This sermon really began last week when we talked about Judas and betrayal. Judas was not the only one to betray Jesus on that dark night, it's just that the consequences of his betrayal were more severe. Judas betrayed Jesus in a concrete way...arranging to have him handed over to authorities. Peter's betrayal was more subtle, but how it must have hurt. Jesus is about to be taken inside for a sham trial, cruel beating, mockery and death, and the very last words he hears from one of his closest friends is, "I don't know him." "I don't know the man," says the one who just hours before had professed that he would go with Jesus to the death. That is betrayal.
Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus. Judas went out and hanged himself in remorse, and Peter went out and wept bitterly. And then comes this scene on the beach by the Sea of Galilee. I'm sure that liturgical purists will be terribly upset that I am using a post-resurrection text before Easter, but if you promise not to turn me over to the liturgy police, I think we can learn from what happens to Peter after Easter, in light of his denial the night before Jesus' death.
The story in John gives us a perfect picture of Peter. Seven of the remaining eleven disciples are together by the Sea of Galilee. They are back home after three years of living and traveling with Jesus...the wildest roller coaster ride of their lives. Peter announces that he's going fishing, which had been his career before he met Jesus, and the others volunteer to go along. It doesn't say what they might have told their wives, but they ended up fishing all night long. The fish were not biting, however, and they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, they see a man standing on the beach. The man realizes their plight and suggests they might have some luck if they throw the net on the other side of the boat. I am always amazed that they did what he told them. There were some experienced fishermen on that boat. Peter was not the only one who had fished for a living. Why should they take the advice of a stranger when all their expertise had turned up nothing all night long? But they take the suggestion and cast the net on the other side of the boat. They catch so many fish that they can't even haul the net back into the boat. It doesn't take Peter long to figure this out. Except for the last three years, he had spent his life fishing. He knew there were no fish on any side of the boat. If their nets were suddenly bursting with fish, there could be only one explanation. That was no ordinary fishing guide on the beach. Somehow, some-way, that was Jesus. "It is the Lord!" he cries, and he leaps into the water and swims for shore...leaving the other disciples to bring in the boat, dragging the net full of fish behind them. Think about this scene for a minute. Luke tells us that while Peter was denying Jesus, Jesus was close enough to hear him. As the rooster crowed, Luke tells us, Jesus looked straight at Peter. Had I done that, I'm not sure I would have been dashing toward shore to meet Jesus. I would probably have let the other disciples go on ahead and sort of shuffled up at the rear to take my lumps. I don't know about you, but when I have really let somebody down, I find it really hard to face them. But not Peter, and in this lies the greatest gulf between Peter and Judas. However dense Peter might have been about specific teachings of Jesus, however cowardly he had been on the night of Jesus' arrest, the basic truth of the Gospel that Jesus preached had gotten through. God is love. God forgives. God will go to the mat for you. There was not an ounce of doubt in Peter that his sin would be forgiven, and all that mattered was being with Jesus. He dives in the water.
On the night of Jesus' arrest, they had all shared a meal together before life shattered. It is time now for all that happened that night to be redeemed, and so there, in the bright morning light, Jesus takes the fish that he provided and they caught and prepares them a new meal beside the sea. When the Last Supper was finished, they all went out and Peter denied him. When the first breakfast is finished, Jesus takes Peter aside to talk. "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"
Three times Peter had denied Jesus, and three times Jesus asks of him, "Do you love me?" There is no lecture. There is no "How could you have done that to me?" Jesus never tries to lay a guilt trip on Peter for what he has done. Jesus knows why Peter did what he did, and his questions now reveal it. Peter did not have enough love. John would later write in one of his letters, "Perfect love casts out all fear." If Peter had loved Jesus enough, the fear that drove him to denial would not have been able to get a foothold.
