For the last several weeks, we have been caught up in the gripping, intense drama - that began with Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem, followed by his last supper with his disciples, betrayal at the hands of Judas, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, then Peter’s denial, desertion by most of the disciples, brutal interrogation and torture, suffering and crucifixion, burial and the his resurrection on the third day. The disciples reacted with unbelief and joy to learn that Jesus had been raised. Yet joy was mingled with fear, of the Jews, and just to be safe, sequestered behind locked doors. Still Jesus appeared – twice -- doubt turned to faith with Thomas’ words, “my lord and my God!”
What a roller coaster of emotion these disciples were on. Leave it to Peter that his first recorded, post-resurrection remark is “I’m going fishing!” It provides us with a moment of levity in this story that has been so heart-wrenching yet so central to our faith.
It’s a very human and sane response. When there’s just too much going on to take in all at once, when your life has been turned upside down in a matter of days; when you have committed a grievous mistake for which you‘d give anything in the world to take back --- it is a sign of health to get away, clear your head, and think.
It was good for Peter to get away. He went to the Sea, which was his second home. Peter was a fisherman until he had met Jesus three years earlier. Under the right circumstances, an activity like fishing frees the mind to reflect. And Peter had plenty to reflect upon.
In a way, it seemed to be ending where it all began. On the sea, working the nets with James and John, Thomas and Nathaniel, just like the old times. Or was it? Could he really turn the clock back, before he knew Jesus?
Peter had many memories to sort out that night as they toiled to catch fish, and none came. Like that day with his brother Andrew when Jesus first saw them and said, “Follow me, I’ll make you fish for people.” Why were they back looking for fish, not people? Was the weight of his guilt finally getting to him?
Once back at the sea, Peter discovered it wouldn’t be as calming as he thought – these waves carried so many memories. At the shore of the sea great crowds would bring the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, the leper, so many hurting people, and Jesus cured them. Near the shore of the sea Jesus gave thanks over the loaves and fishes and fed a crowd of four thousand, including women and children. Peter, no doubt, remembered the time a storm hit their boat, threatening their lives, but Jesus awoke, rebuked the winds and all became peaceful. What an amazing moment that was. Or of that other storm, when they were sinking, and Jesus came to them, walking on the sea, and Peter tested Jesus, “If it is you Lord, command me to come.” Jesus beckoned him. Peter stepped out of the boat, took a few steps. He grew frightened by the winds and began to sink. Jesus immediately caught him, and spoke “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter thought grimly, why did he doubt? Or, what about that time Jesus was preaching from the boat and told him, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." A memory that felt hauntingly similar, they worked hard all night, with nothing to show for it. But because Jesus said so, they let down the nets. Their catch was so great that their nets began to break and they had to get help. The boat was sinking. What did he say? He fell on his knees. From his heart he cried out -- “Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man!” But Jesus didn’t leave. Jesus saw something in Peter that Peter didn’t see.
Peter had been given so much. Peter and Andrew were the first disciples to be called. Peter is almost always the first disciple to be named when the disciples are mentioned. Jesus always included Peter in the smaller select group of disciples to go with Jesus at special times. Peter was there. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop. Peter was there. At the garden, before his arrest, Peter was there. Whose name did Jesus change? His – from Simon to Peter, rock. What did Jesus see in you, Peter?
Peter was the first to confess Jesus the Messiah, the son of the living God. Peter was the bold one, not afraid to ask questions or make comments. “Lord explain this parable to us.” “Lord, how often should I forgive? …Seven times?” Lord where can we go? You have the words of eternal life. You are the holy one of God.” How did Jesus respond? That Satan particularly wanted to sift Peter.
This was the weight that Peter carried with him that night. He had been given so much. Yet he denied and failed the Teacher he loved. Peter felt his failure – all the lost potential --acutely in the dark of the early morning hours. After a long night’s work, all he had to show was an empty net. The symbol of his life.
It must have haunted him. “Why did you doubt, Peter?” That last time before Jesus died. Peter swore he would never forsake Jesus. He pledged to die with him. Jesus prophesized that Peter would deny him three times.
Jesus knew this. That is why he appeared the third time at this fishing rendez-vous. He had to perform another healing at the sea. This time it was for Peter.
And so, came that familiar voice from the shore. Children, you have no fish, have you. No. Cast the net to the right side of the boat.
And they did and weren’t able to haul the nets in because of the load. When and this happened before? When they had a catch so big their nets began to break? That day they met the Lord for the first time.
It is the Lord! And so, Peter, true to form, puts his clothes on, then jumps in the water, and swims to shore.
How could he face Jesus? He does what Jesus says, they count the fish, 153, in biblical thought was exactly the number of different fish in the world, representing a full harvest. God still needs you to fish, Peter.
But Jesus knew more was needed to feel Peter.so he took him aside after breakfast. He addresses him formally, not as Peter but Simon:
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? The first time Jesus asks a disciple if they love him. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter the - who do you say I am? Question, of prior days. Or What do you make of all this Peter. It’s a new question. It’s Peter, do you love me. Yes Lord, you know I love you. Feed my lambs. I trust you, Peter.
Simon son of John, do you love me. Yes, Lord you know I love you. Tend my sheep. You have what it takes Peter.
Then the third time: Simon Son of John, do you love me” The dam broke, and all the grief and despair pours out. Lord you know everything. You know I love you. This time, Peter, you will be faithful, until the end.
There’s no mistake or coincidence here. For every instance that Peter denied Jesus, Jesus helped Peter to face his failure, let him know he was forgiven and trusted to continue the work of love – tending to a harvest of souls.
Jesus gives us a powerful lesson – the connection between the empty tomb and the empty net. The easiest way for us to grasp the experience of resurrection is through loving forgiveness. It was the power of God’s loving forgiveness that raised Jesus from the grave. It was the power of loving forgiveness that brought Peter back to life. In loving forgiveness there is power to resurrect the broken heart. A lost dream. An aimless life. An empty net. Whether it’s the third time, or the 100th time. You and I are loved. We are forgiven. You and I are still fishers of people, people who need to know God loves them – lost people - and they can make a difference. We can still find the love in our hearts to tend God’s sheep.
Some of us today maybe at the point of giving up. We may feel like a failure. This God thing is just too hard. This relationship thing is just too hard. This loving thing is too difficult. Maybe it’s time to get away, go to the sea, the beach or whatever works for you. Go and face those memories, confront those empty nets. Because at the break of dawn, Jesus is there, encouraging you to try again. You have love in your hearts that you haven’t tapped. Your nets are waiting to be filled. Try again Jesus says. There’s ministry to be done that only your nets can reach. There are lost souls waiting for your care: lambs of God’s flock that are seeking guidance that you can give – because you’ve been there – and with the Risen Lord at your side, you know the way back.