Move Over Peter
Text: John 21:15-19
I grew up in a time when Presbyterians did not know what to do with Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. It was as if the words in the Apostles’ Creed that we recited every Sunday: “Crucified, dead, and buried” were sufficient to cover the landscape of those gruesome days. Presbyterians were not alone in taking a pass on Holy Week. Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and a whole host of Christians of different temperaments did the same.
That is ironic for all sorts of reasons. One of the deepest ironies is that all four Gospels focus on Holy Week more than on any other part of the story of Jesus. The Gospel writers could not conceive of telling the Easter story without first telling the Holy Week stories of not-so-enlightened disciples shooing a woman away from anointing Jesus for his impending death, tell of a last meal with a betrayer who has the nerve to drink from the same cup as the one he is about to betray, tell of a fickle crowd that hollers Hallelujah for Jesus in one breath and then Crucify Him in the next when Jesus refuses to be the kind of Messiah they want, tell of a Roman official who has all the backbone of a jellyfish.
The most haunting Holy Week story for me has always been the one involving Peter. After Jesus is arrested, Peter follows Jesus, seemingly to come to his rescue, to stand up and speak on behalf of his friend. Earlier at the Seder dinner, Peter swore that while others would fail Jesus, he never would. So, when Jesus is arrested and Peter follows, we are cheering for his courage to prevail. But sadly, his courage has left on vacation and the story ends in the tragic way Jesus said that it would.
When given the chance to speak up boldly for Jesus, Peter lies. He lies not once, not twice, but three times. And, it is not a little lie; it is not even a life-changing lie; it is a world-changing lie. The person whom Jesus called from his fishing nets, the man whom he invited with him upon the Mount of Transfiguration, to whom he entrusted the future of the church, the one he called his “rock,” lied and then lied again and then lied once more. The next day, when Jesus was hanging from the tree of torture, looking out over the crucifixion crowd, Peter was conspicuously absent. He was nowhere to be seen. Seemingly, the Holy Week story exposes a failed follower of Jesus and speaks the last pathetic word that we will hear about this miserable man.
And yet, as John’s Gospel closes, Peter is back. He is again with the other disciples and he tells them, “I’m going fishing.” Peter is going to return to something that he knows how to do, something with no one telling him how to do it. Out to sea, but close enough to see the shore, Peter spots the risen Jesus standing on the beach. And as soon as he sees him, Peter dives into the water and swims back to shore.
After his appalling performance on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, why didn’t Peter swim as far away from shore as he possibly could? What was he thinking? He had failed the very person that he was swimming full stroke to see. Had he finally grown a backbone and was heading back to the beach to apologize? Or was Peter swimming back to the one person who knew him better than he knew himself? John does not tell us why.
What we do know is that the risen Jesus does not give his failed disciple a lecture or send him packing, but neither does he give Peter a pass and whisper, “Now, now, Peter, it’s okay. You’re okay.” Instead, Jesus meets Peter in his most familiar and comfortable setting, by the sea amid a fresh catch of fish, and just as Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus asks Peter the same question three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Surely Jesus already knows the answer to that question. At this point, does it matter what Peter says? How can Jesus trust anything Peter ever says again after he has lied three times when it mattered the most?
Maybe the risen Jesus wants to know if Peter can handle a second chance, know if Peter now loves him more than he loves the familiarity of fishing with the boys? Maybe Jesus wants Peter to know that despite his lies, his denials that he still believes Peter has the capacity to lead God’s people?
Just when I begin to let myself get optimistic about how much Peter has learned and changed, the story continues and I can only shake my head. After being asked by Jesus for a third time, “Do you love me?” Peter has the audacity to act hurt. “Jesus, surely you know that I love you?!” Are you kidding me, Peter? You the victim? No, I’m sorry, Peter, you don’t get to play the “I’m hurt” card. You are the villain of the story, not the victim.
Somehow Jesus manages not to stare Peter down or shout him down. He looks at this failed disciple and tells him to feed his sheep, to tend to his calling, to lead and to care for God’s people.
If you listen hard, the Easter question on the beach from Jesus to Peter echoes in our ears even now: Beth Neville, child of God, do you love me? John, child of God, do you love me? Jan, child of God, do you love me? Diane, child of God, do you love me? Kelly, child of God, do you love me? Gary, child of God do you love me?
The late novelist and Tar Heel resident, Reynolds Price says that this story of Jesus and Peter on the beach contains the one sentence that we crave more than any other: “The maker of all things loves and wants me” (Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, p. 72).
I am here to tell you this morning that my answer to Jesus’ question is “Yes, Lord, I do love you.” Almost six years ago, when I was installed as your pastor, I was asked the question, “Will you pray for and serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” I answered “yes” gladly then and my answer to that question has only deepened over time. I love this body of Christ with all its quirkiness and willingness not to think outside the box, but to live outside the box. What other churches do you know that have the imagination to cover a church roof with solar panels, not primarily to save a buck but primarily as a step to save God’s creation? What other churches our size provide more volunteer for Habitat builds than Cove? Simple answer. None.
When I think of a dripping wet Peter on the beach, I think less of all that I have helped to do as your pastor and more of all that I have left undone. It is one thing to stand back and point out the profound and obvious failures of Peter, it is a far more painful task to look in the mirror and note my own. That may be why I love this Easter story as much as I do. For finally, this story is not about Peter’s failures as a leader or about my own, or for that matter, yours. Rather, it is a story about God’s constant faithfulness and God’s perplexing and comforting confidence in me and in you.
The late Howard Thurman, a distinguished African American theologian and mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote: “No event in your life can imprison you. This is what resurrection is about. I shall not allow the events of my life to make me their prisoner . . . I shall continually believe that God is not through with life, or with me” (The Growing Edge).
Is it possible that God can soften even our hearts to forgive and to love those people who make it nearly impossible to forgive and to love? Ask Peter standing on the beach eating a breakfast served by Jesus. Is it possible that God can inspire us to share our faith with people who have had it with Christian platitudes and with the church missing in action? Ask Peter standing in a pool of his own failure and yet commissioned to care for other while being served breakfast by Jesus.
Even though I grew up in the Tidewater of Virginia, I have never been a beach lover. But thanks to this Easter story, I can imagine myself standing on that beach with Peter, carrying with me all my memories of failures in my ministry as well as missed expectations and self-doubts. But much more, I find myself standing there being fed by the One who forgives me and calls me and loves me.
So, move over Peter, make room for me, make room for us, on the beach.