This is the last scene in John’s gospel, and a very precious and poignant scene it is. John’s stories are always rich and revealing, full of feeling and ringing true in a way that most Bible stories don’t. If Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair is the most intimate scene, physically, in scripture, Jesus’ quiet conversation with Peter on this bright morning at the beach is the most intimate emotionally. It is gentle and loving and holy. It tells us who we are.
According to John (all the gospels tell the story differently) Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice before, both times in the upper room where they were hiding, and they had spoken with him about many things. Still, it was a strange time: the disciples hung back, they didn’t go forth shouting to the world about the kingdom of God. As the days passed, they must have wondered, “What next?”
Finally, one day some time after Jesus had appeared to them in their hiding place, Peter, their acknowledged leader, said to them, “I am going fishing” and six other men rise to go with him. They were fishermen, remember, when Jesus called them. Now they can think of nothing to do except to resume their old work. And so these seven went out in the boat as they had done thousands of times before, worked their nets all night, and caught nothing. How tired, how frustrated, how sad they must have been! John doesn’t have to tell us.
Then, at dawn, on the beach, Jesus comes to them for the last time, suddenly filling their empty nets (John plays it be the numbers) with 153 large fish and giving them with his own hands what was no doubt a very welcome hot breakfast.
But the real glory, the great tenderness and loveliness of this bright morning unfolds in Jesus’ words to Peter: three times Jesus asks him – each time using his full, formal name, “Simon Son of John, do you love me? … Do you love me? … Do you love me?” – Three times he asks, and each time Peter, his clothes still wet from jumping into the sea when he saw the Lord, each time Peter answers “Yes, Lord, I love you … I love you … you know that I love you!” And so Jesus gently and lovingly lifts a great sin from his heart, the sin of denying Jesus three times. Remember, Peter had loudly and publically and often proclaimed his loyalty to Jesus, even unto death, and then, when the time came, had crumbled to powder and lied, three times in one night: “I don’t know him. I wasn’t with him. I’m not his disciple.”
But now, Jesus unravels that betrayal by asking for his love three times, and opening his future to him with the gentle command, Feed my lambs, feed my sheep, and promising Peter a martyr’s death, a great blessing that would crown his life as an apostle and by which he would glorify God. Then Jesus gave him and the other disciples his last word, according to John, the command, “Follow me.”
Here the gospel of John ends, but we know from other sources that Peter did follow Jesus, did feed the lambs, lead the church, and die a martyr’s death in Rome. According to legend, Peter asked to be crucified head down, because he was unworthy to die as Jesus did.
I love this story of that last bright morning on the beach, far from the darkness and fear of that hiding place in the upper room. There is light, there is an abundant catch, and there is love restored, love that was interrupted by death, love that now proves itself stronger than sin.
What is the worst thing you have ever done? What is the heaviest secret you carry? What sin continues to ache in your heart? On the night he betrayed Jesus, Peter had to face that his whole life had been a lie; by his faithlessness he demonstrated that he was only pretending to love Jesus, he had no idea what love is, he was just showing off to build himself up in the eyes of the other disciples. When push came to shove, Peter showed himself to be utterly faithless, a phoney, unable to admit to the first person who asked, a lowly gatekeeper, that he even knew Jesus. What a loser!
Peter’s sin was as trashy as it was contemptible. This is what makes the gospel story so radiant. Peter’s sin is dissolved in the dawning light of that last day; the truth was spoken, the only truth that matters: Do you love me? Lord, I love you. Feed my lambs.
And it’s over. There’s no retribution, no condemnation, no punishment. The preposterous idea that we have to spend an eternity in hell or centuries in purgatory because our sins are so bad is just a way of inflating our own importance. Our sins are nothing. They hurt us, they hurt others, they hurt plenty. But the hurt our sins cause is enough hurt. Punishment is worthless. Where there is love there is no punishment and no need for it. Love has consequences enough, as Jesus teaches, as Jesus demonstrates. Peter also, for that matter.
The great treasure of the gospel, as far as we are concerned, is forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s answer to our past in its aromatic entirety. Sin that is forgiven ceases to exist … or rather, sin for which forgiveness is accepted ceases to exist. “I will remember your sin no more” says the Lord. There is no doubt of God’s forgiveness. Our job, our only job, is to accept that forgiveness for ourselves.
And that depends on our answer to a simple question, Jesus’ question, God’s question to each of us: Do you love me?
How we answer means everything.L