Sermon: Thank goodness for Peter

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Third Sunday of Easter, 1st of May, 2022

John 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-20

Do you ever find yourself lying awake at night in a cold sweat, wishing that you had said or done something differently? Have you ever said too much in anger or fear, and attacked someone with words that bite? Have you ever said too little in pride or obstinacy, and so let hurt linger or a division fester? Have you done the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing? If so, I invite you to think of Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the Christian church.

Peter is quite possibly the most encouraging biblical role model we could have as Christians. The gospels tell us 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-statured Zacchaeus. But no one committed to Jesus as completely, betrayed him so utterly, and was forgiven so abundantly as the Apostle Peter.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John we find that despite the wonders of the empty tomb and the locked room, a small group of Jesus’ disciples has gone back to where their life with Jesus started, in Galilee. ‘After these things’, after the crucifixion and resurrection, after Jesus had appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene, after he had entered a locked room to show himself to the disciples not once but twice, they have left Jerusalem and returned to the job from which Jesus called them. Simon Peter now says, ‘I am going fishing’ and the other disciples reply, ‘We will go with you.’ This anti-climax may have been 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 overthrown absolutely everything they had known about the world. The resurrection of Jesus must have been a source of extraordinary joy for them, but it would also have been utterly terrifying. In a natural and predictable response, the disciples seek comfort by returning to their roots and to what they know best.

However, they catch no fish. It is not until morning, when an unknown figure on the shore tells them to cast their nets on the right side, that any fish appear. Then there are so many in the net that it cannot be brought aboard. It seems to have been that unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved who first realises what this means, but it is Peter who leaps overboard to swim to Jesus.

Peter had never heard the phrase ‘look before you leap’. In Matthew’s gospel we are 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?’ (Matthew 14:28-31) Only Peter had the courage, the faith, or maybe the audacity to go to Jesus over the water, but he had not 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 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.’ (Matthew 17:4) Luke tells us that Peter did not know what he was saying (Luke 9:33); Mark says that that was because Peter was terrified. (Mark 9:6) It was another occasion when Peter was just a little too quick to leap in.

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 three times. (John 13:37-38) Before the cock crowed the next morning, Peter had done exactly that. By the charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter three times denied that he was one of Jesus’ followers.

But Jesus had not spoken to Peter about his betrayal in his previous two resurrection appearances, and he does not mention it now. Without a word about the night of Jesus’ betrayal 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?’ 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. 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 is 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 pray in absolute confidence because of stories like today’s, in which we see God’s forgiveness acted out in Jesus. Every week I remind us that our sins are forgiven. Do we believe it? Can we accept God’s forgiveness, love, and invitation to us to try again when we act like Peter? Are we able to celebrate God’s love and grace, no matter what we have done, no matter how much we might have failed? Are we able to walk in the footsteps of Peter?

When we have been sinned against, can we forgive with the wholeheartedness of Jesus? Can we pray the second part of the petition, ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’? The church obviously remembered Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. It was recorded in all four gospels. No one pretended that it had never happened. But it did not prevent the early Christians from following Peter’s leadership. They knew that Peter had been forgiven by Jesus, and so that was how they responded to him. 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.

Peter had not been forever damned by his worst moment.

Such 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. Understandably his initial response is to imply that this is a bad idea. But when told by the Lord that Saul is his instrument, Ananias not only goes to heal him, he addresses him as ‘Brother’. Ananias, too, is part of a community that does not hold their past against those whom God has called, instead seeing them as people made new by God’s forgiveness. Can that be our community, too?

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.’ This 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. We too, like Peter and Paul, are forgiven and entrusted with ministry. If we ever do find ourselves lying awake at night, lamenting our past failings, we can tell ourselves firmly that God has already forgiven us. Which of course means that we too can forgive others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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