Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

Preacher: Ezekiel 34:11-16, John 21:15-22

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

There is a determination in the voice of God as portrayed in this evening’s first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-16)

I will, I will, I myself will, says God. I will search for my sheep and seek them out and seek them out again. Even if I have to die in the attempt, and break through the bonds of death, and seek out the lost on the other side.

Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus did for our beloved, and so utterly flawed, Patron saint, Peter. He died and broke through the bonds of death and sought out the lost on the other side.

Each weekday morning, in this cathedral dedicated to Saint Peter, we say prayers in the Dean’s Chapel, just a few steps away from the sacristy. I sit looking towards the stained glass windows, as we say our prayers, and there is a window there that we might dedicate to our patron saint. In the background of the window Jesus is bound and held by a group of soldiers. He looks with great sadness towards the foreground of the window. There, in the foreground, a servant girl is talking with a man who we know is Peter. The window doesn’t show this, but the text of the Gospel according to Saint John tells us that Peter and the servant girl are warming themselves by a fire of coals. Right in the foreground of this stained glass window is a bird, a cockerel. Jesus’ face shows the pain of the betrayal that is taking place before his eyes. He knows what lies ahead of him, that he is to face an unjust trial and a painful death, and he knows that his best friend is too frightened to accompany him there. Three times Peter denies Jesus. Three times he says that he does not know him. And then the cock crows, as Jesus told Peter it would, and Peter dissolves in tears.

Sin is like that. We commit it out of fear, or weakness, or the desire for self preservation. We commit it out of many other reasons as well – greed, pride, vanity, lust… But in Peter’s case it was fear. We commit sin quickly and without thinking, hurriedly before we can reflect on what we are doing, we deny, betray, run from the good and courageous act we might do, and then … then the cock crows, and we remember Jesus’ voice. We remember our prayers and our hopes and our promises to God that we would do our best … The cock crows and, like Peter, we weep for our weakness and wonder if we can ever look God in the face again.

The cock’s crow, though, heralds the dawn. The coming of the light. In a gospel that is all about light and darkness, it is here in John’s gospel, that Peter, perhaps, first sees who he is and who Jesus is. Peter, knowing that Jesus has died, would have been wracked with guilt, sure that he would not ever have the opportunity to ask for forgiveness. Sure that he would never look Jesus in the face again.

He does, though, have the chance to look Jesus in the face again. Jesus meets Peter and several of the other disciples when they are fishing. They have caught no fish and Jesus, after pointing this out to them, suggests they cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They haul in an enormous catch of fish. Jesus’ appearance to the disciples this time might seem to be all about abundance but Peter and Jesus have unfinished business. A matter of sin. It is while they are cooking the fish on a fire of coals that Jesus has the conversation with Peter that we heard as our second reading tonight. The location is important. Jesus returns to the scene of Peter’s denial, the fire of coals, and his conversation with Peter is patterned on the conversation with the servant girl. Jesus does not spare himself the pain of the memory of Peter’s sin –  it is almost as if the nails are hammered in again – in fact he deliberately goes there. Jesus does not spare Peter the pain of that memory either. Surprising, perhaps, that he did not have a cockerel waiting in the wings.  Only Peter did not need a reminder of Jesus’ deep understanding of human nature this time.

Peter just needed the guts to stand still and bear the questions. The three questions. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter. “You know that I love you,” Peter replied. “Feed my sheep.” Jesus said.

It’s an interesting question, this “Do you love me?” If Jesus had whispered it to Peter as he denied him by the fire of coals, the answer would have been the same. “You know that I love you, but I’m not brave enough. …I don’t know him.” “You know that I love you …but it’s not enough to face what you are facing.” “Lord you know that I love you but …”

Peter is no different; he is still the same flawed man, the man who stepped out across the water and then panicked, the one who insisted that Jesus not wash his feet, failing completely to understand what he was on about, the one who promised to follow him wherever he went and then denied him. Peter is still Peter. The one who loves Jesus, who always loved Jesus.

What matters is that he stays and hears the questions. This is what you did. You denied me three times at the time when I needed you most. Let us remember what you did. Let us both remember the pain of what you did. And then you can know yourself forgiven. Each question washes away your sin. You are forgiven. Only in the place of sin can we know ourselves forgiven.

And then …“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. It is an extraordinary thing that Jesus is not only forgiving Peter but telling him he is to care for his people. He is fit for something. Flawed, but fit, fitted through forgiveness.

I will, I will, I myself will, says God. I will search for my sheep and seek them out and seek them out again. Even if I have to die in the attempt, and break through the bonds of death, and seek out the lost on the other side.

Jesus is no different now. Sitting by the fires of coals where our sins were committed, wondering if we will ever find the courage to meet him there. We love him, in our motley sort of way, it’s not that we don’t, but he’ll ask us the question anyway. Do you love me? We do but our love wasn’t strong enough to stop our denials when the fear got the better of us, or the pride or the vanity, whatever it was.

His forgiveness changes everything, though. We don’t believe in it until we experience it. We don’t believe he could forgive us, we certainly wouldn’t forgive ourselves. We give up on ourselves, but he is waiting just longing for us to hear his questions, bear the pain of them, so that he might set us free.

His forgiveness changes everything. It restored Peter. It will restore us. “Do you love me?” searching through heaven and earth to search us out. “Do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep then. Search for my sheep and seek them out and seek them out again. Even if you have to die in the attempt, feed my sheep.”