A Second Chance for Peter (and for Us)

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A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and John 21:1-19.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A few weeks ago, a funny email began circulating in church circles.  It sounded legitimate enough in some places.  “The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music [of the Episcopal Church, it said] “has officially released a supplement to the Eucharistic rite, approved for trial use beginning on Easter Sunday, 2017. The supplement allows for the addition of fish to the usual Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.”  The story went on to reference today’s Gospel, about Jesus appearing to the disciples on the beach and cooking a fish breakfast for them. And so, the reader might well wonder whether our Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and finally gone just a little too far.  But then the story concluded, “Members of church altar guilds should be prepared to remove fish oil stains from the altar linens very quickly. Finally, the Commission strongly recommends censing the altar immediately after setting the table for the Eucharist in order to reduce any distracting fish odors.”  April Fools’!

Today’s Gospel is a “fish tale,” of sorts.  It’s about fish, it’s about faith, and it’s about St. Peter.  If you go to Israel today and are anywhere near the water, you’ll see listed on menus and advertised over restaurants the offering of “St. Peter’s Fish.”  It’s tilapia, and often comes with a little salad, some fries and a lemon wedge.  The association with St. Peter comes especially from verse in the Gospel of Matthew about Peter finding a fish with a coin in its mouth.  But if you think about it, after the way Peter denied Jesus just before his crucifixion, it’s amazing we should hear of Peter at all, much less as someone having a holy land fish named after him. And perhaps it’s even more unlikely that Jesus would name him as the rock of the whole church.

In today’s Gospel Jesus appears in the work of the disciples:  he appears first as a wise fisherman with advice for where to put the net in, and second he appears almost as a “short order Savior,” Jesus at the Galilee grill, cooking a meal for his friends and in so doing, shares with them the fullness of God’s bounty.

But God provides much more than breakfast.  God gives more than the stuff of just another good fish-tale for the disciples to hand on to the church.  Especially if we look at Simon Peter, we see the extravagance of God’s provision. God provides—again, and again, and again.

For Simon Peter, God gives one of the greatest, rarest gifts there is:  a second chance.

Remember Simon Peter on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?    Remember that the disciples were gathered in the upper room for the Passover meal.  Just before the meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet.  It was Simon Peter who said to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  And Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Peter begins to catch on, so says excitedly, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Later that night, after Jesus is arrested from the Garden of Gethsemane, Simon Peter is by the fire, getting warm.  Someone asks, “Aren’t you one of them?  Aren’t you one of the followers of Jesus?” And Peter shakes his head.  Again, and another time, Peter denies, rejects, disowns, plays it safe to cover himself, and to pretend there never was this claim of Jesus on his heart.

In the resurrection account the women go to the tomb and see that Jesus is no longer there and they tell Peter.  It seems then, for a second, Peter believes.  (And yet, some biblical scholars suggest that this mention of Simon is misplaced and that today’s reading shows the first appearance of Jesus to Simon Peter.)

In any case, immediately after his denial of Jesus, we don’t really know what Simon Peter did.  We don’t know where he went, who he was with.  Did he go into town, find a pub, settle in and try to forget it all?  Did he ask questions of his friends and try to piece things together?  Did he pray?

We don’t know, but what we see from the scriptures is that before long, Peter simply went fishing.

Peter strikes me as, in some ways, our contemporary.  Peter’s had a long week, there’s a lot on his mind, and so he just needs to get away, to run away.  Fishing provides a way and provides the additional cover of appearing like going back to work.  Getting back to normal.  Let God sort out the things of God, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Except that the fish aren’t biting.  It’s as though creation itself refuses to cooperate with Peter’s will.  Creation—the water, the fish, the wind—are saying, “No, Peter, you need to sort some things out first.”

A new day begins to break, the sun is just about to come up and the disciples make out a form standing on the beach.  “Throw the net in on the other side,” the person says, but speaks with a kind of knowing authority that commands attention.  The disciples throw the net in, and suddenly they feel the weight of so many fish they can barely haul in the catch.  John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.”  And when Simon Peter hears this, he gets himself together, jumps into the water, and swims to the shore to see for himself what seems too good to be true, too fantastic, too forgiving, too much of God’s grace.  And yet, there is Jesus.

It’s like a second baptism for Peter.  The old is washed away.  The new is come.  Buried with Christ in his death, Peter is lifted up to share in the resurrection of Christ.  Peter becomes like a little child again, with a light heart, and a ready faith.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.  And the disciples hear echoes of “take, eat, this is my body.”  The meal is shared, new life is shared, tasted and savored.  The meal provides for the kind of intimacy and honesty in which Jesus can pull Simon Peter aside.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says.  Then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,”  Peter says.  And then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this time, Peter is sad because Jesus keeps asking and seems to doubt and seems to know how shaky and unreliable Peter’s heart really is, so he says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.  And follow me.”

Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  This fixes, it un-does, and it recapitulates the three denials of Peter.  The Church enacts this doing and un-doing of three-ness during Holy Week as on Good Friday, in some places, the Holy Cross is brought into the church from the back and the cross is presented at three places with the words, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”  Three times the cross is show and the proclamation made.  And then at the Easter Vigil, the cross is replaces with the Paschal Candle, and again in those same three places new life is proclaimed, “The light of Christ, thanks be to God.”

Whether in patterns of three, or four, or a hundred, or once—God provides occasions in our lives, like he did with Simon Peter, so that we might have a second chance.   I once saw a sign in a chaplain’s office that said, “O God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am…. again.”

And here we are…. again.  Tom Long, an old preaching professor of mine, likes to say that faith is not so much an experience or a feeling or an emotion.  It’s not simply some kind of vague awareness of something greater than ourselves. Rather, faith is a skill.  It’s a skill to be taught and developed and practiced.  Faith is something to be done in the world.  And the world awaits our doing.

Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”  In other words, “care for one another, show love to one another, especially the stranger and the misfit, search out for the lonely and forgotten, the poor and the sick, and follow me.”

Like Peter, God gives us second chances.  For the one who has become so engrossed in work as to forget the gifts of family, God provides a second chance.  For the one who walks by the person in need, God provides a second chance.  For the one who has to have the final word, never buckling under to another, God provides a second chance.  To the ones whose relationship is more mundane than magic, God provides.  For the one who is angry, or disappointed, or who is stuck in shame, who’s obsessed with regret, the one who has lost faith in a world of abuse, violence, bombs and bloodshed…. God provides a second chance… and a third… and fourth….and more than we can count.

Whether this is the second chance or the two-thousandth chance, accept the grace that God would grant, receive the forgiveness, embrace the welcome, and throw your life into the life of Christ again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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