I had a professor (Ray Anderson) in seminary who tells of once seeing scrawled on the wall of a men’s room, “Judas, come home. All is forgiven.”
It eventually led him to write a book called, The Gospel According to Judas, about a post-death encounter between Judas and Jesus, Judas’ own resurrection story, forgiveness after the grave, wherein Judas finds that his own refusal to forgive himself keeps him from accepting Jesus’ forgiveness, until finally Jesus’ compassionate and relentless love prevails, and Judas is welcomed home.
In the story as we have it, Judas dies on a cliff at the end of a rope steeped in shame and guilt. And that’s the last we hear of Judas. Good Riddance, right? He got what he deserved. No need to wonder what might have been.
But here is Peter. And while he didn’t outright betray Jesus into the hands of the enemy, he may as well have. The last time he saw Jesus, Peter was standing at a charcoal fire and Jesus locked eyes with him across the courtyard, just after the rooster crowed three times.
And the words of Jesus just a few hours earlier rang out in Peter’s head, “Before the cock crows this very night you will three times deny even knowing me.”
Jesus! I would never deny you! had been his reply.
And the guilt and shame roared up within Peter, deafening and defining, and he turned and fled from that place.
That was the last time he had seen Jesus face to face.
But now this is his moment. The moment Judas never gets in this life. The moment after, the follow up to his shame and betrayal, his own encounter with the Risen Lord.
Peter had said to the post-Jesus disciples, “I am going fishing.”
“We will go with you,” they replied.
And with all the simplicity of a children’s reader, they returned to the familiar, the clear cut, to what they knew they could do, to what made sense.
And now, after they’ve been fishing all night and coming up empty, Jesus appears to them, and once again nobody recognizes the Living One until he does something so Jesus-like, which is to say, something so utterly impossible and unexpected and also familiar, right out of their own relationship and experience of him. He tells them to put the nets to the other side of the boat and when they do, they come up busting with fish.
And then Peter, dear passionate, impetuous, committed, devoted and broken Peter, panics under the tension and anticipation. When he hears that it is Jesus, he puts on his heavy clothes, (which were off because evidently Peter prefers to fish in the nude), and he leaps into the water – one can only presume arriving on shore panting and drenched after the boat filled with his friends and the fish they had just hauled up, paddles calmly past him and lands on the beach ahead of him, because, after all, the text says, they had been quite close to shore.
Jesus calls out to them, ‘Bring what you have.” So they, or rather, Peter, goes to the boat and drags all 153 fish in the net up the beach to Jesus, who has warm bread and grilled fish waiting for them over a charcoal fire.
And Jesus says to them, in the words of the grandma at the stove to pajamaed children, and the mom with a mug of hot coffee to her hungover teenager, and the husband to his exhausted wife just home from the night shift –
“Come and have breakfast.”
Come and be cared for. Come and receive. Come and let me bless you. Come and be nourished. Come and sit, warm yourself, fill your belly, rest a while, come and simply be.
Also, though, bring what you have – we’ll make more; your fish can be part of this meal.
And then comes Peter’s face to face encounter with the Living One, his story of resurrection. Ripe with longing and dread, taut and pain-filled, he stands there, just beginning to dry, and Jesus draws near to him, and locks eyes with him oice again and – just like Mary when Jesus calls her by name, and Thomas when he reaches out his nail-scarred hands, and those on the road to Emmaus whose hearts burned within them, and those gathered around the table whose eyes were opened – Peter’s encounter with the Living Lord was exactly what he needed.
“Peter Do you love me more than these?”
Yes, Jesus, I do love you.
“Then feed my lambs.”
Do you love me, Peter?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!
Then tend my sheep.
Peter, do you love me?
And now it hurts. “Please Jesus! You know everything! You know that I love you!”
And Jesus looks at him right in the eye and says to him a third time, “Feed. My. Sheep.”
The Dalai Lama has said, “If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.”
And this is true, and perhaps this is part of how Peter is healed, by being called on to reach out in healing to others. Surely for Peter to know the love of God he must share love with others. He must give in order to receive. But that is not the whole picture of what is happening here. And that puts an awful lot of pressure on Peter to step up his game and be his very best self.
Is this why Jesus says, “Feed my Sheep”?
