Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
3Easter/C—May 5, 2019
Gospel: John 21:1-19
The Gospel according to John is often referred to as the spiritual gospel as Jesus’ divine nature is exposed through the miracles he performs. In our Scripture passage today, there was an obvious miracle—the abundance of large fish caught when the disciples cast their net to the right of the boat, as Jesus directed them.
There is another miracle that is not so obvious, yet it demands our attention. In vv. 15-19, we are privy to a divine moment, layered with forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, which takes place between two friends, Simon Peter (also known as Peter) and Jesus. In this moment, we witness the miracle of a relationship restored.
Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answered in the affirmative, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus proceeded to ask the same question two more times, “Do you love me?” and Peter, each time, replied in the affirmative.
One way for us to illumine the layered meanings in these few verses is to study the Greek words used for the verb “to love.” The first two times that Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, the Greek word for the verb “to love” is agapao. This form of the verb “to love” refers to a gracious love that is modeled in God’s self-giving love for human kind; the giving up or offering of oneself to the other without bounds.
The Greek word for the verb “to love,” used by Peter in all three of his responses, is phileo, a love characterized by friendship. The final time that Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, Jesus adjusted his language, and used phileo (friendship). In the intentional changing of the word Jesus used for love, Jesus was truly loving his friend by meeting Peter where he was, using the language that he could grasp at the time. Perhaps Peter was not yet able to verbally express his agapaic love, even as his heart desired it.
Just as significant as this word study, is the form of the dialogue. What is the significance of Jesus asking Peter if he loved him three times, even after he received his response each time? Recall that this beach scene took place not long after Peter had thrice denied even knowing Jesus. Flashback to the night of the Passover dinner in Chapter 13, where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times, and alluded to Peter’s inability, at the time, to love Jesus in the same way that Jesus loved him.
“Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (13: 37-38). Well, we know what happened. The prediction came true. In this Gospel we are not told of Peter’s reaction upon realizing that he had indeed denied even knowing his friend.
Imagine the guilt that Peter must have been carrying in his heart about his multiple denials of Jesus. How heavy his shame have been to know that as much as he believed that he would lay down his life for Jesus, he could not resist the powerful human instinct of self-preservation.
Perhaps Peter’s guilt and shame led him to perceive Jesus’ questioning as interrogation. Peter’s response, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (v. 17). Here’s where the miracle starts to unfold. Jesus knew about Peter’s denial before it happened. Jesus also knew of Peter’s hurt as he continued to ask him, “Peter do you love me?”
I suspect that Jesus’ questioning had a different purpose, a purpose that would ultimately build Peter up, not tear him down. Peter’s guilt and shame, embedded in his responses, indicated that he had not yet forgiven himself. Peter’s inability to forgive himself, at the time, may have made it difficult for him to fully accept and participate in the agapaic love which Jesus offered.
The love of God through Jesus for Peter was not being fully received by Peter, not because Jesus was holding a grudge, but because Peter suffered from the spiritual wound of unforgiveness of self.
Jesus had died a scandalous death on the cross, once for all, for the forgiveness of sins. So the forgiveness, which Peter seemed to seek from his friend, needed to be initiated by Peter for Peter’s sake. Peter needed to forgive himself. But, Peter was not quite there yet. Again, Jesus met him where he was, and matched each of Peter’s three affirmations of love with the commands: “Feed my lambs;” “tend my sheep;” “feed my sheep.” Not only did Jesus forgive Peter, he entrusted the spiritual well-being of his followers to him. Peter might not have had the confidence, or believed himself worthy of stepping into a leadership role. But Jesus, had been tending him. Jesus, the Bread of Life, had been feeding Peter—even in this encounter—which ends with Jesus’ classic call to action statement, “Follow me” (v. 19).
This divine dialogue, between two friends, was a milestone in Peter’s journey of spiritual formation, in which he tasted divine forgiveness, and participated in the restoration of relationship with Jesus. It was a miracle!
Forgiveness, for many of us is really hard. Years ago, a wise spiritual director of mine shared with me his exhausting, painful and beautiful journey through a lifetime of living with unforgiveness toward a father who was a present absence (present in the home, but emotionally absent). My supervisor noticed that I struggled, and was also pained by my relationship with my father—an absent-presence. At the end of a particularly emotional session, he leaned across the table with an intent look in his eye, and said to me, “I can’t do the hard work of forgiveness for you. I’ve been where you are, and for your sake, I pray that you will work to forgive your father. Once you taste forgiveness, you will know that it is delicious.”
Jesus’ commands to Peter to feed his lambs; tend his sheep; and feed his sheep, embody the mission of the Church. The only way that we can reflect God’s unbounded outpouring of agapaic love to heal this world is to shed the oppressive guilt and the shame for things we have left undone, and things we ought not to have done.
Like Peter, we have the opportunity to experience this same miracle of God’s reconciling love, and the life-long deepening of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Each time we receive the sacraments of His body and blood at the Holy table, we are reminded that through our Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sins have already been forgiven. Yet, many souls are enslaved in self-imposed prisons of guilt, shame and unforgiveness of others, and especially of self.
As you come forward to consume the body of Christ; today leave your guilt at the table. Today, come forward, and leave your shame at the table.
And, as you depart from the table, Today, take pleasure in the taste of God’s divine forgiveness. It…is…delicious.