Where do we start? In this final story of John’s gospel, he includes So. Many. Details. If you’re like me, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds pretty quickly, reveling in the intricacy of the trees without seeing the significance of the forest. This is not to say that all the details don’t matter – they certainly do. But they matter like the tiny images that make up a huge mosaic. They matter because they all add up to one pretty large and significant truth: in the way of Jesus, failure is not the end of the story.
As a mother and as a pastor, I find it exceptionally beautiful that Jesus took the time to make his friends breakfast, and that he had come prepared for the job. Let’s not overlook the fact that he already had things cooking when he invited his friends to bring some of their catch! The whole scene is a stunning example of nurturing, servant leadership. Before Jesus asks anyone else to do it, he’s the one feeding his sheep here. It feels like a good time to stop here and ask ourselves – when’s the last time we let Jesus cook us breakfast? What would that even look like for you, for me, to admit hunger and exhaustion, and let Jesus care for us? Are we trying to “feed his sheep” without allowing Jesus to feed us first? Even if this is not the sermon you preach with this text, consider this might the message the Spirit is preaching to you in this text.
But like those late-night infomercials – there’s more! Within this pericope, there are echoes of many other Jesus stories: the calling of the disciples, feeding the 5,000 with bread and fish, serving his disciples as he washed their feet. But the most significant echoes recall Peter’s own experiences. Can you place yourself in Peter’s shoes while you read this story?
While John doesn’t include all the details of Peter’s life with Jesus, they are familiar to us through the other Gospel writers. And much of John’s original audience would know these stories too, through oral history and the early circulation of the Synoptic Gospels. (One may even wonder if John rewrites these familiar elements of Peter’s story into the end to craft a new and deeper understanding of Peter’s original call – but I think the point of the writing is the same either way.) So as we hear John’s depiction of that morning on the beach, we recall the first time Peter met Jesus along this shoreline near his hometown, which also included a night of unsuccessful fishing followed by a miraculous catch. And when Peter jumps out of the boat to swim to Jesus, we remember the time Peter jumped out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the waves, only for Jesus to pull him to safety.
But perhaps the most significant detail is one we can’t get just by reading: the smell of a charcoal fire. The only other time a charcoal fire is mentioned in John’s gospel is the fire outside the house of the high priests, where the servants warmed themselves in the cold (Jn. 18.15). It was the very same charcoal fire Peter stood next to as he was asked three questions, and denied knowing Jesus three times. And now here on the beach, Jesus cooks their breakfast over a charcoal fire.
Neuroscience now confirms what we’ve all experienced: smells have a stronger link to memories and emotion than any other sense. So imagine Peter’s experience, arriving on the beach to see his friend Jesus, and being greeted with a smell that took him back to the night he’d been trying to forget for weeks. Just a few hours before on that dreadful, humiliating, terrible night, Peter had made a grand promise: that he was ready to die for Jesus (Jn. 13.37-38). In effect, Peter claimed he loved Jesus the most. And then when the rubber met the road, it appeared he loved Jesus the least.
And I think this may be what Jesus is getting at when he asks a very blunt question: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Now, there are a bajillion opinions as to what Jesus was comparing himself to – did Peter love Jesus more than he loved his friends? More than he loved fishing? More than the others loved Jesus? While it’s an interesting question to ponder, what’s most interesting to me is that Peter didn’t have to ask what Jesus was talking about.
Through my own prayerful contemplation of this story, it seems to me that Jesus is asking, “Simon, do you still think you love me the most, the best?” And it seems equally significant that Peter answers simply – “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” He offers no more grandiose promises to prove it, and he certainly doesn’t point to past valor for backup. But he is trusting that Jesus knows him.
It was not until the third question that John tells us Peter was hurt – and I think that was Jesus’s whole aim. Not just with the questions, but with the whole set up. Do you think that charcoal just magically appeared on the beach by itself? No. Jesus is intentional from start to finish, pulling up Peter’s shame to heal it. It’s as if he’s saying, let’s get to the hurt. Let’s not pretend we could be talking about anything else. Let’s make sure we both know what we’re dealing with here.
For most of John’s gospel (and the other Gospels, for that matter), we are shown a Peter who assumes that Jesus needs the perfect, the best, the smartest, bravest, larger than life extra-disciple, and works hard to make himself that. Peter is the one who asks big questions, makes confident declarations and brash decisions, and even tries to protect Jesus with a sword. And really, are we so different? Like Peter, we put on our best show – the bravado, the promises, the right answers, the brave face.
But eventually the truth comes out. Crumbling under pressure, Peter lies to protect himself. Far from being impervious, Peter is overcome by fear and it leads him to a place he never wanted to go. And for far too many of us, like Judas, the story ends there. We are buried in shame, embarrassed that we aren’t who we want to be, or who others want us to be, or maybe even who we thought we were. It becomes our tomb, and we never get out. Even among people who are marked by this miraculous thing called resurrection – failure all too often has the last word. (We would do well here to notice how we respond to others’ failure, as well.)
Yet what else is failure other than a kind of death? When we fail -- our hopes and dreams die. Our promises die. And sometimes even parts of our identity die. But what is it that we celebrate in Easter? Don’t we celebrate that death is not the end? And that death actually gives way to a whole new kind of life?
In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and profound spiritual writer, said that “humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God.” And he goes on to say that this kind of humility is what makes a saint. It’s being the person we actually are – not hiding behind the pretty painted picture of who we pretend to be, and not buried in the tomb of shame of who we are not– but honest, free, failures and gifts and all, right there in the open.
And I’m sure this is why Jesus invites Peter to join his own work, the work of the Good Shepherd in this moment. It is not the bravado Peter Jesus is asking to do this work. Nor is it the bravado Peter who is responding. That Peter would have been a terrible shepherd. No one clamoring to be the best, bravest, and brightest volunteers to feed sheep. But this Peter -- this real, humble, loved, forgiven, joyful Peter – he will make an excellent shepherd.
And then in the end Jesus says two profound words that he said at the very beginning: “Follow me.” The first time Jesus spoke those words, Peter had very little idea what they really meant. (I think we can all relate to that!)
But on this beach, after all that has transpired, these are not words of hypothetical aspiration – but words of confident hope:
Follow me into caring for people so much that you give yourself away.
Follow me into feeding people.
Follow me into forgiveness, even forgiving those who betray you.
Follow me into death.
Follow me into resurrection life.
And this is our invitation, as well. May we have courage to follow.