Just before I start, I want to set the stage a bit. Today’s sermon is not set in a general “somewhere”; this one is situated in a particular place. So imagine with me the risen Christ, and some of his disciples, sharing breakfast on the rocky beach at Tabgha, in Galilee. In this place, Jesus had walked and talked with the disciples and now the risen Christ and Simon Peter have some one-on-one time, talking about Peter’s role in the future.
Sermon: May 15, 2022 – John 21: 12-19
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
It is so hard to come back, when you have really messed something up. Not just made a blooper-reel mistake, but made a choice that impacted someone else’s life… or said things that have fractured a relationship… or completely missed something that you really should have responded to, in a way that has conveyed a lack of friendship or caring to someone else.
In today’s gospel reading, Peter is in such a position relative to Jesus. Peter, who had been so bold throughout their time together, who suddenly turned timid in the final week of Jesus’ life. Although I can’t for the life of me imagine what difference it would have made to Jesus’ fate, all four gospels want us to know that three times Peter had the opportunity to admit, even proclaim, that he was a follower of Jesus; and three times he lied, disowned Jesus, denied any knowledge of the man. (Perhaps the point is that we, too, have such choices in our words and actions….)
With this failure of nerve in the background, let us hear once more the exchange at the beach of Tabgha between the Risen Christ, and Peter:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Is there perhaps a connection, between Peter denying Jesus three times, and Christ repeating this question three times? Bible commentators over the aeons answer a hearty “yes”: three denials need to be countered by three affirmations. Christ forgives him, Christ has something big for him to do, yet there is a sense that the wounded relationship between them has not completely healed. Reconciliation is not easy. Recovering from faithless words or actions is not easy. Forgive and forget is a lovely saying, but does not often describe the human condition.
In a blog post, Pastor Steve Oliver points out a simple thing in this scripture that I’d not seen before. When Jesus and the disciples were travelling around the countryside, it was Jesus who gave Simon a new name: Peter, which means, “the rock.” Simon Peter was his rock, his foundational guy, the rock – according to Matthew (16:18)- upon which the Church would be built. But in this beautiful post-resurrection scene of Christ and his friends sharing breakfast on the beach, Christ does not address him as Peter; he rolls it back, and calls him Simon. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were Peter I think that hearing Christ abandon that new name, a name expressing confidence in him, and going back to his old name, his “deadname”, might well have stung more than being asked the same question three times.
There is in this encounter, a word swap that suggests that Christ Jesus may not have been the only one who was hesitant about this ongoing relationship. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” he uses a form of the word AGAPE to describe the kind of love he is talking about, and Peter answers with a different word, PHILEO (or in both cases, their Aramaic equivalents). I think there is significance to this word swap. Huffington Post contributor Gary Edmonds writes that agape, the love word attributed to Jesus, “is not based on merit of the person loved, but rather unconditional,…kind and generous. It continues to give even when the other is unkind, unresponsive and unworthy. It only desires good things for the other and is compassionate” . The word that Peter uses in reply, however – phileo – is what we might call brotherly love, or friendship. Not a bad thing, we all need friends, but not up to the level Christ was asking him for. So after two times of asking if Peter will be self-giving and Peter saying he’ll be fraternal, the third time, Christ relents and uses the same word Peter had been using. It’s as if he realizes that he’s not going to get agape out of Peter, so phileo will do. J.B. Phillips, in his New Testament translation, follows this line of logic, with Jesus twice asking, “do you love me” and Peter answering “yes, I am your friend”; the third time Jesus asks, “are you my friend” and, according to Phillips, Peter is hurt, not because he’s been asked the same question three times, but because Jesus lets go of his hope that Peter might be capable of agape, and resorts to the language of friendship.
