One has to feel for Peter in today’s gospel reading.
What with all he has been through in the last few days, the betrayal of Jesus, his failures to live up to his boasting, the empty tomb and the disappointment at the seeming failure of a great and powerful dream, he is now out on the boat and his nets are coming up empty.
Can’t even do what he has always done, catch fish.
Everything has fallen apart. No thing remains as it was and his life is all out of shape with no inkling that it will improve. The way the fishing is going, he is going to starve to death any way, so why worry about the Jews or the Romans?
The little aside John gives us, when Peter and the disciples recognise the presence of Jesus is very revealing; “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.”
‘For he was naked” – why was he naked? Was it the preferred practice of the fisherman? What is it about boys and water that they want to take their clothes off and jump in? Were they all naked? It seems it was only Peter, as there is no reference to anybody else getting dressed and diving in?
And anyhow, isn’t this backwards? Wouldn’t you take your clothes off to dive in, not put them back on? I mean, it seems way more sensible to me, not to get your clothes wet early in the morning when there is little sun to dry you out.
When they get to the shore, a charcoal fire, Jesus standing near it organising a meal, confronts Peter. Jesus breaks into people’s lives around the disarming practice of sharing a meal. Throughout the gospels time and again Jesus breaks in, confronts, reveals himself and exposes others for who they are around a meal. The last supper, the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the various meals for the disciples, Mary and Martha and the leaders of the synagogue and more. The meal is central to Jesus self revelation and it is no wonder the Eucharist sits front and centre in Christian liturgy, for it is here we are examined and transformed into people made available to the Spirit of God.
Peter was naked because he had been exposed by the events of the last week.
All his talking big, super confidence and his knowledge of Jesus had been exposed by his failing to stand when it counted most. We find ourselves stripped and exposed for all the world to see when what we say and profess to know and be is confronted by the brutality of life. We may know all the formulas, understand all the terminology, know the truth of the scriptures, but it is worthless if, when faced by life, we slip into the culture and practice of those who have no faith.
Peter was exposed to those around him in a way that left no doubt as to his ordinariness, his sameness with everyone else. He was no better or worse than those he was with, but he was no better than them. And they knew it and went fishing with him all the same.
Mateship, friendship, companionship can be the most powerful indicator of who we are. We are identified by those who see our faults and remain faithful to us. These are the people who don’t point the finger, pick out our faults, remind us of our failures. They simply go fishing with us.
It is interesting that in the encounter with Jesus when Jesus asks him if he loves him, the final term for love Jesus uses is philos. Frank L. Crouch writes: “When Jesus himself clarifies the highest form of agapē, he does so in terms of philos. Love for friends is no second class love here.”
Love of friends, the love which remains despite one failure after another, is the love Jesus calls Peter back to around a charcoal fire, just like the one around which he denied Jesus the third time. This is no deep and mystical spiritual love, just the love of one human being for another. A love without limits, without expectations, a love that simply asks to be replicated in our relationships with others. Peter was given no great mission. All he was asked to do was to love others in a way that would feed them in the midst of personal doubt, pain, oppression, doubt and fear.
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.” More from Merton: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”.
Peter may have been hurt because Jesus confronts him and forces him to be realistic, not to over promise and to remain always true to himself and to others. He may have been hurt because no-one likes to be reminded of their failures, yet Jesus is not reminding him to shame him, only recasting that moment in the light of a new day so Peter can move forward in friendship with both Jesus and those around him.
The conversation finishes, in between mouthfuls of fish, with the simple call to “Follow me”. When we come to the meal with Jesus, we are not brought to our knees by our failures, but are welcomed and encouraged hear the call to follow. Not to be perfect, not to be punished, not to be failure free but to simply follow. To go out into the world showing friendship to self and others in a way which validates life in the midst of death. Yes, we may find ourselves naked and undone as Peter did, it was in that state he was met by Jesus, welcomed in deep friendship and encouraged to go forward into the world as a friend.
As we come today to this Eucharist let us do so confident in the love of Christ, our Eternal brother and our friend, taking up the challenge to ‘follow’.
God of love,
infuse us with your love
so it rises up within us for others,
not as a form of tolerance
but as the deepest of love,
overlooking faults and shortcomings,
just as Jesus remained present with Peter. Amen