Loved, Loved, Loved; Sent, Sent, Sent!

John 21:1-19


Sometimes there are things that bear repeating. Other times, repeating again and again can be quite annoying!

But repetition is what we do. It is how we learn. Everyone here has had to memorize something. Perhaps in school you memorized multiplication tables. Maybe you had to memorize certain dates in history for a test. Or maybe you have memorized lines for a play, or dance steps and routines, or song lyrics, or directions to a certain place, or someone’s name. We commit things to memory every single day. That does not mean that it is easy, though. Memorization—this type of learning—takes time and effort. Sometimes we cannot do it on our own. We need someone to help us remember and learn and then apply.

Maybe that’s why things often come in threes. Phone numbers are broken down, at least in the U.S., into three sets of numbers. For many, this is easier to memorize.

You have heard the phrase: third time’s the charm.

Good things come in threes.

Three strikes and you’re out.


The past, present, and the future.

Now on the count of three, everybody pull!

1…2…3! Say cheese!

Three cheers: hip, hip, hooray!

Three is company, four is a crowd.

Lights, camera, action!

1 for the money, 2 for the show; 3 to get ready…

Yadda, yadda, yadda…

What other sayings do you know that contain the number three?

 Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, once said:

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.

And many of us know this phrase from Paul’s letter to Corinth:

And these three remain: faith, hope, and love.

So what is this all about? This is the rule of 3.

3The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form, according to many, are more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans like go, fight, win! to film and literary titles, to philosophy and religion. You might remember The Three Stooges, the Three Little Pigs, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the Three Musketeers. The list goes on.

And I need to mention, as an actor and lover of theatre–plays on stage are usually in 3 acts.

Not to overdo it, but there is something to this. A series of three often creates a progression in which tension is created, built up, and finally released. Similarly, in writing, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.[1]

Martin Luther, King famously utilized the rule of 3 in his speeches for emphasis; for example, in his speech  Non-violence and Racial Justice, he used the words  “insult, injustice and exploitation,” followed a few lines later by “justice, good will and brotherhood.”[2]

Those of you from a Catholic background probably know [or memorized!] the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete).

But I’m more apt to go with the rule of 3 in comedy and jokes.

A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a bar…

 It’s an actual unwritten rule of comedy—something we use all the time in the theater company I perform with. It is often called a comic triple. A joke usually is set up by two phrases that coax the audience into expecting a hilarious punch line in the third phrase. A simple example for a voicemail message:

Hello, you’ve reached Josh. I’m either solving world hunger, climbing Mt. Everest, or picking my nose. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I touch my brain.

So, using this formula to introduce our story…


[1] he was a beloved disciple of Jesus;

[2] he was the rock on which the church was built;

[3] he was a bumbling idiot.

Poor Peter. But his character is portrayed this way in the Gospels for a reason.

Peter is us.

Just like the so-called “doubting” Thomas is us. But unlike Thomas, for Peter the problem wasn’t skepticism, it was his past. We know what he was feeling, don’t we? We are more likely to remember something bad that happened than something good. If someone criticizes us or hurts us with his/her words, then we usually remember. But how many compliments, good wishes, and encouraging words do we remember? We are sure to remember when we failed at something. How much do we remember and celebrate our successes?

Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Are we there yet?

ACT I: The charcoal fire was just like the charcoal fire during Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As if Peter’s wounds from his denial weren’t fresh enough!

ACT II: Regardless, all the disbelieving, cowardly disciples are invited to eat. Fish. Come and eat. They are fed. Can you say…foreshadowing!? And guess what? This just happened to be the THIRD time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his death.

ACT III: the climax: the rule of 3 scene:

Jesus: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?

Peter: Yes, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Feed my lambs. Simon son of John do you love me?

Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Tend my sheep. Simon son of John, do you love me?

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

Jesus: Feed my sheep. Follow me.

Here is my take on Peter’s story in threes:

  1. It is about learning from the past. Redeeming the past. Moving forward.
  2. Peter needs to remember something important.
  3. Peter needs to accept the forgiveness and commit to sharing it with others.

In the three questions do you love me, Jesus is reminding and forgiving, at the same time. My take is that Peter had not forgiven himself for being a coward and for denying that he knew Jesus, when Jesus needed him most. He was not facing his past; thus, he was letting his past control his present thoughts and actions, leaving his future vulnerable to be infected by depression, fear, and apathy. So he needed to remember what happened and he needed to face it. Basically, he needed to forgive himself. He is reminded three times about it. But by the third time, there is a movement from Peter’s superficial answer to a real answer of honesty. Lord, you know everything. You know that I denied you and ran away and tried to cover it up. You know it. I know it. And yet…

Jesus still loves Peter, has never blamed him for anything, and forgave him from the get-go. Instead of rebuke, Jesus calls Peter—gives him something useful and good to do. Jesus entrusts Peter with relationships. 1] Feed my lambs. As I fed them with stories of God’s mercy and forgiveness and love, as I filled their minds and hearts with light—feed them.

2] Tend my sheep. Care for them, like I cared for you. Help them out, support and encourage them.

And lastly, the third statement: 3] feed my sheep. Don’t forget this. This is your calling. Don’t neglect it. You’re capable of doing such good in the world. Feed them. The world is hungry for love, for mercy, for community.

Feed them.

And by doing this, you truly follow me.

We are forgiven when we make mistakes or fall short of our goals in life. Perfection is an illusion. Holiness is a façade. We must accept forgiveness because we are never perfect or holy. Jesus forgives and calls us at the same time. We are given useful and good things to do. We are meant to share what we have [our whole selves] with others, feeding them with healthy relationships, acceptance, and love. But we need to be told this, reminded of this at LEAST three times. Because like Peter…we get stuck in the past. We think we are not worthy. We don’t forgive ourselves. But we’re still loved and already forgiven. And we’re still called.

Big disclaimer: having faith in and following this Jesus does not make us perfect or less apt to fail or make mistakes. We’re still completely like Peter and anyone else—we’re completely human. But recognizing that we will fail and are already forgiven and are still loved and called can be a huge encouragement and a movement—to an attitude will help us to stop judging others when they fail.

Instead, we will love and forgive them, feed and care for them. And they will feel loved and called, too.

We are loved. We are cared for. We are called to do good in the world.

We love; we care for others; we invite others to do good, too.

Amen; amen; amen!

[1] Booker, Christopher (2005). “The Rule of Three”. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum International Publishing Group.

[2] “Non-Violence and Racial Justice,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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