Reading: John 21: 1-22
During the 1930s the songwriter Eric Maschwitz spent some time in Hollywood. There he became romantically involved with the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. But the relationship did not last. Mainly because he returned to Britain.
Maschwitz longed to be with her. Everything, however small, seemed to remind him of her. A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; an airline ticket to romantic places…
He couldn’t shake off his longing. Memories of their time together lingered, like a ghost clinging to him, refusing to let go. From that we got a really great song These Foolish Things.
As we continue our time in these 12 words, describing different stages, seasons, phases of the spiritual life, we’ve been considering the word Yes. In some ways it might be a surprise that Yes comes so late in the series. Surely faith journeys begin with our Yes to God and his Yes to us.
But there is a deeper Yes that comes from experience.
When you’ve been battered by the storms of life.
When your faith has been tested.
And yet you have hung on in there.
That might be because you found yourself thinking ‘where else can I go?’ But you held on.
When you say Yes in that situation, it’s different.
Or maybe you didn’t.
Maybe you got it wrong.
You messed up.
You made a wrong choice.
Maybe you did leave it behind.
Maybe it stopped making sense.
Or maybe you thought it was just way too hard.
Maybe you think God has given up on you.
Maybe you thought you had left it behind, but somehow it never quite left you. For much of my 20s I had very little to do with church or faith. In one sense I had left it behind, but it was still part of me, who I was. It came out mainly in things like my sense of justice. I developed a fascination with the Historical Jesus. Part of it still clung to me. Perhaps the way Biblical writers put it, it was like seeds that had taken root.
Maybe you tried to follow and got a lost on the way.
Well the invitation to come and follow is still open.
You can still offer your Yes.
That’s what is happening in this morning’s Bible reading from John 21. It’s set sometime after the resurrection of Jesus, in the 40 days before the Ascension. We’re not quite sure when. The scene has shifted from Jerusalem in John 20, back to Galilee in chapter 21. 7 of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, Thomas, Nathanael and a couple of others who aren’t named are together. Peter decides he’s going to go fishing and the others say ‘we’ll go with you.’
Peter has messed up.
Perhaps he’s wondered if there is any future in the whole ‘following Jesus’ thing.
Perhaps he’s already made his decision and that’s why he’s back in the boat.
He thinks he’s leaving it behind, but it’s not really gone. The ghost of that life he had as a close disciple of Jesus still clings.
This story is full of what Maschwitz would describe as foolish things. Reminders of that time. Good and bad.
Yes, the good times are there, stretching right back to the very beginning. John 21 is almost a carbon copy of the beginnings of Peter’s journey. Peter and Andrew, James and John had fished all night and caught nothing. Then Jesus came along and said ‘go on, give it one more go.’ Perhaps against their better judgement they did. On both occasions the result was a bumper catch.
But that’s not all that’s in here. The events take place at Tiberias, where Jesus took the disciples to be alone with him. It was also the scene of another meal; the feeding of the 5000.
It was also the where Jesus had appeared to them once before and was not instantly recognised; when he came walking to them on the water.
Peter’s relationship with Jesus had been through it’s ups and downs. But tragedy had struck. Judas had betrayed Jesus and handed him over to the religious authorities. Jesus had been tried and sentenced by both Jewish authorities and Rome and he’d been crucified.
Today we know the end of the story. We have the benefit of the insights of 2000 years and can see meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples had none of that that. When Jesus died nobody thought ‘its ok. He’s the Messiah. It’ll be alright, he’ll be back in a few days.’
From their perspective Jesus had been killed in a humiliating fashion by the Romans. They’d backed the wrong horse. For the disciples who had thrown their lot in with this man for the past three years this loss was devastating.
For Peter, the man who had been so close to Jesus over those three years it was doubly so. Along with James and John, Peter was there at all the key moments, and even amongst those three a quick glance at the Gospels suggest he was a ‘first among equals.’
Peter had originally been called Simon, but Jesus had given him the nickname Peter, meaning rock. Jesus had said that on this rock he would build his church. Peter was the first to openly declare who he thought Jesus was.
When Jesus began to talk of what would happen to him, how he would get to Jerusalem, be betrayed and killed Peter declared he would not allow it. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, at a meal, as Jesus broke bread, Peter boldly announced that he would follow Jesus wherever it took him, even if it cost him his life. He swore that even if all the others deserted Jesus, he would not. Jesus warned him that before sunrise, when the cock crowed, Peter would deny three times that he even knew Jesus.
Peter was determined to prove his point. Maybe that’s why when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter’s first instinct was to resort to violence. He pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of a guy called Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. But instead of being grateful for his efforts, Jesus rebuked Peter, and healed Malchus. Peter was powerless as Jesus was arrested.
Whilst it appears the other disciples fled as Jesus was arrested, Peter did follow, but at a distance. He went with John and because John appears to have known the High Priest, he managed to get into the High Priest’s courtyard as the trial progressed.
But from here on Peter ceases to be quite so rock-like and becomes quite rocky.
