As I understand it, some subsets of the Christian church focus pretty extensively on sin and guilt. How many of you grew up in that kind of religious environment? Now I’m going to ask a risky question, and I hope you’ll be honest: how many of you have experienced the Episcopal church in that way?
I grew up with a version of Christian faith where I was taught that God loved us overwhelmingly, but that at the same time, my personal sins were so bad that Jesus had to die the death that I myself deserved in order for God’s sense of justice to be satisfied. Now, as a child I did once steal another child’s toy bottle, and In first grade I also once slapped a little friend on the face when I was really mad. I felt badly about both these things for a long time, and in fairness they were not OK. But they didn’t seem bad enough to deserve crucifixion, and it was hard to reconcile the idea of God’s love with the demand for this kind of death for my sins. So when I came to the Episcopal church and heard that we believed in original blessing, not original sin—that what came first about humankind was that God had blessed us and called us good, before sin ever came into the picture–—I felt this overwhelming sense of healing and relief. Has anyone else ever felt anything similar?
So it is possible to have a positive experience with Christian faith around the whole question of sin and guilt. But let’s get gritty and real for a minute. Don’t raise your hands at this question, but If we are honest, how many of us have done things we genuinely regret? I certainly have, and I’m not talking about what I did in first grade. The kinds of things that I regret aren’t so much about breaking the rules, as about genuinely failing the people I love. They’ve been the times I’ve been suffering and have done damage because I couldn’t or wouldn’t see beyond my own feelings to the impact I was having on other people. I feel anger and shame and rage about systemic racism, that I have benefitted from my whole life, that I have the privilege to not do anything about if I don’t feel like it or if it’s not convenient. Despite our best intentions, we have to admit that we do damage to other people, both as individuals and as systems. We get hungry and tired and lonely and angry, and we act on impulse to get our needs met, in a way that crosses boundaries or takes what isn’t ours or overrides someone else’s feelings or neglects things we need to be doing. What is an affair? What is addiction? What is neglect of child or spouse or family? Aren’t all these things examples of us trying to get our needs met? Does that make any of them OK? No.
This may seem like a better topic for lent, but I’m talking about all this because of the story that shows in John’s gospel today about my favorite disciple, Peter. Peter is the extroverted thinker who always impulsively says and does whatever is on his mind. He has been one of the closest disciples to Jesus, one of those who promised he would give his life for Jesus. And yet, when the time came, he failed Jesus miserably. Jesus was arrested, and Peter followed, terribly anxious to know what would happen to his beloved teacher. When someone recognizes Peter as having been associated with Jesus, Peter does what is absolutely human in that moment. He denies it—for excellent reasons. Peter knows that if he is associated with the Jesus who is on trial for his life, he might also be killed. So Peter denies any association with Jesus, three times. And then, morning breaks, and the cock crows, just as Jesus had said it would. And Peter has this moment of awful recognition. He has not stood up for Jesus, the one who meant the most to him; he has protected his own skin and watched as his beloved was tortured and killed. So Peter has to live forever with the guilt and bitterness and shame of having failed, not a rule, but a person he loved most in the world.
So in today’s story, Peter tries to go back to his old life. He goes fishing. But he catches nothing. There is no way to go back to the way things were before. There is nothing left there for him. And in those grey hours before the dawn, I wonder if Peter was tempted to do what the other disciple who betrayed Jesus had done. Judas turned Jesus in, and then Judas hanged himself. He couldn’t live with what he had done and he saw no hope for life afterward. I wonder if Peter felt that way. I wonder if you and I have ever felt that way.
So this is where the resurrected Jesus appears, and shows the disciples where all the fish are. It’s like Jesus is giving them their lives back in a way they couldn’t do for themselves. But the next thing Jesus does is even more profound. He asks Peter, Do you love me? That might seem like a manipulative, needy kind of question. It isn’t. It’s giving Peter the chance to say what he wished he would have said that other long night when his whole world came apart. Three times, Peter denied Jesus, on Good Friday. Three times, this Sunday morning on the beach, Peter gets the chance to say what’s more true than his own fear, what’s more true than his failures. He gets to say, I love you. It’s not a do-over; Peter can’t take back what happened. But he can start over. He can say what really matters. He can do the thing that aligns with who he really is, the thing that has integrity, the thing he missed the first time.
This story, the story of the disciples catching so much fish they almost capsize, shows up in two of the four gospels in the Bible: in Luke and in John. In Luke, this story shows up in a different place, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus helps the disciples catch an overwhelming and impossible amount of fish in Luke, that’s what convinces to leave everything and become Jesus’ disciples. But in John’s gospel, this story shows up after Jesus rises from the dead. So it’s also about a beginning, but not a naïve, optimistic, the world-is-your-oyster kind of beginning. It’s about starting over when your life has been razed to the ground—after a terrible loss, a terrible failure. It’s so radical a beginning that it calls to mind creation itself. Did you notice that today’s story says that Peter had been naked in the boat, so he jumped in the water? I think this is meant to evoke the very beginning of scripture, the moment in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened and they recognize they are naked, which makes them feel ashamed. This story is about what God in Christ does for us when we have real guilt, real shame, and we need a new beginning that is beyond our own capacity. This story is about how God loves, not just the victims of this world, but also the guilty. It’s about how God calls the guilty to lives of forgiveness and healing and change through discipleship.
This story is for us who are watching white supremacy increasing in this country, knowing that we are called to do the work of racial and interfaith reconciliation yet tempted to be silent when someone guns down Jewish rabbis in a synagogue. It’s for those of us who have betrayed our spouses with too much work or having an affair or silent contempt. It’s for all of us in the ways we have failed. It’s for you, and it’s for me.
And what Jesus invites us to do isn’t to whip ourselves in shame. It’s also not to demonize and hate others when they act out in fear and violence. It’s to say yes to the change that is possible when the love of God in Christ flips us outward, frees us from being curved in ourselves. You notice that after Jesus gives Peter the chance to tell Jesus he loves him, Jesus immediately responds, “Feed my sheep.” Even though we do have real guilt, we aren’t meant to be stuck there, because it’s not about us. Following Jesus is about the radical love of God for all people, and the fact that God’s Spirit seeks to use followers of the way of Jesus to be agents of healing for this world that God so loves.
Some of you might be familiar with Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer who tragically died at age thirty seven this week. Here’s what she says:
This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.
Let us say yes to truth of our messy, broken love for God in Christ. Let us say yes to the grace of God that can free us where we are impossibly stuck. Let us say yes so that we can be here for each other instead of focused in our own suffering and shame. God in Christ does call us, by name. Do you love me? Let us say yes.
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.