Sermon for Williamstown
The Third Sunday of Easter, 10th of April 2016
Last week the Gospel according to John seemed to come to an end. Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection; breathed on them to give them the Holy Spirit; commissioned them; and then came back a week later because poor Thomas hadn’t been present the first time. As you may remember, chapter 20 of the gospel ended: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.’ The words ‘The End’ would not be out of place here. So why are we here a week later with a further Johannine appearance story?
In today’s reading we find that a small group of Jesus’ disciples has apparently gone back to where their life with Jesus started, in Galilee. We’re told that this gathering takes place ‘after these things’; after all the disciples have seen the Risen Lord. Yet they’ve left Jerusalem, where that took place, and have returned home. More than that, they’ve now gone back to the job from which, according to the other gospels, Jesus called them. Simon Peter says, ‘I am going fishing,’ and the other disciples reply, ‘We will go with you.’ Where’s the joy with which they greeted the risen Jesus, and why are they not out evangelising, having received the Holy Spirit?
For these and other reasons many biblical scholars think that this chapter is an addition to the Gospel; that John initially finished his story with the passage that we heard last week. But no one has yet found a manuscript of the gospel that doesn’t contain chapter 21, and so we can be certain that, whether or not this story was part of the original gospel, the early Christian community thought it was vital.
The story of the disciples fishing and then breakfasting with Jesus on the beach is full of significance. The disciples catch no fish until an unknown figure tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. It’s noteworthy that nowhere in any of the gospels do the disciples, professional fishermen, catch fish without Jesus. Despite their best efforts, it’s only with Jesus’ help that they succeed.
There are so many fish in the net that it can’t be brought aboard. And yet the net does not break. Enormous amounts of ink have been spilled over the meaning of the one hundred and fifty-three fish and most commentators have come to the conclusion that we’ll never know the importance of that number. But if fishing is a metaphor for making disciples, then it’s noteworthy that, despite the huge number of fish. the net is not broken. If the net is the church and we’re the fish, then its ability to hold all of us without breaking is comforting.
When the disciples arrive on shore Jesus is cooking them breakfast. In the midst of their work, their everyday lives, Jesus nourishes and sustains them. The bread and fish remind us of the feeding of the 5000. They would also remind early Christians of the Eucharist, which was often depicted as being a meal of fish and bread in early church art, as would the action of Jesus taking the bread and giving it to them, and doing the same with the fish. And while Jesus provides some of the food, he also asks the disciples to add to the fish from their catch. The ordinary products that we bring from our daily lives can be used by Jesus to feed us, as they do whenever we celebrate communion together.
Lots and lots of meaningful elements in this story. But perhaps the most memorable and important part of that breakfast on the beach is the rehabilitation and commissioning of Peter. The last time we heard Peter speak he was sitting by the charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest, denying three times that he was one of Jesus’ followers. Now he sits by a charcoal fire on the beach and three times declares his love for Jesus.
At the last supper, Peter proclaimed, ‘Lord … I will lay down my life for you,’ and Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.’ Peter is now much less self-assured. Jesus asks him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ – more than the other disciples gathered around them. Peter no longer dares to say that he does. He doesn’t compare his love for Jesus with the love the other disciples have. Rather than agreeing that, yes, he loves Jesus more than the rest of the 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. 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 commissioned. 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 them, as Jesus himself did. The very end of this encounter is Jesus’ renewed command to Peter: ‘Follow me.’
Last time I preached on this passage I focused on Peter, his impetuosity, his failure and rehabilitation, and I asked whether we could accept that we are just as forgiven, just as called to follow Jesus, as Peter was. This time I want to focus on the response of the rest of the church to Peter’s rehabilitation. The resurrection stories in the Gospel according to John compare the responses of Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They both run to the tomb; and while the Beloved Disciple gets there first but only looks in, Peter enters first. Yet we’re told it was the Beloved Disciple who saw and believed. In today’s story it’s the Beloved Disciple who recognises Jesus and tells Peter, but it is Peter who then leaps into the water to reach Jesus first. Some Christians down the centuries have seen in Peter and the Beloved Disciple symbols of the active and the contemplative Christian lives, and in their different responses to Jesus – belief and action – the need for both.
It is generally accepted that the Gospel According to John was written by the community of the Beloved Disciple, by those whose stories of Jesus had been handed down to them by him. This might be why this story of Peter’s forgiveness and commissioning needed to be added to the gospel. By telling this story, the community of the Beloved Disciple is accepting Peter’s leadership of the church. Since they themselves learned of Jesus from a disciple who had never betrayed him, I think their support of Peter’s role is astoundingly gracious.
Peter’s betrayal was remembered. It is in all four gospels. No one pretended that it had never happened. But that did not prevent the early Christians from following Peter’s leadership. They knew that Peter had been forgiven, and so that was how they responded to him. He was not forever damned by his worst moment.
Forgiveness not only takes grace, it also takes courage. Think about poor Ananias, commanded by the Lord to seek out the chief persecutor of the saints. No wonder his initial response was to imply that this was a bad idea. But when told by the Lord that Saul was his instrument, Ananias not only goes to heal him, he addresses him as ‘Brother’. Again, through Ananias we have a community that does not hold their past against those whom God has called, but sees them as people made new by God’s forgiveness.
The church is occasionally condemned for its emphasis on forgiveness. It has been accused of encouraging the victims of domestic violence not simply to forgive the perpetrators but to accept the violence, and of so swiftly forgiving church leaders who abuse children that children are kept in harm’s way. There’s no doubt that forgiveness has been misused in these ways. But that misuse doesn’t mean that forgiveness isn’t a Christian imperative. Every week we collectively pray: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. Forgiving others means not judging them by the worst thing they ever did – Peter’s betrayal, Saul’s persecution. It means seeing them as the people God intends them to be – the rock on which the church is built, the instrument to bring Jesus’ name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.
There is a lovely line in a poem called A Vision of Piers Plowman, written in about 1400 by a man called William Langland: ‘And all the wickedness in this world that man might work or think/Is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal in the sea.’ That is what this epilogue to the Gospel according to John tells us; no human crime, sin or failing can outweigh the graciousness of God. Simon the denier and Saul the persecutor were forgiven and entrusted with ministry. And we too, like Peter and Paul, are forgiven and entrusted with ministry. Let us forgive others as we have been forgiven. Thanks be to God.