a Sermon for Easter 3C
Text: John 21:1-19
Why is Peter naked?
The astute observer will notice that each of the gospels handles the resurrection of Jesus differently. Mark, the earliest gospel has no Jesus appearance; Matthew and Luke each have one appearance; while John has three. This morning we get the last one and it is a doozy.
Perhaps nothing is as striking as what Peter is doing. Remember, this is after he has witnessed the empty tomb and was with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them that night in the upper room, encouraging them to touch Him. He was there when Jesus came back so that Thomas might witness the resurrection, too. He had been following Jesus a long time and knew his rabbi well.
So here he is, sitting naked in a boat with a bunch of other disciples.
And when he recognizes Jesus standing on the shore, he throws on his clothes and jumps into the water.
Let that sink in a second. Never has Peter reminded me of John Cleese or Peter Sellers more than here.
Many have written that it would be normal for Peter to be naked and that he naturally would need to put on clothes to honor Jesus. His jumping in the water was eagerness, wanting to swim to shore, leaving his buddies behind.
Others suggest that Peter isn’t totally naked, but is ashamed, covering himself. Putting back on his work clothes.
But the text doesn’t say anything about shame or eagerness. And it doesn’t say that he swam to shore. All it says is that he was naked. He wrapped his outer garment around himself. He jumped into the water.
If we sit for a moment with the oddity of this, we might actually see it. Don’t try to explain it, just observe. Peter is naked. He wraps the clothes around himself. He jumps into the water.
Jesus’s turn to cook breakfast
The other disciples follow Jesus’s fishing instructions and bring in a huge haul of fish. When they get to shore, they find Jesus preparing them breakfast of fish and bread. He asks them to bring in the fish they had caught, and Peter jumps into the boat and brings the fish out.
So much food: fish and bread. Just a few people. Not even all of the disciples. Like a reverse Feeding of the Five Thousand.
It is starting to feel as if Jesus is wrapping things up. These elements feel familiar…but they are different now.
Which Love is Which?
Jesus takes some time with Peter, asking him three times: “do you love me?” Clearly, this is a sort of dance, as Jesus is asking something of Peter that Peter just isn’t quite getting. We would be excused if we, like Peter, are lulled by its pattern:
Jesus: do you love me?
Peter: of course I do!
Jesus: feed my sheep.
But it doesn’t quite work that way.
In the exchange Jesus and Peter use two different words for love. Jesus asks Peter:
“Simon son of John, do you agape me more than these?”
To which Peter replies:
“Yes, Lord; you know that I phile you.”
Jesus: “Feed my lambs.”
“Simon son of John, do you agape me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I phile you.”
Jesus: “Tend my sheep.”
“Simon, son of John, do you phile me?”
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I phile you.”
Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
It seems that most Biblical scholars are not interested in parsing the difference between these two Greek words for love. That they operate closely as synonyms. But this seems deeply important to me. Agape is a sacrificial love, an intimate love, a relational love. It is the very type of love that Jesus is teaching his disciples to share. Phile is an attractive love, as one is drawn to another: charisma.
So when Jesus asks Peter do you agape love me, He is asking if he has sacrificial and intimate love for Him. Peter’s reply is you know that I have phile/attractive love. Then Jesus asks again about agape love and Peter responds with phile love. Jesus, you know the love I feel.
Then Jesus turns, I imagine with compassion and slight sadness, and asks Peter if he has phile love. Peter is hurt. We usually think because of the repetition. But notice the text says “because he said to him the third time, “Do you phile/love me?” Perhaps Peter doesn’t get the difference between the two loves or because Jesus is asking for something he can’t give. But I’m starting to think he is hurt because Jesus changes that third question to mirror Peter’s. He is hurt because he has failed Jesus again. That he can’t love Jesus the way Jesus asks him to. I doubt that Jesus feels failed.
The images in this story, the nakedness and the tying on of the clothes, the fish and the breakfast, the agape and phile love aren’t tests for the disciples or for us. They may have simple comparisons like the triplicate love to the triplicate denials Peter gave during the Passion. But there is something very deep about them. If Peter believes Jesus knows everything about him, why does he put on clothes? Is he not naked before Jesus already? Is he not an open book to the savior?
Even when we are eager and full of faith and love for Jesus, are we not naked regardless? Clothes, those things we use to protect ourselves from the elements and the weapons of the puritans to shame each other, are of no consequence to Jesus. Peter can’t bring himself to be intimate and vulnerable to Jesus, the very one through whom we are promised safety and comfort. Yet Jesus loves him still.
As we continue on in Easter, we are reminded of the type of love Jesus has invited us into: a love of intimacy and vulnerability. A love of relationship and support. A love of sacrifice and generosity. A love that is not reserved only for Jesus but activated by our love for one another. A love that is not based solely on being drawn to Jesus, but giving of ourselves.
May we love, share, give, and open ourselves to the one who comes into this world to liberate us from our prisons and our comfort alike. May that love be so plain upon us that it cannot be hidden or obscured no matter what we wear. And may we dare to be a people living that love.