Ambivalence and Resurrection

by Brian Walsh

(A sermon preached at Wine Before Breakfast, April 2, 2013, on John 21.4-19 in the context of U2’s “Beautiful Day”) 

The ambivalence is there from the beginning.

The story is clearly one of deep, deep hope,
but the ambivalence shows in the first words.

Maybe you can only taste such deep hope,
such profound restoration,
in the face of such ambivalence.

Yes, the ambivalence is there from the beginning.

The heart is a bloom,
shoots up through the stony ground.

On one level we hear echoes of Isaiah,
the wilderness will blossom,
surely that is appropriate on a Easter Tuesday.

And yet, that heart is a bloom, shoots up through the stony ground.

A farmer went out to sow, and some seeds fell on stony ground.
Maybe those seeds grew into new shoots and began to bloom,
but there is something ominous, something ambivalent about that bloom:
it won’t last.

It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.
But not all that you see on this beautiful day is all that beautiful.
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out.
See the oil fields at first light.
It’s a beautiful day, but it is not without its ambivalence.

The ambivalence is there from the beginning.
Before there is any resolution,
before there is any restoration,
there is ambivalence.

The ambivalence is there from the beginning.
Before the question is even asked,
before the conversation painfully moves towards redemption,
there is ambivalence.

The ambivalence is there in the very naming.
You see, while our storyteller will identify him by the name that Jesus gave him,
Simon Peter;
when Jesus asks his question, he names the ambivalence.
Not Simon Peter, but Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?
No, we cannot name you as Peter, at least not in this conversation.
You see, you haven’t been much of a Peter.
You haven’t lived up to your name as the Rock.
You haven’t really been all that solid, have you?

And I think that in the very naming, or perhaps in the omission of the name,
Simon’s heart must have fallen.
Simply by not calling him Peter, Jesus had named the ambivalence,
indeed already named the betrayal, the denial, the failure of this disciple,
before he had even asked his question, “do you love me more than these?”

And when he then asked that question, well, Simon knew that the game was up.
Simon, disciple of ambivalence who is no Rock, tell me something,
do you love me more than all of these other men
sitting around this fire on the beach?

So Simon answers in total honesty.
Simon abandons all bravado.
He was naked in the boat and put on some clothes.
Now Jesus has, in the very way in which has addressed Simon,
and in the very question that he has asked,
stripped him naked again.
So there isn’t much point of attempting to cover up.

Do you love me more than these?
No, Jesus, I do not.
In effect, that is what is happening here.

You see, Jesus uses the word agape in his question.
Do you love me with an agape love, with a love that will lay down its life?

And Simon replies with phileo.
Simon replies with a word for brotherly love, for affection, for deep respect.

Do you love me more than all of these?
“Yes, Lord, you know that I have deep affection for you,” is the reply.

And Simon knows that that is not what was asked.
And Simon has a sinking feeling that in the naming and in the question,
and now in his honest answer,
the game is up.
He does not love Jesus more than the others,
in fact, truth be known, he doesn’t love Jesus
in the terms that have been asked at all.

Time to walk away.

The resurrected Lord is in your midst,
but you have no place here
because you do not love him.

But Jesus then says, “Feed my lambs.”

And no more redemptive or healing three words
are uttered in all of scripture, than these:
“Feed my lambs.”

You do not need to love me as I have asked
in order to have a place in my Kingdom.
Even though you are not, today, “Peter,”
even though your very presence before the resurrected one
is full of ambivalence,
even though you do not have it all together,
even though you deny me,
even though you are not so sure about your faith,
even though you are here this morning full of doubt and struggle,
even though you are not so sure that you love me,
“feed my lambs.”

Take your place in my resurrected life,
take your place in what I am doing to restore all things,
take your place as a shepherd, caring and protecting others.

You know how the story goes.
A second time, Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John to you love me?”
Not do you love me more than these, but just, do you love me?
And again Simon answers,
“Yes, Lord, you know that I have a deep affection for you.”
“Tend my sheep.”

And then a third time, only now Jesus changes his word to match Simon’s,
this time he moves from agape to phileo.
“Simon, son of John, do you have a deep affection for me?”
And it is almost as if any possible vestige of covering that Simon might have had left
was now stripped off and he is totally naked,
and he is hurt, he is grieved that the third time Jesus used his own word
and asked if he had deep affection for him.
So he replies, “The game is up, Lord. You know everything,
you know my ambivalence,
you know my duplicity,
you know how profoundly I have failed you,
and you know that, in the midst of all of that ambivalence,
you know that I do indeed have such deep affection for you.”

“Feed my sheep.”

Sisters and brothers, we are all Simon.
None of us lives up to our calling.
None of us lives up to the name of Christ by which we are called.

Like St. Paul in Romans we know that sin has taken up residence in our lives,
sin dwells in us, and we do not do what we most deeply want to do,
we have been raised in Christ, and yet we seem addicted to death,
we are renewed in the Spirit, but it feels like we are stuck in the mud
of our own sin,
of stuff that we carry with us,
of our own doubts,
of our own ambivalence.

Christ is risen, and on one hand we shout out ‘Alleluia’
while something in our gut is cringing at the same time.

So here is the good news for us this morning.
The risen one asks us, “do you love me?”
And we might reply,
I’m too confused to love you.
I’m too broken up with disappointment and hurt to love you.
I’m too scared about what lies before me to love you.
I’m too stuck in my own shit to love you.
I’m too lonely, too sad, too incompetent to love you.
I’m too full of doubt to love you.

And Jesus answers, it’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.
What you don’t have, you don’t need it now,
what you don’t know, you can feel it somehow,
what you don’t know you don’t need it now,
don’t need it now,
it’s a beautiful day.

It is resurrection day.
It is new life day.
Feed my sheep.
Tend my lambs.

May it be, sisters and brothers that we have been formed together
as a Wine Before Breakfast community
to live with that ambivalence,
to know that Jesus calls us in the midst of our fears and failures,
to ministry in his resurrection kingdom.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “Ambivalence and Resurrection”

  1. Matt Harrison


    I followed your suggestion to read this sermon, and am having it printed, framed, and ultimately hung on the wall in my office. I am all too often a terrible husband, father, brother, son, teacher, and even mechanic. I AM a Simon son of ……. This is partly why I have been reticent to accept the position of Dean at my school. It’s like you illustrated above, upon critical reflection, I’m simply unfit. But the words of your conclusion are the truth. Jesus is mericfully about nevertheless. And I will consider their weight for the duration of my career, of my life.

    Love you man.



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