Have We Met?
The Third Sunday of Easter
John 21: 1-19
Prayer: God be in my words, and in my speaking; God be in our ears, and in our hearing; God be in our lives, and in our doing, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Really, Jesus? “Simon, son of John”?
Not “Peter”? The name you gave him at Caesarea Philippi, when he blurted out “You are the Messiah!” and you said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John!”—the name given to him at birth; his old name, his old family, his old life—
“Blessed are you,” you said, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!
“And I tell you, you are Peter (Greek Petrós, “Rock,”) and on this Rock I will build my church…”
Peter, the name with which you crowned his greatest moment, singling him out as special, a leader, the rock-solid one… the hero…
Now he’s back to being Simon, son of John, like you’ve just been introduced?
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Three times Jesus asks him. Once for each denial.
Remember the night of Jesus’ arrest? “No, I’m not a disciple of Jesus. Nope, not me. I’m telling you, you must have me confused with someone else!”
Maybe that’s why he and Jesus are back to formal names—the way they would have been that day by the lake. Peter on his knees, repairing a net. Jesus calling back to him over his shoulder, “Come, follow me.” And Peter, startled, getting to his feet and stumbling after him.
Three years, dozens of villages, hundreds of miles, and thousands of encounters later, it’s like they’re starting at square one. In Galilee. With empty nets. By the side of the lake. Jesus and Simon.
* * *
There’s one small detail in this story that always jumps out at me.
It’s when the other disciple in the boat recognizes Jesus—“It’s the Lord!” he says. And Peter, who has laid aside his clothes for the messy work of fishing, jumps into the water and swims to shore.
But first he gets dressed.
Who gets dressed before jumping in the water?
Maybe there’s nothing strange about this. Maybe it was too deep to wade, and you can’t swim and carry your clothes, so there was really no other choice.
But to me there’s just something arresting about the image of Peter, fully clothed, staggering up onto the sand with lake water streaming off him—self-consciously the First Disciple, as always. But still not quite meeting Jesus’ eye.
It makes me think of another story about guilt and nakedness and hiding.
Remember Adam in the garden, after eating the forbidden fruit, hiding himself when God comes looking for him?
“He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’”
Was it his naked body he was covering, or the shame of breaking his promise to God?
Was it modesty that made Peter cover up, or the shame of denying Jesus, when he had sworn that he would follow him, if necessary, to death?
Who among us doesn’t try to cover ourselves from the gaze of others sometimes?
Who doesn’t sometimes hide behind the mask of “everything’s fine”? “Pretend like nothing has happened”?
Don’t we all live with the fear of being seen naked, our flaws exposed to public view, our mistakes, shortcomings, and weaknesses revealed to the world…?
It isn’t even just the dumb or less-than-admirable things we’re afraid will be found out.
Just being vulnerable can feel shaming. Financial struggles, family problems, even illness can be difficult to talk about. It’s hard to be looked at. It’s hard to have people know.
If you’ve ever gotten fired and had to start over… If you’ve ever given everything to a marriage, only to have it fall apart… If you’ve ever gotten sober, only to relapse… Then I think you have some idea why Peter might have instinctively reached for his tunic before jumping in the water. He needed that extra layer, to hide the self who had failed as a disciple; maybe, he may have been feeling in his heart of hearts, at life.
* * *
Did you ever wonder how Peter got to be the most famous of all the disciples?
It’s true, the gospels mention him at least twice as often as any member of Jesus’ circle, including Mary and John. Whatever’s going on, Peter always seems to be right there, kind of representing all the others.
But did you notice that almost every single mention is negative?
Check it out. Except for that one moment where he names Jesus as the Messiah, Peter is the perfect exemplar of the disciple who Doesn’t Get It. He can’t open his mouth without saying the wrong thing, and Peter is always opening his mouth.
When Jesus chooses him to witness the Transfiguration, he falls down, terrified. When Jesus comes to them on the sea, he says, “Teach me how to do that!” only to panic and sink at the first gust of wind. When Jesus kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet on the night of his arrest, Peter tries to fight him off: “You shall never wash my feet!” And when Jesus asks him to watch and pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane, the anxiety is too much for him. He falls asleep.
