Jesus forgives Peter (John 21:1-19)
A sermon given at Cityside by Dean Thomson
This morning I want to try & get us into Simon Peter's head-space so that we might experience this meeting with Jesus as he would have, not as this mighty Apostle, not as a caricature, but as a human being, as a failed disciple & friend of Jesus, as a hypocrite & denier... I don't think that this is too much of a stretch for most of us. Peter's experience, his mistakes, failings, thoughts, & emotions are our own, his story sounds familiar.
After all that's happened I find myself here again, on this beach which I have known all my life, surrounded by people, friends, most of who I've known since I was a kid. I used to dream of escaping from this place when I was little, I didn't always want to be a fisherman like my old man. Up until about a week ago I thought I had escaped, 3 years ago Jesus called me to follow him on this very beach, me & a bunch of the others here but I never dreamed it would end how it did, Jesus crucified & dying, deserted by all his friends, abandoned & denied by me in spite of all my big words.
Everything I see now reminds me of him, this place & these people. It all reminds me that I wasn't there for him when he really needed me. I told him I was willing to die with him & I actually believed it at the time. “Even if all others reject you, I never will!” Empty words worth nothing. He saw right through them, he saw right through me... he always had a way of doing that.
The others have tried to comfort me saying that the only difference between me & them is that I opened my big mouth when they all kept theirs shut. It doesn't make it any easier. They say that there was nothing any of us could have done, Jesus would have still ended up crucified only with me alongside him. I already know that, these are the same thoughts that held me back that night, the thoughts that led me to deny that I ever knew Jesus. At the time I thought they were just empty words, that they meant nothing, but now I'm not so sure.
When the rooster crowed I remembered what Jesus had said to me, that before the rooster crows I will have denied him 3 times. My heart bottomed out into the pit of my stomach & I thought I was going to throw up. The thing that gets me more than anything is not the thought that things might have turned out different if I hadn't been afraid but that I could have comforted my friend when he was alone & really needed me, that I would have been there for him at the end.
I guess I could leave this place & these people who remind me of him so much, but I will never get rid of this guilt that I feel. All that I've become reminds me of him, I can't escape that. At least here everybody knows who I am, they know my past, I can put up with the dirty looks & laughing behind my back as long as no one asks me about it, about him. I guess deep down I am afraid that if I pack up & move to a new place I might be faced with that question again “Weren't you one of Jesus' disciples?' Even in spite of all my regrets I honestly don't know if I could face that, I don't trust that I would answer it truthfully. Am I ashamed of Jesus? No, I am ashamed of myself.
Some of the others have supposedly seen Jesus alive but I don't know what to think. It seems to good to be true but even Thomas, who has always been more cynical & skeptical than me now believes. He says that he has seen him with his own 2 eyes, he has even touched his scars from the crucifixion. I've seen the tomb empty but I haven't seen Jesus. I know it sounds impossible but somehow I do believe, I think that's his influence rubbing off on me. The impossible always seemed commonplace around Jesus, If any person could find their way out of death it would have to be him.
What good is all this talk to me though, Jesus may be alive & well but he hasn't sought me out... & what would I say if he did? How could I face him now? You know he even took to calling me Peter, a rock. The crazy thing is I even started buying into it myself, that I was this steadfast & true friend, unshakable. Some rock I turned out to be. I guess people don't really change. I am what I always was, a fisherman's son. I cannot escape from myself, this life, these people & this place. If Jesus wants to find me he knows where I'll be... “I'm going fishing.”
I find it easy to relate to Peter because of an experience I've had. It's not hard for me to put myself in his shoes, to imagine the doubts & inner turmoil he must have felt because I have felt them. I must have been about 21 when my Grandfather (on my Dads side) died. I wasn't brought up in a Christian home, I became a Christian when I was 15 years old through a friend who invited me along to a church youth-group. I gave my heart to God at a Saturday-night youth event in response to an altar call... stereotypical & cliché-ridden I know but that's how it happened for me.
At 21 I was the only Christian in my immediate family & definitely the only one on my fathers side. My Grandfather had had multiple strokes & lay dying in the hospital, my mother took me with her to say goodbye. I still to this day don't know whether it was God's voice or my overactive conscience but throughout the car ride to the hospital my heart was going like crazy & with every thumping beat I heard 'You have to tell him about Jesus'...'You have to tell him about Jesus'...'You have to tell him about Jesus.' It wasn't audible but it might just as well have been.
When we got to the hospital & saw him he wasn't coherent, he was skin & bones writhing on the bed. He groaned & muttered unable to form words & his eyes passed through us as if we were invisible. I don't know if he was taking in anything we were saying to him, it didn't look like it. He was obviously in a lot of discomfort & I thought to myself maybe I can lean over & whisper 'Jesus loves you' into his ear. I wasn't sure if he was coherent enough to understand the words but I thought that maybe they have some power in them, maybe they would bring some comfort. My mother even left the room for a couple of minutes, nothing was stopping me but I stood there & looked at him & I just couldn't bring myself to do it. It seemed low somehow to say these words to a dying man when I never said them to him when he was healthy. My mother came back, my chance was gone & we left the hospital together in silence. The next day my Grandfather died & something in me with him.
