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The 3rd Sunday of Easter; John 21:1-19

One of the distinguishing marks of the Bible is its realism and compassion about human nature. There is no pretending in the Bible that biblical characters are any better than we are. Possibly, that’s because those people didn’t know they were going to be in the Bible! The people we meet in the Bible don’t set us an impossible standard of perfection, the are doing the best they can! We are not frustrated or resentful with our own imperfections when comparing ourselves to those we read about in the Bible. I suspect, if the truth be known, most of us would like to believe that we could do a somewhat better job than some of them!

All the great human figures of the Bible have one thing in common: we are able to see their weaknesses as well as their strengths; sometimes their weaknesses are shown in almost brutal clearness.

The usual title of the story we heard in today’s 1st Lesson is The Conversion of St. Paul. In my opinion a suitable title for the Gospel story we’ve just heard is The Rehabilitation of St. Peter. Which of course implies that Peter was in need of rehabilitation, and I suggest he was, after denying Jesus three times on Good Friday, and those other times when he was not at his best. Which makes it worth reflecting on Peter; he’s a good example of a less-than-perfect follower of Christ; thus, a good example for us! (We’ll leave Paul, who also needed rehabilitation, for another time!)

Peter was a fisherman; his real name was Shimon Bar Jonah – Simon, Son of John. He lived with his wife, mother-in-law, and brother Andrew in Capernaum, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. With Andrew, and partners James and John the sons of Zebedee, he owned a fishing boat. The first time Jesus met Simon he said, “So you are Simon, son of John,” and then called him Cephas, Aramaic for Petros, Greek for Petrus, which is Latin for “rock” or “stone”. It is from Petrus that we get Peter.

Rocks usually aren’t pretty, fancy, or smart; in the wrong place rocks can be a nuisance or hazard. A rock rolling in the wrong direction is a disaster. But once settled down it’s there to stay. Rocks are solid, dependable; it takes work (or time) to change a rock, or crack it. Barring explosives or earth quakes, you can depend on a rock as much as on anything. So Jesus nick-named Simon “Rock” (or maybe Rocky?); he didn’t say why; perhaps Jesus saw something in Simon, good or bad, that was rock-like! It stuck, today nobody ever calls Simon by his real name. And from that time on, Jesus told him, he had another job, he would be fishing for people.

Much later, when Jesus had become well-known, there was talk about who Jesus was. One day he asked the disciples about it, and they discussed it, quoting several opinions. But then Jesus asked outright: “Who do YOU say that I am?” None wanted to be first, until Peter lost patience; “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he said.

That took courage, and possibly a lack of caution! If true, it was enough to blow up the religious system of the time. If not true, you could get stoned to death just for thinking it. But Peter said it, and Jesus said something he never said to anyone else, “Blessed are you, Shimon Bar Jonah,” (Simon, Son of John). Then, calling him Peter again, punned (yes, Jesus punned!)that he was the rock on which his church would be build, and that he was giving Peter the keys to the kingdom. Peter had yet another job, although not yet a job description!

But Peter was also the only one Jesus gave Hell to, almost literally; right after that. Peter didn’t understand what being Christ meant. Jesus told him it wasn’t glorious; he would have to suffer and be killed in Jerusalem. Peter wasn’t having any of that; it wasn’t his idea of a Christ. “God forbid, that will never happen,” and then Jesus tore into him. “Get behind me, Satan,” he said to Peter, the rock that was now trying to block the grim road he had to walk. “You’re not on God’s side, and you’re a stumbling block, (stumbling rock?)” Jesus rebuked Peter.

That wasn’t the only time that Peter said the wrong thing, asked the wrong question, got the wrong point, did the wrong thing. Once he saw Jesus walking on water, and tried it, and Jesus rescued him; rocks don’t float. And once Jesus was teaching about forgiving, and Peter asked how many times you had to forgive (maybe seven times was enough?) – and Jesus turned on him and said that after you’ve forgiven seven times seventy you are just beginning to be forgiving! And once Jesus was talking about heaven, and Peter asked what sort of deal people like him got, who’d left home and given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus took it easy on him, because rocks can’t help being slow learners, and said he’d get lots, but so would everyone else; there were no premiums for early adopters.