Peter knew enough to realize that God is love. What Jesus is teaching him on the beach is that the message is now Peter's to carry, and he won't be able to preach the message if he can't show it in his life. That is why the question, "Do you love me?" is always followed with the charge to feed and tend the sheep. Jesus' love had just led him to feed seven of his sheep on the beach. Peter must do the same, for the same reason. His love must grow so that fear will never again be his master.
I really believe that if Judas had not taken his life, Jesus would have had a second conversation on the beach that morning and had one extra mouth to feed. Judas' greatest failure was not in the betrayal, but was in failing to recognize that God intended remorse to lead to repentance and forgiveness, not death. Judas failed to realize that God loved him no matter what. Peter knew, and this breakfast of fish and love turned a fisherman into a shepherd.
The conversation that Jesus has with Peter, is the conversation Jesus has with us. Which of us, at one time or another, has not denied Jesus...either in word or in deed? And which of us, at one time or another, has not judged someone else for denying Jesus in one way or another? I remember approaching the end of my senior year in high school. It was time for the honors banquet, and since my mother was the senior class advisor, I was aware of all the preparations being made in the background.
It was customary at our school for the valedictorian of the class to open the honors banquet with a prayer, but in this year, the girl at the top of our class was refusing to do it. She did not believe, and she would not be made to pray. I was very much a fundamentalist in those years, didn't understand the separation of church and state thing, and I was mortified. I was distressed that there would be no prayer, but I was even more distressed that a friend of mine had refused to do it. My judgment came down on her like a ton of bricks.
I remember kneeling by the bed in my room praying in anguish about this, telling God how to run honors night, and asking God to make my friend change her mind. I was getting nowhere. Finally I blurted out, "But God, she has denied you!" Before I had even finished forming the words, the story of Peter flooded my mind, and my words changed to words of repentance. If God didn't condemn Peter, I had no business condemning my friend. I needed more love.
The story of Peter speaks to us on both sides of the fence. If we are judging someone for their denial of Jesus, we are faced with the scene of Jesus cooking breakfast for them. Jesus didn't ignore that it happened, but he did not deal with the denial by condemnation. He urged Peter to greater love and then proceeded to give him an even greater task. When we fail, Jesus simply picks us up, dusts us off, feeds us, and sets us back on the right road. No lecture, no guilt trip, just love and encouragement to do better. Whether we are condemning others or failing ourselves, on both sides we have failed in love. We are not called to condemn the sheep. We are called to feed the sheep. And when we find ourselves to be the straying sheep, we will know our Shepherd's voice by the love.
The good news that we call Gospel is exactly this scene on the beach. It is our proclamation that the loving person Jesus was, is none other than the awesome God of the universe. The God who flung the stars and decided that the sun needed to be 93 million miles from earth to sustain life is the same God who came as a baby and suffered death rather than be separated from us. The breakfast on the beach is not just for the disciples, it is for us. God's interest is in feeding us, not in condemning us; and God's task for us also is to do the same...to feed others rather than to condemn. If you love me, feed my sheep...that is what being a Christian means...love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
If only we, in our righteousness, could quit judging others for their various denials. If only we could quit shaking our fingers and start serving breakfast. Love God and feed the sheep...that's all we need to be about. We are not to judge whether the sheep deserve it or not...love God and feed the sheep. That's the charge.
If only we, in our sinfulness, could realize what Peter knew...that God is trying to love us, not slap us around. We all sin...hopefully less and less as the years go by, but we all do it. God is not waiting to pounce on us for our sin. God is not asking us to grovel or beat ourselves up. God is simply taking us by the hand and encouraging us to love more so that our love for God will become so strong that we would rather say no to sin than to hurt the God we love.
In John's Gospel, love is the cure for sin. God's love in Jesus cured the sin of the world, and our love of God is the only thing that can conquer sin in our own lives and the only th ing that can keep us from constantly judging the sin in the lives of others. John continues this theme much later as he writes the letter of 1 John. "Beloved," he says in 1 John 4, "let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever doesn't love, does not know God, for God is love." It couldn't be more plain.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Feed my sheep.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
Return to AnneRobertson.com