In the courtyard a servant girl challenged Peter saying You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too are you?
Peter replied I am not!
He took his place around a charcoal fire. Across the courtyard, he probably would have seen one of the High Priest’s officials slapping Jesus across the face.
Again someone asked Are you sure you’re not one of his disciples.
No, I’m NOT! argued Peter once more.
But someone else said I’m pretty sure I saw you with him in the garden
And again, by the fire, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.
Then the cock crowed, and Peter realised what he had done.
The disciple who said he would stick with Jesus to the bitter end denied he even knew the man.
.As the cock crowed the light dawned on Peter. Hours earlier Jesus had told him this would happen and Peter had said ‘No way.’
But it had happened.
Peter tried to live up to his promises and failed.
He has given his Yes, but not lived up to it.
We’re told he went out and wept bitterly.
Perhaps that was the moment when Peter stopped believing in himself as much as anything. His Yes hadn’t been worth much. He had crumbled under pressure.
There’s a telling comment made in Mark’s Gospel by the empty tomb. The women go to the tomb, but they do not find Jesus’ body. They do see a young man who says Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. Well, he’s not here, he is risen. Look this is where his body was.
Then he adds Go tell his disciples…
Was Peter already counting himself out of their number?
Had Peter already given up, even then?
Up until this moment we’re not aware of any words shared between Peter and Jesus, after the resurrection. Mary met Jesus in the garden. The two on the Emmaus Road who had all but given up, met with Jesus. Thomas who simply refused to accept that Jesus was alive had his doubts quelled. But thus far, it seems Jesus had no words for his ‘right hand man.’ Maybe Peter thinks that’s it. He’d messed up. He was beyond forgiveness.
And that’s how he finds himself out on the boat.
He thought he was leaving it behind.
Yet the memory of what had happened still lingered.
All of it.
Perhaps he longed for a chance to reaffirm his love and commitment to his Master. And that love and commitment had been there. Even under the denials lay a devotion which had gone farther than most of the others. He almost stuck it out to the end.
We may judge the Peter of the gospels harshly, but perhaps we should have more sympathy for him. Yes, he made mistakes, but at least he put himself in the position where he could make those mistakes. That fateful evening Peter was the one of very few who got close enough to be recognised as Jesus’ disciple. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen.
And so, out on the sea of Galilee they toil all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore says ‘try casting the net out on the other side. And to their amazement a huge catch came in. So big, someone decided we really need to count just how big this is. There’s always one. It’s normally me.
Then one of their number says ‘It’s the Lord!’
And suddenly, at that moment, do new possibilities emerge for Peter?
He wraps his coat around himself and sets off into the water. Perhaps at one stage he had been thinking of returning to fishing. That opportunity was being held out to him. The bumper catch would be a good starting point.
But Peter is not thinking about the catch. He wants another life. I wonder if the other 6 were thinking ‘great, it was his idea to come out here fishing, then leaves us to drag the thing in!’
But if the huge catch of fish had brought back memories of happier times, on the shore it was different. There he encounters the flickering light, the hiss and crackle and the distinctive, acrid smell of a charcoal fire.
Do the memories come flooding back of the last time he’d been at one of these… in the High Priest’s courtyard?
Does he remember the denials?
Does he begin the doubt whether that new future, that new chance to give his Yes is possible?
Well, Jesus doesn’t turn him away. Together with all seven of the disciples who had been there that evening, he shares breakfast. Another meal. Another glimpse of their past together. A mixed message. There had been the feeding of the 5000. But there had also been a last meal when Peter had made the boasted and given a Yes for which he wasn’t ready.
Then, when they’ve finished eating, he turns to Peter and says ‘Simon, son of John…
Simon, not Peter. Jesus too is retracing their relationship. This is exactly how Jesus referred to Peter when he first called him.
Is it because Peter feels no longer worthy to be called the rock?
Is Jesus just reaffirming him as the man he had first called?
Simon, son of John Do you love me more than these?
More than what?
Does Jesus point at the nets, the boats, the bumper catch? Is he saying ‘you left them once before – will you do it again?’ Does he point to the others and say ‘you once said your love for me went farther than the others – still think that?’ Either way Jesus is offering him the chance to reaffirm his love commitment. To give his Yes once more.
The last time Peter had warmed himself by a charcoal fire, his love and commitment had failed him three times. Here by the another charcoal fire he is offered three chances to reaffirm that love and commitment.
As Peter reaffirms his commitment to Jesus, Jesus reaffirms his commitment to Peter.
It’s painful to Peter. Why does Jesus have to ask him 3 times?
Maybe Peter does have to face up to his past.
To name, to acknowledge that he had messed up.
To own it.
It’s part of him and his story.
The past is past. It cannot be undone.
But it needn’t be his destiny. Because of what Jesus went through and overcame in resurrection Peter’s own failure can be dealt with.
Here he is offered an opportunity to offer his Yes.
Not the Yes of the early days.
Not even the Yes of the upper room.
The Yes of one who has passed through the autumn and winter of faith. Who has been through the joys and sorrows, the highs and the lows, known successes and failures, victories and defeats, but still comes back to offer his Yes.
