Friday, September 27, 2013

Jesus Catches Peter

Text: John 21:1-19
14 April 2013
St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge


The 21st chapter of the Gospel of John feels tacked on. In chapter twenty, the resurrected Jesus appears twice to his disciples, appearing in their midst despite the locked door. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. He brings doubting Thomas back. He turns their fear, weakness, and doubt into joy, boldness, and faith. And then the writer seems to bring it to a close, ‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). One might expect to be able to put the book down at this point. What a neat resolution! But, no. Just like the risen Jesus keeps turning up where he’s not expected, the story continues.

‘After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias’ (21:1). From John’s account, they spent at least two Sundays in Jerusalem, but now they are much farther north, by the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus resolved Thomas’ doubts, they might have spent the whole week walking down from Jerusalem. The topic of conversation shifted on their journey from the mundane to the miraculous, but Peter, despite the joy and wonder of two Sundays of Easter surprises, has a shadow over his face. A charcoal fire, rekindled each morning by the cock’s crow, still burns in his memory.

Their long journey done, still troubled, the night fast approaching, Peter looks out over the Sea upon which he had made his livelihood before Jesus came. ‘I am going fishing,’ he says matter of factly (21:3). The six others with him rise to the challenge: ‘We will go with you,’ they reply (21:3).

And all night they labour. They cast the nets. Nothing. They laugh about it at first, but then silence falls on the boat. As the hours toil on, they continue trying, again and again. Casting, retrieving. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. They strip nearly naked because of the heat and the work, but nothing they do helps. As the sun rises in the East, the cock’s crow can be heard across the hundred yards of water between them and the shore. The charcoal fire of regret rekindled in his breast, Peter pauses a moment … but then labours on.


‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with friends.’ ‘I wish I had let myself be happier.’ Palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware compiled these ‘top five regrets of the dying.’ At the end of life, with the clarity that comes from hindsight, more than anything these are the regrets she heard from people in her care.

From Peter’s experience, we might modify one of these. Not, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings,’ but, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to tell the truth.’ And isn’t this a regret that we all carry around with us? Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid of losing his life. We deny Jesus as well, but for different reasons.

We live in a world of compromise. Too often, we slide into habits of neglect and denial. We neglect our duties to God and to one another. We deny with our lips and our lives that Christ has made us his own in Baptism and the breaking of bread. As a result, we learn to lie, to dissemble, to do what it takes just to ‘fit.’ But, when we come to the end of our lives, will we regret not having the courage to tell the truth about ourselves? Will we regret the relationships we have lost as a result?

As we watch Peter struggle with the regret burning in his chest, we too are reminded for the need to seek and know God’s forgiveness. John’s Gospel seems like it could have ended in the room with Jesus’ two appearances, but it can’t end until this one relationship is resolved, until Peter has the opportunity to tell the truth. Until then, he, and we, will continue in our troubled labour, catching nothing, because we don’t yet understand what the whole thing means.


 Peter spent the whole night catching nothing, but Jesus catches Peter on the first throw.

Daybreak, and a man on the beach. He asks if they have had any luck in the night, then he tells them to cast the net on the other side. As they pull the net in, the little boat tips to one side. Fish fill the net, and they cannot haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved leans over to Peter and says, ‘It is the Lord’ (21:7)! Before anyone dealing with the nets can realize it, Peter is dressed and overboard, swimming towards the shore.

When the others reach the shore, there is a charcoal fire, cooking fish. Bread lies beside, and Jesus invites them to share their catch. Peter helps pull the net up. 153 fish. Not one tear in the net. ‘Come and have breakfast,’ Jesus says. Peter eats, but the firepit reminds him of the other firepit. The courtyard. Three denials. Jesus’ look of betrayal.

After breakfast, Jesus calls Peter aside, and he asks him three times, once for each denial, ‘Do you love me?’ Each time, Peter replies that he does. Each question fuels the fire in Peter’s chest, until the third time when the pain becomes unbearable. Hurt, he replies, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’

‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus responds. ‘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’ (21:18). Then, Jesus says those two words again, the two words he used to start their relationship, and the two words that will restart it: ‘Follow me.’ Peter may have fished all night, but Jesus, the fisher of men, catches Peter, and brings him home.


Every week, we turn up on the doorstep of this church, and the same thing happens. We get the opportunity to sit, to listen, to worship, and to reflect. Some of us will be here this morning with the feeling that we have been casting our nets all week and catching nothing. But, when we get out of bed, get dressed, and swim the 100 yards to these doors, we always find the charcoal fire. We always find Jesus waiting and asking, ‘Do you love me?’

Jesus asks this question in the context of the love he has already shown for us. The Jesus who asks about our love is the Jesus who having loved his disciples, loved them to the end. He is the one who washes our feet. He is the one who draws us up out of the waters of Baptism. He is the one who feeds us with the meat of his Body and drink of his Blood. Every week, we pull up on this shore, and Jesus greets us. ‘Are you hungry? Eat.’

And there are some days, not just Sundays, when Jesus pulls us aside. He points at the fire of regret burning in our chest and asks us to tell the truth. ‘Do you love me?’ he asks, and he keeps asking until we have heard the question and until we have really answered it. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

‘Feed my sheep.’ We may have spent the last week denying Jesus’ love for us and our love for him. We may have stood around the firepit, or the water-cooler, and denied him. But, Jesus’ love for us overwhelms those regrets, and he asks us to treat this week differently. ‘Feed my sheep,’ he says. Take the time to live like Jesus’ love for you is true. Take the time to serve your colleagues, your neighbours, the people you meet on the street. With your words and with your life, tell the truth about yourself: Jesus caught you, has caught us. And with the 153 other mismatched fish in this one big net, we are being drawn into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own for ever. At the end of our lives, may we be the people who can say, without regret, ‘I have loved Jesus, and I had the courage to tell the truth.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I: "On the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, 1891"
II: "Wheelchair," by Craig Toron
III: Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias, by James Tissot.
IV: "Diocese 1," by Ben Earwicker (Garrison Photography, Boise, ID;

No comments:

Post a Comment