Peter's words are my own as much as they are hypothetically his. I felt as if I had betrayed God, that I was responsible for the death & eternal destiny of my Grandfather somehow. That's a hard burden to shoulder. I still believed in God but I no longer believed in myself.
There are things we do & things that happen to us that will leave a scar, actions have consequences & change us for better or worse. I still bear the scar of this event, it has healed somewhat but I am not the same person I would have been had it never happened. For about a year I lived with these thoughts & feelings unresolved & then Jesus met me where I was. Peter's experience & Peter's words are my own.
It had been a long nights fishing & we had nothing to show for it. We were all beyond tired & long past the point where we felt we had to keep up conversation when the sun started to edge up over the horizon. It was a still morning, we sat in silence & breathed it in. At that magic hour somehow even a fruitless nights fishing seems worthwhile just to be on the water at that moment.
No one was about apart from a few other fishing boats in the distance & a lone figure on the beach. He called out & broke the quiet “Have you caught anything?” Thomas yelled back “No!” The person then told us “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, & you'll have a catch.” I experienced this quiet sense of deja-vu, we drew the net in & threw it out on the right side & sure enough the boat nearly tipped over with all the fish caught in the net!
John leant over to me, he had been there the first time this had happened, when we had first met Jesus. He whispered to me with a smile on his face “It is the Lord!” My heart leapt, he had come for me. All my doubts & fears forgotten I stood up, jumped into the still sea & thrashed for shore. I stumbled over myself as I ran to where he was. Soaking wet & sandy I stopped a few feet in front of him, resting my hands on my thighs as I fought for breath. I looked up & he was smiling at me. I threw my arms around him & began to laugh even as tears were filling my eyes.
When I looked up the others had beached the boat & were standing around us, I hadn't noticed them. We had breakfast together on that beach & the conversation was made up of stolen glances between the 7 of us, for once in my life I dared not open my mouth. It was enough just to sit there & be with him. I've often gone back to that time in my memory over the years. As we ate in this warm enveloping silence, as the warm smoky sting of the charcoal fire stung my eyes, as the sun rose upon the hills behind us & coloured in the twilight I had this sense that everything was going to be alright. Just as my stomach was satisfied by the fish & bread my heart felt full, I was alive & all that I was seeing brimmed with that same life. I was satisfied & completely content to live forever on this beach, with these people, in this morning.
Eventually though the morning wore on & the others got up & began counting the fish & tending to the nets. Jesus & I sat alone. He opened his mouth & said “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others?” He called me Simon... not Peter. The shame I had forgotten came flooding back, my fears returned. I remembered my rash words “Even though all become deserters, I will not!” Then I had thought that I loved him more than all the others but now I knew different. I didn't believe it but I answered feebly & with little conviction under my breath “Yes, Lord, you know that I am your friend.”... “Then feed my lambs” he said & then with barely a pause he asked again “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” This time without thinking about it & without looking him in the eyes I said in a stronger voice “Yes, Lord, you know that I am your friend.”...”Then care for my sheep.”
He then asked me a question that flawed me “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?” I was speechless, undone & suddenly indignant that he should question the sincerity of my friendship & love even though only moments before I had a hard time convincing myself of these things. With a conviction that I thought I had lost I looked him in the eyes & said “Lord, you know everything. You know that I am your friend!” His eyes were shining & he said “Then feed my sheep.”
The previous 2 times he had said this to me I had felt condemned, that I had failed to live up to the expectations he had placed on me. This time I looked into his eyes & saw the miraculous faith he had in me, the faith he had always had in me even when I myself doubted, even when I denied him. He was entrusting me with the care of his followers, those he loves, those most precious to him. My mouth dropped & he nodded his head never breaking eye-contact.
Jesus then told me many things which I am only now beginning to grasp. All but his last words were lost on me at the time, “Follow me.” Once I thought that I had missed my chance, 2 thieves were crucified at his side where I should have been. I remember my response to Jesus when he told us that he was leaving, that he was going to the Father, “Lord, why can't I follow you now? I would lay down my life for you!” Empty words that only now find resonance as I wait for my executioners to lead me out, an old man. There was so much I didn't understand back then & even now I don't fool myself into thinking that I can grasp the bigger picture.
“Follow me.” In many ways this last part, the dying, is easy. I've been living for nearly 30 years on borrowed time, that's how long it's been since those 2 thieves died on those crosses. I find that it's the living that's tricky, days bleed into one another & it can be hard to keep everything in perspective. For a long time I thought that this, the cross, was what it was all about, all this business about following him. Now that I'm here though I can see that this is just the last step of many. I now know why I couldn't follow him then to the cross, even apart from my own cowardice. I was only at the beginning of the journey. I had to get to the place where I could see that it wasn't Jesus' death that made him special, innocents die every day, it was his life, this life which smothered death.
These last few years I have tried to follow in his footsteps as best I could. I tried to look after those he had entrusted to me & to live as I saw him living. My faltering steps have finally led me to here, the cross. Am I afraid of what I now face? Of course I am, I'm not a fool. I don't relish the thought of what this old body of mine will soon endure but I have learnt how to keep silent. No more rash words or denials will escape from my lips & I know that my friend Jesus will not abandon me in this my time of need. Somewhere we will have breakfast again on that beach. I am going to him.