Then there were things Peter did, or didn’t, in those miserable hours before the end. At their last supper together, Jesus washed the feet of his friends, and Peter protested, “You’ll never wash my feet!” And Jesus explained it showed they were all part of each other, and equal, and servants of one another, and Peter got carried away, and was ready to have all of himself washed.

Then Jesus said he had to leave. Peter didn’t get it, or couldn’t face it, so he asked, and Jesus explained that no one could follow. Peter asked why he couldn’t follow. “I’ll lay down my life for you,” and Jesus said the hardest thing Peter ever heard him say. “Not only won’t you follow me, you’ll deny me, three times, before the cock crows tomorrow morning.” And that’s how it was – Jesus arrested, Peter sitting by the fire, while inside the cruel interrogation was going on. Peter was asked three times if he was Jesus’ follower, and he said three times that he wasn’t. And then the cock crowed; and the tears ran down Peter’s face, like rain down a rock!

We heard Jesus and Peter’s last conversation (as recorded in the Gospels)this morning. It was on a beach at daybreak. Some of the others were there; Jesus cooked breakfast. He took Peter aside, and called him by his real name; “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Peter said of course. Jesus asked it again, and a third time, and each time Peter said he loved him – three times, maybe to make up for the three denials.
(Incidentally, this passage uses two different Greek verbs for loving [agapan and philein], but the expert consensus is that this doesn’t mean much, because the author of John does the same thing elsewhere, and, Jesus and John spoke Aramaic, which has no such distinction. He also uses three different words for fish in this passage, and that doesn’t seem to mean much either.) And then, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep;” Jesus told Peter, and from what we know of Peter’s remaining life, this time he understood. Fisherman, fisher of people, keeper of the keys, shepherd; Peter the Rock had received one more job; pastor of God’s people. And Jesus, in a round-about way, told Peter he would get to follow him after all; in old age he would die on a cross!

The Bible doesn’t tell if that happened, but there is a story about Peter’s last days, and about a last meeting with Jesus. We know Peter went to Rome, as the overseer of the Christians there – the first of almost two thousand years of bishops of Rome. As the story goes, when Peter was old, there was a persecution of Christians. Many were killed, and Peter, to save his life, left the city. On the road he met Jesus, walking the other way. “Quo vadis, Domine – Where are you going, Lord?” he asked. “To Rome, to be crucified in your place.” Peter was ashamed that he was again denying Jesus, and turned back, to arrest and crucifixion. He’d finally understood what following Jesus was about!

Odd isn’t it? Peter the Rock, who often acted like a bowl of jelly, was the one on whom Jesus founded his church. There’s a truth in this for us; we, who often don’t understand what following Jesus is all about, who sometimes betray the Lord, who sometimes run away from our call to faithfulness.

Jesus came not to redeem the redeemable. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or perfect the perfectible. Jesus came to save sinners, and to build the kingdom of God through imperfect, fallible, sinful human beings. Jesus did not found the Church to be the social club of the perfect, but to be the mutual support society of those who know they are imperfect, fallible, weak, sinful. If you doubt that, take a look at Peter, whom Jesus made the rock on which the Church is founded, keeper of the keys of the Kingdom, and pastor of the faithful in Rome.

If there is a message in Peter’s life, as we know it from Scripture and tradition, it is that while there is life there is always another chance. If we don’t quite understand what it means to be a Christian, we can learn. If we run away from the faith, we can turn around. If we betray Jesus, and we all betray Jesus at times, we will get another chance to say or show that we love him.

If, like Peter, we are less like rocks of the faith and more like bowls of jelly, we can learn from him that ultimately it is not performance that counts; we are not scored on keeping the faith. Ultimately, the question is whether we love Jesus, as imperfectly as we can express such love, and whether we have taken care of others in Jesus’ flock, even though imperfectly.

Jesus did not expect Peter the Rock to become anything other than what he was; blunt, a little slow at times, [let’s be honest, thick], boastful when it was safe, and weak and meek in danger. And yet, Jesus founded his Church on Peter. Jesus does not expect us to become anything other than what we are. He expects us only to love him as best we can, and to take care of one another as much as we are able.
Given how imperfect we all are, that is Good News indeed!

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller