Many people ask themselves: Have I gone too far? Have I wandered so far from the path that I will never find my way back? Many have anxiety over the time lost, the opportunities missed. This is very hard to bear. One has a hard time bearing the weight of regrets.
But the good news that the church proclaims, especially during the Easter season, is addressed to these people too. Perhaps the good news is even especially for them. For the resurrection of Jesus is about nothing if not hope for those who have wandered very far, and now find themselves in a place they never expected to be.
This comes into vivid focus in the life of Peter, who’s the subject of our gospel lesson today. Peter was a faithful follower of Jesus. Indeed, in his zeal, in his enthusiasm, he far surpassed the rest of the disciples. But he’s far from perfect. He’s impetuous, unstable, and unreliable, among other things. He’s a slow learner, and appears even to be dull-witted at his worst moments.
Perhaps that’s why he appeals to us. He’s relatable, because we too can identify with his failings.
But Peter did something of which he never imagined himself to be capable. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that they would fall away from him. This statement seemed outrageous to the disciples in light of their love for him. Peter, for his part, was sure that he’d be the one, even if everyone else scattered, to stay loyal to Jesus.
But Jesus gently corrected him. He told Peter that, in fact, he, Peter, would deny him, not just once, but three times, before the rooster crowed that very day. And it happened just as Jesus said it would. While warming himself by a charcoal fire, Peter denied ever knowing Jesus on three separate occasions.
Have we ever said or done things of which we never thought ourselves capable? Probably most, if not all of us, have. And perhaps afterward we thought that we disqualified ourselves from the race. We’re no longer worthy of the honor of serving God in God’s kingdom. Our place is in the shadows. We can look out from there and admire those who serve. But it’s no longer for us.
This is how Peter must have felt. He was a fisherman before he was a disciple of Jesus. But he renounced his faith in Jesus. So with resignation, he goes back to his old life. He’s a fisherman again. Peter and his companions go out and get into a boat.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the profession of fishing in itself. But in this return to his old life, Peter’s no longer counting on a future for himself. He no longer entertains expectations. For Peter it’s a regress. His life has lost forward momentum.
The night passes, and nothing happens. It’s a fishless night. How long these periods in our own lives last, we never know in advance, and it often takes us a long time before we realize how empty our nets are.
In these periods, we need help. That’s obvious. But Scripture does not counsel self-help. There is no verse in the Bible that says: “God helps those who help themselves.” What else could the disciples do? After all, in spite of their best efforts, they caught nothing! But at the latest hour, when the light begins to dawn like a new sunrise, the Lord sees and intervenes. This is also the testimony of the Psalmist: “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
The voice calls out from the shore. “Children, you have no fish, have you?” At first glance, the gentle word with which Jesus addresses the disciples in the boat seems inappropriate. “Children”? But it’s important. Psychologists tell us that we’re only able to face truth when we can say anything without fear of censure or blame. Permission to be children is an invitation to be open and honest, without pretense. Jesus does not appear to them to humiliate them. That would only cause them to withdraw into themselves and make up excuses. Our first impulse when someone sees us doing what we ought not to be doing is to justify ourselves. But Jesus represents the beginning of new life, truly the dawning of a sunrise from the far shore.
They don’t recognize him at first. “Who is this wise guy anyway?” Anyone knows that fisherman are not out on the water at his hour if they have caught anything at all. So they respond with a brusque: “No!”
Not to be discouraged by their unfriendly reply to his friendly greeting, the stranger calls back: “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.” Success! The haul of fish is so great that they are hardly able to lift the net.
Does this scene look familiar? It should. It’s remarkably similar to the set of circumstances described on the occasion of Peter’s first call to discipleship. At that time also, Peter worked hard all night and hadn’t caught anything. At that time also, Jesus instructed Peter to let down the nets for a catch. And when he had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break (Luke 5:4-6).
In effect, Jesus is calling Peter back to that day when he first implanted that dream in his heart. When we have drifted from our course, when we have wandered far from the path and we despair of ever finding our way back, God can find us and recall us to the place from where we first set out. He can revive the dream that he first implanted in us. That belongs to resurrection hope, as we have already pointed out.
For his part, John at once recognizes the stranger and says to Peter: “It is the Lord!”
John, the beloved disciple, had the perception that comes from love and instantly recognizes Jesus in the extraordinary catch of fish. This is what characterizes love. It sees through the events of life and recognizes Christ in them.
Peter, as is typical of him, leaps out of the boat and swims to shore. There is more in store for him.