This has been quite a week in America. A strange and hard week. It has highlighted the worst and the best of who we human beings are. We are weak and vulnerable, yet strong and caring, corrupt and self-serving, and yet brave and self-giving. All manner of humanity was on display this week, raw and uncensored – smeared across our screens with emotion-laden commentary on a 24 hour, non-stop basis. So much let-down and horror, shock and disappointment, sadness and fear. And right alongside of it, people reaching out and rising up and sacrificing themselves for others. Calling on us to be our best selves. To give to others, to reach out and do good. To find healing by seeking to heal others.
But here in snow-buffered Minnesota we’ve lived this week in the mostly comfortable in between: close enough to feel the tremors but far enough from actually being called on to step in and help out or forced to grieve the loss of someone close to us, or our entire town.
The mostly comfortable in-between: not nearly as evil as the greedy politicians or the crazy bombers but also not likely as good as the self-sacrificing first responders, firefighters and altruistic bystanders.
The mostly comfortable in between: feeling guilty that we don’t feel worse when it happens farther away than the East Coast of our own country, but also feeling relieved that neither is it any closer to us than that.
So when Jesus says to Peter three times, “Feed my sheep”, is Jesus calling Peter to be his best self? To rise up and now be worthy of Christ’s calling? To prove how sorry he is, start over; to put his past behind him and his best foot forward, to reach out and be altruistic and good? Hardly.
Peter knows by now, even if you and I don’t quite yet, that our best self is unpredictable at best, foolish and unreliable. We say things we don’t mean; we seek safety over fidelity, and choose the approval of others over what’s right, and when push comes to shove and things heat up, who knows? It might be our worst self that comes out. We can’t know for sure until it happens. And often, when our best selves do show up, it surprises us. We look back and say, Wow! Look how well I handled that moment!
We can’t really plan on or count on our best selves; for all we know, we could be Judas or Peter. And certainly, there will always be those heroes whose best selves are better than ours could ever strive to be; the ones who really should be entrusted with the sheep. We’ll just hide, then, in our mostly comfortable in-between, for as long as we can, God, and pray that we get by on avoiding ever having to, God forbid, be called upon to rise up and be our best self.
But that’s not what we’re called to. And that’s not what is happening here for Peter, either.
The love of God - that is what we are called to. That’s all we’re called to.
Come, my beloved, come and have breakfast.
Come and rest beside me. Let me feed you, nourish you, and care for you.
Come, abide in my love, and also, bring what you have to the table, we’ll eat it together. We’ll share it together.
We are called into the perfect love of God, even in our very worst selves. Even in our denying, betraying, fleeing, hiding, self-serving, self-protecting selves. Even before we’ve sorted it all out or forgiven ourselves or figured out how to do it right, God loves us, and God calls us.
God calls us back to relationship, and God sends us out, neither prepared nor praiseworthy, but just as we are. Exactly as we are, even right at this very moment, we are nevertheless and always drawn into the work of God, the love of God, the life of God. And sent out to encounter the Risen Lord alongside the other scared and hungry sheep.
Feed my sheep.
Not because you’re so good at it.
Not because it’s the right thing to do.
Not because they’re so hungry.
And Not because it will do you some good.
But because you love me. That’s why. That’s all.
Do you love me?
Then feed my sheep. Abide in my love.
That is where I am. There is where you’ll find me.
And someday, Jesus adds to Peter and to all of us, you’ll suffer even more. This is no promise that life is going to go smoothly for you, or that you can hide from danger or sorrow forever. Someday you’ll be dragged where you don’t want go. Someday, awful things will happen to you too. Feed my sheep anyway. Abide in my love anyway.
If he had lived longer, I wonder, what would Judas’ story of resurrection be?
What could his life have been if he hadn’t ended it in shame?
What life is there left for someone who has done awful, unthinkable things?
The others may not have welcomed him back, we might not forgive him, but Jesus surely would have. If there was ever a sheep that needed to be held by his shepherd, Judas would be it. And not just forgiven enough to receive, but to give as well. To bring what he had to the meal, whatever it may be, along with his own broken self, to be fed and nourished, and called and sent, as each one of us are, over and over again.
Come home, my child, all is forgiven.
Follow me. Feed my sheep.
Care for each other, you guys.
I am in the world, redeeming the world; come and be part of my love.
There is where you’ll find me.