April 17, 2016
Psalm 23 and John 21: 1-19
“Breakfast of Champions or a Slice of Humble Pie”
Jesus gathers the disciples around a charcoal fire and cooks them breakfast. What a lovely scene. There they are – back together again, warming themselves with the heat of the fire, sharing in the good food and company of their beloved friend, Jesus. How welcomed that must have been! For throughout the previous night they had been on the sea, working hard and failing at each drop of the net. And then morning dawned, and he appeared, and nets were full to bursting! What a joy. What vindication. What peace. I imagine, all must have felt right in the world on that beach that morning.
Now, if one happened on this scene without knowing anything about what brought Peter, Jesus and the disciples to this point, it would be very easy to assume that this was a breakfast of champions of sorts. Here they are celebrating a boat load of freshly caught fish. It is all good! They are all good!
But if one were to draw a bit closer, we may start to notice that something else seems to be going on. We may start to notice, I imagine, that Peter is acting a little odd. He alone threw himself in the water, so great was his rush to get to Jesus that he could not stand the time it would take for the boat to tack back to shore. But now that he is there, now that he is with Jesus, isn’t he strangely silent? I imagine that the other disciples are chatting with great excitement, but Peter is holding back. I imagine that every time Jesus looks over at him, Peter drops his eyes, unwilling or perhaps unable to meet Jesus’ gaze. If this is a breakfast of champions, there is one who does not seem to be feeling like a champion at all.
We, however, do know what brought Peter, Jesus and the disciples to this point. We know that what we witness today stands not in isolation, but is instead part of that great expansive story of encounter that began in the beginning and continues through the pages of scripture and the pages of people’s lives across the ages up until this very moment. And we know Peter’s place in that story. We know that what is happening today for Peter has everything to do with what happened for him just a few days ago. We know that the charcoal fire that warms him today cannot help but bring to mind that other fire that a few days ago, left him deadly cold.
It was a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the palace of Pontius Pilate. As the Gospel of Luke tells it, Peter had followed Jesus after Jesus had been arrested. Keeping to the shadows as not to draw attention to himself, Peter had followed Jesus into the courtyard of the palace. Jesus was taken within, but Peter remained there outside in the night. It was cold. He was cold and so he approached the fire that the servants had kindled there. In its light, they recognized him. A servant-girl, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. In that moment, Jesus turned and looked out at Peter. Their eyes met and Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” “And Peter went out and wept bitterly.” The scripture says.
That terrible night, that night when Peter failed his friend was just a few days before the passage before us today. The sting of his denial is still terribly raw. Especially now, I imagine, because now Peter has 20/20 hindsight and can look back at all that Jesus would come to suffer. I can just hear his self-loathing.
The gospel accounts tell us that immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion the disciples hid themselves behind locked doors. And while Peter and the others have now left that locked room to return to Galilee, so much of what transpired and the guilt and shame of it are still there locked away in Peter’s heart. Though he had returned to the trade he knew, fishing, a very big part of himself still remained captive to the pain of having failed Jesus so profoundly.
So no wonder he had fallen silent that morning. Seeing Jesus there by that charcoal fire must have brought it all back to Peter. I imagine that there was nothing more that Peter wanted in all his life than to be reconciled to his beloved friend. But I imagine he felt so inadequate and undeserving. So he pulled back. Looked away. Stayed quiet.
Failure is not something we talk about much. In fact, it always strikes me when in our invitation to the communion table we say “come to this table, you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed.” I always wince a bit when I say failed, because I wonder how that word will land on your hearts. For we are accustomed to hearing failure as a barbed accusation instead of simply a graced filled acknowledgment of what is.
Failure is not something we talk about much, but it is something we all know. Failure is an integral part of what it is to be human. To fail in something is to realize that we have fallen short of what we had hoped. Failure only can exist where hope and expectation are also present. This is a particularly marvelous part of being human. When my dog fails to catch the squirrel every time we are out walking in the arboretum I do not think for a heart beat she is bothered by it. There is no condemnation or judgment that goes through her little brain. Instead she just keeps her eyes open for that next bushy tail and sprints off again at the next opportunity.
