The story in this Gospel has always been one of my favorites. I preached about it last year at my own church when it came up in the lectionary rotation, and when I was thinking about something to share with you today, it came to mind, this story of Peter and his conversation with Jesus over breakfast on the beach. We know that it is sometime after Jesus has appeared the second time to the disciples. John tells us the second appearance was a week after the resurrection. We don’t know how long it has now been since that day, but some amount of time has passed. And a group of the disciples decided to go fishing. Not too strange. They were, after all, fishermen. And this must have been an odd time for them. Their leader Jesus had been killed in the most ignominious and shameful way possible. One of their own had handed him over. They were aware of this. And they were also each aware of their own behavior during the time of his trial and crucifixion and in the time after. They had been devastated. Then, then empty tomb, the confusion and finally joy when it became clear to them that Jesus was in some very real way alive among them. Though the Gospels do not make it clear, we might speculate that, even though the disciples were thrilled to have Jesus with them, they likely were also finding this somewhat disconcerting and puzzling, and were possibly not quiet sure what to make of it all, or what their next step was to be. Remember, when Jesus was right there alive with them before the crucifixion, many times they didn’t take direction very well, and were fairly clueless about his, and their, mission. So I am pretty sure that they didn’t just all of a sudden get purposeful right away! So, they did what we do when we aren’t really sure of the right thing to do…they fell back on the thing they knew, the thing that they were sure of and in which they felt comfortable. And who knows, they might have just been hungry and broke and needed to earn a few denarii besides!
Among them is Peter. Peter who very soon after encountering Jesus for the first time falls to his knees and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Peter, who when he sees Jesus walking toward him on the water says . "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." But then who a few minutes later is sputtering in the waves, half drowned, having panicked and lost faith. Peter, the one who, when Jesus inquires about who it is the disciples believe him to be blurts out, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Peter who wants to build tents at the transfiguration. Peter, who like the others, falls asleep when Jesus asks them to watch with him. Peter, who asserts "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Hotheaded Peter, who on the day Jesus was arrested cut off the ear of the high-priest’s slave to defend Jesus, and within hours denied that he ever heard of Jesus, to save his own skin.
Oh so human Peter, who, in this Gospel, when he realizes it is Jesus on the shore, puts ON his clothes and jumps into the sea and lets the rest of the disciples haul in the catch. This catch so reminiscent of the one on the first day they met Jesus. He must of have been thinking of that day. I wonder what else he was thinking. He had had some time to think. To wonder. Time to regret his actions, his part in that whole horrific drama as it unfolded in front of him. Time to wish that he could turn back the clock, maybe. To have a “do over.” Time to wish he had been stronger, braver, bolder. And he may have wondered since the appearances of Jesus had begun, “how will it be with us when we meet again, how can I face Him, what will I say, what will HE say?” We have no record if Jesus spoke with Him at the other gatherings, but we know that today, Peter and Jesus come face to face.
Jesus has fed them, provided the meal, and the disciples all knew Him in His feeding them, His nurturing them, His loving them. And when they finished that meal, Jesus turns to Peter. “Simon, son of John,” Jesus addresses him by his full name, “do you love me more than these.” These? These what? These other fellows around us? These boats and nets that he used to catch the fish he made his living with? We don’t know. Jesus is not specific. But Peter knew. And he answered Jesus, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.” And Jesus responds with a charge for Peter....”Feed my lambs.” But once is not enough for Jesus with Peter. Once is not enough to ask, “Do you love me?” Again, Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answers again in the affirmative, and again, Jesus gives him a task, telling him to “Tend my sheep.” And again a third time, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter, who never loses his humanity, has the temerity at that third exchange to be hurt that Jesus needs to keep asking. How quickly we can forget our own failures and betrayals! Ever been there? “Oh, How could ask me, you KNOW I love you!” And Jesus never loses either His patience or His focus. Again, He responds with the task, “Feed my sheep,”
Yes, this story is about Peter. It is about his healing, his reconciliation, his re-conversion and re-call. He knew on that day on the beach with Jesus beyond a doubt that he was forgiven and reconnected to Jesus. He experienced that his act of betrayal was wiped away by a power that was stronger than anything he had ever known before. We know from the “rest of the story” that Peter did indeed follow the call and that he did become a leader in the new faith movement that followed Pentecost and that he did die a martyr’s death “to glorify God.”
