Breakfast on the Beach
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Peter Littleford
29 April 2001
I don't know about you, but I find that the gospel reading set for today is highly appropriate for a Healing Service, as it is very much concerned with the healing of the relationship between Peter and Jesus.
It was Lord Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times. Rees-Mogg who wrote that if Jesus' resurrection had been an invention, then 'the storyteller would surely have shown Jesus with more of a sense of occasion. A God who rises from the dead on the third day in order to cook picnics is a God to be believed!'
But of course, when we look more closely, what we find is that this breakfast on the beach is really the stage setting for a more sublime act of tenderness and condescension by the Risen Lord. After all, this is probably the first close encounter that Peter has had with Jesus since that fateful event in the shadowy twilight of a flickering fire-lit courtyard. It was then that it took only a maid and man with a natural ear for regional accents to puncture all those lofty protestations of loyalty to Jesus.
And now, several days later, after an unsuccessful night's fishing, they see a stranger on the shore. Jesus, their Risen Lord, is waiting to greet them. Was it their mental state or a trick of the light which meant that they didn't recognise him until the last minute? But first of all he satisfies their immediate need to catch fish. He respects and works with the concerns his people bring with them. Jesus doesn't dismiss them or substitutive his own. He doesn't say, 'Well, Peter, old friend, you and I need to have an urgent chat, let's get down to business'. Instead he invites them to breakfast. It is never wise to conduct delicate business on an empty stomach!
We can all imagine how Peter must have felt at that time —shamefaced, full of anguish, and agonisingly embarrassed. Most of us have experienced the dreadful awkwardness and shame when we are brought face to face with someone we have disowned in an effort to spare ourselves embarrassment. The charcoal fire must have brought back memories of the High priest's courtyard. Memories are being kindled as well as the fire. And Jesus asks Peter, 'Do you love me?'
The three fold question answers to the threefold denial. Of course, left to himself, Peter would have rather forgotten his treachery and failure. One denial feeds another. 'Don't reopen old wounds, don't revisit the past', we tell ourselves. But there's no way of going forward until we've got back, got in touch with the festering sores, and owned what we have once denied. Besides, our failure and brokenness usher us into greater wholeness, just as they do for Peter. 'Our only health is the disease... and... to be restored, our sickness must grow worse'. Could any interrogation have been more painful and yet at the same time potentially so affirming? The same question is pressed home relentlessly, again and again. And again, with each question, the denials of the past are more deeply confronted, until gradually they result in a wholeness which might not have been possible without them. Peter was grieved the third time—'you know', he said to Jesus with palpable indignation. Experience has taught Peter to distrust his own judgement, even of himself. The wild, almost reckless, unconsidered claims of loyalty that masked his inner doubts have long evaporated. Peter's faith depends no longer upon his own untested idealism but on Jesus' certain knowledge and love of him. It is the warmth of God's tough love rather than the sharp wind of his judgement that enables us to discard our protective defences and lay ourselves bare to his love and healing.
Jesus addresses Simon Peter as he spoke to him by the lake when he first called him to follow. Peter might have hoped to be spared the facing of his past, but it is his past which makes Peter who he is, and which becomes the foundation for a new and glorious future. Peter has not merely been rehabilitated; he has been recommissioned.
Well, what about us? There are likely to be many of us who live in a state of denial, struggling in vain to suppress the memory of painful, sore, bitter, broken or betrayed relationships. For some of us, there will be the remorse and guilt that a once enthusiastic discipleship to Jesus Christ has become weakened. Yet, whoever the person and whatever the failure, Jesus wants to love us back into service, to open the vault of our guarded memories, and to bring them to light and healing. Jesus wants to make something new out of our wounds and failures, just as he did with Peter. Peter's apostasy doesn't annul his call. Peter's denial doesn't cause God to deny him. It's not our failures that disqualify us from the service of Christ; it is only our failure to recognise the need for deeper forgiveness. It is as if forgiveness and vocation go together. So we are all invited to take Peter's route and to allow this stranger on the shore to meet us with a love that enables us to open ourselves to him and to receive healing and commissioning. And he asks of us the selfsame question: John, Mary, Frederick, Hermione, all of us, do you love me?
May that supreme question remain with us until we, too, are ready to reply 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you'. AMEN