Parish Eucharist 5th May 2019
Last Sunday we reviewed the broad sweep of John’s gospel, his selection of events from the life of Jesus designed to inspire that belief in him as Messiah and Son of God, by which the disciple receives the gift of life, life in His name. This week we examine one last story showing what life in his name would mean for two very different disciples, Peter and John.
The larger part of the narrative concerns St Peter who, from an early stage in Jesus’ ministry, has been steadily groomed for the leadership role that he will assume in the early church. When he is brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew, Jesus recognises his strength of character in calling him Cephas, or Peter, the word for a Rock. A little later, when talk of Jesus’ body as the Bread of Life has turned many away, it is Peter who rallies the disciples by declaring: To whom else should we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6.67-68). But there is a dash of bone-headed self-will about his character that gets him into all kinds of trouble. At Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus discusses with the disciples what others are saying about him, it is Peter who is the first to see in him the Messiah, but he has to be instantly taken down when he refuses to accept that Jesus – as Messiah - will have to suffer. As he goes with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, insisting that he will lay down his life to follow him, Jesus warns him that he will deny all knowledge of him three times that very night, but he pays no attention, as he continues to insist on ‘doing it his way’. His knife comes out when the posse arrives to make the arrest, and he summons the courage to sneak into the courtyard of the high priest to see what happens, but there his bravado crumbles when he is challenged. It is perhaps as Jesus catches his eye across that crowded space that Peter begins to understand what it might take to follow him.
It is hard to imagine what that experience must have done to Peter. If even the maidservant in the palace could pick him out as one of Jesus’ disciples, he must have feared for his life. Of all the disciples only John was present with Mary and the other women at the foot of the cross. The days which followed must have been the bleakest, most desolate days in the whole of Peter’s life. Everything had fallen apart. The future he had envisaged for Jesus and for himself lay in ruins.
But then the dawn of that first Easter Day brought Mary Magdalene banging at his door. When he ran with her and with John to the tomb, it was empty, yet the way the grave clothes had been left did not suggest any kind of violence. Back at his lodging, not knowing what to think, Jesus appears to him. We do not know what was said, but we can be sure that Jesus reached out in loving reassurance to Peter, who was now ready to follow his Lord with the same courage and determination as ever, but without attempting to impose his own vision of what that might mean.
But being Peter, he had to be doing something. The festival was over. There was no reason to stay in Jerusalem, so it is not surprising if he and most of the disciples decided it was time to go back home to Galilee. They get there and Peter, restless as ever, announces that he is going fishing. The others come with him and they have a bad night, catching nothing, but as they come back to shore in the morning, there is this stranger on the beach. He seems to know what he is about, telling them where to let down their nets, and as they do so, it is John once again who is the first to realise who it is, but Peter, impulsive as ever, who grabs his coat, dives into the water and is the first to come up onto the beach. What a joyful occasion it must have been, just like old times; and how good their own fish must have tasted, fresh from the lake. Now they really knew that Jesus was truly alive, and could be with them not just in Jerusalem, but anywhere and everywhere.
But after breakfast Jesus has something special to say. He turns to Peter, and asks: Do you love me more than these? Yes, he loves Jesus more than he loves these others. But Jesus presses his question, leaving aside any comparisons: Do you really love me? Again Peter confirms his devotion, but Jesus asks him a third time, and that must have hurt. The old Peter might have blustered angrily in reply, but the new Peter can only plead from the very bottom of his heart that Jesus who knows everything, knows that he loves him. Now that Peter’s painful restoration in the company of the other disciples has been accomplished, Jesus can confirm his commission: Feed my sheep. As Peter, the Rock-man he is to serve and lead the church in the same spirit as Jesus himself, the Good Shepherd. Jesus warns Peter that feeding his sheep will cost him his life too, before concluding with the solemn command: Follow me. Those words must have rung in Peter’s ears to the very end of his life, when tradition has it that he was crucified at Rome.
That is where our reading left us, but the story does not end there. When Peter notices John following close behind, he asks Jesus what is to happen to him, and is told, rather sharply, that if John is to live till kingdom come, that is none of Peter’s business. John had a different way of following Jesus. His devoted heart was open to receive and to respond to the love which was poured into it, and for that reason his writings probably give us the deepest insight into the nature of the love of God which shaped Jesus’ destiny. If Peter was at the active extrovert end of the spectrum, John was at the more meditative, introspective end, and both had their special role to play, as do we all. That is what is so exciting about being called to follow Him. Jesus calls us to follow him in our own unique way, as men and women – and children too. He pours his spirit into our hearts, enabling each one of us to become more fully and truly ourselves as his followers than ever we could be under the unbridled impulse of our own wills. Follow me!
This final scene on the shore of the lake, and the solemn command given to Peter, repeated for emphasis only three verses later, echoes the very first scene, beside the river Jordan, where the same words are used to invite the first disciples. Follow me (John 1.43). John the Elder, who is thought to have written this gospel under the apostle’s guidance, constructs his gospel with great skill. The use of those words at the beginning and at the end is his way of reminding us that the call to follow Jesus is not something which the believer hears only at the start of the Christian life. It is more like a continually recurring leitmotiv which shapes our life, giving to the whole journey, if we allow ourselves to be guided by it, a sense of purpose and direction. Follow me! Our task is to listen, and to ponder what following Jesus may mean for the decisions we make day by day, this coming week, and throughout our lives.
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