Sermon for Sunday 15th April 2012
Well as its the last time for a few weeks I’ll be preaching I thought I might just indulge myself a little by choosing the New Testament lesson myself - this Wonderful story from the end of John’s gospel. I Had thought I might indulge myself a little further. When I was a curate in Pudsey at a large evangelical church where the musical tradition was heavily weighted to modern songs and musical accompaniment I began one sermon by playing a piece of music that was Most definitely Not in that Genre - the Dies Irae from Verdi’s requiem. If you know it you will be most aware that it most definitely does Not fall into the easy listening acoustic guitar category of a lot of contemporary church music. And I had thought to as it were balance things up at this evensong service by playing a loud Christian Rock piece which I love, based on this story, but perhaps one indulgence is enough for the evening :)
And in part I have to do this for this reading is not found elsewhere in the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary this year and in part that is because people aren’t entirely convinced that it was in the original version of John’s gospel. It is one of two parts of John’s gospel that seem a little suspect. Interestingly, both have the theme of forgiveness. There is the story of the woman caught in adultery from Chapter 8, which I tend to think might actually be Luke’s and then this story - the restoration of Peter.
I’m spending some time of late thinking about the relationship of John’s gospel to Mark’s. There is evidence in places that John is very conversant with Mark and on one or two points seeks to put the record straight :) But here there is a very interesting connection. Mark has a somewhat disturbingly spartan account of the resurrection. There is no sign of the risen Jesus. Just a young man who tells them ‘Go tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you’
It’s Very interesting that this extra story in Johns gospel seems to follow on from MArk’s bald ending
Go tell his disciples, and Peter - the message seems to put Peter outside the flock - there is a work of restoration as we all know to be done - Peter has denied Jesus three times - but Mark leaves it there
But this addition to John’s gospel seems to respond to this unfinished business. Once more the disciples are fishing in Galillee - the Sea of Tiberias is another name for Galilee - and there is Peter, seemingly at a loose end. When we have failed someone very badly and know it, it can feel just like that - Life stops. What seemed a future of promise becomes one of pointlessness - such is the nature of broken human relationships. So Peter, tries returning to his old ways - in a sense giving up on this whole business of following Jesus. ‘I am going fishing’ he declares and the others agree to come along. And they catch nothing.
Jesus comes to stand on the shore - but they do not know him. the post resurrection accounts of Jesus are not bold - there is doubt, there is uncertainty. These stories are not written as simplistic narratives. Faith in the risen Christ as I said this morning is of a different category. And so the gospel accounts are not ‘Scientifically clean’ Proofs. They are written ‘that we might believe’ - but not written to Compel us to believe, rather to invite us in And so it is a seeming stranger on the shore (to steal the lyric of the rock song :) ) - he Knows them but they do not yet fully Know him. They will only come to fully know him as they love him more dearly and follow him more nearly and Jesus comes to invite them once more to pick up the journey -the disciples, oh yes, and Peter.
Of course they’d been fishing all night before and had a similar experience - a stranger asking them to let down their nets of the other side - a miraculous catch. But still it is not Peter but the disciple whom Jesus loved who Sees - the one who had Seen and believed in the tomb. The one whom I suggested last Sunday stands for us all and Stands for the church, the bride of Christ, the beloved (to use John’s own imagery from the Apocalypse)
It is the beloved disciple who declares ‘It is the Lord!’ - like the herald in the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. SImon Peter we are told - ‘heard it was the Lord’ he does not yet see the mysterious Stranger as Jesus - and so hearing he clothes himself, as our first parents did when they heard Him walking in the garden in the cool of the day, hiding, jumping into the sea ( a place of death - of chaos - a place which denies the God who makes the sea turn back and appoints it s bounds and at the last will declare ‘and there was no more sea’)
Yet as Jesus once more calls, Peter begins to respond - it is Peter who climbs out of the water to finally haul the net ashore - the invitation of Jesus continues to find a place in his heart. They share breakfast. Still their eyes are not open. Still he is a stranger - yet at once known also. They dared not ask him who he was, because they knew it was the Lord. Actually this continues a theme from before the resurrection, when Philip asked ‘Show us the father’ - ‘DO you not yet know me Philip,’ he asked them? Don’t you yet know who I am? NOw they know who he is but the reality is as yet veiled form their sight.
