Candlelight Evening Prayer, Valparaiso University, February 9, 2020
Good evening. Thank you for having me here at this beautiful Candlelight service. I wasn’t given a specific lectionary text to preach on, but was asked to find a passage that would help us reflect meaningfully on the future.
So, against the grain, I chose a text that’s all about memory, betrayal, and reconciliation. It also, I think, contains one of the most achingly beautiful stories in all of the gospels—and one that I hope gives us hope for the future.
Most of you are college students, so you all likely know what it’s like to feel that the morning is your most vicious enemy. It’s 9:53am, your alarm is buzzing incessantly to get you up for the 10:30 class. Your mind is foggy, and as the sunlight pierces through your east-facing window, you have a hazy sense that you’re forgetting something. What was it? Did you forget a paper deadline? Were you supposed to meet up with a friend for breakfast? Then it hits you like a load of bricks: you were needlessly critical of your friend last night. You were up too late, your nerves were raw, and you made a cutting remark that you instantly regretted, but were too embarrassed and too tired to retract it in the moment. When you left for your dorm room, you carried with you the weight of regret, of a ruptured relationship—knowing that you would need to do something to restore things, to make them right. You spend the rest of your morning with this cloud of remorse following you around. I must make this right. But how?
We all have these moments, if we are blessed with friendships deep enough to create the space for them. After all, no friendship worth having is free of mistakes. You only feel the shame of wounding someone whom you love. But, thank God, we might have a thousand mundane wounds of this sort that—even totaled together—would not equal the weight of what Peter did to Jesus.
You know the story from the Gospels: Simon Peter, son of John, was a headstrong fisherman. Imagine him for a moment: short and stocky, skin scarred by the sun after years casting fishing nets on the sea of Galilee. He is quick-tempered and opinionated. His friends always told him he was loyal to a fault, with something of a martyr complex. He was not someone you wanted as your enemy.
Then he fell in love with the message of this rabbi, Jesus. No one paralleled Peter’s zeal. To be honest, no one even wanted to. Peter could be a bit much at times. He defended Jesus against all comers. He was the first to call him “the Christ, the Son of God.” Earlier in the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus began to walk off at one point, and Peter—always intense, always literal minded—asked him where he was going. To which Jesus answered in his frustratingly metaphorical way: “Where I am going [Peter], you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter, afraid of missing out on the action, protests: “Why not? Tell me! I will lay down my life for you!”
I imagine Jesus pausing for a moment here, deliberating on whether to reveal a terrible secret to Peter. It will wound him, but he should know, Jesus decides. Peter must be ready. So Jesus tells him, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
The gospel does not tell us how the headstrong fisherman responded. I suspect not well. I suspect indignance, hurt, even ferocious anger. Peter was always the one who had Jesus’ back. Didn’t his track record speak for itself? If any one of Jesus’ disciples was prepared to defend Jesus to the death, it was Peter.
Fast-forward a few days and we find Peter standing shell-shocked in a courtyard reflecting on what had just happened. Jesus was gone, arrested, on his way to a humiliating death at the hands of Roman authorities. The kingdom that Peter assumed Jesus was prepared to usher in, to overthrow unjust imperial power and a corrupt religious order, had crumbled the moment that Judas—his friend and fellow revolutionary—betrayed his master with a kiss on the cheek. Peter was the only one who even tried to defend him, and Jesus—the frustrating pacifist—had told him to put away his sword. Now everything was gone, all hope lost. Peter was beside himself.
So, when a young girl recognized Peter standing there anxiously by himself, of course he crumbled. Of course he lied to remain anonymous. In John chapter 18, we read:
the woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself….
[So] they asked him [again], “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
How horrifying. But also: how truthful in its portrayal of human weakness in face of an overwhelming spiritual and psychological onslaught. It is striking that the gospel doesn’t tell us whether Peter witnessed the crucifixion on the next morning. His absence is notable, but understandable. Peter had just committed an act against his dearest friend, against his deepest moral principles, against everything that he stood for.
Was Judas’ betrayal of Jesus any worse than Peter’s? Surely not, for Peter’s love was deeper; wounds are as heavy as the weight of our love. Judas despaired of his life, and I imagine Peter felt just as empty and hollowed out, like all hope had been sucked out of his soul—like he had been victimized by Dementors from a scene in Harry Potter.
Fast-forward a few days to our scene on the beach in chapter 21.
Can you catch all the callbacks? Can you identify all the little details that are meant to trigger our memories of previous events and interactions in the gospels?
By this point in the story, the resurrected Jesus had been appearing in surprising and mysterious ways to his disciples, at odd moments, while making strange, elliptical statements. In the wake of the trauma of the brutal crucifixion, the disciples must have been reeling, without much time or occasion to process and make sense of this shocking turn of events.
What do you do when you’re overwhelmed? Hopefully, you find a familiar place, among good friends, and do something ordinary or routine or restorative. So of course it makes sense that the disciples found each other and returned to the Sea of Galilee to fish for a while, as they had done many times with their friend Jesus.
So they go fishing one night, but have no luck. It was Peter’s idea (of course), and the disciples followed him, being careful not to mention the rumor that he had renounced Jesus a few nights before.
They fell asleep late into the night, and wake up bleary eyed. Shuffling off the heaviness of sleep, they see a blurry figure on the shore and catch the scent of roasted fish. They hear a quiet voice that somehow carries over the choppy waves from shore: “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
If they did not recognize him by sight, they must have recognized his delightfully patronizing question about fish. Jesus always took great delight at being better at fishing than all these professional fishermen.
Before they know it, there is a miraculous bounty of fish in their nets—153 of them—and with a feeling of déjà vu, Peter is the first to realize for certain: “It is the Lord!” He rushes into the waves toward Jesus, leaving the others to drag the heavy load ashore.
