beyond shame

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I am recuperating well from my surprise gallbladder attack and consequent removal, and am grateful to be able to preach at my church this morning. The passage is from John 21, where Jesus meets Peter on the beach. It is one of my favorite stories in scripture.

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One of my recurring jokes that Ginger has to hear during football season comes when a referee throws the penalty flag and then turns on his mic; “Holding. Number 89. Offense. Ten-yard penalty. Replay first down.”

Then I say, “Why does the game have to be so shamed based? Why not just move the ball and keep playing? No. Instead we have to tell everyone, ‘Things were fine until 89 had to break the rules. It’s all his fault.’”

I’m pretty sure none of that runs through the mind of the left tackle when they hear their number called, still I wonder if it isn’t a small part of why football is our most popular sport: we resonate with the shame, on both personal and cultural levels. For a lot of people, religion has been one of the chief flag-throwers. Yet, when we look at Jesus’ interactions with people who felt penalized and ashamed, Jesus offered a way to move beyond it, a way to see that we are more than the sum of our sins and shortfalls.

Jesus offered love.

So far, we have looked at three instances where people encountered Jesus after the resurrection. He spoke to Mary in the graveyard, he found the disciples and Thomas in the upper room, and he walked with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, who then ran back to town to tell the others, so we can infer that Peter either participated in or heard about all of them, but we don’t have any record of Jesus talking to Peter until we get to this story that brings John’s gospel to a close.

We don’t know how much time had passed, but the disciples had moved from Jerusalem back to Galilee, which was home for most of them. And they had gone back to fishing, or at least those who had been fishermen previously took to their boats. Johns says seven of them went out at night. We don’t know if it was a way to pass the time or deal with their grief and questions or if they had returned to their old line of work, but they spent the night on the lake hoping to catch something and had come up empty.

It seems like we don’t know much—how much time had passed since the resurrection, how long they had been back in Galilee, what the other disciples were doing—but what we do know is, as the sun rose on their frustration, someone from the shore yelled, “Hey, guys, did you catch anything we can eat?” They yelled back that they had nothing, and the person told them to throw the net over the right side of the boat. I’m sure whatever the disciples said next was murmured out of earshot of the one on the beach, but I guess they figured, “Why not give it a try?” The worst that could happen was they would pull in another empty net.

Instead, the net was so full that it almost tipped the boat over, and in that moment something tipped in Peter’s mind and he realized who was hollering at them (“It’s Jesus!”), and he dove into the water, and swam to shore.

The others followed in the boat and hauled in 153 fish—perhaps one of the strangest details in scripture because you have to wonder who would have taken the time to sit and count the catch in the middle of all that was going on. You can find lots of speculation about the significance of the number; the greatest meaning may be simply this: they caught a lot of fish.

The last time Jesus and Peter had spoken had not gone well. Jesus said Peter would deny him three times, and that was what happened. Peter betrayed Jesus by saying over and over that he didn’t know him. He acted out of fear and confusion and despair. And now they stood face to face on the beach and Jesus was serving breakfast. After they had eaten, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and then he asked him again, and then again.

Each time, Peter answered, “You know I love you,” and Jesus told him to feed his sheep. Well, the last time Peter sounded frustrated: “You know everything; you know I love you.” And there on the beach surrounded by fish, Jesus talked about sheep again. What I hear in Jesus’ words is this: You know what it’s like to do damage; you know what it’s like to be a betrayer. Now you know what it’s like to be forgiven, to see that love is stronger than betrayal. Go tell everyone else who needs to hear that.

Peter was not the only one who betrayed Jesus that night. Judas is the one who most often gets labeled as the Big Betrayer. He’s the one who told the soldiers they would be in the Garden of Gethsemane after dinner. He’s the one who kissed Jesus on the cheek so the soldiers would know who to arrest, who sold him out for thirty pieces of silver. But early on the morning of Jesus’ execution, as Judas realized what was happening, he went back to the people who had bribed him and told them he had betrayed an innocent man and didn’t want their money.

They were not interested in his confession nor his well-being. So Judas left in disgrace and despair and killed himself because he just could not see beyond. He could not see beyond the damage he had done. He was dead before Jesus was even crucified.

The stories of Peter and Judas are connected.

Though pretty much every one of the disciples bailed out in one way or another when Jesus was arrested, the two that get the spotlight are Peter and Judas, the denier and the betrayer. Those are harsh labels. I don’t think either one was malicious in their actions. Peter was in the courtyard because he was trying to stay close to Jesus and he outran his courage. I think Judas expected Jesus to actually take on the oppressive government and was trying to force Jesus’ hand and make him act.

The biggest difference between the two is Judas never made it to breakfast. If he had, there would have been fish and forgiveness for him as well.

Let me say that again.

The biggest difference between the two is Judas never made it to breakfast. If he had, there would have been fish and forgiveness for him as well.

Church family, whether you feel like a denier or a betrayer, or that your life is so littered with penalty flags that you can’t move beyond your mistakes, listen closely: we are all invited to breakfast. We can feel forgiven—and we can forgive. Don’t be eaten up by your shame. Look for the fire on the beach, for the friend or loved one calling out your name and swim ashore.

Shame is not the last word. Love is. Love is the last word. May we feed one another with such love and forgiveness. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

1 COMMENT

  1. When Mark and I taught this lesson in a UBC first grade Sunday school classroom in Fort Worth, I asked the provided prompt to this lesson: “What does this story tell us about Jesus?” I have never forgotten the first answer from a young boy. In fact, its the only answer I remember and, now, my favorite musing on this passage. He raised his hand quickly and when called upon said, “Jesus was a good cook.” Indeed. Jesus prepares an incredibly delicious table.

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