(Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19)
In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.
‘The greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.’ That is a quote from Rowan William’s wonderful exploration of the Christian mystics – The Wound of Knowledge. It sums up what links our two readings this morning – the conversion of Saul, soon to be Paul; and the re-conversion, the resurrection of Peter.
You may remember that back in January I offered you an imagining, from Peter’s point of view, of his first meeting with Jesus – his initial call by the lakeside after a night’s fishing. Today’s gospel returns us to that same place – Peter, after the events of Holy Week is back fishing. Let us too return and imagine what that encounter might feel like.
In my case there was no flash of light. No voices from the sky. It’s typical of Paul that his encounter should be dramatic, flinging him to the ground, blinding him. Me, my life was changed on a quiet, calm morning, after I thought all the fuss was over, when I had run away to hide and forget.
The seven of us had gone fishing. Back to what we knew best, what came easily. We worked through the night, the darkness enveloping us, smothering the need to talk, to make sense of what had happened. We could just be together, coping in our separate ways. The memory of Jerusalem, of that extraordinary week of conflict and death, and, and of, well, something more, could recede here among the familiar nets, the easy swing of them overboard, the fruitless search for fish. Here, I could almost ignore the uneasy voice that told me everything was different now, that the familiar could now no longer be enough, the be all and end all. That something more did rankle, even here, amongst the smells of rotting fish and faded dreams.
Early morning is a strange time when you’ve been fishing all night: of course you’re exhausted – particularly when you’ve caught nothing – and yet the dawn light can hardly fail to move you. The inexorable cycle of light breaking up the darkness, to be swallowed up again in turn in darkness. But at dawn, mystery is near, the world is hopeful. It was at daybreak the stranger appeared and told us to try fishing on the other side of the boat – told us, who had fished all our lives – but it was dawn, and the sky was painting the lake with fresh colour and warmth, so, because it was dawn and to humour the man as much as anything, we cast the nets once more, tired shoulders heaving. When the nets bulged and pulled, that’s when the familiar suddenly began to be invaded with other memories, other questions and longings. All that I had struggled to forget, in my shame and confusion, suddenly began to return, to haunt and disturb me. ‘It is the Lord’ someone shouted in my ear, and my heart leapt. Love triumphed at that moment – I knew that to be with him once more was my heart’s desire. But not naked. The events of the previous weeks had stripped me bare, left me without protection. I had betrayed him, when I had vehemently said I would not; I had deserted him when he was most at need. To be with him again was joy indeed, but not naked, not unprotected. So I pulled on my clothes, and then dived overboard – I had to be the first to reach him.
We came in with nets bulging – every species known to us seemed to be there, glistening in the rising sun. But Jesus had already got a fire going, with fish and bread to eat on it; the kind of meal we would have had shortly, gathering round the fire to assess the night’s fishing, make plans for the coming days, pass time in small talk. But it was different now. Memories stirred: us, and him, eating together once more, like that time in the Upper Room. But that was in Jerusalem, the holy city, when all was supercharged, when we had no idea what the future held, but the world seemed to be our oyster even with the rumours of the plotting of the authorities and Jesus’ own reluctance to evade them. Now we were gathered around a small fire, by the lake, amongst the familiar debris of fishing. This was not Jerusalem where the important things happen. And yet, once more he was breaking bread, bringing us together, stilling the small talk, sharing himself.
And then it happened. No blinding light; simply, after breakfast, he took me off by myself as the sun rose, the heat of the day beginning.
‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Once the answer would have been automatic. I took pride in being the most loyal, the eager one. But now, how could I boast, take pride? And yet, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
And again, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Again, he addressed me with my old name, Simon. Not the new name of Peter, the Rock, the name that he had gifted me – of that I had proved unworthy – the rock had turned to quicksand. I was back to being Simon, all else was delusion, pride before the fall. ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ How else could I answer?
And again, and by now my pulse was beating hard – no need to remind me of the significance of that third question, I who had betrayed him not once, nor twice, but three times. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Now I was stripped bare, no hiding place left. ‘Lord you know everything’ – you know that I betrayed you and deserted you, and that I don’t know how to cope with you coming back from the dead. I thought you were buried and gone, and that I would have to deal with my hurt and anger at myself as best I could – probably by taking refuge in this fishing, hoping that that would numb the pain and the ache – but now it’s not so simple. For you are not dead and buried, but amongst us, sharing yourself again in bread broken. So yes Lord, you know everything, and despite it all, in the midst of the hurt and brokenness – ‘you know that I love you.’
And then I finally heard it – not the repeated question but the repeated response and instruction. Not words of condemnation or reproach, of blame or inquest. He was not wanting my guilt or remorse, but to offer the gift of new life: ‘Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.’ And something in me died, for the familiar rhythms of fishing could no longer comfort me, and my cherished ideal of being proved the hero also finally withered under that three times repeated question, but at the same moment something burst into life. I did not have to be someone else; I did not have to forget and bury the past. My broken, betraying humanity was enough, a crucible fit for that gift of new life, new calling. I loved him, and that was enough, and would take me where he needed me to go. And so he left me, with simply the whispered instruction, ‘follow me’, going as quietly as he had arrived. The heat of the day soon passed; night drew in again enveloping all. But the fire within me burned on, unquenched.
As I say for Paul it was all very different. And yet, and yet, don’t let the outward appearances deceive you. For both of us died in our encounter with the Risen Christ. Both of us were stripped of all that clothed and protected us, taken to a place we would rather not go – me to the prison of my memories, he – who had wielded the power of death over Christians – made blind and powerless, led like a child, waiting for a fearful, brave old man who would restore him, give him his new name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was hardly painless – the gift of new life was born in the vulnerability of our old ways dying. And the new life we were gifted took us to places we would not have dared imagine. He said it to me himself before he left: ‘When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ And yet that final death, that final loss of control, will not defeat me. For I have already been crucified with him, and in his resurrection, I have already risen to new life in him. And that gift means I am no longer trapped in my past of betrayal and failure, nor dreaming of being the hero I will never become, but simply living for the sake of the world, not myself. And that is a gift none can take away, wherever I am led.