Forgiven, Healed, Renewed
Our Gospel reading for this morning comes at the very end of the Gospel of John. It is like the climax of the whole Gospel. To make sense of our passage, to hear its good news for us, we need to see how it brings together themes from across the Gospels.
To begin, we can think about our reading in light of the other resurrection stories we have heard. On Easter morning, we heard the story of Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb. Mary came to the tomb, planning to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Instead she found an angel, who told her that Jesus is risen, that Jesus is alive.
Suddenly Mary finds herself at a crossroads. Can she believe the good news of resurrection? Or will she continue to assume that death is the end of the story?
That is where our Easter reading ended, with the great question that is addressed to all of us. Can we accept the good news of resurrection? Or will we remain trapped in a world of sin and death?
Last week, we shifted to Thomas, who faced the same question. Thomas hears from his fellow disciples that Jesus is risen. So what is it going to be for Thomas? Is death the end of the story? Or can he accept new life in Christ?
At first, Thomas can’t bring himself to believe the other disciples. But this time the story keeps going. Jesus appears to Thomas. Jesus heals Thomas’ spirit. Jesus empowers Thomas to take the leap of faith, to recognize Jesus as his living Lord and God.
Today Peter assumes center stage, and we take the resurrection story another step forward.
Peter was at the empty tomb. So, like Mary and Thomas, Peter faced the great Easter question: could he accept the good news of resurrection?
Peter was there when Jesus appeared to Thomas and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Like Thomas, Peter was given the gift of new life, of new hope, of faith in the risen Christ. With Christ’s help, Peter was able to say yes, to embrace the good news of resurrection.
But again the story keeps going. In our Gospel reading for this morning, Peter faces the obvious next question: what now? How should Peter live in light of the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead?
As our reading begins, Peter has no idea. So Peter goes back to what he knows, back to the life he was leading before he began following Jesus. Peter goes fishing with his old fishing partners.
But Peter doesn’t catch anything. Suddenly Jesus shows up. Jesus gives them a little fishing advice. They try one more time, and it works. After a long and unsuccessful night, they have a miraculous catch. Peter is amazed.
If that story sounds familiar, it is because we heard something very similar back in February. There, too, Peter and his partners fished all night without catching anything. There, too, Jesus shows up and advises them to cast one more time. There, too, they then catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in. And there, too, Peter recognizes Jesus as his Lord.
But there is one important difference in the two stories: the context. The miraculous catch from February comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is Peter’s call to become a disciple, to follow Jesus during his earthly ministry.
And that tells us something important about our reading. In today’s reading, the same thing happens because this is a new call to Peter. This is a call to follow our risen Lord. This is a call to discipleship not during Jesus’ earthly ministry but in the wake of the resurrection.
And so this story begins to answer the question, what comes after we acknowledge the risen Christ as our Lord and our God. What does a life of faith in Jesus Christ look like?
It’s a big question. But from this story, we can summarize the answer in three words: forgiveness, love, and service, in that order.
It starts with forgiveness. As you recall, on the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. That is bad. Now Jesus is back, and Jesus knows all about it. After all, Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial even before it happened. Think of Peter’s shame at his cowardice, at his lack of faith.
That is a heavy burden to carry. And so Jesus takes it away.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter doesn’t seem to realize what Jesus is doing. But this is Peter’s chance to affirm what he had denied on that terrible night, to say out loud that he knows and loves Jesus, that Jesus is his Lord and his God.
Peter’s denials were sin. But in his conversation with the risen Christ, Peter’s sin is forgiven. Peter is given another chance, a chance to do right. Peter’s shame is dissolved by Christ’s forgiveness and love. And now, and only now, Peter can move forward, into new life with Christ.
That is true for us, too. We sin and fall short of the glory of God all the time. We carry the burden of our guilt and our shame. And most of us have a hard time really believing the good news that God forgives us, that Christ loves us, that our guilt and our shame have been washed away. And yet that is the heart of the good news of resurrection. Christ died so that we could be forgiven. Christ rose again, conquering sin and death. We are all called to life free of the burden of past guilt and shame. After resurrection, discipleship means being forgiven.
It also means love. Christ’s triple question to Peter is, do you love me? That is Christ’s question to us, too. We come together because we want to answer, yes. We come together because we share a love for Christ. And we come together so that we can all learn to love Christ a little better.
And what does that love look like? How can we practice loving Christ so that we get a little better at it? We feed Christ’s sheep.
That is us. Peter’s call, our call, is to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a community joined by our common love of Christ and called to show that love, and to practice that love, in our shared life as God’s people.
But, of course, it is not limited to each other. In the same place that Jesus tells us he is our good shepherd, he adds that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Jesus plans to “bring them also.” Jesus looks forward to the day when “there will be one flock [as there is] one shepherd” (John 10:16).
After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, that becomes our job. As Christ’s body, as Christ’s hands and heart in the world, we nurture each other, and we serve all the sheep in other sheepfolds too. We love and serve our neighbors out of love for our risen Lord and as a way to grow in our love for our risen Lord.
In the end, only God can bring about the fullness of the kingdom. But our task, as followers of our risen Lord, is to live as He would have us live, as people who have been forgiven, healed, and renewed by a loving God, so that we can extend God’s love to each other and to our world.
May we, like Peter, live as disciples of our risen Lord. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan