The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Remember when Jesus walked on water? In the fourteenth chapter of Matthew, the disciples are in a boat being battered by the waves. They see Jesus walking on the water and believing that they are seeing a ghost, they become terrified. Jesus says: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Ever the brash one, Peter answers, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come.” So, picture this, in the midst of the storm, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water. He walks. Then he notices the wind, becomes frightened and promptly begins to sink. And in this moment of desperation he cries out “Lord, save me!” And Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him. This isn’t the only story of Peter jumping out of a boat.
This second story of Peter once again leaping out of a seaworthy vessel occurs today in the Gospel of John. In the light of dawn, following a disappointing night of fishing, Jesus, who is standing on the shore, calls to the disciples, telling them to cast their net to the right side of the boat. The disciples are dubious. However, they do what Jesus tells them, and haul in a magnificent catch of fish. Then we are told, Peter learns that it is the Lord who has said this. He hurriedly throws on some clothes and one more time, jumps into the sea reaching for his Lord.
I like these stories. For all of his faults (and, let’s face facts, there were many of them), Peter was a man who knew the grace of being forgiven. And this, I suspect, is one of the things which lay at the heart of our Savior’s decision to appoint Peter as leader of the church. Forgiveness—receiving it, and extending it, is at the heart of the Gospel. Who better to hold the keys to the kingdom, than a man who knew, down to his marrow, what it meant not only to succeed brilliantly, but also to fail miserably. It is Peter, perhaps more than all of the other disciples, who knows the true grace of what it means to be forgiven.
The root of the word “forgive” means “to give completely.” Think of it this way; there are no half-measures when it comes to forgiveness. You either forgive or you don’t. Despite our tendency to tie strings to forgiving those who have hurt us, it’s an all or nothing concept. Forgiveness entails letting go of past hurts, egregious though they may be, freeing not only the one being forgiven, but also ourselves from the pain of holding on to wrongs that we have received. Think of it—well—like jumping out of a boat and leaping into the sea.
So, back to Peter. Why do you think he jumps into the water with such abandon? What would make a grown man do something so—well, undignified? Why not seat himself steadily in the stern so that he could arrive in decorum rather than dripping wet and gasping for breath? Why didn’t he stay in the boat with the other disciples?
Remember, Peter is the bold one. He is a person who speaks first and thinks later. He leaps before looking—that’s his nature. The way he responds to Jesus is completely in tune with his character. And, in my mind, there is something refreshing and remarkable about his response—because, he is modeling for us one way in which we too might respond to God’s offer of grace. Peter isn’t about the business of weighing his options—he’s grasping for a lifeline. He is reaching for love and restoration and the Bible tells us that Jesus reaches back.
Standing on the shore is our Lord, who has been wronged—terribly wronged by the people who presumably loved him best. What does he do? He doesn’t stand there with his arms crossed, glaring at the disciples who somehow managed to get themselves out of the locked room, and appear (at least for the day) to have resumed their former profession as fishermen. No. Our Lord fixes them breakfast. He feeds them. And he speaks to the sodden Peter, and forgives him.
Today’s story is one of Peter’s shame meeting God’s grace. And grace wins. Notice how Jesus asks Peter not once, but three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter has the opportunity to say “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.”—though, let’s be honest, by the third time around, Peter is getting a bit irritated. But something more is happening here. Three times before the crucifixion Peter denies Jesus. He fails his Lord and his friend in a most miserable and spectacular fashion. This, I imagine, was a shame weighing heavily upon his heart and soul. So, look closely at what Jesus is doing here. Here on the shore of lake Tiberius three times again, Peter is given the opportunity to get it right. And he does. Forgiveness is restorative.
Forgiveness also comes with a charge. In Peter’s case, to “Feed and tend God’s sheep.” The Peter we read about in the Gospels, grows into a great leader of the church. He becomes the Peter we read about in the book of Acts, and the Peter who wrote at least one of the epistles bearing his name.
How does this translate to us?
As I said before, Grace and forgiveness are at the heart of the gospel. Time and again, I come back to that picture of Peter leaping from the boat—casting himself upon the waters in an all-out effort to reach his Savior. Not for a moment do I believe that Peter swam in a sedate and orderly fashion to get to Jesus. I think he sputtered and splashed. I think he confused running and swimming and came up gasping. And I believe that if we do it right, this is precisely what we do in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. We cast ourselves upon the water, trusting that despite our imperfections and whatever other deficits we might possess, that God is capable of saving us. And what’s more, God wants to save us—wants us to be part of God’s family and to experience a grace which promises us a more excellent future than the one we have at present. This is a God who not only forgives us; but empowers us with the Holy Spirit and hands us a charge to be partakers of the kingdom and invite others in as well.
And in return, what are our Lord’s expectations of us? God, I believe, expects us to cherish that forgiveness that we have received from our Savior, and work toward extending it to others. It’s not for nothing that the Lord’s prayer includes the phrase: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Forgiveness isn’t about righting past wrongs, it’s about obtaining a better future. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.” Here is a lesson for us. We are to reach for that future, and not be afraid of getting wet in the process. In Jesus’ name. Amen.