Gospel scholars have all sorts of things to say about the symbolism in this Gospel. There is the use of the repetition of the three times Jesus asks Peter “do you love me” being used as a kind of expiation for the three denials, as well as three being understood at that time a symbol of the completion of a dynamic process. There are the fish. Fish are all over the gospels as the symbol for Jesus. There is the wonderful symmetry with the first calling of the disciples and this story. In both stories the men are catching little until Jesus comes along and tells them to cast out the nets and then they are filled to overflowing. There is talk of the use of the language of love in the Gospel, the two words in Greek that are used, agape, which is the love of one for many, and philios, which is the love of friends, and who said what to whom and what that all meant. And that is all very useful and interesting.
But today I am walking with Peter. He serves for me as a kind of “everyone” or even a sort of alter ego in some ways. He is so human. So like me. I encounter Jesus as Peter did, and my first thought sometimes are how absolutely unworthy of Him I am, and my first intention is to push God away, afraid somehow that He will see and reject my sinful self. Forgetting of course that He created me, loves me, knows and graces me, not in spite of who I am but because of it.
I am a Peter who has in one moment such faith, believing that if Jesus commanded it, I too could walk on water, and in the next, screaming in fear and sinking in the waves. I believe I am not alone in this! So sure I am in one breath that God is who God is, but then in the next, faltering, confused, questioning and unsure. Especially since, like most of us I fall into that little trap of trying to conform God to my own image and likeness.
I too have a hard time staying awake, paying attention in the way God asks of me. It is too hard sometimes, too painful to see the things God asks me to pay attention to, listen to, have compassion for, do something about. So, like Peter and his friends, I fall asleep.
And like Peter, it is so much easier to just haul out my sword and whack off someone’s (figurative of course—we ARE in the Midwest) appendages than it is to stand by quietly and own my own truth. Yes, I do stand for Jesus. Yes I am with Him. And them, too. Those He touched, and ate with, championed and healed. Yes, I am here for them, too. Even if it upsets someone, I stand with him. That’s hard sometimes.
And like Peter when I realize it is Jesus on the shore of my life calling me back, I want to hide myself, run away, have a do over. But like there was for Peter, there is something in that invitation that is so gentle, so welcoming, so full of grace and peace….come and eat, be fed….that I, that we cannot resist. And so we do come and are fed. And the conversation can begin….”Do you love me”….not once the question is asked but again and again until the answer satisfies. And not simply “do you love me” but do you love me MORE THAN THESE. Peter knew what it meant. What “these” were. Friends. Boats. Nets. Fish. Being “Peter the guy who catches the most and shiniest fish on Tiberias.” Whatever it was, he knew. We know. And Jesus asks us, “Do you love me more than them?” Hard question. Scary question. Question requiring something in the answer.
And then, if we answer yes, what happens? We are given a task, work….and not easy work. The work that Jesus did…the care and feeding of the least and the hardest. The stuff that got him killed, and he wants us to participate in it, too. It’s no wonder by the third time Jesus asked him, Peter was feeling sad. Just a few weeks out from “He is risen Alleluia!” and we are into the hard nitty gritty of the gospel. We are called to the task of creating God’s kingdom on earth. We are fitted to this task not by virtue of our own great strength or virtue but by grace. God’s promise to us is not that that it will not be hard work, that there will be no struggle, no pain, no times when we will fall flat on our very human little faces. But God’s very real promise to us is that in the resurrected incarnated redeemer, we have a risen One who has destroyed the power of death, the “big d” Death and our own little daily deaths. God says to us in Jesus that He asks us to do nothing that has not already been done for us. This is what we say “Alleluia” about!
Peter finally understood. No fear is too great to overcome, no sin too great to be forgiven. This Love, indeed, conquers all. And so we -- like Peter, and every other follower who has needed and known the grace of God can join the psalmist in proclaiming: "You have turned my mourning into dancing....O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever!" So in all these spoken, sung, and other ways, we go back once again to the sea shore. Breakfast has ended, and Jesus looks at you deeply, “Do you love me more than these? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Amen.