May 5, 2019
Breakfast Partners – May 5, 2019
Sermon from Sunday, May 5, 2019
OK. This might hurt just a little, but let me invite you to bring to mind something hard: What’s something for which you have real trouble forgiving yourself? As Paul observed, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); we miss that mark all the time. But sometimes the pain of missing the mark doesn’t go away so easily. And sometimes that’s because you haven’t really resolved the issue with the person you ended up hurting. And when that person remains part of your life, it’s all the harder to know how to move past the injury.
That’s where the disciple Peter finds himself in today’s Gospel story. Now, this is the third time that Jesus has appeared to his friends after the resurrection – twice in the upper room in Jerusalem, and now by the Sea of Galilee. The disciples have marveled and celebrated that Jesus is alive, and Thomas has had his own famous moment of coming to trust that resurrection is real. But since Easter morning, we haven’t heard a thing from Peter.
That’s because Peter is carrying some heavy baggage. At the Last Supper, after Jesus says someone will betray him, Peter says, No way; not me: “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). But by sunrise the next morning, Peter has denied Jesus three times, saving himself when the going got tough. And he’s been carrying that guilt like the rock from which he took his name.
Peter has no idea what to do with that guilt, now that Jesus is back from the dead. What do you say to your leader and friend after you’ve pulled the rug out from under him? So, Peter tries to get on with his life, heading out to do what he knows best – fishing. But nothing’s right. Not even the fish will cooperate.
And then suddenly, things get really awkward. From the boat, the disciples see someone on the beach; and one of them realizes it’s Jesus. Peter reacts without a lot of thought. He puts a rope cincture around the work smock he’s wearing, which I guess seemed better than trying to swim in a loose blanket; and he comes ashore. He wants so badly to be with his friend and his Lord … but he’s got no idea what he’ll say once he gets there.
Meanwhile, Jesus is cooking breakfast for his friends. It’s loaves and fishes once again, and once again way more than the group could possibly eat. But no one’s talking. Maybe the guys are waiting for Peter to break the ice, but Peter’s still got no idea what to say. So, Jesus takes Peter off to the side for a private conversation.
Now, in our translation, this dialogue between Jesus and Peter doesn’t make much sense. “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Do you love me?” “Yes, you know that I love you.” As we hear it in English, the dialogue affirms Peter’s repentant heart three times, symbolically cancelling out Peter’s three denials of Jesus. But I think there’s more to it than that, if you look at the original language.
As you know, there are three Greek words for “love” in the New Testament. There’s eros, which is romantic love. There’s philos, which is deep friendship, the love of a brother or sister. And there’s agape, which is loving like God loves – love that gives itself away for the other, Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. Agape is the highest form of love, the kind Jesus calls us all to learn as we follow him.
So, here’s a loose translation of this dialogue between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-17).
Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me sacrificially (agape), more than the rest of these guys do?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you … like a brother (philos).” Now, that’s not what Jesus was asking for. But even so, Jesus says to him, “Feed my lambs.” Lead these sheep I’ve given you.
Then a second time, Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, don’t you love me sacrificially (agape)?” And Peter says again, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you … like a brother (philos).” Frankly, it’s the best Peter can do; at least he’s being honest about it. And Jesus says to him again, “Well, tend my sheep.”
Then Jesus asks Peter about love once more. But this time Jesus changes the word he uses: “Simon son of John, do you love me … like a brother (philos)?” That’s it? That’s the best you can do?
And by this point, I imagine Peter is breaking down. He says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you … like a brother (philos).” You know Ican’t give you the ultimate love you’re asking for, Peter exclaims. You know I’ve failed you. Why are you making me say it out loud?!
Of course, Jesus knows Peter’s answer before he asks the question. Hearing the answer is for Peter’s benefit, because you can’t heal a relationship without taking accountability for the harm that broke it. Reconciliation requires truth first.
But that hard truth also paves the road ahead. Peter has admitted his heart’s failure, love that only rises to the level of friendship or brotherhood. And Jesus comes back to him as Jesus always comes back to us, with something more – with agape, the love that forgives failure, and heals relationship, and moves forward into a new reality. “I love you anyway,” Jesus tells Peter. “Brotherly love will do for now, so get to work. Feed my sheep.” But Jesus also warns Peter there’s sacrificial love to come at the end of his road – and that true love, agape love, comes with a cost. Jesus can say that with authority because he knows all about the costly path of love. I know it hurts, Jesus says. But even so, follow me anyway.
So, what does all this have to do with us? I think it’s stunning that God chooses the least likely candidate – in fact, the disqualified candidate – for the most important job. Peter, the one you can’t depend on, will lead the newly forming Church and help it navigate the waters of inclusion, exclusion, and persecution. He’ll grieve as his friend James is killed by King Herod, and Peter will be thrown in prison himself to await the same outcome. And he’ll receive a vision that changes everything about who’s in and who’s out in this movement, and he’ll help change the rules to open up the boundaries of God’s love to everyone. Eventually, the authorities will kill him just as they killed his Lord. But he follows Jesus anyway. He couldn’t do anything to deserve Jesus’ forgiveness. He had no business even staying in the movement, much less helping to lead it. But God’s forgiveness changed the relationship, replacing his heart of stone with a heart of love made new.
So, I began by asking you to imagine walking in Peter’s sandals, needing to have a hard but loving conversation with someone you’ve hurt. Now, imagine yourself in Jesus’ sandals instead, walking on feet that have taken the nails of broken relationship. Think about someone who’s failed you, someone whose sins of omission or commission have taken a toll on your life. With whom do you need to have breakfast on the beach?
In last week’s Gospel story, when Jesus appeared to his friends, he breathed the Holy Spirit on them and said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). We often hear that as empowering the Church, through its priests, to speak God’s absolution to people confessing their sins; and that’s true. But of course, the Church isn’t an institution first; it’s the assembly of those who follow Jesus Christ. In that sense, we are all called to be people of forgiveness – those who receive it and those who give it. It’s important enough to make it into the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As Jesus reconciled us with God, so Jesus asks us to reconcile with one another – that we might be one, as he and the Father are one, so that the world might see what God’s way of love looks like (John 17:22-23).
That sounds like an overwhelming project, and maybe it is. So, it might be worthwhile to start off simply. Think again of that person you need to forgive. Maybe it’s time just to invite him or her to breakfast – and see what our loving and liberating and life-giving Lord will do with it.