Sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter – Year C (2)

John 21:1-19

“The sun is out, the sky is blue.
There’s not a cloud to spoil the view.
But it’s raining, raining in my heart.”

(any recognition?)

“Jesus Christ is risen today,
our triumphant, holy day”

“The day of Resurrection,
earth tell it out abroad”

But it could still be raining in our hearts. We’ve come to the joy and celebration of Easter and resurrection. But only after we’ve walked through Lent and Holy Week, following the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, and meditating on the Stations of the Cross.

We’ve remembered the Last Supper, the washing of the disciples’ feet. and the harrowing events of Good Friday. If we entered fully into the Passion story, and opened ourselves to be touched by it the experience may have gone very deep. Profound changes may have taken place in our faith, in our way of thinking and feeling and in our sense of what God is saying to us. And profound changes are not always comfortable or easy to live with.

It may be that whilst we can share in the joy and celebration of the Easter season, we need longer to reflect on our experience of Lent and Holy Week. Something may have touched us so deeply that we need time to reach an understanding of what it has meant to us personally.

Last week we heard about Thomas and his very human reaction to feeling hurt, upset and left out. Some of us may have identified with Thomas and found comfort and encouragement in last week’s words.

This week some of us may identify with Simon Peter. I offer what I imagine could have been in Simon Peter’s very human heart during his conversation with Jesus.

And what a conversation it is: in a setting filled with sounds of waves lapping the shore, friends’ voices in the background; the touch of early morning cool air; the smell of a charcoal fire and cooking fish: and above all, the presence of Simon’s beloved and risen Lord.

But I think it’s raining in Simon’s heart. Seeing Jesus again, eating and talking with him, knowing that he’s really alive is somehow not enough. After all that Simon’s gone through he needs a much deeper and personal healing to bring him to new life and hope.

He’s suffering from the terrible pain and shame of self loathing, and a belief that he is totally unlovable. He’s suffering from the devastating fear that, after what he has done, because of who he is, Jesus will not want him any more to be Peter, the Rock.
Jesus will find someone else on which to build his Kingdom.

But,  even worse than that, what if Jesus no longer loves Simon or want his friendship? What would be the point of anything any more?

On that terrible evening before Good Friday, in the High Priest’s courtyard with the sound of voices in the background; the bitter touch of dark night’s cold; the smell of a charcoal fire burning. Simon Peter was afraid, miserable and alone. He denied even knowing who Jesus was.

Traditionally it’s been suggested that in today’s story Jesus asks three times if Simon loves him. Simon replies three times that he does. So Simon’s three denials are cancelled out, he’s forgiven and restored as Peter the Rock.

But for me this interpretation is too simplistic. it doesn’t reach the depths of Simon’s human experience and distress. It doesn’t explain the deep healing and change which transforms Simon once again into Peter, the Rock

So let’s look at the story in a bit more depth. I’m relying on Greek and New Testament scholars for this bit so just bear with me.

Commentators agree that in this story John uses two words for “love”. Some say this isn’t significant. Others say it’s important and sheds a different light on what is said.

Now, when I write, if I choose two different words which could have the same meaning it’s for a good reason.

I think the same applies to the writer of this story. He uses two different words to mean love so I believe he means to use those different words to convey their different meanings.

Jesus first asks  “Simon (not “Peter”), do you love me more than these others do? “

This first word for love, which Jesus uses, is “agapao”, a word that has a distinctively Christian meaning, a pure and holy love of God. Simon knows from bitter experience that he cannot make any claims about being better or stronger than anyone else His loyalty and courage have been brought into question and he cannot even bring himself to use that word “agapao” to mean the love he has for Jesus. Instead, he uses the word “phileo” which implies human caring or friendship.

“Yes Lord; you know that I care for you, I am your friend”.
Jesus asks Simon a second time, “do you love me” – still using the word “agapao”  but dropping the comparison to how the others feel. Once again Simon cannot deny his love but cannot make any claims about himself and sticks to the reply “Yes Lord; you know that I care for you, I am your friend”.

Now Jesus himself uses the second word for love in a question which cuts Peter to the heart: “Simon, do you care for me? Are you my friend?. Are you sure even of that?”

Jesus has reached the deep root of Simon’s anguish. Is his relationship with Jesus broken beyond repair? Simon, already hurting and fragile, seems to break. He was so wrong about himself before, what if he’s even wrong about caring for Jesus? about being his friend? Jesus has now twice commissioned him to feed his sheep, what if he really can’t do that?

Peter was broken by his experiences of the first Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
He lost all confidence in himself as one of the three disciples closest to Jesus. He lost confidence in his self knowledge, became unsure of who he really was and what he was capable of, became afraid of what looked like a very empty future.

Self doubt, self hate and despair seem to take over and in desperation Simon throws himself on to the mercy and knowledge of Jesus.

“Lord  you know everything,
you know that I care for you,
you know I am your friend”.

To me an unspoken question hangs in the air,
An unspoken question maybe Simon daren’t ask for fear of the answer.
An unspoken question maybe sometimes we daren’t ask for fear of the answer.

“Lord, you know everything,
you know that I care for you,

But, Lord, after what I’ve done
do you still care for me and love me?
do you still want me to be your disciple?”

I’m sure that Jesus hears and understands that unspoken question. He knows Peter far too well not to hear it. And he knows how to answer that question for Peter: For the third time he gives his commission to Peter: “Feed my sheep” and “follow me”.

He knows Peter will understand the unspoken part of that answer and we know that Peter responds to it with the courage and dedication that Jesus saw in him when he called him Peter.

So today we continue to celebrate Easter together, as a church. Our faith is in the risen, ascended and glorified Christ. But some of us may have unspoken questions growing out of our experiences of Lent and Holy Week.

Maybe, like Simon Peter, we need to have a private conversation with Jesus in which he can hear our spoken or unspoken questions and fears,

If that is so, I pray that, like Simon Peter, we will find the answer, spoken or unspoken, in the way Jesus responds to us and then our celebration of Easter resurrection will become heart-felt, because it is heart–experienced. Amen.