Published on Sun, 5 May 2019 10:30

(The text of Mike's sermon preached in Brampton on Sunday 5th May)


Today’s Gospel is a brilliant passage. There are lots of little puzzles in it.

Why don’t the disciples recognise Jesus in v4? (He has already appeared to them twice). Why are they afraid to ask Jesus who he is when it says that they knew it was the Lord in v12?
Why does John record that there were precisely 153 fish caught in v11? People have speculated at length on the symbolic significance of this number. It is a triangular number (the sum of all the integers up to 17). It could represent various Hebrew words when the letters are converted into numbers. One tongue-in-cheek suggestion notes that if you multiply the number of books in the Old Testament (66) with the number of Testaments (2), then add the age of Jesus when he died (33), then subtract the number of disciples (12) then you get 153. Coincidence? I think not!
My hunch is that, like the detail about the size of the stone jars containing water turned into wine back at the first of Jesus’ miracles in Chapter 2, the point is that Jesus’ presence brings extravagant abundance where there was nothing.
(Note the comparison with the water-to-wine miracle – they go from nothing to abundant wine; here the disciples catch nothing to start with then get a bumper load of fish.)

But what I really want to focus on today is the relationship between Peter and Jesus.
On the site by lake Galilee where this conversation took place there is a life-sized statue of Peter with Jesus. Peter is on his knees, holding a shepherd’s crook, as Jesus both forgives and commissions the rock on whom the church was built.
It’s a really significant moment that in many ways gets to the heart of Christian faith. Peter’s terrible failure, his triple denial of Jesus on the night before he died, is something that all four Gospels record. It would have been easy for this episode to be quietly downplayed in the early history of the church – who wants to have one of the major players in your new movement recorded as being a coward and traitor? And yet, all four gospels tell us of how Peter failed Jesus. They don’t pull any punches.
That should lead us to recognise that Peter’s betrayal is actually quite important in the man he came to be.
Without Peter’s restoration his life could have gone a number of ways.
He could have labelled himself as a failure and never pursued the gifts of leadership and faith that Jesus saw in him.
He could have become over-zealous. Constantly compensating for his failures by refusing to compromise any longer; by becoming inflexible, harsh and rigid. He could have worked harder and harder to make up for his failures. This approach would have demonstrated none of the grace and joy that Jesus promised.
Another possibility would have been to shut his sense of guilt and failure away inside. He knew he couldn’t quit because he couldn’t let Jesus down again, and so his ministry would have been dogged by a burden of guilt that he was unable to acknowledge or put down. Such a faith would have been destructive to himself and to others.
Jesus wanted none of those options for Peter. He wants none of those options for you or me. And so Jesus set out to restore and commission Peter. He sets out to restore and commission you and me.

I think that this whole story, catch of fish and everything, is about Peter’s restoration. This healing process begins when Peter realises that Jesus is still there for him, providing abundantly in spite of his betrayal. It would have been easy for Peter to think that Jesus was no longer intending to use him because of what he’d done. And yet, there Jesus is. We, too, start healing when we recognise that Jesus still stands there with us even when we have turned our backs on him.
From this point, Peter takes the lead. He jumps out of the boat and swims for shore (no mean feet to swim 100 yards fully clothed). When Jesus tells the disciples to get the haul of fish in it’s Peter who goes to the nets. A work of healing and restoration has already begun.

And yet the restoration is not over. Jesus gathers his disciples around a charcoal fire. This is exactly the same kind of fire around which Peter had betrayed Jesus back in chapter 18.
The way John tells the story it’s like a scene in a film in which everyone else fades into the background and only the main characters are in focus.
Jesus and Peter are at the centre, but I think we’re supposed to imagine that the rest of the disciples are there watching this conversation. Just as Peter denied Jesus publicly, he is now invited to confess his love publicly too. And so, Peter is asked three times, in mirror of his denials, to declare his love for Jesus.
Jesus adopts formal language: rather than using his nickname, Peter, Jesus addresses him as “Simon, son of John” to indicate that this is not just a trivial question.
Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?
Did you notice that Jesus asks: “Do you truly love me?” and he responds, “Yes, you know I love you”.
This is the translator’s way of expressing two different Greek works. Jesus asks, “Do you agape me?”, which is the deep love that God has for his world. Peter responds, “Yes, I phileo you”. Phileo love is more like love between friends.
It’s a bit like a girl saying to a boy, “Do you love me?” and him replying, “Yes. I really, really like you a lot”.

So then, Jesus commissions Peter. Your job is to feed my lambs – he will be the shepherd in place of Jesus.
And then he tries again: “Simon, son of John, do you truly love (agape) me?” “Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you”. Peter still can’t bring himself to use the same word. Maybe he knows that because of his betrayal he cannot say that he fully loves Jesus.
However, either way, his second betrayal is turned into an affirmation of love and he is commissioned a second time to be the shepherd.
And then note Jesus’ word of grace. Peter is unable to say that he truly loves Jesus and so Jesus lowers the bar. “OK Peter”, he says, “you can’t say you truly love me, so here’s one you can say: Do you love (phileo) me?”
Peter is hurt (perhaps because he is aware of his shame) but can at least say, “Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you”.
His third betrayal is turned. He is commissioned a third time. Peter is restored.

But Jesus is not finished quite yet.

Note that until now Peter has led the way and taken the initiative. It was Peter who decided to jump out of the boat and swim for sure. It was Peter who hauled in the nets.
Jesus says to him that he knows that Peter is used to being in charge and “going where he wished” but he forecasts that he will move into a time in which he will be led by the hand to places he would rather not go. His final words echo the original call from back in Chapter 1. “Follow me”.
What Peter doesn’t yet realise is that what the world needs are not better and stronger leaders, but better followers. It is the quality of his following that will come to define the quality of his leading.

All of us will, like Peter, fail and betray Jesus.
Jesus invites all of us to be restored and forgiven and to start again. It’s easy to think that the invitation to start again is an opportunity to try harder, but really it’s an invitation to follow Jesus again.
At Holy Communion we are reminded that we are invited to the Lord’s table, irrespective of fear or failure, and fed ready to follow. Come and taste that the Lord is good.
After the service today Marissa and I will also be offering prayer in the Lady Chapel for anyone who would like it. If you feel you need to lay a burden down – come and pray. If you want to offer a person or a situation up to God – come and pray. If you feel that you need to be forgiven and restored like Peter – come and pray.

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