over a charcoal fire on the beach. The cookout turns into a Q&A where Jesus questions Peter. “Peter, do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” Not once but three times Jesus confronts Peter. Three times Peter has to fish for answers. Probably stunned, hurt, perplexed and many other emotions swim through him till he catches some words to offer back to his resurrected inquisitor.
There is magic to the number 3 here. Two thousand years later we wonder if Peter ever consciously connected the three “Do you love me’s” giving him the opportunity to affirm three times “Yes! Yes, Lord!” – whether he ever got what Jesus was offering him. A chance to wash the slate clean of the three times he denied even knowing Jesus when he was confronted by questions of knowing the “Man” around another charcoal fire in a courtyard outside where Jesus was being stripped, beaten, questioned, convicted, prepared for crucifixion three days earlier.
Details in a passage can hi-jack us from grasping the bigger message we try to fish for in the story. I know, every time this story is read when a sermon is expected, some minds/imaginations in the congregation are going to be hooked with a detail or two, like here: 153 fish and/or Peter naked. As a preacher I know it is sometimes best to acknowledge up front that this might happen and only then turn to the “bigger picture.” I have never been able to answer why 153. But last Sunday something happened during the “walk-around” sermon I was trying to offer. It hit me, about the being naked “detail.”
Nakedness has to do with being vulnerable. Peter’s life is stripped down by the current events. A fisherman by profession, he left his nets and followed Jesus. Discipleship explicitly implies someone/something to follow: a leader. Now the leader is dead. The leader that Peter the disciple verbally abandoned three times three days earlier is gone. Now Peter the fisherman returns to his nets. All night long; they are empty. Peter is naked in the face of loss. The most naked we are is when we find we are stripped of our supposed identity.
The story line has Peter grab some clothes and put them on. Is he fearful of appearing naked before Jesus? But Jesus unclothes Peter again with his three questions on that long-ago beach as a charcoal fire dies down to a few glowing embers in the sand. Then Peter is re-clothed by love. Then commissioned to go out and feed “my” flock. It is a story of amazing grace! A story of unconditional love and forgiveness on a long- ago beach beside the sea of Galilee. It is one that clothed Peter with an identity divinely ordered and unbelievably life-giving.
It is said that those approaching baptism in the Way of Christ in the first century came to the water of baptism naked, were immersed in the water, and then clothed in a white garment over their nakedness. Did this story of amazing grace, of unconditional love and forgiveness on a long-ago beach, consciously or unconsciously offer the image for the baptismal ritual which evolved: unclothing/washing/re-clothing?
Perhaps this story is also about living, at least from time to time, if we are able, in the Naked Now that Richard Rohr and so many others are trying to describe today. Standing, as often as we are able, stripped down of all that it seems the world wants us clothed in. NAKED and vulnerable to the truth of our essential “self.” NOW present to the Love and Grace that nourishes body, mind and soul and then commissions us to go out and be, like Christ, a nourishing, loving, sustaining presence in the Kingdom that is the metaphor for God’s world.
The waters of the Sea of Galilee still come and go, inward and outward along the shoreline, washing those sands in an eternal, caressing, cleansing rhythm that molds and shapes the land. It is an eternal rhythm that creates rich moist soil in which what is seeded there may green and flourish. In the ebb and flow of our lives may we again and again be naked to the Presence of the grace that makes all things new. A catch/bless/release moment awaits – in the hands of the Great Fisherman waiting for us in that moment. And the tide will turn towards new life as we are released, once again, into it. It is not just a baptismal moment, but a re-birthing one. Come to the waters.
Special thanks to
Elizabeth Panox-Leach at the Virginia Theological Seminary who went out and took the picture of the statue of Jesus with the fish on a stick for this message.