. 6 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 7 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. 8

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. John 21.9 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 10 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 11 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 12 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 13 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 14

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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” John 21.15 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 16 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 17 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 18 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” 19

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” John 21.20 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 22

Introduction

“What is God doing in my life, in my ministry? I just don’t know.”

My friend, a chaplain who has been deployed twice in three years, a husband, father, godly man, a chaplain who ministered to his driver, blown up in the vehicle he was riding in, a man who never fails to stop what he is doing to take time to listen to the soldier who drops in to talk about a family matter, or a job matter, or to just chat about a ball game. He is the kind of chaplain who sees ministry always just beneath the surface of the old master sergeant who wants to talk about the Monday night football game or to laugh with the young first lieutenant as he recounts his visit to see the father of the girl he wants to marry, to have ‘that talk.” He is a good chaplain. But he is wondering about God’s call on his life.

I think that if we admit it, we all can identify at some level with my friend. We all at one time or another have a Gethsemane moment, when the pressures and the realities of the ministry we are called to collide with the people we know ourselves to be. Sometimes it happens when friends are killed and we are not. Sometimes it happens when we do our best and get bad OERs[3]. Sometimes it is when we are at our best and get a bad MRI.

“What is God doing in my life, in my ministry?” And we say with my friend, “I just don’t know.”

I would say that this “poor-in-spirit” is not a bad place to be, but a good place to be. It is a place where God can use us in an even greater way. But there are things, Gospel things, sacred-encounter things, that must happen in order to hear God’s answer to our dark-night-of-the soul plea for understanding.

And where do we turn?

John is a Gospel storyteller. He is the one who always point to when we are witnessing to someone who needs the Lord, right? “Just read a little bit of John every night before bed.” We know that God’s Word doesn’t return void. And we know that John will always deliver. For John’s purpose statement in his Gospel is clear:

but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20.31

But John ends His Gospel with a story of resolution. The resolution of the call of Peter. And it is here that my friend and where I and where you and where all ministers of Christ, military chaplains or parish pastors, vicars in country churches and senior pastors of mega churches, and presidents of seminaries, must fall into the arms of Jesus again. In John 21 the Lord provides a safe haven for pastors to lay down their stoles and listen to the quiet, sweet voice of Jesus guiding us to renew our commitment to our call from Him.

I have called this series Renewing Your Passion for Preaching. But the Lord showed me in this passage that this is not really about our passion, it is about His passion for His ministry through us. Our passion is an overflow of His passion for the world flowing through us. In fact, Peter’s problem and often ours, is our passion for our ministry, rather than our love of the one who so passionately desires to minister His Gospel to the world. So I see in John 21.1-21 how God meets us at the point of our need as ministers to renew our commitment to His call on our lives.

To renew our passion for preaching we need to renew our commitment to our calling.

There are four words that I want to use to describe the sacred movements in this passage that brings about that renewed commitment of our calling as chaplains—as followers of the Lord.

1. Reflection

We all know this passage. Peter has blasphemed the Savior, denied Him, run away from Him. And so we find him here telling Thomas, Nathanael and John and another disciple, “I am going fishing” (verse 3). It is here that I have sometimes said, “Now, this man who was so foolishly bold at one time, has now given up and is just going back to what he knew before. He is giving up on the ministry.” I have been in ministry long enough now to know that this is not the best way to handle this. To hear this man saying, “I am going fishing” is to hear the echo of his words in my own heart, when a session meeting has gone bad, or my latest, greatest ministry program went sour, or I have ministered so much in my own strength instead of Christ’s strength, that I am just depleted. “I am going gardening.” “I am going hunting.” “I just want to get away.”

Remember that this Peter who had denied Jesus, after bragging that the rest might do that, but he never would, is the Peter who ran with John to see the empty tomb. He saw the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head. He saw the winding sheets all “folded up in a place by itself” (20.7). Peter must have been with the disciples when the resurrected Christ came through locked doors on that first day of the week when He arose and said, “Peace be with you” (20.19). Peter must have heard Jesus say, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (20.21). And those words must have burned into the core of Peter’s soul like a white-hot cinder. For Peter had failed. Ministry was confusing. He had done his all and his all was not enough.

I once heard a prominent minister in a mega church say, “As I look back at my ministry, I realize that most of it has been conducted in the flesh.” Peter must have felt like that.

So I don’t beat up on Peter anymore when he says, “I am going fishing.”

Peter needed time to reflect. He needed time to put all of the pieces together. He was asking the question my friend was asking, perhaps. We have a resurrected Savior. And he is calling us to go out and minister. I thought I was doing that. Now I am seeing myself for what I am. I am not sure anymore.

Reflection, as we know, is the beginning of renewal. In a real way we are all indebted for this conference for allowing us a time as chaplains to “go fishing.” We all need times of rest and renewal. But maybe there is someone among us who needs more. Maybe someone is asking, “Lord, what are you doing in my life, in my ministry? Am I still called? Was I ever called?”

To inquire of God is to draw near to God. Spurgeon spoke of what he called the “howling Psalms:” those Psalms that begin, “How long?”

