I owe to my colleague, the Reverend Eileen O’Brien, an insight that has stayed with me now through two Lenten seasons and two Easters. It was on March 1 of last year, which was the Second Sunday of Lent 2015, that Eileen preached new life and dramatic tension into a Gospel scene so familiar that it sometimes risks being domesticated in our telling. It is that portion of the Gospel in which Jesus has been dragged from the Garden of Gethsemane to appear before the high priest. His friend, his Rock, his Launcelot, Peter– the same Peter who declares to Jesus just minutes before the uproar in the garden, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you”–follows close behind and keeps vigil in the high priest’s courtyard during Jesus’ interrogation.
What Eileen reminded us more than a year ago is that the dramatic action of this scene shifts continually between what’s going on inside and what’s going on outside. Imagine it, if you will, as if seeing the scene in a movie, in the hands of a director like Spielberg or Scorsese. Inside, Jesus is starkly alone, sweating with anxiety in the clutches of men who intend to kill him. Outside, Peter the bold, who moments before drew his sword and struck the ear of one of those who abducted Jesus, is free from shackles and warms himself by the fire pit. And at the same moment, both inside and outside, the same question is asked. It is the life or death question. It is the question of identity, of stake, of complicity with the Good News of God. The high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ?” and simultaneously a woman in the courtyard asks Peter, “Are you one of his disciples?”
There is a moment of cosmic pause. What will they say? Will Jesus take the escape hatch? Will Peter prove his boldness? Neither, of course. Jesus says, “I am,” and Peter says, “I am not.”
In the clutch, Jesus claims his purpose, and Peter denies his friend, who happens also to be the embodied love of God. The cock crows, and Peter’s failure rings out for millennia. Indeed, in the ninth century Pope Nicholas I decreed that every church in Christendom must have a symbol of a rooster on its steeple or tower, so that Peter’s failure would never be forgotten.[i] Unwittingly, we remember it still wherever a rooster-shaped weathervane survives.
Then, of course, Easter comes (as we celebrated in grand style two weeks ago), and the Resurrected Jesus begins appearing to the disciples. We hear nothing of Peter in all this, except that he slow foots it to the empty tomb on Easter morning, perhaps intentionally falling behind John in shame of his failure in the high priest’s courtyard just days before. Finally, we reach today’s Gospel passage, the very last chapter of the Gospel of John.
Today, Peter goes fishing. That’s understandable. It is where he began, after all: as a fisherman. And though he was commissioned by Jesus to become a different kind of fisherman, a fisher of people who casts nets of grace to a drowning world, Peter failed that calling in the clutch. So what to do but regress to the old place in life, the place where he began, the place of comfort, of the known. We do that, don’t we? But Peter discovers, as we do, that going back isn’t as easy as it seems. He catches nothing. His nets come back empty. The Peter who said “I am not,” who defined himself apart from the love of God, can catch neither fish nor men. He can’t go back to the life he’d left behind any easier than he found going forward. In his failure, in his betrayal, Peter is stuck, like the boat adrift that he is on.
That is where such stories often end. Failure compounds failure. Disappointment festers and grows. People—people like us—sometimes find ourselves, as a result of failures and flawed choices irrevocably made, unable to move forward, and we know deep down that neither is regressing backward healthy or holy. We find ourselves stuck, and our nets come up empty.
But John has a few verses left yet. The Resurrected Jesus appears. He fills Peter’s net with fish to bursting, and in the final conversation of the Gospels, he engages his lost disciple. Jesus will not sugarcoat Peter’s failing. He no longer calls his friend Peter, “the Rock” on whom he’ll build a church. It is now back to “Simon, son of John.” But beyond that acknowledgement, notice, there is no condemnation. There is no mention of Peter’s shame at all. There is a question asked, and a way forward offered. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Biblical scholars generally assume that the “these” in Jesus’ question refer to the other disciples, as if Jesus is asking, “Simon, do you love me more than the other disciples love me?” (That’s always seemed to me an odd question for Jesus to ask.) But scholar Craig Keener believes that the “these” in Jesus’ question refer to the fish Peter has just caught[ii], in other words, the symbols of Peter’s old way of life, his original, comfortable way of being in the world, the one to which he tried to regress after abandoning Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard.
If Keener is right, and I think he is, then through his question Jesus is saying to Peter, “I give you another chance. I’ve just filled your nets, just reminded you what your old world felt like on its best day. So here’s the question again, the same question the woman asked you in the high priest’s courtyard: Who are you in this world, Simon? What is your identity? Are you the work that you do, or the place that you’re from, or the sum total of your fears, the things that paralyze you from moving forward? Are you these things? Or, are you, first and foremost, my disciple? Do you love me more than these?”
And this time, in the light of the Resurrection, Peter knows the only answer that gives life. “Yes, Lord,” Peter says, “You know that I love you.”
Jesus asks twice more, so that his threefold question mirrors Peter’s earlier threefold denial. Each time, Peter responds without hesitation, and each time Jesus charts Peter’s course: “Then feed my sheep.”
As I said earlier, this is the very end of John’s Gospel, and given the way the ancient biblical compilers ordered the four evangelists, this is the very end of the Gospels overall. In other words, this is what we’re left with to consider at the very end, to answer for ourselves.
But first, before we answer, we need to name again the Good News of this passage, and it is this: As for Peter himself, even in what we experience to be our moments of abject failure, even when we take the worst path, even when we betray those dearest to us and all that is good in our lives, the love of God returns to us and seeks us out. Peter’s “I am not” is not greater than Jesus’ “I am.” Jesus is the embodiment of a love that runs so graciously and deep that there is nothing we can do and nothing we can deny that will prevent that love from finding us and offering to us, ever again, the way forward in hope. We are always given the gift of turning our “I am nots” into “I ams.”
But beyond that, the meaning behind the “I am” proclamation is that we find our identity solidly in the love of God. That is who we are resurrected to be: followers of love and feeders of those starved of love. It is the only way forward for us and for this world. And when asked, whether while in the discomfort of others’ clutches or the comfort of a warm fire, no matter the context, no matter the questioner, no matter the risk and danger, we are to leave behind all the old things that defined us and claim our place as disciples of the One who has come to us in love, who is love.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks.
[ii] Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1234.