But we are different. Our ability to hope and to expect for ourselves is key to our growth and development. We aspire, we strive and we set standards for ourselves and how we want to be. All of this is good. Very good. But when we fail to meet our aspirations and our strivings. When we fail to be how we want to be. When we find ourselves barking at our children, cutting corners at work, or surfing the internet instead writing the next great American novel we come down hard on ourselves.
And not just ourselves. We are also quick, I fear to judge others. How many of us have heard that sharp critic in us jump right into the mix when we see others fail or see something having gone wrong?
But as quick as we are to judge, and as large as judgment looms in our life, it is interesting that judgment is actually a rather minor theme in the Gospels. In the Gospel accounts, the accent seems to be not on judgment but on forgiveness.
Remember the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15: 11-32). Remember the woman caught in adultery.(John 9:1-11). Remember Zacchaeus the tax collector. (Luke 19:1-10). Remember Jesus from the cross saying “Forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness not judgment seems to the preferred currency of the Gospel.
I have said it before but I think it merits repeating that I think that the whole reason Jesus did not just go straight from the empty tomb to the right had side of God, the whole reason, I believe Jesus spent time coming to his disciples is to assure them of his forgiveness and of his continued love for them even in the midst of their failing.
In the scripture for today, Jesus sees Peter’s pain and pulls him aside. Looking him in the eye, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” Not once but three time. Three affirmations of love pull Peter back from the three denials. Three affirmations of love to restore Peter to who he hopes to be and who Jesus knows he can be. Three declarations of love, are the forgiveness, the gateway out of captivity and into freedom for Peter.
And that is why here together we intentionally practice forgiveness each Sunday as we gather. Here we intentionally lay down the pathways to help move us from judgment and condemnation to forgiveness, peace and the new life that it brings. Every Sunday we say together the prayer for God’s grace where we practice acknowledging that we may have fallen short of being the people God would have us be. And we practice receiving God’s grace and forgiveness and the peace that brings. And we practice being ambassadors of God’s grace as we greet each other with peace.
I love this teaching from Henri Nouwen, Priest, writer, theologian and professor that says “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
So all of this is well and good but doesn’t it make you wonder why forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel? Why is forgiveness something so important that it is a part of our liturgy every Sunday. Why are the Gospel accounts full of stories of forgiveness and teachings that we are to forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21).
I don’t think it is just because God wants us to feel good. I think it is because God wants us to do good and it is hard to do good when we are being held captive to our own failings. God forgives us not because it is a nice and kind thing to do. God forgives us and we are to forgive each other because staying stuck in our failings serves no one. Not ourselves, our world or our God. God forgives us and we are to forgive so that something new can arise that transcends failure.
In the Scripture, Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter is linked to his recommissioning of him. Peter is not just restored. He is commanded. He is forgiven and in that forgiveness he is commanded to redirect his life towards spreading the love he has received to others. Jesus fed Peter that day both in body and in soul and commands Peter to now do the same for others. “Feed my sheep.”
One final note:
Peter did not feel like a champion that morning on the beach with Jesus. But when the early church looked back on Peter they saw him as one. In fact if the early church had cereal, if that signature orange Wheaties box was on their breakfast table in every morning the way it was on mine growing up, Peter surely would have been on it.
Peter was considered a champion by the early church not because he was the fastest, or strongest or scored the most points. Peter was considered a champion by the early church because in his failure the early church could see their own and in the forgiveness that he received, they were assured that they too were a forgiven people. And this gave them the strength and the hope to press on when their faith felt fragile and ability to serve Jesus faltered.
So let the lessons on that beach so long ago be ours as well. We fail, and others around us do so as well. But let failure be not the end of the story but the beginning. We are forgiven and to be forgiving, not because it is just the nice thing to do but because God needs people that are not captive to failings but freed to do the good work God would have us do. So come ashore and take up your place in the breakfast of champions. Come ashore and know, truly know that we are a wholly loved and wholly forgiven people. And may that assurance not only bring us peace but also recommission to feed God’s sheep!
May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Luke 22: 54-62