But you, O LORD— how long? Psalms 6.3

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalms 13.1 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 2

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Psalms 89.46

“How long” is the cry of the heart of the minister of Christ who has seen the promises of the Lord meet the pain of living. It is the cry of the soul of the chaplain who authentically brings his burdens to the Lord when all of the ministry tricks he has learned from evangelical magazines and hot seller how to books fall beneath the unforgiving reality of life. And so you cry “how long?” And so you go fishing.

But to read on in the text is to be encouraged that fishing can lead to a catch like never before. And reflection on where you have been and where you are going as a minister of the Gospel can also be the starting point for a new catch—a new commitment to the calling you heard so long ago.

In this case, I would ask you, “Are you just pressing on to the next assignment? Or would you dare join Peter, admit that ministry is really more than we can handle alone, and get in the boat, and reflect…?

So Reflection is the genesis for a renewal of our commitment to our calling. The second word is what follows when we are in the boat of reflection.

2. Recognition

The scene is amazing. Whether you find Peter to be introspective and reflective, given all that he has seen and all that he knows himself to be, or in fact, you just see him as a washed up preacher, sort of like a crooked tele-evangelist in the floating cell of his own making (I cannot see this in Peter or else I see it in my own life), the thing that happens next is nothing short of spectacular.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’” (21.5). They answered him, “’No’” (21.5).

This is where Peter was. No ministry. No fish. No conversions, but also no satisfaction coming out of my time in the boat. I am just fishing. But no fish.

“He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (21.6).

So they followed the instruction of the bold stranger on the shore. And they cast their nets, like they had done so often before. And there was a catch that they couldn’t haul in. I once had a 25-pound catfish on a trotline in South Louisiana. I know how it is! I had to beat that thing in the head with a hammer to kill him to get him in the boat! But they could not get the fish in the boat. And here is the thing: the sea, the boat, the fishing, the lack of fish, the voice, the command, the result…they had experienced this all before. It is in Luke 5.1-11:

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, Luke 5.1 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 2 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 3 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 4 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 5 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 6 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 7

John recognized it. Then Peter. And Peter dove in. He paused to put on his outer garment. The fishermen fished without cloths. But he had to meet the Master. You grab your stole again. You grab your old torn pastoral robe. You are about to meet Jesus. And so Peter swims for it.

I am here to say, “Listen as you reflect.” For the one who goes fishing for answers with the Lord will finally hear His voice. You may hear it this morning in this message. Or you may hear it alone with your loved on a walk. When I first started out as a reserve chaplain, I had a Vietnam era chaplain for a boss who told me, when we were out in the field, “this is where He meets again.” Or you may hear the voice of your Beloved in a cave of Kandahar. But when you hear, you recognize Him. You recognize His voice:

The voice of Jesus that called you when as a little boy you sat on the lap of your grandmother as she read a Bible story from one of those little books you see in the Dentist’s office; you heard His voice from His Word calling you to turn to Him;

The voice of Jesus that called you as a young boy, like Douglas Kelly, one of our professors at RTS Charlotte, who testifies that he heard the voice of Jesus deep in his soul as a five-year old boy, calling him to give his life to Him as a preacher; or maybe, you heard that voice, as I did, as I came in contact with His grace as a young man, and knew that all other pursuits, all other ambitions were as nothing before the ambition to preach the unsearchable riches of His grace that I had once run from.

But you recognize. And to reflect is to be in a position to recognize. But that leads to a third sacred movement in this renewal of your commitment to the call on your life:

3. Reassessment

All of us in the military are used to “After Action Reports.” And this is one big AAR for Peter. The resurrected Christ waits for the right time. After breakfast on the shore, Jesus spoke to Peter. I imagine that Peter knew this was coming. Jesus knew it had to come.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (21.15).

He did not call him Peter. He called him by his given name, Simon. He had to get back to the beginning. He had to strip away everything. And Jesus dealt with Peter’s love of him. But when Jesus adds “more than these” he strikes at the heart of Peter’s problem. Peter’s love was always in competition with others. His relationship with Jesus was, seemingly, as displayed in the New Testament, a matter of performance. It was all about what Peter could do for Jesus. And it was always in the context of “Others will deny you, but I will never.” And now this place of pain, where best intentions, made in the flesh, met with worst consequences, played out in time, had to be addressed. Three times Jesus asks Peter “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter’s love was confirmed. But Peter knew now that his love was a love that responded to the initiation of the love of Jesus. We serve Christ before He loves us. He chose Abraham. He chose Peter. He chooses us. And this is not because of our prowess in the pulpit or our gifts or even our willingness necessarily. He chooses us out of His love. And our love must for Him in return. Love is the starting-point for all of our ministry. Peter needed to know that. I do too.

And three times Jesus told him to feed or tend His sheep. Peter was called. That was settled. But the reassessment was that the sheep belonged to Jesus not Peter. And the ministry was Jesus’ not Peter’s. And in fact, Peter’s very life and ministry were one. He was to feed the sheep of Jesus our of the overflow of love that He knew from Christ. But in the end, his life and ministry was in the hands of others.

