Sermon: Following in the fisherman’s footsteps

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Sermon for Williamstown

The Third Sunday of Easter, 14th of April 2013

John 21:1-19

Whenever you feel downhearted or discouraged at your performance as a follower of Jesus, think of Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the Christian church. Peter is quite possibly the most encouraging biblical role model Christians can have. The gospels tell us many stories of people who met Jesus, repented, and changed their lives around: tax collectors and prostitutes; the Samaritan woman at the well and the short-in-stature Zacchaeus. But possibly no one committed to Jesus as completely; betrayed him so utterly; and was forgiven by him so abundantly as the Apostle Peter.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John we find that a small group of Jesus’ disciples has gone back to where their life with Jesus started, in Galilee. We’re told that this gathering takes place ‘after these things’; after the crucifixion and resurrection; after Jesus had appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene; after he then entered a locked a room to show himself to most of the disciples; and after Jesus appeared in that same room a second time and showed himself to Thomas, who had been missing the first time. The disciples have seen the Risen Lord. Yet they’ve left Jerusalem, where all this took place, and have returned home. More than that, they’ve now gone back to the job from which Jesus called them. Simon Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ and the other disciples reply, ‘We will go with you.’ It seems such an anti-climax! But maybe it was what the disciples had to do to stay sane. Jesus, their leader and teacher, had been betrayed, imprisoned, tortured and executed; bad enough for his shell-shocked followers. But then he had returned, and absolutely everything they had known about the world had been overthrown. The resurrection of Jesus was no doubt a source of great joy for them, but at the same time it must have been utterly terrifying. In a natural and predictable response, the disciples sought comfort by returning to their roots and to what they knew best. 

I’m not sure how soothing their fishing would have been, because they caught no fish. It wasn’t until morning, when an unknown figure on the shore told them to cast their nets on the right side, that any fish were caught. Then there were so many in the net that it couldn’t be brought aboard. It seems to have been that unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved who first realised what this meant, but it was Peter who leapt overboard to swim to Jesus.

I don’t think Peter had ever heard the phrase ‘look before you leap’. In Matthew’s gospel we’re told that when Jesus stilled a storm while walking on the water, Peter responded by saying: ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus answered, ‘Come,’ and so Peter did. But he got scared when he noticed the strong wind and began to sink, crying, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus, of course, did save him and then rebuked him, asking: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’[1] Only Peter had the courage, the faith, or maybe the audacity to go to Jesus over the water, but it appears that he hadn’t thought through what he was doing and he soon found himself in trouble. In the same way, it was Peter who leapt in where angels might fear to tread at the Transfiguration, when Jesus’ identity as God’s son was revealed. The other two disciples present, James and John, remained silent, but Peter apparently blurted out the first thing in his head: ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’[2] Luke tells us that Peter didn’t know what he was saying;[3] Mark says that that was because Peter was terrified.[4] It was another occasion when Peter was just a little too quick to leap in.

But of course, the most memorable and dreadful occasion when Peter leapt without looking was when he assured Jesus at the Last Supper that he would lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus foretold that instead Peter would deny him there times.[5] Before the cock crowed the next morning, Peter did exactly that. By the charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter three times denied that he was one of Jesus’ followers.

It appears that Jesus didn’t speak to Peter about his betrayal in his previous two appearances, and he doesn’t mention it now. But without a word about that night being spoken, this breakfast on the beach is a scene of repentance and forgiveness. Once again, by a charcoal fire, Peter is asked a question three times: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ It seems that Peter has learnt a little. Rather than agreeing that, yes, he loves Jesus more than the other breakfasting disciples do, he says twice: ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you’ and the third time: ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ The man who boasted that even if everyone else deserted Jesus he would never desert him, now simply leaves it to Jesus to read his heart. And in this exchange Peter is offered and accepts forgiveness. His three denials have been replaced by three declarations of love.

Peter is not only forgiven, he is also recommissioned. In response to each of Peter’s declarations of love, Jesus commands him to do something: ‘Feed my lambs’; ‘Tend my sheep’; ‘Feed my sheep’. There’s no half-heartedness or limitation about Peter’s forgiveness and reintegration into the community. Peter is called to serve the sheep of Jesus the good shepherd, even to the point of laying down his life for the sheep, as Jesus himself did. The very end of this encounter is Jesus’ renewed command to Peter: ‘Follow me.’

Every week we pray here together: ‘forgive us our sins’ and we can pray in absolute confidence because of stories like today’s, in which we see God’s forgiveness acted out in Jesus. But is this one of those times when God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways God’s ways? Are we able to accept God’s forgiveness, love and invitation to us to try again when we act like Peter? Are we able to accept and celebrate God’s love and grace, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we might have failed? Are we able to follow in the footsteps of Peter? Bill Loader writes of the Peter we see in today’s story: ‘Peter is not disowned. Peter is legendary. His rehabilitation is a celebration of divine grace. He also symbolises leadership, the shepherd appointed by the true shepherd, to do as he did, to care for the sheep. There could be no arrogance here, no lofty superiority, no graceless dogmatism. Instead, a frail human person brought again to his feet, enriched with stories of Jesus, and brought to life and leadership by God’s generosity. Such is the image and the possibility.’[6]

This is what we are offered, too, the divine grace that lifts us to our feet no matter what we’ve done, and invites us to follow Jesus. The Apostle Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[7] The life and example of the Apostle Peter reminds us that this ‘nothing’ includes our own very worst failures. So let’s follow in Peter’s footsteps, as he followed Christ. Amen.


[1] Matthew 14:28-31.

[2] Matthew 17:4.

[3] Luke 9:33.

[4] Mark 9:6.

[5] John 13:37-38.

[7] Romans 8:38-39.

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