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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

Saint Peter and Saint Paul 
29 June 2014

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner


John 21:15-19 


Last week we considered together the text in Matthew in which Jesus sent the twelve as sheep out among wolves—their first solo flight.  It was a story structured around warnings, and promises with conditions, and it moved from warning about danger “out there” from people who refuse to accept the change that Messiah was announcing to the warning of another kind of danger “within.”  Jesus laid out the conditions and cost of discipleship in terms of a sharp alternative, an either-or decision with what seems to be no acceptable third way.  He described it in terms of a confession of faith in Messiah, on the one hand, and denial or refusal or rejection, on the other.  And the outcome attached to each alternative was equally sharp, unequivocal—Jesus’ confession or denial of the disciple before his Father.  The scenario in which this decision was to be made imagined a situation of persecution still to come, when Christians would be dragged into synagogues or courts of men and given the alternative of rejecting Christ or suffering death.  All of which is to say, the unforgiving, unbending alternative, the either-or posed by Jesus, belongs to an equally unbending, unforgiving set of circumstances in which there is no third way, no compromise, and no way out. 

Philosophers call this the double-bind.  The archetypal double-bind was the impossible dilemma in which Abraham found himself.  The son of promise, Isaac, was just a boy when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved and only son.  We know this story well.  Abraham is put into the position of having to demonstrate his faithfulness to God by committing an unthinkable crime against his son and against God.  Of course God himself intervenes, but there was no third way at Abraham’s own disposal, apart from that intervention.  Returning to the alternative Jesus posed to his disciples, we see something approaching the Abrahamic double bind—the most demanding, unforgiving and dangerous situation where both human life and faithfulness to God are at stake.  In later times of persecution in the Roman Empire, the church would have to decide what to do with those who had renounced their faith under threat of death.  Jesus offered no third way, no ram in the thicket.  Instead Jesus used the analogy of the sparrow, the cheapest food item in the marketplace, the food of the poor; and he said not one of them falls to earth without the Father knowing.  The rabbinic logic extracted from this argument from the lesser to the greater is that if this is true of the tiny bird, how much more does God hold us within his attention span—even the hairs of our head are numbered (though for some of us this hardly requires much math)—human beings are much more valuable to God than the tiny bird.  God is there even if he does not seem to intervene, even when we get it terribly wrong.

Peter, not the sparrow, fell to earth.  He crashed and burned.  He was presented with his own dilemma of choice, though since he gets three chances to get the decision right, his situation may seem somewhat less dire than that of the martyr whose decision determined whether or not he was burned at the stake or sent into the arena to face wild beasts.  The Gospels each add their unique perspectives on this instance of human failure, but each makes it a pivotal moment of human struggle that unfolds in the midst of Jesus’ struggle—which shows in the end that what is possible for God is impossible for the human being.  Self-confidence and boldness Peter did not lack.  In Luke’s version, Jesus had warned Peter that Satan would sift all of the disciples like wheat, but that he had prayed specifically for Peter that his faith would not fail.  But then Jesus added the ominous note: “and when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  And when Peter responds, “Lord I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” the reader already knows that Peter will fall.

In our Gospel text today John pulls the veil back on that “return to faith” hinted at in Luke.  In Saint John’s telling, the denials of Peter unfold in a different literary environment.  Peter’s bold word of assurance to Jesus and Jesus’s prediction of the threefold denial occurs some literary distance back in chapter 13.  It is John who tells us that it was in fact Peter who drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave when the soldiers and temple police came to arrest Jesus.  The scene in John 18 is strangely calm given Peter’s act of violence.  But the writer has reached a high point in the drama: this is the “Peter subplot” and for just this moment the story of the Son of God is viewed through the shadows surrounding Peter.  The story alternates between the formal, courtroom interrogation of Jesus and the informal interrogation of Peter in the courtyard.  And through this shifting of scenes we are meant to observe a stark difference.  As the night turns cold, the ill-fated Peter stumbles after the throng.  Following behind, he comes first to the house of Annas, the high priest, where, as he enters through the door into the courtyard, he is asked by a maid-servant guarding the door if he is one of Jesus’ disciples, and he denies it: “I am not.” And it is not accidental that the language of this denial is the precise opposite of Jesus’ self-declaration, “I am,” which in several places in this Gospel hints that Jesus is the very incarnation of the God who told his name to Moses: “I am that I am.”  Jesus is the “I am” (ego eimi) whereas Peter is the “I am not” (ouk eimi).  The contrast is clear. 

He moves away from the slave girl to another group of slaves and guards warming themselves at the fire.  This group, having detected the Galilean lilt of his voice, repeats the question and he denies being a disciple again.  Finally, with Peter’s last chance at hand, as Jesus is about to be handed over to Pilate, a slave who is a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off recognizes Peter and insists he is a disciple.  Peter denies it with an oath, and the cock crows.  Two men are declared guilty that night, one by the Roman and Jewish courts, and one by his own craven denials.  And the alternation of scenes, shifting from the bound Jesus to the free Peter, makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that Peter is somehow complicit in Jesus’ outcome.  Peter has fallen to earth.

But, really, who is Peter in this story, if he is not a stand-in for us all?  There is no third way out of the double bind that ensnares Peter just as Jesus offers no third way in the conditions he spelled out for the apostles in Matthew 10: there is a “yes,” and there is a “no”; there is no “maybe,” and silence is an answer in itself.  What there is, rising up from the immeasurable concern and love of God, is forgiveness.

Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

A close reading of this exchange in the original language would reveal something of Saint John’s theology of forgiveness—that the resurrected Jesus accepts Peter fully in all his human weakness and limitation.  For twice Jesus asks if Peter can love him with agape love (the unconditional and sacrificial love that seeks nothing in return—the love that Jesus gave on the cross), and Peter can only answer with the mutual love of friendship, filial love.  So, the third time Jesus descends to Peter’s level of language and finally asks of Peter only what love he can give at this time.  This is God’s forgiveness: full acceptance of Peter not requiring Peter to be more than he can be.  Thirty years on and the reinstated Peter in Rome would be asked again: “are you or are you not a disciple of this Christ?”  This time his answer would be the unequivocal “yes” that would lead to his martyrdom.

The story of Peter is the story of us all.  We are people with limits; we are prone to fail when put to the test.  When faced with the double bind, the yes or no that requires pure faith, obedience and trust, we often go the way of Peter in the courtyard that night.  We fall to earth as sparrows.  But when we do, when we plummet and hit the hard ground, there is forgiveness held out to us by the God who has numbered the hairs on our heads, who knows us better than we will ever know ourselves, and who loves us with an inexhaustible love.  The other side of this forgiveness is a call to service, to take our part in caring for the sheep; but it is forgiveness extended to us over and over again that even makes service possible.  Thanks be to God for his never-ending forgiveness.  Amen.

The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner


© 2014 Philip H. Towner