Living into Easter
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
What comes after failure? What do we do after we’ve broken faith with someone we love, or after our silence has made their isolation or suffering worse? Is there a way to move forward to repair the damage, or are we stuck forever in neutral or, worse yet, reverse? Peter is about to find out. When last I left Peter, it was Good Friday. For that service, we break up the Passion story into sections and each preacher takes a couple of pieces. This year in the homily lottery, I got Peter’s denial. Most of you know this part. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows him up to the courtyard of the high priest. And there as he’s warming himself by the charcoal fire, while his best friend and leader is being beaten, Peter denies even knowing Jesus – not once, but three times.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in Sunday School just days before. We were going over the events of Holy Week, and I asked the class which part sounded most like us. One kid pointed to the Garden and its aftermath. “It’s the most realistic part,” he said. “We betray each other all the time.” He’s right, I thought. It might not be on the scale of a Judas; but with our silences, our inaction, our quiet desertions, we betray each other all the time.
To twist the knife a little for Peter, Jesus had predicted it. It wasn’t premeditated betrayal, of course. Peter’s denial was borne out of weakness and fear. The drive for self-preservation kicked in, and in that moment – the need to survive crowded out courage, loyalty, friendship – seemingly everything Jesus ever taught him. After this, Peter is uncharacteristically silent. He’s noticeably absent at the crucifixion. He makes only a cameo on Easter; after Mary Magdalene tells him that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb, he checks it out and sees the discarded grave clothes, but having no idea what to do with that information – he goes home. Easter’s not really Easter for him yet.
We can assume he’s with the other disciples when Jesus makes his next appearances, when he shows his hands and side, when he makes his rather terse comments about forgiveness: “If you forgive the sins of any, they’re forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they’re retained.” We don’t know what Peter makes of this; for once, he doesn’t add his color commentary. We only know what he does. He goes home – again. Only this time, he really goes home – back to Galilee, back to what he was doing before he thought he could help Jesus change the world.
We’re not told in John why Peter and the disciples backtrack at this point. In Matthew and Mark, they’re directed back to Galilee - but not in John. Here we’re left to imagine why they made the 4-day journey. Maybe they missed their families. Maybe these country boys had just spent too much time in the city. Or maybe they simply didn’t know what to do without their leader giving them their marching orders; let’s face it, sheep without a shepherd either wander - or they go back to what they know.
We only get this next part of the story once every three years. My husband knows the Bible pretty well, and even he didn’t know about Jesus hosting a fish fry. Today’s Gospel story seems like a rather small moment; here Jesus isn’t appearing in locked rooms or disappearing into the clouds. That’s not always what resurrection looks like; sometimes, new life looks like a meal with friends and a long-awaited conversation.
If the beginning sounds familiar, it should. Luke tells us about how Peter first joined the Jesus movement – on this very Sea. After Peter and his buddies on the fishing boat caught nothing all night, Jesus told them to try casting their nets on the other side. They gave it a try, and the nets filled with fish. It was then that Peter first chose to follow Jesus. Maybe it was muscle memory that triggered his friend’s realization of who it was shouting advice from the shore this time.
It might have been this first turning point that Peter was thinking of as they ate breakfast that morning. Or maybe it was the last time they’d all shared fish and bread on this Sea – when Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed thousands. I’m guessing, though, that the charcoal fire was bringing up a far closer memory. What use could he be to Jesus now? When his faith was actually tested, he failed. Had he disqualified himself with his cowardice? Was Jesus wrong to have ever trusted him?
It was in this swirl of self-pity and shame that he hears Jesus asking him a question. “Do you love me?” Peter might not know much else at this point, but he knows that much. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” We’re not told why he’s asked the same question three times or given the same answer three times, but it’s easy enough to guess. For each time Peter denied Jesus, he’s given a chance to choose again differently, to let love mean more than failure. It turns out – it is possible to get it right after getting it wrong before. Our future isn’t determined solely by how we’ve behaved in the past. We can get up after we’ve fallen down. We too can rise to new life. Perhaps it’s only after realizing that that we’re truly prepared to lead.
So, what does this have to do with us? I think it speaks to the reality of having to live into Easter, of needing to choose new life not just once – but over and over again. There’s a reason this season lasts for fifty days. We don’t automatically know what an empty tomb means, or even what a risen Christ means. We might know that Easter has something to do with forgiveness, but we may have no idea what forgiveness actually looks like, or how that release can give us direction as we move forward.
Here we’re given some clues. Sometimes, as with Peter, we may need to look back and learn something from the past before we’re ready to move forward. We may need to remember how Jesus has strengthened us before, how he’s fed us – before we’re ready to feed others. We may, like Peter, need to bring our most shameful moments to light - so they can stop controlling us, so we’re no longer limiting ourselves by what we think they mean. We may need to get out of our own way and remember that self-pity and shame are not, in the end, what Jesus requires of us. He wants so much more for us than that.
This story also reminds us that as comforting as it may be to think of ourselves as sheep, that’s not our only role. At some point, we’re going to be asked to step up and be shepherds, to lead and tend and feed and not just follow. Who are we, who betray each other all the time, to feed Jesus’ sheep? Who are we not to?
In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about what’s holding you back, what failure of courage you might need to be released from so that you’re free to move forward, free to make a new choice, free to live into Easter. What new life is waiting to grow in you - once you clear the space and give it a chance? In the Name of the One who won’t stop asking us to feed his sheep, Amen.