But the moment must come. There is a sense of them eating in silence - a waiting. To Peter all there is is fear of Judgement - of the anger of Jesus. He has Utterly failed. What more can he expect. Perhaps he too had heard the words of the young man, ‘tell his disciples, oh, and Peter’, perhaps the other disciples weren’t too comfortable with him either - oh yes, they too had abandoned Jesus in the garden, but they’d never been foolish enough to promise otherwise. Certainly the account of John places Peter to one side of the other disciples. Jesus has revealed himself, to deal with Peter.
And here we see the Grace of God, this Life that is Not like ours - this way that is not like ours. Jesus does not confront Peter with his terrible sin, except in that his restoration is if you like the shadow side. He uses the fact of Peter’s sin to restore him - He had denied him three times? Then he must be thrice restored. Indeed Jesus invites him to restoration on the same bold terms. ‘Do you love me more than these?’ ANd of course the reality was that deep down in his heart he did - that was why he made such foolish claims - he Did love his Lord - he was desperate to Get it right for Jesus. that is why he was utterly bereft, for he had utterly failed the one he loved. And the one he loved, restored him.
Three times - do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? Peter finally is hurt for he knows that Jesus Knows his heart - “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” Jesus is So tender in his restoration. He sees beyond all the falsity and betrayal, he never even mentions it, he just gives a way to full restoration. three time you have denied - three times I will allow you to speak your true heart, to come to yourself.
And each time Jesus restores him to the work he has given him. Feed my flock. Like the Prodigal son, he is not welcomed back just to be the lowest of the low - he is restored to being the shepherd of the flock of the Great Shepherd. As I have just fed my flock at breakfast, now you feed them. As I have cared for them, now You care for them - and the greatest blessing, Jesus restores to him that which in his heart of hearts Peter desired to do but could not. ‘I will lay down my life for you’ he had boldly declared. It was what he wanted to do, but the flesh was weak. And the flesh still is. Peter is still frail flesh as Jesus gracious invitation makes clear.
Jesus restores to him the grace of the ultimate witness - Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.‘There was a time Peter, when it was all about you, all about your need to be right, you fastened your own belt, you went wherever you wanted - it was all about you, Peter’ - that was why you could not lay down your life, because you wanted to preserve yourself. But when you grow old, (perhaps when finally Your strength is spent?) you will stretch out your hands, the belt will not now be a sign of your own self assertion, but of submission to others who lead you were you do not wish to go - as Christ himself had finally willingly been led, not turning down the final cup of the Passover.
Yes, Peter Loves Jesus, but at the last his death will not be as the willing lamb - you will not want it. Peter is restored, but he is still Peter. He now knows himself far better. He knows that he doesn’t want death, but in the grace of Christ grace he will finally go that way.
What happens in forgiveness is not that we are restored to be Better than we were before, but we are Fully restored. And given the depths to which Peter in his denial had stooped, that was No small thing
Peter is Peter. the beloved disciple is the beloved disciple - what of him, Peter asks. If it is my will that he remain til I come, what is that to you? I have told you my will for you, that is all you need to know. Follow me . . . his call is at once particular to each of us. As I said on Easter Day we all need to hear the call - we all need this confrontation with the Stranger on the shore
Follow me - Peter heard the Lord and responded - Follow me - we all need that restoration that Peter knew, he is slow to anger and swift to forgive. Perhaps Peter like the res of us needed to hear Jesus say, ‘you shall not forgive the other seven times, but seventy seven times’. Peter knows who he is now - he is weak and fallible - bold and adventurous - an amazing mass of contradictions - his life one moment speaking one word and the next another word - Yet Christ, God’s true and Sure Word has drawn him to himself, lifted him up out of the waters of despair as he had once lifted him from the waters of the lake. Follow me - for there and there only will you find All that you need - a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope, and the assurance of sins forgiven
As we may too if we hear his Word to us and follow - Grace abounding to the chief of sinners, as another errant St put it - bread for the journey and a Home at the last