Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter, 10th April 2016

St.Alban’s Epping, 10th April 2016

“PETER: RESTORED AND COMMISSIONED”

(Acts 9:1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:6-14; John 21:1-19)

 Rev. Paul Weaver

We all know what it’s like to be let down by people: that promise someone failed to keep, that job someone never got around to doing for us, that help we expected that was never given, that expectation that was never fulfilled. We’re not impressed when someone does it to us. And we’re usually not impressed with ourselves when we do it to others.

“I’ll get it done for you,” we say. “I won’t forget. I won’t let you down.” But something comes up, or we forget, or it turns out to be more demanding that we expected. We let someone down: they know it, and we know it. And if we know that it matters, we don’t feel good about it.

But it’s not just people that we let down, is it? We let God down, too. And he knows only too well about it. It’s not always that we deliberately disobey him; it will often be because of our weaknesses or our foolishness or our misjudgements. That temptation we find difficult to deal with. That resolution we keep on breaking. Those opportunities for good that we fail to take. That attitude that was going to change. That person we were going to treat with more kindness.

But we’ve failed again. We do fail others; we fail God; and we fail ourselves. We fall short of our own expectations, as well as those of other people. We keep on sinning.

How do we respond to that unpalatable reality? Do we brush it aside? (After all, nobody’s perfect!) Do we deny it, as if we really are OK? Do we pretend to be better people than we know we really are?

Or do we go to the other extreme? “I’m useless – I’m hopeless. What’s the point in even trying? Surely God must have given up on me by now!”

I find it encouraging to read about the great heroes of the Bible: people like Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Paul, and many others. They were great servants of God, but they were also real people, with feet of clay just like us. They had real failings, and the Bible presents them to us, warts and all! But despite their shortcomings, God worked through them in wonderful ways.

And then there’s Peter – good old Peter, about whom we read in our Gospel today. Strong, enthusiastic Peter – a man of action, a born leader, even amongst Jesus’ disciples.

“Those others might let you down, they might well run away”, he had said at the Last Supper. “But you can rely on me. I will never deny you, even if I have to die with you.”

But within hours Peter had broken that promise no less than three times, just as Jesus had warned him. Three times that night, ordinary people had asked him: “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ followers?” And three times he had said: “Me? A follower of Jesus? No way: I’ve never met the bloke. I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The cock crowed. And suddenly Peter realized what he had done. “What a coward I am! What a hypocrite! How could I have failed Jesus so badly?” Peter hurried away, and wept bitter tears. Oh yes, Peter knows what it is like to fail Jesus, and to have to acknowledge that fact to himself.

We fail Jesus too, but I wonder whether we face that fact with real honesty. Of course, we know of God’s loving forgiveness through Christ, and that gives us perspective. But it can be very easy for us to just go through the motions of confessing our sins.

Well, we know what happens after that dreadful Thursday night. Jesus dies on the cross, then rises again on Sunday, and over the next five weeks or so he appears a number of times to his disciples and also his family. Things are not the same as they were: he is not with them all the time – just on occasions. And in various ways he seems different. It is most certainly Jesus, but Jesus on the way back to his Father’s side.

What should the disciples be doing at this time, when Jesus is only sometimes with them? They have returned to Galilee, where most of them come from. It is Peter who says: “I’m going fishing.” Not a bad idea. Get some food. Perhaps sell some. It’s what they know. They’re not yet ready for those new challenges that Jesus has spoken about. So out they go.

But it’s an unsuccessful night. Nothing caught at all. Not until a man on the beach calls out to them at dawn, and tells them to put out their net on the starboard side.

Suddenly the boat is rocking as the net fills with fish. There are so many that someone later takes a count: 153 of them!

It was John, the beloved disciple, who had realized that the empty tomb pointed to a risen Jesus, and it was John who realized that the man on the beach was Jesus. As soon as Peter heard that, he put on his jacket and hitched it up, and swam ashore to meet the Master. He longed to be with Jesus, and yet he was still uncomfortable about their relationship.

After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter a very uncomfortable question. “Peter, do you love me more than these others do? That’s what you told me a few weeks ago.” I suspect that if he had been sitting at a table, Peter would have wanted to hide under it! He can’t do that, but there’s no doubt that he is squirming.

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” And Peter’s telling the truth. He does love Jesus. But he’s not going to blab on about how much better he is than the other disciples – not this time! He knows only too well that his love is very fallible.

But Jesus doesn’t argue or question his love. He doesn’t tear strips off Peter. He doesn’t say: “Come off it! After all that you’ve done, you don’t really expect me to believe that, do you?” He simply accepts Peter’s answer, and says to him: “Feed my sheep.”

That’s not the end, however. Again Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” And again Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And again Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Then a third time: the same question, the same answer, the same command. And that third time really hurt. Perhaps Peter felt humiliated, although it seems that by this time, he and Jesus were probably walking by themselves along the beach. Perhaps he also felt relieved. The issue was now out in the open, rather than gnawing away at his conscience, unresolved.

Why did Jesus put Peter through all that?

Firstly, reality had to be faced. Peter had to acknowledge his failure.

Reality had to be faced. And that is the way for all of us. Before we can have a healthy relationship with Jesus, we need to acknowledge that it is not as healthy as it should be! Our sins and failures need to be confessed, so that they don’t stay in the way.

Secondly, Jesus was inviting Peter to declare his love. After his threefold denial of Jesus, there was a great question mark over Peter’s claims. Here was an opportunity for Peter to reaffirm them – and to do it three times. Jesus asks us, as he asked Peter: “Do you love me?” And he asks us to demonstrate that love in our lives, by our words and actions, and our loving treatment of others.

Thirdly, Jesus wanted to assure Peter of his acceptance. Peter doubtless felt very uneasy in Christ’s presence. What did Christ think of him now? Had he lost all confidence in him now? Would he quietly drop him from the team as a failure?

Of course there was no formal confession and absolution, but Peter knew that all was well. He was forgiven, restored, accepted. The barrier was down. Peter’s failure was no longer hanging over his head. And that is part of the point of the Gospel. We let God down, but God forgives us and welcomes us, despite our own failures.

But there was one other purpose in his talk with Peter than morning on the beach. He had forgiven Peter and welcomed him back: now he had work for Peter to do.

Peter had failed Jesus, but that didn’t mean that he was getting the sack. You know the sort of thing: “Tries hard and means well, but not up to the task. Fails under pressure. Needs a job with less responsibility.” That wasn’t Jesus’ response at all. In fact, Jesus actually promoted this apparent failure. He gave Peter leadership over his people. Peter was to be shepherd over Christ’s flock, giving leadership and direction, providing spiritual food, protecting them from harm. What a huge responsibility. But Jesus gave it to this man who had promised so much, and failed so badly. Of course, it would be impossible without Christ’s help and the Spirit’s power.

Our failures don’t disqualify us from service for Christ. We are fallible human beings, just as Peter was. So even when we fail in our Christian living or our Christian service, it is not the end. Jesus is always ready to forgive us, to pick us up, and to set us back on the path. As the bumper sticker says, we need to be patient with ourselves, as well as with each other: for God is not finished with us yet! When we fail, let us confess our sins, accept Jesus’ forgiveness and help, and set ourselves to obey those simple yet challenging words that Jesus said that day to Peter, and says to us today: “Follow me!” Amen.

Paul Weaver