A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, April 10, 2016
John 21:1-19 CEB
The post-Easter story of Jesus sharing bread and fish with some of his closest disciples at daybreak on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius is so rich with meaning and symbolism one hardly knows where to begin. As I considered this story again this past week, I was reminded of that wonderful Native American saying: “I can’t say for sure it happened exactly this way, but I know it is true.” In other words, sometimes the truth contained in a story lies much deeper than the historical facts or the literal words on the page. So much truth having to do with early Christian beliefs, traditions, and teaching is packed into this delightful story. It is one of those stories that lends itself well to following along in the pew Bible in front of you.
First, let’s consider some of the rich symbolism at play in the story. We find Simon Peter and his companions once again on the Sea of Tiberius in their fishing boats. It is as though the story has come full circle. The Christian story began as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called Peter and Andrew, and James and John to follow him and become fishers of men. This story ends with Jesus again calling Peter and the others to forsake their fishing boats and come “Follow me.”
Jesus instructs them to cast their net “on the right side” so as to catch fish. They do so, and the net is full, so full you would think it would break; but it doesn’t. I interpret this as being symbolic of “catching men” and having a full net, if they do it right. Commentators point out that the verb having to do with them hauling or pulling in the net of fish is closely related to the verb used elsewhere in John to draw men and women to God through Jesus. According to the book of Acts, Peter was responsible for bringing multitudes into the new Christian movement—a full net, if you will—with his sermon on Pentecost.
The text says Peter “was naked.” In other words, he had removed his outer clothes so as to keep them dry as he worked with the nets in the sea. When he realized it was Jesus standing on the shore, Peter wrapped his coat or outer garment about him. To me the fact that Peter “was naked” says more about his emotional and spiritual state than it does about his physical appearance. How do you think Peter would have been feeling, considering the fact that he had denied knowing Jesus three times the night he was arrested? I think Peter would have been feeling quite guilty, ashamed, and vulnerable in the presence of Jesus, signified by the word “naked.”
And speaking of denying Jesus three times, and jumping ahead in the story a bit, it is no accident or coincidence that three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” corresponding, no doubt, to the three times Peter had denied knowing him.
Jesus taking the bread and giving it to the disciples, as well as the fish, is intended to be reminiscent of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In fact, this story takes place not too far from where the miracle of the loaves and fishes and feeding of the 5,000 is said to have occurred.
Well, such are some of the most important elements of Christian tradition and symbolism that are at work in this story.
But then there are the important theological and emotional elements inherent in this story as well. As already noted, there is the call to come follow and become a fisher of men. There is the solemn warning that following Jesus entails sacrifice. Jesus warns Peter that his life will end with a cross of his own.
But as I interpret it, one of the most important and perhaps less obvious points of this story has to do with forgiveness. As already noted, Peter, along with the other disciples, had deserted Jesus on the night of his arrest. All of them forsook Jesus and fled. But Peter had also denied knowing Jesus as he stood outside in the courtyard where the trial was taking place. Three times someone questioned Peter about being a companion of Jesus, and three times Peter denied it, finally pronouncing a curse and swearing he didn’t even know the man.
Now, it is interesting that in this story, Jesus never comes right out and says to Peter, “Peter, why did you deny knowing me?” Jesus never singles Peter out in front of the other disciples to scold or chastise him for his failure. Jesus doesn’t hold a grudge and take a leadership role away from Peter because of his failure and denial. No, instead Jesus gently asks Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” Though it is unspoken, but inherently understood, Jesus forgave Peter and affirmed his confidence in Peter and reaffirmed the bond of friendship between them as though the denial had never taken place.
And even though Jesus never comes right out and asks Peter why he denied him, and Jesus never comes right out and says, “Peter, I forgive you,” Peter knew. I believe deep in his heart Peter knew that Jesus forgave him, reaffirmed confidence in him, and had commissioned him to be a representative in the world, if we take this story at face value. I believe Peter realized the empowerment of forgiveness!
But have you ever stopped to consider how things would have turned out differently had Jesus not forgiven Peter for his denial and abandonment? What if Jesus had written Peter off as being a traitor never to be trusted, or as being totally unreliable, or not worthy of a second chance? How history would have turned out so much differently had Jesus not extended the grace of forgiveness and given Peter a second chance! Had Jesus not extended the grace of forgiveness, Peter could have gone off into seclusion. He could have lived out the rest of his life wracked with a guilty conscience. He could have let his overwhelming sense of guilt lead to insanity. Or worse, had he not experienced the grace of forgiveness, Peter could have ended up like Judas, taking his own life to escape the overwhelming burden of what he had done.
But because of the sense of empowerment that the grace of forgiveness worked in his life, Peter did become a number one ambassador for the Jesus movement, the one to whom the “Keys of the Kingdom” seemed to be given, the one that the Church Universal would look back upon as the Vicar of Christ. How wondrous is the empowering potential of forgiveness!
Now, it seems to me that there are some important points in this story that hold wisdom for us and the lives we live today. It is important for us to be reminded of the empowering potential of forgiveness in our everyday relationships. Withholding forgiveness from another can have far-reaching negative effects. I have to wonder how many lives of people incarcerated in our prisons, and how many lives of those housed in institutions for the mentally ill, have been severely impacted and negatively altered by either withholding forgiveness from someone who wronged them, or by being overwhelmed with guilt and remorse because someone in the formative years of their lives withheld forgiveness from them.
But on the opposite side of the issue, I have to wonder how many people just like Peter have gone on to make something wonderful of their lives because of the grace of empowerment that blessed their lives when someone forgave them a great wrong, and thus, setting them free.
The truth is, we hold within us—both as individuals and collectively as a congregation—the power to set others free from an overpowering sense of guilt as we extend to them the grace of forgiveness. When others approach us with a sincere sense of remorse and guilt, seeking our forgiveness and blessing, we owe it to them to extend the empowering grace of forgiveness and set them free to make something good of their lives.
Yes, the Church has long entertained the belief that Jesus entrusted to Simon Peter the “Keys of the Kingdom of God.” Whether we accept that view or not, it seems obvious that by extending the grace of forgiveness to Peter, Jesus empowered him with a new beginning and the confidence to go forth and make something wonderful of his life.
But the truth is, and the good news is, the same “Keys of the Kingdom” are entrusted to us. That is, we, too, have within us the empowering potential of forgiveness. May it be so for each of us in our daily lives, and may it be so for us collectively as a forgiving community of faith. Amen.