But when Peter gets closer to shore he sees something that sends a shiver down his spine. Jesus is hunched over a charcoal fire, warming himself. Just as Peter hunched over the charcoal fire the night of his betrayal.
Surely this is a coincidence, Peter reassures himself. Jesus could not have heard what happened that night.
When the others arrive on shore, they all have breakfast in uncomfortable silence. Jesus is a passable cook, but no one can taste the food in their mouths, they are so unsettled.
Then Jesus turns to Peter, who has uncharacteristically skulked into the corner, as far away from the fire as he can get. Jesus, who is even better at passive aggressiveness than your elderly aunt from Minnesota, asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
What must Peter be thinking? What could he possibly say to this? What does Jesus know? He must know what Peter had said in the courtyard. This is his waking nightmare—the waves of anxiety wash over him.
Peter decides to answer Jesus’ question without actually comparing his love to those sitting around him. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” To which Jesus replies, then “feed my lambs.”
Minutes pass, and Jesus turns again to Peter and asks the same question, “do you love me,” to which Peter gives the same response, and to which Jesus replies, “tend my sheep.” When Jesus asks the question a third time, everyone circled around the charcoal fire knows what is happening. Everyone is cringing. A few may have even begun to cry quietly. Peter has let Jesus down, but so have they all. No one, save John—the beloved disciple—stayed with Jesus to the bitter end. They all abandoned him; Peter only had the misfortune of being cornered in the courtyard by a nosy young woman and a slave.
I imagine Peter ashen-faced at the third question. Jesus knew. He knew it all: the shame, the failure, the betrayal. He must have known, as well, that when Peter saw him for the first time in his resurrected body a couple days earlier, Peter was actually quite scared, not overflowing with simple joy at his friend’s return. He knew they had parted on bad terms, that they were unreconciled. When Jesus’s body was buried in the tomb, Peter’s secret shame was concealed with it. Now that the grave had given his body up, the shame was resurrected with it.
Yet here was Jesus, or “Jesus” in scare-quotes, because whatever he was in this resurrected body seemed a bit off. Here was Jesus making breakfast with mediocre tilapia on the shores of Galilee. Peter could see the bloodless wounds in Jesus’ side, and imagined doubting Thomas’ fingerprints etched into his flesh.
After Jesus’ third question, he gives Peter an ominous warning: that when he is old, he will be bound and taken somewhere against his will. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus spoke of the manner of Peter’s death, and considering Jesus’ track-record with predicting Peter’s life-events, this must have given the fisherman considerable pause.
And then Jesus gives him the final callback, the final triggered memory: Peter, he says, nevertheless “Follow me.”
What does he mean to convey with this utterly familiar command? Peter heard this from Jesus’ lips years ago, and Peter had obeyed so very willingly. Follow you, Lord? the younger Peter had thought, Why, I would follow you to the edge of hell and back. I would lay down my life to save yours.
The older Peter hears these words in all their complexity, through the veil of years of shared ministry, friendship, stress, tragedy, and ultimate betrayal.
“Follow me” was so simple, if demanding, when Jesus first said it. Now, it is so weighted with meaning. Peter lives on the other side of the cock crow. Could his friend forgive him now?
Time works in funny ways when it comes to the wounds of friendship. Some say that time heals all wounds, which is a kind thing to say. But I suspect Peter doubted this truism there on the beach of Galilee.
Jesus offers no cheap grace. But Peter never would have accepted that anyway. That wasn’t his way. When you’ve wounded someone, betrayed a close friend, do you want to be pacified, told it doesn’t matter—when it does, it did?
It is significant, I think, that it is the resurrected Lord who offers reconciliation from beyond the grave, a way to transcend the trauma of brokenness and betrayal that he suffered in the flesh—from the Roman authorities, the Jewish priests, and from his own friends. This life lacks the power to mend all trauma; some healing must be reserved for the next. And yet, this shoreline visit of the transfigured Christ gives us a foretaste of the power of that future reconciliation.
It is relevant here that Jesus’ resurrected body bears the marks of his torture and gruesome death. These marks are not removed, but remain etched on his flesh as markers of his glory. The early church fathers speculated that those martyrs who died for Jesus (like Peter would one day) will bear the glory of their sufferings on their body like the resurrected Jesus did. Those who suffered, like Christ, get to keep their scars. They were thinking of physical wounds, but I imagine this should be expanded to include psychological or spiritual wounds as well.
Scars, after all, are identifying signs—that which mark us as us. Only you have that scar. Only you—and the resurrected Christ—can explain where that jagged white cleft came from, what spear pierced your side, what words tore your heart out, what series of events led you to consider turning aside, lashing out, or giving up.
There will be “dignity” in these scars, the early theologian St. Augustine says, “and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.” So, there is an illumination—a brilliance—that only shines through the broken flesh and crevices of our human wounds. Were you whole, unpierced, unspoiled, there would be no place for that glory to shine through.
So Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” And he is not merely asking Peter to remember his betrayal; he is simultaneously giving Peter a mission and a purpose. Your suffering, your mistakes, your secret shame in the courtyard—I, the resurrected Christ, know it all. I, the resurrected Christ know it all, and still love you. I, the resurrected Christ, know it all, and love you all the more for it. You are broken like me, and your scars share in my glory.
So, follow me. Follow me from beyond the tomb. Follow me knowing the brokenness of this world and your own soul in ways you never hoped to know. Follow me and I will give you sheep to tend and lambs to feed. Follow me and be my friend, as you were and always ought to be. Follow me, and I will give you a future and matchless glory—all your own.
This is the Jesus waiting on the shoreline—mysterious and surprising, roasting his breakfast over an open charcoal fire, and offering us the reconciliation of a true friend.
Glory to be God.