When they arrived at the shore, Jesus invited Peter and the disciples to sit next to him in front of a charcoal fire. Does this scene not also seem familiar? On the night of Jesus’ trial, Peter stood at a distance in the courtyard. Because it was cold the officers and their servants were standing around a charcoal fire they had made, and Peter was also standing there, warming himself. A servant girl asked him: “aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?” Peter replied, “I am not” (John 18:17-18). That was the first of his three denials around the charcoal fire that night, as we have already mentioned.
In effect, Jesus is bringing Peter back to that night when he denied him three times. On that night Peter broke communion with Jesus. But in inviting him to sit next to him to feast on a breakfast of bread and fish in front of a charcoal fire, Jesus is restoring communion with Peter.
In this moving scene, we can see the significance of confessing sins. Why do we do it? It certainly isn’t popular. We meet ex-Catholics who joke about how hard it is to overcome Catholic guilt. I once visited the Reformed church I attended when I was younger. I noted that the confession of sins was omitted from the order of worship. When I asked the pastor about it, he replied that it repelled visitors, and so it was removed. When a well-known televangelist was asked why the word “sin” is never mentioned in his services, he replied that most people are so beat down by life that they don’t need to be reminded they are sinners.
But confessing sins is not meant to beat us down. It is meant to heal. Unconfessed sin does harm to us. God doesn’t want our harm but our healing. Jesus brings Peter back to the scene where Peter sinned, not to condemn him, but to restore him.
After they finished their breakfast, Jesus called Peter aside. They walked together down the beach. Jesus put his arm around him. Peter’s heart sank. Perhaps he was thinking: “Well, I guess this it. I denied the Lord three times. Now he’s going to remind me of my failures, and tell me that I’ve been demoted from my place as head of the apostles. John will probably be taking over for me.”
The expectation of this inevitable confrontation has been weighing heavily on Peter’s mind. Note that he has not spoken up during any of the appearances of the risen Christ before this one. Peter was among those in the room behind locked doors, in the room where Jesus appeared to them, as we saw last Sunday. But he is a weak man who failed Jesus in the hour of his greatest need. Weak and failed men spend their lives in obscurity, perhaps engaged in a profession that does not demand too much from them, if they work at all.
Peter knows that he’s failed. He realizes that it’s only right that someone else take his place, someone better. No one could have done worse than he: to deny the Lord three times.
He was perhaps not prepared for what happens next. Jesus asks him, “Simon Son of John, do you love me?”
Note that he uses his full name. We do the same when we want someone to listen to us, when we want them to appreciate the seriousness of what we are saying. Peter replies: “Lord, you know that I love you.” But Jesus repeats this question two more times, giving Peter two more occasions to affirm his love for Jesus. Does this not also sound familiar? “Peter, I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
In effect, Jesus is giving Peter the grace to reverse his threefold denial. This is how grace works. It brings us back to the scene of our failure, not to condemn us there, but to heal us and give us a fresh start. This was the point we made concerning the confession of sins.
Jesus does not bring Peter back to these awful scenes in his life to shame him, but to let him undo, or more accurately, redo what went so terribly wrong.
About Paul we can say much the same as we have been saying about Peter. We heard about his conversion in our first lesson. He stood opposed to Jesus. Indeed, he was a violent man, a persecutor of the church. But despite his ignorance and unbelief he was shown mercy. God’s grace overflowed to him, with the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus. Once an adversary of the church, he became its greatest champion.
Of Peter it cannot be said that he was a violent man. But at a moment of crisis he too stood opposed to Jesus. Or at least he no longer stood with him. But as a result of the grace shown to him, he changes from a weak and failed man into a confident and fearless man on whom the power of God rests.
He preaches the first sermon ever recorded in the courts of temple on the Day of Pentecost and three thousand are converted. He becomes a pillar in the church of Jerusalem and leads a movement that will change the course of world history.
There is an old and a new, a before and after for these two men. But there is this also for all those who have been baptized into Christ, who have died with him and been raised to new life in him.
We celebrate this reality every time we come to worship. But on those Lord’s Days when we share the Lord’s Supper, we amplify this celebration. There is a distinct Eucharistic image in our Gospel lesson this morning. By Eucharistic I mean that it is one pointing us to Holy Communion. “Jesus came to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, took the bread and gave it to them.”
The Lord’s Supper is intended for those who at one time have known broken communion with God, but now have been restored. They have been brought back into communion with God through Jesus Christ, through whom they have new life, just as Paul and Peter. Let us then receive this from Jesus. For he gives to us this same bread today as he did to his disciples then. Amen.