“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”–John 21:16
“Doesn’t forgiveness let people off the hook ?, ” I am regularly asked; “What will make someone accountable for their actions if they are forgiven before they actually change?” This leads to many fruitful discussions. For the purpose of this post, let me cut to the chase: It is my clear assertion that nothing in the world calls us to rise to accountability more strongly than love.
By the advent of John 21, the resurrected Jesus has appeared to Simon Peter and his companions twice, as well as to Mary Magdalene. Jesus has risen, in-deed! And now it is time for Simon Peter to rise. The Galilean seashore, where the journey of discipleship began, will be the setting where this passionate and conflicted “learner” of Jesus will have the “stone” that has entombed his spirit rolled away!
Simon Peter and six of his companions have finally left Jerusalem and made the trek back home to the familiar environment of Galilee. They do so having already had the risen Christ twice draw close to them. The first time was on the evening of Easter, where despite the good news of the empty tomb Peter and the others had remained locked away in their fear. Jesus penetrated the closed space, and offered them his peace, breathing the Holy Spirit- his spirit- into them. With these gifts came a commission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Nevertheless, they were contained in the very same room a week later when he returned to be among them once more and to invite Thomas to touch his wounds. The intimate encounter brought the Twin, who had been absent before, to his knees. “My Lord and my God!,” Thomas shouted.
Inspired and included, they were all released to go back to the familiar terrain of their life-giving ministry with Jesus, filled with the good news of resurrection to share with every longing person. The story is not over! For any of us! But now, having arrived, they aren’t speaking to anyone and they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. In fact, Simon Peter and the others try to go back to life as they knew it before Jesus had called them. “I’m going fishing,” the restive Simon declares; “We’ll go with you,” the others quickly reply. But it is a dead-end: “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. (21:3b)”
Meeting with a youthful group of emerging disciples last week, we read very deliberately through the vivid narrative. They noted that Simon Peter is the same disciple who denied that he knew Jesus when confronted in the high priest’s courtyard with evidence of their love. Our consideration was compassionate. I was reminded that the only reason Simon was in the courtyard was because he risked following Jesus and the police who arrested him to that dangerous place. “You couldn’t really expect him to admit he knew Jesus there,” one of the young people said; “He probably would have been arrested and killed, too.”
I look at the other names on the list: (1) Thomas, the fellow who was very skeptical when the heard the testimony of others about the risen Jesus; (2) Nathanael of Cana of Galilee, whose initial response to Jesus was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”; (3) the Zebedee boys, the ones who ignored Jesus’ heartfelt expression about the path to the cross while they argued over whether they would get prime posts in the new administration.
As I was wondering out loud why beloved people who have been blessed repeatedly with Jesus’ new life and have had his spirit breathed into them would struggle so mightily, a couple of the young people speculated that for Simon Peter (and perhaps the others, too) there may be some conflicted feelings about Jesus’ re-appearance. “If Jesus is alive, and Simon Peter has to face him, he’ll have to face himself, too.” Wow. Clearly the disciples have rejoiced for Jesus, but they also seem to be hiding from him. The continuing struggle is in their own guts! Is this why Simon and the others seem stuck?
Is it possible that we in the church can be ambivalent about Jesus’ presence among us, too? That someone like me can honestly rejoice at Easter, experiencing joy at the news of the empty tomb and Jesus’ unfettered movement through the world . . . while being discomforted at the ways my life own remains closed ? There is a journey of reconciliation here that extends beyond Sunday morning!
The seven are not left to themselves in their emptiness and disquiet. “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach.” The same place from which he called Simon and Andrew and James and John initially. “But the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” They still do not recognize fully the power that is at work in their lives. They do not recognize the substance of God’s love for them.
My young Bible Studiers noticed the theme of “three” running through the ongoing story. Simon Peter denies Jesus three times. The crucified Jesus rises after three days. The encounter at the seashore is the third time the Risen One has appeared to these disciples. And Jesus has an important question for Simon Peter that he is going to ask him three times. There is a spirit of completion in the air, and a promise to be realized.
Much like Luke’s narrative of the calling of the initial disciples (Luke 5:1-11), a fruitless night and empty nets give way to an astonishing catch and experience of abundance when the fishermen embrace the new way of the stranger. “It is the Lord!,” the beloved disciple exclaims. Simon Peter, who doesn’t like to be second at anything, jumps into the water to swim quickly and be the first to Jesus. But he covers himself beforehand! The others labor to bring the catch to shore. All of this is familiar.
When they get to the beach, they see a charcoal fire (anthrakia) , with fish on it, and bread. There is one other place in the gospel where a charcoal fire is mentioned: in John 18, where Simon Peter warmed himself in the courtyard of the high priest during Jesus’ interrogation. It was the place that Simon had denied Jesus.
Jesus knows what afflicts Simon Peter in these days of new creation. He risks bringing it to light. He meets the anxious and anguished disciple with love. And he offers the image, and then the experience, of transformed living. The gathering space around the charcoal fire will now become the holy space of nourishment and new beginning. The disciples are invited to bring ll of what they have to the feast of resurrection, as are we. The table will be celebrated anew before going any further. “Re-member me.” “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Only when they are finished with the meal does Jesus ask his critical question: Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John” is the man Jesus first called out of a fishing boat three years before. Talking to him in this way, Jesus is referencing the beginning of their journey together, and honoring all that they have lived together in between. The richness and promise of this shared story is continuing. This is not an interrogation, but an invitation to the depths of healing. This is the accountability of love.
This love is perceptive. “Simon, son of John, do you love me . . . more than these?” Simon is the competetive one, whose rivalry with the beloved disciple (see John 20:3-4; 21:7) has helped drive him to this place and time. The love of God in Jesus heals rivalry! “Yes, Lord you know I love.” Jesus commissions: “Feed my lambs.” Nurture my young ones. Be their example.
Once again Simon Peter is enfolded and confronted by love. “Tend my sheep,” Jesus directs him. “Take care of the people who crucified me,” was the translation someone offered in a previous workshop. Then a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Tears of bewilderment (Yes, Lord, you now everything, you know that I love you!) give way to tears of relief and release (“Feed my sheep.”) Jesus has walked Simon through the memory of failure, confronting the boulder that has blocked the way to Simon’s fullness of life and discipleship. The passionate disciple has had opportunity to respond differently, to embrace mission as love in the world. He rises.
This is accountability in the truest sense. You can die of embarrassment, and still live. You can die of shame,and by God, realize the power to rise up. You can fail in love, and you will be loved into the new and opened future. It is the power of God.
What do you think? Does forgiveness ” let us off the hook?”
Further implications to come!