Perhaps this is where we expect the happy ending.
But that’s not where the curtain falls.
Instead, before Jesus issues his final invitation, he offers Peter a glimpse of what is to come. Peter had been a man of action. Sometimes overly so. He acted without thinking. He had been a man who liked to have control of his destiny.
His future with Jesus will have many great moments. But the glimpse Jesus offers is that if he says Yes, there will come a time when he is older he will be led to where he does not want to go. John tells us this was about how Peter himself would become a martyr. In the upper room he had made the boast that he was prepared to die for Jesus. In Jerusalem he had failed that test. But Jesus tells him there would come a time when he would live up to that boast.
Then Jesus says Follow me.
Peter is invited to offer his Yes.
Will he offer it, knowing that it will mean confronting his failures and fears?
This could also be the happy ending if he just says Yes.
But that’s not what happens.
It’s as if one last time Peter seemed destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For instead he looks around and asks‘what about him?’
He’s talking about the one whom the writer of John keeps referring to as the disciple Jesus loved.
It’s like Peter is saying ‘is it just me who has to go through this, or is he going to get special treatment?’
And Jesus effectively says That is none of your business. You must follow me.
Peter is offered another chance to give his Yes.
And sure, we can read this story in the light of Pentecost and the book of Acts.
But as John leaves us the invitation is left hanging.
Peter does not give his answer.
We turn the page not knowing how he responds.
Of course that’s deliberate.
For those words are not just spoken to Peter. We’re invited to place ourselves by the shore and be challenged by the invitation come, follow me.
We know our own stories. The times we’ve started and failed. The stuff we’ve got right, and the stuff we’ve made a mess of. Our foolish boasts, our false starts, our failures, our relapses. But the challenge and invitation comes to us. Will we offer our Yes?
It’s a challenge that comes to us daily. Following is a dynamic thing. Discipleship is not just a decision. It’s an ongoing choice.
Most of us won’t be asked to die as martyrs, but the road ahead is not marked with guarantees. Yes, there will be summer moments when we are aware of God’s presence, wowed by what we witness and are aware of his gifts.
But we will also pass through the autumn, struggle with our weakness, need help and see pain of others.
We’ll have winter seasons when we cry out how long? when we refuse to accept that this is how it should be and will be or cry out why?
There will be times when we start to see new life… and all of it is part of the journey of the discipleship, will we say Yes to all of it?
Maybe you’ve said Yes in the past but struggled to live up to it. We may struggle to accept the grace and forgiveness God wants to bring to us. Our forgiveness can be grudging, on the basis of ‘better not do that again.’ God’s isn’t.
The writer Brennan Manning was a man who struggled in his faith and passed through the seasons. But in his book the Ragamuffin Gospel he writes [Failure] is the cross we never expected and the one we find hardest to bear. But one morning at prayer, I heard this word ‘Little brother, I witnessed a Peter who claimed that he did not know Me, a James who wanted power in return for service to the kingdom, a Philip who failed to see the Father in Me, and scores of disciples who were convinced I was finished on Calvary. The New Testament has many examples of men and women who started out well and then faltered along the way. Yet on Easter night I appeared to Peter. James is not remembered for his ambition but for the sacrifice of his life for Me. Philip did see the Father in Me when I pointed the way, and the disciples who despaired had enough courage to recognize Me when we broke bread at the end of the road to Emmaus. My point, little brother, is this: I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”
I’m reminded of that great source of theological wisdom that is Bargain Hunt. Every now and then a couple will take along an item, for which they’ve paid, say, £100. The auctioneer starts by asking for a hundred. Deathly silence. She goes down to 80, 50, still no one seems interested.
The contestants are downhearted. They loved that item. They’d have taken it home if they could. But nobody else seems to like it. Down she goes to 30, when perhaps finally there is a bid. Then the price slowly starts to rise.
At this point, the presenter occasionally says something which is designed to encourage them. They might say something like
‘it’s not where it starts that matters. It’s where it finishes!’
That’s true of following Jesus. It’s not where you’ve started, or where you’ve been,what diversions you have taken on the road. It’s where we end up that matters. The invitation is still open. Will we offer our Yes?
I’ll leave you with a short section from a reflection by Adrian Plass. He is talking about the passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount…
Jesus, could I ask you something
You know that bit about the little gate and the narrow road and there being only a few that find it?
Yes, I think I know the bit.
Well, it frightens me.
I can understand that… Is there something in particular you wanted to ask?
You don’t mind?
I never mind questions. Do you mind answers?
I don’t know yet. It’s just what is the narrow gate? what is the narrow road? and, well, am I one of the few?
Ok… Well my answer to all three questions is a question. If I got up now and walked away without telling you where I was going, or whether I’d be coming back, what I’d be doing, or how it would all end, would you take my hand and come with me?
We stand with Peter at the end of Gospel. Jesus issues the invitation Come, follow me.
We’re invited to offer our Yes.
The page is turning and the ending is open…