This is a highly evocative story of Jesus on the beach by the Sea of Tiberias in the early morning light, speaking to weary men after a long night of fruitless fishing, with nothing to show for their night’s labour. Men bereft and without direction, have gone back to Galilee and gone fishing while waiting to see what happens next as the Lord had promised to meet them there.
We can well imagine the scene: there is a beach is not far from here and we can easily see the boat returning without a catch. We stand on the foreshore, watching and waiting with Jesus for the disciples to notice him, and to think and start to believe.
Jesus has lit a charcoal fire on the shore, with fish and bread prepared as a simple breakfast. The smoke is rising from the fire, it feels like a still morning. It reminds Simon of the last time he had stood by a fire, warming his hands when he denied Jesus three times to his immense shame and grief. He could not forget it. It would have been a very raw memory. His friends had heard him, they knew his failure and how his fear had driven his reaction; a fear they all shared. It could easily have been them doing the same thing.
The smoke from the fire is rising and the men see darkly; who is it, there in the half-light? Who has called them ‘Children’ as the familiar stranger asks if they have had a wasted night? (John 21:5) The instruction once more to tip the nets over the side would have been met with groans of weariness. The request to ‘bring some of the fish that you have just caught’ (John 21:10) to add to the meal already being prepared, is matter of fact. There’s a lot of hungry men, more food is needed to meet the appetites. Gutting and cleaning the fish at the water’s edge, whispers about who it was tending the fire and preparing a meal, Simon’s response of jumping into the sea without waiting for the boat to return as it is ‘the Lord’, feels like it is a response both full of joy and laden with grief.
In our own reflections about betrayal, denial, weariness and faith which we too have done, just like Peter, we can see and hear Jesus also meeting us on the shore. We peer through the smoke of our own imaginings to the Lord who might just be present in our failures and dreams and responding with love and forgiveness. It will be alright.
Being trusted again after failure and betrayal is an extraordinary gift of love. Do we dare to love and trust in return? Forgiveness and new beginnings become possible once more. We can have hope in the risen Lord! Let me assure you!
Simon’s denial, shouted at the bystanders in cold darkness of the night, that he did not know Jesus, was impossible to ignore. The stone rolled over the tomb and Jesus’ dead body would have rolled solidly over Simon’s heart.
Yet Jesus lovingly, gently, clearly re-enacts the fire in the courtyard and the moment of betrayal and denial in the company of those friends and fellow disciples who would also have felt shame, anger, grief and doubt, eating away at their hearts, memories and friendships.
Jesus’ question to Simon is consequently formal. He speaks to the man who chose to follow him on the seashore three years previously. Jesus does not speak Simon’s his new name, but asks the man he first knew: Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Simon, son of John, do you love me? Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Jesus’ question asked three times, breaks through the façade we Christians always wear, when we deny Jesus. The forces of such denial are strong in our world and in our privileged West, including in our churches: denial of friends, denial of their gifts and lives and diversity, the denial of our betrayals and brokenness, the human cost of our economic systems and our complicity; our denial of our responsibility to demand fundamental change in our behaviour as stewards of God’s creation; denial and rejection of sisters and brothers with real claims on our love and God’s love.
I wonder God is not deafened by our shouting and denials as we push away and walk away to find a less demanding God. Peter’s response is heartbreaking and open:
Lord you know everything; you know that I love you. (John 21:17)
We are reminded in I John 4, about God and God’s love. ‘The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.’ (1 John 4:21). To be able to once again say to God, ‘I love you,’ after we have failed repeatedly in this love, is a heartfelt recommitment to try again, because we have been forgiven and once more we are invited and asked to practice what Jesus has taught us and shown us. Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter opens the way for Peter to try once again to be a faithful follower and to love. It is not perfection God wants, but a willing heart.
As we turn once again, to love all God’s children, we are made aware of the cost. Jesus foretells Peter’s martyrdom, in the use of the image of old age, the equivalent helplessness in the maturity of the martyr’s vocation, falling into the hands of others and being at their mercy for the sake of the fullest possible witness to Christ.
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)
The Greek word for martyrdom – martyria – means witness, a witness not even death can silence. It is a vocation open to everyone who gives testimony to this Word, God’s Son who is in everything. Ultimately, martyrdom means not just witnessing to one’s faith, nor even just dying for it. Additionally, it means a level of complete, ongoing and unfolding availability to the call of Christ, no matter what. It will indeed take us to places and loves and conversion and courage we can scarcely imagine. This witness story in John’s Gospel ends with this call, simple and life-changing for Peter. Simple and life-changing for us. Jesus says to all of us: ‘Follow me’. (John 21:19)
The Lord be with you.