St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester on 18th April 2010
John 21: 1–19
Friday night I was at a United Reformed Church meeting at a house belonging to the Sisters of Mercy in Birmingham. I didn’t know anything about the sisters before I went. I was inspired to hear about the founder Catherine McAuley’s vision to help women victims of violence and impoverished children. She set up a religious order that was in the world, not enclosed, in 1831. In the chapel were museum-quality display cases of profession rings in the 19th century that women would wear who were joining the order and making promises of service and faith. The rings were silver and were worn on the ring finger; each woman would have the ring engraved with a verse or image that she chose. “Christ is my life”; “God is love”; “Thy will be done.” The rings were visible signs of the promise these women were making of service to vulnerable women and children.
I wonder what words Peter’s ring would have had on it when he first promised to follow Christ. I’m sure his promises were lofty and idealistic, full of hope and courage. But they didn’t turn out the way Peter hoped. We heard on Maundy Thursday that at that charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest on the night Jesus the disciples betrayed Jesus, three times Peter denied he knew Jesus. The one who had made such promises, in whom so much was invested, turned his back on his teacher and on the best parts of himself.
And so after all was done, he invited the others fishing. It wasn’t as if they had much choice. They had to make a living. And the busyness of work can sometimes be the only way we can cope with our lives. Only there were no fish to be caught. Water alone slipped through their nets. There was only the comfort of a familiar routine, the fresh air, and some space from their grief and shame. But then came the call from the shore; the stranger whose advice brought the huge catch — and the painful reminder of what they were all avoiding.
The stranger provided in the same way he had provided in the past. He came not in judgement, but in order to provide and to guide. And even though he had no need of food himself, still, he sat with them and ate; the way he had done in the past. Jesus came not to judge, but it wasn’t as if they were all starting over as if nothing had happened, as if there was no water under the bridge. Peter was so terrified he put ON his clothes and jumped into the lake.
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” he asked Peter. Perhaps he was referring to Peter’s love for his disciples — or perhaps he was referring to the nets and the boat — Peter’s livelihood. Peter’s former promise he had thrown away in one evening, around that other charcoal fire. Yet here there is no harsh word from Jesus, no punishment, no penance to be performed by Peter. Peter had failed in his promise. But through the very experience of that failure Jesus calls Peter again — from his love of his work, from the comfort of routine, from his love even of his friends and brothers — to follow.
Last week on holiday in London my parents and Clare and I went to see the exhibit on three hundred years of quilts at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Even if quilts aren’t your thing I highly recommend it. The quilt that caught my eye was made by a group of men — one made by inmates at the Wandsworth prison in London, the largest prison in the UK. The inmates described how the process of stitching calmed them and gave them focus; there is a short film that showed images of the prisoners in their cells working at the needlepoint as guards pass by outside. They worked on the quilt for two years at their own expense. Many were dyslexic. Some of these men were doing hard time. They talked in general about their actions that they regretted.
The squares on the quilt were in the shape of a hexagon, because the hexagon was at the centre of all the wings of the prison. One of the men said when he was asked what he would depict in his square, he realised there was no question — it would be what he could see from his window. He got up on tiptoe and held on to the bars to look out; his view was of a brick wall topped with barbed wire. He said it was kept him going, that view. But the square that caught my eye was one that just had words on it — “It wasn’t me, guv! I’m innocent!” with the words, denial, denial, denial written across the bottom.
Denial, denial, denial. With the risen Jesus we are reminded of who we are, warts and all, when we sit at breakfast with this risen stranger. There is no room for denial. There is nowhere to hide. It can be painful. In a prison cell I imagine it would be much easier to turn on the telly or open a magazine than take up the needle and thread. Yet, we are loved! We are accepted. And we have the strength to face who we have been, and to move on, because the one who gives us our lives back, the one who finds us in the workplaces to which we have fled, is the one who will not judge, the one who calls us again, the one who provides and gives himself in trust even after being betrayed. This new identity, this new future, only comes because Peter’s past is opened up in forgiveness as Jesus calls him to a new future. The past is healed at the same time as a new future is given afresh in hope. The only way out is through, as the poet Robert Frost has written. The only way out is through.
Many national reconciliation campaigns are modelled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It helped South Africa move beyond the pain of Apartheid not by burying the mistakes of the past but by dealing with grievances and offenses head on. The South African singer Labi Siffre for me captured that defiant hope, hope in the face of adversity, best in the song, “Something inside so strong” The song is more than 25 years old and it is something of a national anthem in South Africa.
The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become.
The farther you take my rights away, the faster I will run.
No matter, cuz there’s something inside so strong;
I know that I can make it; though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong.
In these words I hear not only the South African struggle for freedom, but also the victory of God in Christ over everything that comes between God and God’s creation: human betrayal, violence, death — and especially the self-delusion of God’s followers, the lies we tell ourselves about the promises we think we can keep.
You thought my pride was gone; oh no, there’s something inside so strong.
The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing.
You hide behind walls of Jericho; your lies will come tumbling.
Deny my place in time — you squander wealth that’s mine;
My light will shine, so brightly it will blind you.
We will build barriers — but God will be taller. We hide behind the walls of denial in prisons of our making — but our lies will come tumbling in forgiveness. We will make promises, and we will break promises — but God will come to us to seek a new relationship, and call us again to service. And this time there is something inside us so strong for the future, and for all time.