As we arrive at this morning’s Scripture lesson, we are still in that delicate, post-resurrection window of time when nothing appeared as though it had changed on the surface. And yet everything had changed if you took the time to look below the surface.
Peter and a few other disciples had been out fishing in a boat all night long with no success. As anybody who fishes without any luck could attest, that part was the same as it had been before. On the other hand, the disciples saw the risen Jesus standing on the beach and grilling fish. A figure they did not initially recognize and could not comprehend because they had never seen anyone like him.
Peter was the first one to arrive on shore, having jumped off the boat and swum across the sea. Given Peter’s impulsive, impetuous nature, the other fishing disciples had seen this kind of behavior from Peter before. The fact that the other disciples were busy dragging an unexpected net full of fish through the water to see their risen master face to face. That made the whole scene dramatically different.
I want to zero in on Peter this morning, however. Once upon a time, Peter had been a common fisherman when Jesus walked up to him and urged Peter to follow. Quickly Peter dropped his nets along with everything that was familiar and routine to him. And he took his place as part of the band of brothers that followed Jesus around the Galilean countryside.
Over that time with Jesus, Peter saw amazing things. He witnessed miraculous wonders. He had a front row seat for the occasions when Jesus healed people with various ailments and disabilities. He marveled at the immense power of Jesus. All these things Peter had seen with his own eyes, coupled with the depth of his personal loyalty and devotion, led to that striking moment in the Gospels when Peter was the first one to publicly declare Jesus as the Messiah.
And yet when push came to shove, Peter, like so many of us at different points in our lives, was unable to live up to his own high ideals and values. Especially in the moments when Jesus needed Peter the most, when his hour of betrayal and arrest and crucifixion was fast approaching, Peter wasn’t anywhere near Jesus. Instead he was trying to warm himself inconspicuously by the side of a far away, charcoal fire.
As he stood there, no matter how hot Peter’s fire might have been, I suspect Peter couldn’t find a way to get warm. As evidenced by his cold and distant responses to three passers-by.
Three times, someone came up to Peter, recognized him, and asked the same question in different versions. “Wait a second, you know this man, Jesus, don’t you?” And three times in a row, Peter answered in turn. “No I do not.”
Peter loved Jesus. He was deeply devoted to Jesus. Yet when Jesus needed to count on that love and devotion the most, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. It was the ultimate loyalty test…and Peter failed spectacularly.
Suddenly plagued in heart and mind and spirit by self-doubt and despair, Peter was inconsolable. Denying Jesus three times in a row filled him with remorse and a self-loathing that was hard to shake. How could Peter live with what he had done? And how many times in the aftermath of those denials did Peter yearn to go back in time and get a second chance? Wasn’t there any way he could rewrite the script? Wasn’t there some way he could be the disciple…be the man he always thought he was? And by the way, who among us can’t relate to those feelings?
But Peter learned long ago what you and I have also discovered over these past three weeks. Namely, that God is a God of Easter. After swimming furiously through the water and arriving on shore, Peter came face to face with the resurrected Christ grilling fish.
The smell of that fire on the beach likely triggered a recent memory for Peter. The memory of another charcoal fire around which Peter attempted to warm himself with his own self-protection and fear. Denying his Lord three separate times while rubbing his hands together over the open flames. Coupled with the overwhelming smell of shame Peter felt when he realized what he had done…
And yet in that face to face reunion, the Risen Christ looked Peter in the eye and did an unbearably loving and merciful thing. Instead of chastising Peter for his failure. Instead of rebuking Peter for his inability to stay strong when it counted the most. Instead, Christ served Peter breakfast. And then he proceeded to give Peter three chances to proclaim his love…each chance corresponding and effectively overriding Peter’s three denials from a few days earlier.
“Do you love me, Peter?” With the aroma of charcoal in his nostrils and a heavy heart reflected in his bloodshot eyes, Peter responded, “yes.”
“I have failed you, Lord, and I have denied you in your hour of death. Everything in me knew that I was doing wrong, but I did it anyway. Still, here I stand in front of you. And yes, three times, I tell you I love you Lord. Have mercy on me…”
The adjective we often couple with the word “mercy” is the word “tender.” For example, when I’m at a person’s graveside, one of the things I often pray for is that in God’s tender mercy God will grant the one who died a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.
But as Peter discovered long ago, God’s mercy is not always tender. In contrast, God’s mercy can sometimes be sharp and blunt. Rather than mercy being the warm, limp blanket that’s wrapped around us when we do wrong, God’s mercy is the thing that roots out what eats away at us so that something new and life-giving can grow in its place.
In our humanness, you and I might wish for the ability to erase and rewrite what we have already done, even though what is done cannot be truly undone. Nonetheless, in God’s mercy there is also redemption. God’s ability to redeem each of us is worthy of holding onto as tightly as we hold onto any of God’s promises.
Redemption. We have to believe in it. We need to trust it. We want the assurance that it’s possible. When we have failed and fallen short of our best selves and we haven’t lived up to the people we thought we were and we ask God to have mercy upon us, what we are looking for is to be redeemed.
To ask for God’s mercy and to ask for the mercy of Jesus Christ is to put our faith in the redeeming message of Easter as though our lives depend on it. Because our lives do depend on it.
You and I are people who know the power of resurrection, especially in and among the least likely people and places. Resurrection illumines the way in which God redeems human beings. Even in the biggest messes we make. Peter’s messes. Your messes. My messes.
Come with me then to the communion table set for us by Jesus Christ. Come and find a seat where you can feel the abundant mercy of God. Where you can taste and see God’s goodness. And where you will hear again God’s promise of redemption for all who follow Christ. Amen.