Sermon - 10th April 2016
Restoration and renewal
Scripture - John 21:1-19
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Sixteen days ago, on Good Friday, we heard the long Passion reading in which one particular disciple ends the day in total despair. As onlookers to the events around Jesus’s trial, we watched as Peter was challenged three times about whether he belonged to the followers of Jesus, and we heard Peter deny knowing Jesus three times.
And the story is given even more poignancy because Jesus had told Peter that he would do exactly that. Peter had said that he would never utter such denials of his friend and teacher; and yet Peter did precisely what Jesus predicted.
The impression we have from the gospels is that all the male disciples made themselves scarce when Jesus was arrested. For all we know, others may have been challenged and others may have denied knowing him; but the focus of the gospel texts tighten around Peter, and it’s difficult to avoid the impression that Jesus’s most loyal and enthusiastic supporter caved in to fear, blurted out some heat-of-the-moment denials, and then sank into despair when he realised what he had done.
At this point we’re left to form our own conclusions about Peter. Do we immediately forgive him for the triple denials? Do we sympathise with the sobbing individual who realises what he’s done? Or do we say to ourselves, ‘Even Peter failed Jesus when it really mattered’ and feel rather judgmental about the weakness we observe in Peter and all those who disappeared from the scene leaving Jesus alone to face the authorities? Aren’t we just a little tempted to say to Peter, ‘And where were you when the chips were down?’
But then perhaps we should ask another question, ‘What else could Peter do?’ There is a way of looking at these events which affirms Peter and the other disciples for staying out of the proceedings as much as they possibly could. Remember we are told that the authorities had to recruit false witnesses to testify against Jesus because no authentic witnesses to the charges could be found.
There is a very real chance that if any of Jesus’s disciples had attempted to support him as witnesses at his trial, they could only have made things worse. Jesus’s whole approach to the various questionings he underwent was to admit nothing and to constantly challenge the authorities to provide reliable proof for their charges against him.
The involvement of any of his closest followers in any part of that process would have been a huge risk to his case - especially if, once they had been captured, they might have been persuaded to admit to things which might support the prosecution case. Foolish words, or misplaced bravado which could easily be interpreted as a threat to Roman security, could have signed Jesus’s death warrant faster than the Temple authorities might ever have hoped for.
Perhaps Peter did deny knowing Jesus out of fear for his own skin. Or perhaps he had to confront the most agonizing decision of his life: risk making things worse by admitting his support for Jesus, or give Jesus the best chance of surviving the trial by staying out of the way. Were his tears after the third denial tears of self-loathing, or tears of anger and sheer frustration at the circumstances that had been forced upon him?
And it is against the backdrop of all those emotional memories and shared experiences that Peter and Jesus meet again in today’s reading. Some time has passed since the crucifixion - the gospel doesn’t specify how long. Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, is now restored to his natural environment - he is fishing on Lake Galilee. And the purpose of this story is to show that Peter will also be restored by Jesus to his position of trust as the shepherd of Jesus’s followers.
The three questions from Jesus to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ are intended to take us straight back in our thoughts to the three denials on Good Friday. Here is Peter’s chance to connect truthfully with his teacher again, to let go of his feelings of guilt, to renew his leadership role from Jesus, and to move forwards. It’s a highly symbolic moment because Jesus also spells out the implications of responding to his invitation, ‘Follow me’ - implications which can potentially lead to an ultimate sacrifice similar to his own. It’s a highly intimate moment of total openness and honesty between them; and it sets the future course of Peter’s life.
But the purpose of including this story in the gospel account is not just to allow us to observe Peter being restored to a fullness of living and loving, it also offers us a model of how we, too, can engage with Jesus and renew his commission to us. The heart of the message behind this story is that, in a phrase made popular by the late Cardinal Hume, “we are an Easter people” and Jesus is alive for us, just as he was alive for Peter and the other disciples after his death and resurrection.
Our lives will contain experiences of doubt, of grief, of denial, of fear, of frustration. We may even have wept, as Peter did, out of sheer helplessness in the face of impossible choices. The society in which we live means that we may not always find ourselves living in safety, or having the resources to do everything we seek to do, or avoiding the malice of others. Our relationships will sometimes make us vulnerable, shake our self-esteem, and disturb our emotional stability. Like Peter, there could be times when we will carry a sense of failure, a belief that we didn't measure up when we were needed, or the experience of a bad outcome from a no-win situation.
That's how life sometimes is; it's what being human sometimes is.
This is when, the gospel tells us, our living relationship with Jesus will offer us today’s equivalent of a breakfast on the lakeside with our teacher and friend. Whatever we've done, and wherever we've been, we can choose to re-connect and move forwards. This is where the Jesus whom we follow will engage with us, set aside all the mistakes and misjudgments of the past, and commission us again to go into our world, to live as he wants us to live, to care for ourselves, to forgive ourselves, and to tend his sheep as the shepherds he calls us to be.
And we can do this because Jesus has risen and he lives. His spirit empowers us to be restored just as Peter was. It might not be on a lakeside over a meal of bread and fish, but it does happen. It may take us time to put ourselves in the right environment and the right frame of mind. We may need to come full circle, as Peter did, and return to simpler beginnings where we first encountered Jesus and responded to his call to follow him – but it does happen.
Restoration, forgiveness, healing, renewal, and as many fresh starts as it takes, are part of our journey of discipleship just as they were for Peter and the other disciples who sat and ate fish with him on the shores of Galilee.
John’s gospel ends with that scene as an inspirational encounter for us to take to ourselves. Christians are ‘an Easter people’ because we take the meaning of forgiveness, resurrection, renewal and new beginnings into our lives.
Here, then, in Peter’s experiences from the depths of desolation to the heights of blessing and affirmation, is the essence of discipleship for all the ‘Easter people’ who can say 'Jesus is alive' - people who will to go into our world, to live as he wants us to live, to care for others - and ourselves; to forgive others - and ourselves; and to tend his sheep as the shepherds he calls us to be.