Reading: John, Chapter 21, verses 1 – 19
In today’s reading the risen Jesus appears by the lakeside to Simon Peter and some other disciples. You might well ask, “What on Earth is Simon Peter doing, going back to his old job as a fisherman?” After all, they have been with Jesus throughout His ministry. They’ve heard the teachings and the prophecies. They saw the multitudes fed, the water turned into wine and the man, blind from birth, receive his sight. The disciples have been through a rigorous training course and now they have seen for themselves: ‘The Lord is risen indeed’. Surely they must now be ready to go out and take the world by storm?
Yet in our reading we find them sitting around on the beach, trying to make up their minds about whether or not to go fishing. It seems unbelievable and, when they do decide eventually to go out in a boat, they can’t even catch a cold, despite fishing all night. It seems that the three years they spent with Jesus have not only failed to produce successful and productive disciples, it evidently hadn’t even produced successful and productive fishermen. But then, at daybreak, Jesus appears on the beach. Then follows what, to me, is one of the greatest moments in the Gospels.
Writing on this appearance of Jesus, a great Biblical translator, Eric Rieu, said this, “If I were trying to convince an unbeliever of the majesty and spiritual stature of the risen Christ, I would take that person straight to the last chapter of St John’s Gospel and ask them to look through John’s eyes at Jesus standing alone on the beach, in the light of dawn, with a fire at his feet, on which fish is cooking for breakfast.” Rieu is right. Nothing could be more typical of the humility and naturalness of Jesus: a breakfast barbie for his boys.
This is probably the first one to one encounter Peter has with Jesus since Jesus’s arrest and that fateful event in the shadowy twilight of a flickering firelit courtyard. That night it took only a woman and a man, with a natural ear for regional accents, to puncture Peter’s lofty protestations of loyalty that he would never deny Jesus. That night three times Peter was asked if he knew Jesus. Three times Peter dissociated himself from Jesus, each time more vehemently than the last. And then, with a film director’s eye for drama, Luke tells us that Jesus turned and looked at Peter and, in that supreme moment of pathos and tragedy, where their eyes met, Peter surely felt himself sentenced to a lifetime of bitter self-recrimination and remorse.
Now, only days later, Peter is right back on the lake where he had first seen Jesus and there he was, plying his old trade as a fisherman. Peter is struggling to put behind him not only his denial of Jesus but the whole three years when he accompanied the disciples of Jesus on the road. He is trying to forget and flee from his failures. He’s trying to go back to the old, secure, safe, mundane life he had known before he had ever met the ‘Man from Nazareth’ and now Peter is face to face with Jesus for the first time since that disastrous night. He stands facing Jesus over the fire on the beach. Peter will be recalling that other fire, the one he warmed himself by in the High Priest’s courtyard just before he denied his master.
We are aware that, as he stands facing Jesus, Peter may well be hearing his own words echoing in his head. “I do not know this man”: words which had tied a knot in his heart and soul. Peter, unfaithful and bitterly ashamed, faces Jesus and we begin to understand that Jesus means to untie that knot that was tied in Simon’s heart and soul that fateful night by the fire in the High Priest’s courtyard.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks.
“Yes,” says Peter, and the knot loosens.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks.
“Yes,” Peter again says, and the strands of the knot relax.
Jesus asks Peter still a third time, “Do you love me?” and, with his final ‘yes’, the knot in Peter’s heart and soul falls apart.
But, is it as simple as that? Is it really plausible that one person can say ‘Do you love me?’: another can answer ‘yes’: and everything is suddenly put right again; knots forged by guilt and denial completely dissolve? In the real world, declarations of love are sometimes not strong enough to overcome the disabling effects of anxiety, hurt and confusion. Perhaps love for Jesus is different. It’s certainly tempting to believe that loving Jesus will simply untie all the knots in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities, our congregations, knots in the Christian Church and in the world.
But I believe something far deeper than a question and answer session about love is going on between Jesus and Peter. Left to himself, Peter would rather forget his treachery and failure and go back to his old life. You can, I believe, hear him thinking, ‘Don’t reopen old wounds. Don’t rake up the past.’ But like Peter we can’t move forward in life until we’ve gone back and got in touch with our festering sores and owned what we once denied. As a minister in the army, I often spent many hours with people who were tormented by their past failures. They would often use these words, which I came to dread: “I’m moving on now, Padre.” Jesus anticipated modern psychology by affirming here that, unless you own your past and face it, it’ll come back to bite you or, as the old joke would have it, some people are bulls who carry their own china shop around with them and they’re condemned to repeat the past. By facing our failures we enter a greater wholeness, just as this did for Peter. Jesus presses home the question, “Do you love me?” remorselessly, again and again. And with each repetition, Peter’s past denials are more deeply confronted until gradually they issue in a wholeness that might not have been possible without them.
Peter was aggrieved the third time he said to Jesus, “You know I love You.” But all his former wild claims of loyalty to Jesus have long evaporated. He’s finally drained. Healing is now complete. His faith no longer depends on his own untested idealism but on Jesus’s love for him. In Peter’s encounter with Jesus, Peter looked only to his past but Jesus looked also to his future. Peter dwelt on his failure but Jesus affirmed his potential. It’s the warmth of God’s love that enables us to lay ourselves open to his love and healing.
Peter might have hoped to be spared this facing of his past but it’s the past which makes Peter who he is and becomes the foundation for a newer and more glorious future. Peter is not only rehabilitated, he is recommissioned. Many of us live in a state of denial, struggling in vain to suppress the memory of painful experiences, bitter memories or broken relationships. For some, like Peter, there will be the remorse and guilt that once enthusiastic discipleship to Jesus has been forsaken.
Yet Jesus wants to love us back into service, to open the vault of our guarded memories and bring them to light and healing. He wants to make something new out of our wounds and failures just as He did with Peter. It’s not our failures that disqualify us from the service of Christ; it’s only our unwillingness to recognise the need for deeper forgiveness. Mercifully for us, it’s as if forgiveness and vocation go together.
So today, we’re invited to take Peter’s route and to allow the ‘Stranger on the Shore’ to meet us with a love that enables us to open ourselves to Him and receive healing. Today he’s asking each one of us, “Do you love me?” Let us pray that this supreme question lodges in our minds until we too are ready to reply, “Yes, Lord, You know that I loved You.”