Belonging and Purpose


Two Things Everyone Needs by David Lose

David Lose was called as senior pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis in 2017. From July 2014 to June 2017, he served as president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Before that, he held the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, where he also served as the Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching. He is the author of Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World -- and Our Preaching -- Is Changing (2013), Making Sense of the Cross (2011), Making Sense of the Christian Faith (2010), Making Sense of Scripture (2009), and Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World (2003). He speaks widely in the United States and abroad on preaching, Christian faith in a postmodern world, and biblical interpretation.

John 21:1-19

I am drawn to how Jesus in this scene offers Peter what many modern psychologists contend every one of us needs: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

First, a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and sense of self. This goes against what may seem like common sense – after all, our culture regularly posits that identity is an individual affair, something we carve out for ourselves and by ourselves. But it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us. And, just so we’re not confused, belonging is different than fitting in. Indeed, it is the exact opposite (as many of us will remember from adolescence!). Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as you are. We all need to belong.

In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. Three times. Imagine if someone you care about asked whether you really love him/her not once, not twice, but three times. Painful. And Peter is, indeed, hurt by this repetition. I suspect that only later did it sink in that Jesus is not testing Peter but reinstating him to the community of believers by allowing him to confess faith the same number of times he denied faith earlier. Jesus is drawing Peter back into a community to which he belongs and accepts him for whom he is.

Second, we all need a sense of purpose, the belief that what we do matters, that if we did not show up people would notice. Purpose, as it turns out, is one of the great motivators in the world. More powerful than money or fame or power, believing that you have something of value to contribute draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy.

And so in response to each of Peter’s confessions, Jesus responds by giving him good work to do: feed my sheep. Be a leader. Look out for these others. Devote yourself to this community. Peter is reinstated into the community of the faithful and given a sense of belonging, and then he is given good work to do and given a purpose.

By baptism we also are invited to be a part of a group where we belong. And what else is vocation – the promise that God will use us wherever we are to take care of God’s people and world – except the promise of purpose? By baptism we are called – vocatio – by God to make a difference in the world God loves so much.

And, just for fun, read the last line of this gospel: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Because, indeed, this story is not yet finished. There are so many other things that Jesus did that John couldn’t imagine writing them all. And there are so many things Jesus is still doing through you and your hearers that the tale of them would fill all the books of the world.