You can’t go back!

Easter 3 – 5 May 19 (St. Andrew’s Indooroopilly) 

Bill Crossman

Readings: Acts 9: 1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5: 6-14; John 21: 1-19 

A number of years ago now – and when I stop to think about it I’m surprised at how the  number has grown – I was Rector of another St. Andrew’s – St. Andrew’s Caloundra. If  you’ve been there you may recall that the Rectory is very close to the church. That  meant of course that I had quite a number of callers at the door – that number seemed  to grow as well. I had one in particular who always seemed to call on Sunday afternoon  when I was trying to examine the inside of my eyelids after Sunday services. That was  a bit exasperating sometimes. I recall remarking to her one day that she was lucky I  was the only member of the clergy in Caloundra silly enough to live next door to the  church. There was another with whom I had an interesting conversation one day. For  some reason she had run into some kind of distress – I never asked what had happened.  Sometimes people disclosed that, other times they didn’t. But she happened to mention  that she had come to Caloundra because she had enjoyed holidays there as a child.  And the more I thought about that the more I realised that for many who called at the  door, Caloundra had been a place of happy memories years before – Family holidays  when the family was together, starting out happily in a new job or new relationship. They  remembered earlier times when things had been happier, better, safer, more certain  and I think that they hoped by coming back to where they had felt that, things would  improve for them. I think it’s a natural tendency that when things are troubled, uncertain,  distressing, not knowing where to turn next, there’s a desire to go back to a time when  things were better, safer, more certain, even more predictable.  

And this doesn’t only involve individuals. I think there’s a similar pattern on the  international stage too. The former US President Barack Obama was interviewed only  last month on “Why Travel Matters”, but had this to say about international uncertainties: 

Some of it has to do with identity and culture. So, whether it’s Brexit in the UK or the  political upheavals that have happened in the United States, or some resurge in  populism in continental Europe, all of those are not just reactions to economic changes,  but also a reaction to people feeling as if their status is being eroded, or their sense of what their country is is being undermined. And they want to either put up genuine laws  or metaphorical laws to preserve what they think they had.1 

Peter and the disciples with him were disheartened, distressed, afraid, grieving.  Everything they had given their lives to over the past three years was gone. It had  ended terribly in apparent failure. So they go back to what they knew from before – hard work for sure, but familiar, something they knew, something they remembered,  something that had given them some measure of success, despite the hazards. They  go fishing. Except it didn’t work. Maybe the fact that they’ve continued to fish on the  wrong sides of the boat underlines their confusion and uncertainty. Maybe the empty  net is symbolic of how they felt. I don’t think it ever does work when we try to recapture  the past as we believe it was. It wasn’t working for the people who called at the door in  Caloundra, it doesn’t work on national or international stages either. It didn’t work for the  disciples. 

St. John writes this account very cleverly – the more you read it the more allusions to  earlier events you realise there are in the account and the deeper it takes you – typical  of St. John’s Gospel. In many of the references in today’s Gospel, we’re taken back – not so that we stay there, but so that all that has taken place before can be re-worked  and renewed. 

The disciples have caught nothing – earlier Jesus has reminded them that “apart from  me, you can do nothing.”2 When Jesus appears – the stranger on the shore – the net  is so full they can’t draw it in. The same word is used earlier in the Gospel when Jesus  speaks of Jesus drawing all people to himself when he is “lifted up from the earth.”3 the  miraculous catch of fish affirms that the mission they were originally given, to fish for  people, will be successful beyond their imagining. The breakfast on the beach is replete  with symbolism. The charcoal fire takes us back to the scene of Peter’s failure in the  court of the high priest4. The meal that Jesus has prepared consists of the same things  that on an earlier occasion in the Gospel he has miraculously multiplied to feed a large  number of people.5 Brendan Byrne comments that the description of Jesus’ gestures where he takes the bread and gives it to the disciples, and the same with the fish echoes  so closely his earlier multiplication of the loaves and the fish that allusion to the Eucharist  here, as in the earlier account, is unmistakeable.”6  

And then – the rehabilitation of Peter. Breakfast is over but there is unfinished business.  Jesus gently, but insistently and deeply questions Peter. The three questions of course  allude to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus. Perhaps Peter expected anger,  recrimination, demands for an explanation. Instead there is no recrimination, no direct  mention of Peter’s failure, no demand for an explanation, indeed no expression of  forgiveness. There is, Brendan Byrne says “the sense of past failure being wiped away  and swallowed up in present love.”7 Jane Williams in her 2019 Lent Book “The Merciful  Humility of God” expresses it this way: “Jesus gives Peter the chance to remake the  story of desertion, to own it as his own, but not the final truth about him……Peter the  Rock becomes Peter the Shepherd. His courage and strength are to take a new form,  and to be put into the service of the vulnerable, the needy, the dependant.”8 

Peter’s story is our story too. Much as we can be tempted to go back to the familiar and the comfortable when faced with uncertainty, distress, confusion, failure, we find we  can’t stay there. Back then was a particular place and time. Now is different. Jesus  still comes to us and asks gently, insistently; “Do you love me.” He gives us a ministry  to feed his sheep. He calls us to walk in Jane Williams’ phrase the “merciful humility”  he has shown to us and calls us simply to follow him. All that has gone before can be  transformed by his love. Whatever has happened in the past is not the final truth about  us. “Jesus risen from the dead does not float off into some kind of divine abstraction,  but still meets people as they actually are and turns them around to tell a new story.:  the good news that God can bring life out of death, even the death of all hope and  possibility; God can give our past a new future, and we know this because the crucified  one is risen.”9 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 

1 Interview with Barack Obama “Why Travel Matters” http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190425-barack obama-on-why-travel-matters? 

2 John 15:5 

3 John 12:32 

4 John 18:18, 25 

5 John 6:9

6 Brendan Byrne Life Abounding – A Reading of John’s Gospel St. Paul’s Publications, Strathfield NSW p347 7 Byrne ibid p348 

8 Jane Williams The Merciful Humility of God Bloomsbury London 2018 p124 

9 Williams ibid p125

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