Sermon Kathleen Moore, Third Sunday of Easter, 10 April 2017
Today in the story from John’s gospel, we meet Peter and six of Jesus’s other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus made several post-resurrection appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem in the week or so after his crucifixion, but then nothing more happened. So they have left Jerusalem and returned to the safety of their homes in Galilee, well away from the Jewish temple leadership and their police, and the Roman soldiers. They are waiting, but they don’t really know what for.
Finally, Peter, preferring action to inaction, makes a decision: he is going fishing, going back to the life and work he knew before Jesus came along. So they all go out in the boat for the night, but they don’t catch anything. As they are coming back to shore, they see a man who tells them to cast the net again. They do, and now they have almost more fish than they can bring in, and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (probably John Mark, but we don’t know for certain) recognizes Jesus. Peter then, always impulsive, puts on clothes, jumps into the water, and swims to greet his friend and Lord. When they get to shore and unload the catch, Jesus prepares and serves a breakfast of fish and bread for them.
As I visualized this scene on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, I was reminded of my own experience there 10 years ago. At that time, the Israeli military was not allowing Christians to go to the River Jordan, where most Holy Land tour groups go to revisit their baptism and renew their baptismal vows. So our group decided to renew our vows at the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful place. Afterwards, we all sat quietly on the shore imagining scenes that might have taken place there two thousand years earlier—just like the one we read about today. Then we went to a nearby restaurant for a meal of fish and bread—in fact we ate what is known as St Peter fish. It is horrible really, full of bones and very ugly (they serve the whole thing on your plate, eyes and all—yuck!). But the idea of eating fish cooked over an open fire on the Galilee shore, just as Jesus and the disciples may have done, was incredibly evocative—one of many overwhelming experiences on that trip.
Today’s story from John’s gospel has several parallels with events that occurred before Jesus’s execution:
- In Luke, Jesus told Peter to throw out the nets after a fruitless night of fishing, and the nets were miraculously filled then too.
- Peter has tried before to get to Jesus from the fishing boat—on the first occasion he tried to walk on the water but fell in; this time he just jumps in and swims.
- Peter has also been near a different fire of burning coals recently—at the high priest’s house after Jesus was arrested—and been asked a question three times. People asked him if he knew Jesus, and he denied it three times.
Until Jesus appears on the shore, Peter’s life must have seemed to him to have hit bottom. He had left his fishing job behind to follow Jesus—walked away from his whole former life, it appears. At the point when John’s story begins, this must have begun to feel like a bad move. When the chips were down at the high priest’s house, he lost his nerve and pretended he didn’t even know Jesus. And now he can’t even catch any fish; he must have felt like a failure as a disciple and as a fisherman.
But wait. It’s not over. Jesus is on the shore and calling to him again. And again, Peter responds immediately.
And as they sit around the fire enjoying a meal together, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter replies, “You know I love you.” Three questions and three answers to redeem Peter’s threefold denial, forgive his failure, restore his identity and renew his calling. As one wise commentator wrote, “It was the first day of the rest of Peter’s life.”
Peter’s story is an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem the past, and renew our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. If God could do it for Peter, God can do it for all of us.
It reminds me of a card someone once gave me that I keep taped to my desk at home; it reads:
Justice is when you get what you deserve.
Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve.
Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.
Peter’s story is all about grace. And if you need further evidence of God’s redeeming grace, just look at Paul. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul (who is still Saul), is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” and heading to Damascus to arrest more Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem. Saul is an intense overachiever who knows his mission. God, however, has a very different mission for Paul—he is to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul and Peter together created the Christian church. Their light has shone through the world for two thousand years.
But we too can be a light in the darkness. We can be forgiven and redeemed just as Peter was. It doesn’t matter how badly we fail, or if we keep on failing; God’s love is deeper than our denial, and God’s call to us is stronger than our failure to live up to it. Christ just keeps showing up when we least expect him.
During our Lenten program, the Rev Ev Walk told us that the resurrection is clear evidence that no matter how we try to get God out of our lives, God will always come back in. God wants us to shine the light of Christ in the world. God does not give up on us, and we should not give up on God.
We Christians are Easter people. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not only in salvation history but also in our own hearts and lives. Let me share with you something Sister Joan Chittister wrote in her Easter reflections recently:
To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ…who rose from the dead,” then, is to say I believe that the Resurrection goes on and on and on forever. Every time Jesus rises in our own hearts in new ways, the Resurrection happens again. Every time we see Jesus where we did not recognize him before—in the faces of the poor, in the love of the unloved, in the revelatory moments of life, Jesus rises anew. But that is not all. The real proof of the Resurrection lies not in the transformation of Jesus alone but in the transformation awaiting us who accept it.
To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ…who rose from the dead” is to say something about myself at the same time. It says that I myself am ready to be transformed. Once the Christ-life rises in me, I rise to new life as well. “Christ is risen; we are risen,” we sing at Easter. But it has a great deal more to do with life than with death. If I know that Jesus has been transformed, then I am transformed myself and, as a result, everything around me.
Just as Simon became Peter, the rock on which Jesus said he would build his church, and Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, we too, can be a new creation because we are in Christ and Christ is risen in us. We too, with God’s help, can live into the work that we are called to do in the world.
We can let our light shine. It may not be as dramatic as the light that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, but as the saying goes, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
We can let our light shine. And remember, we don’t have to do it alone. Peter had the community of disciples to support him, and Paul had Ananias and the believing community in Damascus to help him recover from his transforming but debilitating experience on the road. And we have our Christian community that will help us find our special light and take it out into the darkness.
I want to say one more thing about the conversation between Jesus and Peter in the gospel reading. When Jesus asks Peter the first and second times if he loves him, John uses the Greek word agape, the transforming, self-giving love that God has for us and that he showed us through Jesus on the cross. Peter responds with the Greek word philia, which means affection or brotherly love. The third time Jesus asks, he too uses the word philia. He asks Peter for only the kind of love he can give him. He meets him where he is.
Jesus does that for us, too. He meets us where we are and keeps walking with us. Just like the fish and the bread, his agape love is more than enough to go around. It can make up for our deficiencies until we grow into the kind of love God wants for us, the kind that will keep our lights shining strong and bright.
As my countryman John Lennon once said: “Yeah we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.”
Let your light shine!