notre dame montreal

Jesus Gives Peter a Charge

Sermon preached on Third Sunday of Easter 2004, by The Reverend Charles Royden


Peter’s Charge

It is good to be back with you this week, last Sunday Liverpool were playing Fulham and for her birthday we took Alexandra to the match at Anfield. So we worshipped in Liverpool instead, - not the football ground but the Cathedral - of course. It has the largest organ in the world, the highest gothic arches, the bells have the highest and heaviest peal in the world. A magnificent building and well worth the visit. No wonder Liverpool is to be European City of Culture all this and a victory over Man Utd yesterday.


While we were in Liverpool we visited the Albert Dock and the Maritime Museum (free entry) and went to see the exhibition on slavery. It is an excellent multi media presentation showing artefacts and explaining the history of slavery. Of course it had to examine the philosophy behind slavery, how it was necessary for the people of Liverpool and people everywhere else, to dehumanise the black slaves. They were not treated like human beings and to justify this, people went to their Bibles and showed that blacks were sub human, and therefore could be bought and sold and treated as property.

After seeing that exhibition last week it was particularly astonishing to hear the media debate surrounding the use of the ‘N…..’ word by Ron Atkinson on television. It is dreadful to acknowledge but of course racism is far too close to the surface of many people’s lives. What I find astonishing is that irrespective of whether he thought the mike was on and he was being broadcast, how did he he feel able to use that word in front of all the other people there, the camera crew, the sound crew, the presenters, etc. The point I am making is that none of us should ever tolerate that kind of abusive language.

Specifically where we are going with this is -  that as Christians it is our duty to speak out whenever we hear people being treated badly, let alone that kind of language and the whole package of disgusting attitudes that go with it. We cannot sit by and listen to people treating other people as if they were a poorer quality of human being because of their skin colour.

Now I mention this because that is surely a part of what Jesus was speaking about when he asked Peter if he would look after his sheep. Peter said


That ‘yes’ must be something which are prepared to echo. Christ is shepherd of all, irrespective of race, or any of the other categories which we tend to put people into to make them less than the ‘full monty’ like us. We can only shudder to think that the church which was entrusted through Peter to care for and look after the sheep, found justification for classing some of the sheep as less than the full lamb. The church not only condoned black slavery it found a theology to claim it to be the will of God.

The church of course has needed to repent, rediscover its responsibility and move on with a renewed will and vision, and a commitment never to make the same mistake again.

Fortunately we know that making mistakes does not mean we cannot continue to share with Christ in his work. We know this from our story from John’s Gospel this morning. Peter has made a phenomenal mistake. He was the one guaranteed not to let Jesus down. All the others would fail, but not Peter – or so he thought. Then it was Peter who denied Jesus three times. Fear took over, fear of loosing his life, fear of being associated with somebody who claimed to be God. Fear of standing up for what he knew to be true.

So Peter goes fishing, good idea! Get away from it all, catch food, make money – but more importantly try and hide away from the failure. Peter could never come to terms with letting Jesus down and failing to be the rock which Jesus wanted him to be.

It was at this time of despondency that Jesus comes to Peter and greets him whilst he is fishing. Peter might have expected that Jesus would choose somebody else, somebody less impulsive and more reliable. But Jesus doesn’t, he chooses Peter, with all of his failings and disappointments.

You see Jesus was never actually let down by Peter.

Jesus knew that Peter was asking too much of himself. Jesus knew that it was only if Peter relied upon and trusted him that he could ever succeed. He could never achieve what Jesus wanted of him in his own strength.

So here is Peter fishing all night and Jesus teaches him another lesson. Do as I say and you will catch the fish - and he does 153 of them.

How many fish there are is probably irrelevant, but the fact that Peter only catches them when he follows the directions of Jesus is most certainly not. The point is that what matters is that we heed the voice of Christ.

Past failure is not an indication of future performance in the Christian life, not unless we decide that to be the case.

So Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him.

'Three times you have denied me Peter, three times will I affirm your love.'

The love of Peter was never in doubt by Jesus, but Jesus did understand the frailty of Peter. The frailty which brought about his denial and the frailty which no doubt prevented him from sleeping at nights as his words of betrayal echoed in his ears.So Jesus shows Peter that no record is kept of past wrongs, Jesus shows Peter that he trusts him,  -  yes, in spite of failure and there is important work that he wants to share with him.

There has been much speculation about the significance of the number of fish caught, and the different Greek words used when Peter and Jesus speak about love, most of it is utterly ridiculous.

What is of significance however is that Peter realises that Jesus forgives, that after all is why the crucifixion took place. Peter does nothing to earn the forgiveness of Jesus, it is just there and he needs to recognise it to enable him to heal the hurts and failures of the past and discover the new life and ministry which Jesus has for him.

The passage is about faithfulness and God’s trust and Jesus being there to help us pick up the pieces of our lives when everything is a mess.

Peter let Jesus down, but even such a humbling experience did not preclude him from ministry. On the contrary it equipped him for it. Such a humbling experience would have established Peter far better for service in Christ's name. It is a simple case of gratitude, if we know our own lack of worth then we are not subject to illusions of self-worth and pride which inevitably causes us to think ourselves better than others.

Those who are aware of their own sin and have felt God's forgiveness are inevitably the most tender, compassionate, and understanding of others who are bruised or weak. It is the self-righteous who are not suited to God's purpose.

St. Isaac the Syrian taught,
"He who has seen himself as he is, and has seen his sin, is greater than the one who raises the dead"

When we are face up to and recognise our faults, then the opportunity comes for the spirit to change our practice of scorning, punishing and loathing weakness.
St. Isaac went on,
"Purity of heart is love for those who fall".

This is a timely reminder to the church and for us when we think that purity is thinking our behaviour somewhat better in character than those around us.

"Purity of heart is love for those who fall".


Peter is asked to love Jesus, so are we. That love is understood by Jesus, not in terms of a feeling, rather we display that love for Christ in how we love other people.

This is what we are called to do. It is surely true that such a humbling experience of failure would have established Peter far better for service in Christ's name. So too those of us who are aware of our own sin and have felt God's forgiveness are inevitably the most tender, compassionate, and understanding of others who are bruised or weak. purpose. Do not allow personal fear and weakness, or past failure ever to hold you a prisoner to the past. Instead see it as a qualification, for you will never be ‘holier than thou.’

Christ uses Peter’s history of failure to equip him for the role of ministry and that ministry is to love. It is this command to love which must lie at the heart of the Christian life and without it there will be no Christian life.