We see here, that even in this foundational relationship, this relationship that was such a force during the earthly ministry of Jesus, things can go sour. But even when things did go sour, there was a path forward. Things weren’t like they used to be. Christ didn’t call him Rocky anymore, and Simon Peter could only muster friendship when asked to love without reserve – but there was still a path forward. And while Peter’s response to Christ may have been underwhelming in the moment, he did become that rock on which the Church was built. This, to me, is what the reconciling love of Jesus looks like: it owns the truth of what has gone before, and in light of that truth, finds a path. Sometimes there is no safe path forward, especially when there has been abuse, but there are so many other times when factors like embarrassment and anger and resentment and ego and even our present fatigue block the gracious actions of the Holy Spirit, and if we can get past those things, we needn’t remain stuck in the same place forever.
This ability to find a pivotal future for Simon Peter, is traditionally known as “the restoration of Peter.” Here, Christ establishes with him a fresh start, the kind of fresh start that many of us have relied on repeatedly in our relationships, the kind of repentance-based hope we turn to as the Church as we do the work of reconciliation with First Nations peoples.
And in addition to those relational things, there is also the content of what Simon Peter is being asked to do. Consistently, repeatedly, in their time spent together at Galilee, Jesus brought the attention of the disciples to those in their midst who were most vulnerable. This was nothing new – it’s a beautiful thread of care that is woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the 146th Psalm, expressed often as the concern for the widow, the orphan, the landless foreigners in their midst – and Jesus keeps coming back to it, teaching his followers to see and hear the needs of those who were held captive by harmful social conventions, by lifelong infirmity, or by unjust financial structures, and he implored them to be people of God’s liberating love.
Consistently, repeatedly, Jesus showed this attention and affection for the vulnerable, the little lambs who need to be kept out of harm’s way. The image of sheep used here by Christ, is by no means demeaning; he’s not talking about “sheeple”, to borrow from the nasty, divisive vocabulary of 2022. He’s naming a reality in his world and ours, that the forces of inequality do create very precarious conditions in some people’s lives. Like sheep who need a shepherd to make sure they don’t tumble down a cliff, or to protect them from wolves, there are vulnerable ones in this world who need to be noticed and loved and attended to. While the 21st chapter of John was talking only about people, in the industrialized world we live in I think Christ would include the soil, the water, the atmosphere, endangered plants and creatures, in the list of those at peril because of human greed. And in relationship to these vulnerable ones, Christ says to Simon Peter, “Feed my lambs, Shepherd my sheep, feed my sheep.” Love the vulnerable ones. Guard them, help them find safety, establish justice, remember that every one of them is beloved in the eyes of the Creator.
When we think back to the social status of a shepherd in the days of Jesus, we may remember just how low a position it was. Some ancient sources suggest that the testimony of a shepherd was not allowable in court, so low was the common opinion of them, and even more than that: in the economy of the day, the value of a sheep was probably higher than the value of a shepherd. So when Christ commands Simon Peter to be a shepherd to the sheep, this is not a high-status proposition; what it is, is a holy proposition of service. Just as God, the good shepherd, was said to be present even in the valley of the shadow of death, even when surrounded by enemies, so Peter and those following after him in Christ’s name were to put themselves on the line. And no, not just pastors or priests or ministers, though Peter is regarded as the first Pope; this is what Christ expects of all who claim to be disciples, all communities of faith bearing his name, all who have heard in the brave, reconciling words of Jesus the distinctive ring of truth. Christ has a special affinity for all who are imperiled, and those of us who bear his light in the world are called to deep, non-judgmental service: practical, personal, and yes, even political.
As we gather this morning, as disciples of Christ Jesus, we are connected to that much, much earlier breakfast gathering of disciples of Christ Jesus. As we imagine the relationship between Jesus Christ and Simon Peter, and its rhythm from reliability, to doubt, to reconciliation and new possibility, we go deep in our own experience: our places of brokenness, our gratitude for healing, the places where we as Canadian Christians have work to do. As we hear Christ commissioning Simon Peter to the task of attentive shepherding, we look at the places of peril and vulnerability in our world, and do so with kindness and also with analysis, and accountability for ourselves and our society, and the deep desire to be part of Christ’s change in the world. May all this be so, in the unfolding of your lives, and our life together. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/
Phillips, JB. The New Testament in Modern English. © 1958.
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.