That's not who you are

This is a talk I gave at St Luke’s Holloway on 5.5.19. You can listen to a recording of the talk here.

In a past life, I was a singer-songwriter. I spent most of my time making music and playing shows around the world. In 2009, I set off on a week-long tour of Germany. Usually, I played shows by myself but this tour was extra exciting because I was taking a band with me. I also invited a photographer (who I’ll call Jen) along, who liked to document bands on tour. So we all piled into a van – four musicians, one driver, and Jen – and headed across the Channel.

Imagine being the sole woman in a vanful of men, who are drinking all the beer that Germany has to offer, existing off kebabs, passing wind incessantly, and generally being obnoxious, irresponsible and stupid. Jen had an utterly miserable time, which I somehow – in my youthful ignorance – didn’t realise. She decided not to come on the next leg of the tour in the UK. And I didn’t know what to say or how to apologise. So I said nothing. And we didn’t speak for years.

2000 years earlier, Jesus’ friend Peter (also known as Simon Peter) was in a similar bind. Peter was enthusiastic, strong-willed, impulsive, and brash, becoming a spokesperson for the 12 disciples. Jesus called him a pillar of the church. He even gave Peter his name, which means ‘rock’.

But for all his bluster and big mouth, Peter was the disciple who denied knowing Jesus, three times, right before he was crucified. That’s after saying that even if everyone else left Jesus, he would never do that. It wasn’t Peter’s finest hour.

Which leads us to today’s reading. After rising from the dead, Jesus made a few special guest appearances to announce his resurrection. But being Jesus, he always did it in a snazzy way. Which I would, too, if I were the Son of God.

Today’s passage documents Jesus’ seventh appearance on his comeback tour, his third to the disciples. Peter’s chilling out by the Sea of Tiberias with six of the other disciples when he decides to go fishing. So the seven of them hop in the boat. However, by the time the sun comes up the next day, they haven’t caught a single fish.

Then a mysterious man (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus) appears on the shore and tells them to throw their net the other side of the boat. Lo and behold, there are a tonne of fish there. The disciples manage to catch 153 of them, which they bring to the shore for a breakfast barbeque with their fish-whisperer friend.

Now, I love Jesus’ fish-related miracles as much as the next believer. But today, I want to talk about what happened after breakfast. Fresh from polishing off some delicious barbecued fish, Jesus turns to Peter and asks whether he loves him. Remember, this is just a couple of weeks after Peter denied knowing Jesus – not once, but three times. So there’s probably a tiny bit of tension between the two of them.

Peter replies, yes, you know I love you. And Jesus says, okay, feed my lambs. (He’s not actually talking about lambs – he’s talking about his people. Us.) Then Jesus asks him a second time, do you love me? Peter says yes, again, and Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. Finally, Jesus asks whether Peter loves him a third time. And Peter, again, replies yes. Jesus tells him to feed his sheep. Then he makes a cryptic allusion to the fact that Peter will one day be crucified – which is, of course, what everyone longs to hear – before saying ‘follow me’.

Now, I reckon Peter was feeling a bit nervous throughout that breakfast. He’d denied knowing his best friend, right before he was killed. He’d done a runner. He’d ghosted him, Tinder style. And now his best friend was back from the dead, sitting right in front of him, eating a fish sandwich.

But before Peter has a chance to apologise – if he was even planning to apologise – Jesus offers an enormous olive branch. He asks Peter if he loves him. But that’s a rhetorical question, because Jesus knows Peter loves him. He also knows that he’s a bit of a coward, like all of us.

So, what he’s really saying with that question – ‘Do you love me?’ – is, ‘You didn’t mean to deny me, did you?’

Jesus knows, that Peter knows, he messed up. And rather than making him sweat, or grovel, or wonder whether Jesus remembers – or avoiding the issue entirely – Jesus offers him a simple get-out.

In his book Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway says, ‘Jesus understood the misery Peter felt at discovering he was not the man he thought he was, but the kind of failure he actually turned out to be.’ He goes on to say, ‘What Jesus gave Peter was the gift to fail without being destroyed by it.’

Jesus is bridging the unsaid. He’s helping Peter say what he wants to say. He’s recognising the beautiful person that Peter is deep down.

This passage reminds me of the text we sometimes say at the ‘Be forgiven’ part of our service.

‘For the times when we fail to be the people we most long to be, God forgives us. Forgive yourself. Forgive others.’

Peter wants to be a great friend to Jesus. He wants to be his biggest cheerleader. He wants to be the rock that Jesus can build the church on. But, like we often do, he’s failed to be this person that he longs to be.

But Jesus doesn’t care about that. He coaxes Peter to profess his love for Jesus three times – each time undoing one of those times Peter denied knowing him. And then he commands him to look after his people.

After this huge betrayal, Jesus trusts Peter with a huge responsibility. He asks Peter to be the one to lead the church. He could have asked any of the other disciples who hadn’t denied his existence. But no, he picks Peter.

So, what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t initiated this exchange with Peter? If he’d ignored him? Or glared at him while eating his breakfast? Or complained about him to the other disciples behind Peter’s back. That’s probably what I’d do in the same situation. If a friend had let me down in a huge way. How many of us would forgive a friend so easily and wholeheartedly?

Peter went on to be a big name in the church. He spread the gospel far and wide, wrote a couple of books in the Bible (named, rather unimaginatively, 1 Peter and 2 Peter), and generally dedicated his life to his best friend, Jesus.

But what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t forgiven him that day? Would Peter have been wracked with guilt, unable to forgive himself for abandoning his friend? Would he have recovered from this mammoth mistake? Or would he have crumbled under the weight of the guilt, and killed himself like Judas – the other disciple who famously betrayed Jesus?

When we think about the dramatically-different direction Peter’s life could have taken, it shows the power Jesus’ words had on him. And I think that shows the power we have to influence the people in our lives.

We can hold grudges. Let bad feelings build up and fester. Remain in the past. Or, we can choose to generously forgive our friends when they do the wrong thing. We can take away their guilt, and open up their lives to new possibilities.

We can wallow in darkness and anger, and dwell on how people have wronged us. Or, we can bring light and hope and new beginnings.

We can see the worst in people, and hold them to account for the bad things they’ve done. Or, we can see the best in people, even when – like Peter, perhaps – they don’t see it in themselves.

Like Jesus, we don’t even need to wait for an apology.

Instead, we can say: ‘Don’t worry. I get it. That’s not who you are.’

As for Jen, I spent years thinking about how awful that tour had been for her, and feeling pretty awful myself. Three years later, I emailed her to apologise for everything, and thank her for the film of the tour, which she’d finished and put online.

She sent me a gracious reply, which ended: ‘No bad air here for you, young Luke. I am my own self-confessed dickhead.’

May we all recognise the dickhead in ourselves, and forgive others for the dickhead in them. Amen.

Luke Leighfield