Acts 9:1-6 (7-20) Psalm 30 Revelation 5:11-14 John 21:1-19
If you don’t like a good BBQ, please stop reading now; if you don’t eat fish, this won’t appeal; and if you don’t like the seaside, I’m sure that there is something you would prefer to be doing right now. If on the other hand, you are intrigued by human nature, this may well-be the story for you. Lord Rees-Mogg (former editor of the Times) once remarked:
If Jesus’ resurrection had been an invention, the storyteller would surely have shown Jesus with more of a sense of occasion. A God who rises from the dead on the third day in order to cook picnics…is a God to be believed.Lord Rees-Mogg, Former editor of the Times
But first, turn you mind back to the events of the night of Maundy Thursday, when Peter had following the arresting party and was loitering in the shadowy twilight of a flickering fire-lit courtyard. ‘I’ll never deny you!’ he proudly told Jesus (John 13:38), and in a few short explosive encounters, made himself to be a liar. But it is Luke who recorded that look across the courtyard between Jesu and Peter at that very moment (Luke 22:61)> It must have been powerful to pierce the big, bluff fisherman and reduce him to bitter tears.
Back to Square One?
Peter is back where he was when Jesus first found him: plying his old trade as a fisherman.
Did it seem as if the whole reckless adventure has come to grief, the dream was shattered? Or were there so many questions not yet resolved? Was Peter still coming to terms with his own sense of failure and denial?
What would you do in such circumstances? Peter sought the comfort of the old, safe, secure and mundane life he had known before he had ever met the man from Nazareth. But even with the security of the comfort zone, Peter just can’t seem to do the thing he did best – catching fish. For after fishing all night he has absolutely nothing to show for his trouble.
The Stranger on the Shore
Whether it was a trick of the light, a confused state of mind or minds in other places, the risen Lord is waiting to greet them, and yet Jesus remained unrecognized.
First, Jesus satisfied their immediate need to catch fish. He did not dismiss them, but respected and worked with the concerns his people bring with them. He didn’t say, ‘Well, Peter, you and I need to have an urgent chat; let’s get right down to business’. Instead he invited them for a BBQ breakfast: It’s wise not to conduct delicate business on an empty stomach!
I can only try to imagine what passed through Peter’s mind, as we watch him grabbing clothing. Yet the bigger fig-leaves are not the physical ones, but the ones needed to cover Peter’s deep embarrassment. Even the charcoal fire on the beach may have reminded Peter of the one in the High Priest’s courtyard. And Jesus simply said, ‘do you love me?’
The threefold question answers to the threefold denial.
Sometimes people beg that old wounds are not re-opened, but surely such wounds only fester. Jesus very gently opened the old wounds of treachery and failure, and invited Peter, and invites us, to face the past. Because dealing with failure and brokenness has the power to lead into greater wholeness. These questions for Peter must have felt incredibly harsh. Could any interrogation have been more painful and yet at the same time potentially so affirming?
The same question is pressed home remorselessly. With each question the denials of the past are more deeply confronted, until gradually they issue in a wholeness that might not have been possible without them. Peter was grieved the third time – ‘you know’, he said to Jesus with palpable indignation.
Another earlier follower of Jesus had a most painful encounter with the Lord, and wrote how God answered in these words: ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is make perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)’
Wounding and healing are both complete: Peter’s faith will depend no longer upon his own untested idealism but on Jesus’ certain knowledge and love of 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.
I’ve never believed in a saccharine-sweet version of love. Real love is incredibly tough, And the warmth of God’s tough love enables us to discard our protective defences and lay ourselves open to his love and healing. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, there is a remarkable scene when the lion, Aslan, has to deal with dragon-skin on the boy Eustace. C.S. Lewis knew that young readers won’t be fobbed off with easy answers, so when Eustace recounts the story to his cousins, he confessed that the process was deeply painful. But is is also joyously affirming.
Jesus addressed Simon Peter as he spoke to him by the lake, when he first called him to follow. Peter might have hoped to be spared the facing of his past, but it’s his past, which makes Peter who he is, and becomes the foundation for a new and glorious future.
Whatever the failure, Jesus wants to love us back into service, to open the vault of our guarded memories and bring them to light and healing. It is only God’s love that can make something new out of wounds and failures (just as he did with Peter). Failures do not disqualify us from the service of Christ; it’s the failure to recognize the need for deeper forgiveness. It’s as if forgiveness and vocation might just go together.
We are invited to take Peter’s route, and to allow this stranger on the shore to meet us with a love that enables us to open ourselves to him and receive healing and commissioning.
And he asks of us the selfsame question, by name, do you love me?
May we be ready to reply, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you’.