That “You are Peter, and on this Rock” thing? His shining moment, and two verses later he puts his foot in it again, and Jesus whips around and calls him Satan. That didn’t take long.
I hate to admit how much identify I with Peter.
He wants so much to be a hero.
Kind of makes you wonder what Jesus was thinking when he called Peter “Rock” in the first place.
This is the Rock you decided to build your church on, Jesus? Really?
And if we’ve been to a lot of committee meetings lately and we’re really feeling jaded, we might be tempted to add, “Well, that explains a lot.”
But we’d be wrong. Jesus knew what he was doing.
And so did the early church know what it was doing, when it remembered these stories and passed them along, and told them in their assemblies, and eventually wrote them into the gospels—the stories of how the legendary Peter was completely hopeless as a disciple.
As a disciple, AND as a fisherman. Ouch.
Pretty weird PR.
Pretty weird starting place for a spiritual renewal movement. As if the Cross wasn’t tough enough.
It just shows that somehow, by the grace of God, despite the human limitations of the actual people involved—no, through the human limitations of the actual people involved, by means of the human limitations of the actual people involved—
God’s self-revelation in Jesus had been recognized and received.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples that day at Caeserea Philippi. God is asking us the same question. “What kind of God do you think I am? A harsh father? A remote observer? Any angry judge? Do you know me at all?”
What kind of God gets born, wet, cold, and helpless, into a world of God’s own making? And lives the kind of life, unarmed, on foot, and face-to-face, that Jesus lived, healing lepers, eating with sinners, feeding people, washing feet?
And dies as Jesus died? What kind of God does that?
And what does it mean to love a God like that?
“Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
If God was in Jesus, showing us God’s very heart, then a godly life must be about something other than being a great hero or a great leader.
It must be about love—grounded, face-to-face, forgiven and forgiving, and very, very real—and all the ways that kind of love has of cracking us open and setting us free.
God’s love is about the power of weakness and failure. It’s about what happens when we are willing to risk, try, fail, learn, blunder, and be forgiven.
That’s the kind of person Jesus needs out there in a world that no more has its act together than Peter did. Or than we do.
“Feed my lambs.”
Not from behind our castle walls, checkbooks in hand, from a position of safety and privilege, but out there, where life is messy and complicated, face to face on terms of mutuality and equality, sharing the good news of God’s love, grace, and power at work in the lives of the likes of us. Learning that good news ourselves as we go.
It’s scary out there. We mess up, and it doesn’t feel good. But that’s the risk love takes.
Can you see our church venturing out of its beautiful protective shell and taking that kind of love and honesty out into the world?
Can we imagine going out and getting our feet dirty, and letting Jesus see them and even touch them?
* * *
Devin and I had a strange Ash Wednesday this year.
It was a kind of litugical experiment. I put on my church vestments, the same ones I’m wearing today, and Devin and I went and stood outside Park St. Station with a bowl of ashes to see what would happen.
Five minutes hadn’t gone by before a young woman came up to me and asked if I thought her boyfriend was going to hell because he had gotten himself into trouble with drugs and stealing. And when I said No, she started to cry, and I hugged her and put my hands on her shoulders and prayed with her.
After that, for the next three hours, as Devin and I stood there quietly, person after person after person came up to us and asked to receive ashes—faces upturned to a perfect stranger to receive the sign of the Cross, the mark of suffering love. “You are dust, and to dust you will return, but you remain in God’s heart forever.”
We lost count of how many came forward.
And really, I’ll be honest, I don’t think either of us had any idea what was going on. Why were so many people so eager to be reminded that they were going to die someday? It was kind of baffling.
But I think there’s a pretty powerful hunger out there for someone to be real with us. I think we’re all aching for a life beyond appearances, performance reviews, politics, and sales pitches.
For all our fear of being exposed, we long to be seen fully, truly, and completely. And loved accordingly.
When we deny our own reality, we deny Jesus. When we deny Jesus, we deny the truth of who we are—and Christ remains buried.
May Easter come for all of us, for real.
May we be set free to love and fail and go on loving anyway.
May we look within ourselves, and around ourselves, and know that Christ is really, truly risen.
Alleluia, and amen.