Seven of the disciples have been fishing. All night. In John’s Gospel, nothing good happens at night. No fish. Despite their toil, effort, knowledge, they catch nothing. Then at daybreak, as the light begins to dawn, the darkness dispelled, Jesus stands on the shore and calls out: “you haven’t caught any fish, have you?” The men, not recognizing him, call back: “no”. Obviously. A simple admission of their failure. And the Lord responds: “Try the other side of the boat.” And with no more effort than simple obedience, their nets are strained with fish.
John 21 is understood by some to be a later addition to this gospel and by others as a continuous part of the whole. Either way, it is observed that this scene, coming at what seemed to be the end of their story, when despite having seen Jesus alive the disciples remain uncertain of just exactly what is happening, unsure of what anything means at this point, this scene, played out at the transition from night to light, at what seems to be the end, replays the beginning. The call to come and follow Jesus that we read in Luke 5: 1-11. It is as if to say “the night is done, it has been accomplished. And now, your time has truly begun. Nothing has changed. all is as it should be. I have called you. And you are not rejected. You are not failures. And you are not alone. I have called you and I call you still”
And for one of the men in the boat, this all suddenly comes together. Flashes of that day three years ago when, after catching nothing all night, at the command of Jesus their nets were full to breaking and he said “come and follow me. I will make you fishers of men” And he calls out “It is the Lord!” Peter immediately jumps into the water and heads for Jesus.
Now, Peter surely has much that he regrets. That he is ashamed of. His confident insistence that night that he would never desert Jesus, that he would lay down his life for him, melted away and turned to shame at the crow of a rooster. It was still there. His head told him that he was forgiven, accepted. But his heart would not believe it. Jesus had said nothing of it the two other times he was among them.
When he reaches the shore, Jesus is waiting. He is sitting next to a charcoal fire.
You’ve go to be kidding me.
“This is it I guess, the conversation I need to have, but don’t want to have. The way I folded, deserted him. I am no rock. I am a fraud. This is where he tells me the truth.”
But before he can say anything, the others make it ashore with the fish. And Jesus calls them all over and there is something familiar about the way he hands them bread and the fish. For them the fire is warmth and provision, and promise. For Peter it is an accusation.
After they eat Jesus calls Peter to walk a bit. He stands, legs unsteady, breath shallow, stomach tight. His failure is confirmed as Jesus speaks:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“He called me Simon. I’m no longer Peter. This is where he tells me to go back to fishing. That he has no need of me anymore. Braggart, impulsive, unsteady. Like shifting sand. What do I say to that question?”
What do you say to that question? You know who you are. You know your failures. Your inconsistencies, those parts of you that you don’t like.
Jesus looks at you, calls you by name. And asks “Do you love me more than these?” Would you say that you are devoted to me?”
What will you say? Give the answer to the Lord when you are ready, even if it isn’t perfect.
But he asks you again. “do you love me?” Why the same question? What is he getting at?
What does the repeated question do to you? Peter lost it. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. I can’t say I’m devoted to you. We both know what I did. Who I am. Yes, I love you, and I suck.
… You want him to say “it’s okay, everything is fine” But after you answer, Jesus only replies, “Tend my sheep.” Followed by one more time, a third time, the gentle but unnerving question: “Do you love me?”
“Lord, I don’t know what to say. You know that I want to love you, or else maybe I should say that I want to want to love you. I don’t know, I don’t know. What I did…no different than Judas. How could I have the nerve to say I love you after what I did?”
But you see, this time he uses your word. He is not setting the bar at perfection. Devoted, heroic, unblemished, got it all together. It’s okay Peter. I know that you love me. You are more than your failures. Or your achievements. You are the man I call Peter. Not because you earned the name, but because that is what I am making you. I like you Peter, you’re going to have to trust that is true.
Brennan Manning passed away on Friday. He wrote:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it….To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”
“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery.”
After his wife died, Jacques Maritain published her journals. In the preface to that book, Raïssa’s Journal, he talks about her death, brought on by a stroke, and then gives this commentary: “God’s love is sweet only to those who are already saints and to those who do not know what they are talking about.”
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
We hear in the book of Revelation, that the day is coming when “everything in the universe, cry out the words, ‘to the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might forever and ever.’”
That includes you.
And so in the words of a poem by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
So, let me ask you: do you love him?