But here is the reassessment for all of us:

We must minister out of our personal experience of His love, not our strength. Or we could say, in ministry, “Love Alone is Credible.” This was, of course, the Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s, apologetic.[4] And with exceptions taken as a Presbyterian minister with other significant parts of von Balthasar’s theology, I cannot help but to say “Amen” to this part. For as Peter had to learn that Christian ministry begins with an experience of mind and heart in love with Jesus, with a sacred encounter with this most beautiful, loving, forgiving resurrected Savior, so do I . So do you.

When you know that love again in your life you have renewed a commitment to ministry in which His passion flows through you. You say like Paul,

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 1 Timothy 1.12 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 13 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 15 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 16

And like Paul, your life, overflowing with His love, breaks out into spontaneous doxology:

To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 17

When your vocation becomes doxology, your renewal is complete.

But I have one final word to describe what I see in this text to describe the process of renewing your commitment to Christ’s calling on your life and it is this:

4. Re-entry

For immediately after this ethereal experience, this hopeful renewal and restoration of Simon to the Gospel ministry, after reflection and recognition and reassessment, we see…well, … we see glimpses of Peter, the old Peter, once again:

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” John 21.20 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 21

Peter had been told that ministry would lead him to death. I don’t know about you, but I might have said the same thing, “What about him?” But Bonheoffer’s assessment of the call to follow Jesus is always true:

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”[5]

And Peter was renewed, but his renewal brought him on a pathway of growth in that renewal. There would be lapses into the old ways, and face-to-face admonitions by Paul. There would be revelations about the Gospel and the Gentiles. But in the end there would be the man of God, the fatherly pastor, writing to the “elect exiles” these words from his letter from “a Birmingham prison:”

“…this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it” (1 Peter 5.12).

Conclusion

What is at stake? Your family. Your ministry. Your unit? Your chapel community? Your own sanctification. Your example to your children, and to the children of God who look to us. But the reflection of our calling, recognition of His voice, reassessment of our love, and re-entry into the ups and downs of His calling on our lives always leads to His passion being dispersed to others. He could have done it through angels. He could have done it through a single cosmic fiat that brought about a new heavens and a new earth. But when he ascended on high…he gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4.8). And he gave some to be “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry…” (Ephesians 4.11b-12a).

You know, when I made the transition from pastor to seminary president and now chancellor elect of six seminaries, I felt a sense of loss. I had changed from preaching in one pulpit to preaching in many. The only good thing was that I could preach and then get on a plane and get out-of-town before the session met! But I missed the local pastorate. In my heart, I went fishing. But God came to me, in several surprising ways, to call me to Himself, to remind me that His call was still the same. My work was still the same. I just preached to more people in different places. And I committed then and there that I wanted to use this opportunity, wherever I go to preach, to bring blessing to the people of God. I also want to bring blessing, through His Word, to pastors, and to chaplains. I wanted to shepherd through the Word to as many people as I could. God renewed my passion for preaching in that time with Him. I heard again His voice, the voice we all must hear to go and do what we have been called to do, “Feed my sheep.”

I am not the only one. I suspect there are many listening who have gone through this sacred time as well. And maybe what He is really doing is slowing us down, to call us back to Him personally and to be re commissioned to go out again in His name and feed His sheep. When that happens there is not only a recommitment to our calling, but a renewing of our passion to preach.

I want to close with a song I wrote called, “Follow Your Call.[6] It may be early in the morning, but I want to share it with you and then pray:

“For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! ” (1 Cor. 9.16 ESV)

The Call that came
Whispered my name
And awakened me
To finally see
That life was more
Than keeping score
There was more to see
Than inside of me
The voice I heard
From God’s own Word
Disturbed my soul
And took a hold
And bid me come
But I did run
The other way
But there was no escape
His Voice
So distant, so near
His call
So frightening, so clear
My Life
His possession, not my own
Make my heart Thy throne
And let me follow the Call
This call brought chains
Chains binding me
But in those chains I finally was free
The years that past
And vision cast
Was His own plan
I don’t understand
Though my mistakes
And “lucky” breaks
Were overcome
So His kingdom comes
His Voice
So distant, so near
His call
So frightening, so clear
My Life
His possession, not my own
Make my heart Thy throne
And let me follow the Call

Amen.

References

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Love Alone Is Credible. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.

Boice, James Montgomery. John. 5 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM, 1959.

Clowney, Edmund P. The Message of 1 Peter : The Way of the Cross. 2nd ed, with study guide. ed. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1994.

Grant, Michael. Saint Peter. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994.

Koster, Henry. “A Man Called Peter.” 119 Minutes. U.S.A.: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1955.

Milton, Michael Anthony. Follow Your Call. Compact Disc Recording. Chattanooga: Music for Missions, 2008.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.

New Reformation Study Bible : English Standard Version. 1st ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2005.


[1] Henry Koster, “A Man Called Peter,”  (U.S.A.: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1955).

 

[2] Dan Fogelberg, “Longer,” © 2010 EMI April Music, Inc.

[3] “OER” is, in the military, the acronym for Officer Evaluation Reports.

[4] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004).

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM, 1959).

[6] Michael Anthony Milton, Follow Your Call (Chattanooga: Music for Missions), Compact Disc Recording.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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