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It doesn’t take a whole lot of time on pilgrimage in the Holy Land before you begin to learn to take some of the historic identifications of the holy places with a grain of salt.
It’s not that there aren’t holy sites that archeologists think could actually be historically authentic—including many of the big ones. But when an entire land is holy, and when twenty centuries have supplied enough piety, pilgrimage, and potential income, additional holy sites tend to pop up exponentially. So there are at least two birthplaces of John the Baptist; at least two sites where Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper; and no less than four contenders to be the real Biblical town of Emmaus. Those who visit Israel and Palestine looking to find places to venerate the mysteries of the faith tend to find what they are looking for. Those who go looking to pinpoint THE spot where they happened are often disappointed.
And so it was just less than one full year ago, on May 1st of 2009, when J and I arrived at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter—THE spot on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus appeared to his disciples, cooked them breakfast, and commissioned Peter to feed his flock. Our group of pilgrims from St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem celebrated the Eucharist at an outdoor altar on the grounds, then toured the chapel built over a flat rock, the “Mensa Christi”—the very Table of the Lord where he laid the charcoal fire and spread out the loaves and fishes.
Or, of course, maybe it really happened at that other flat rock over there—or that other beach a mile or two down the shore. Who can say?
Yet as we stood there, looking out at the turquoise water lapping at the rocky shore, I realized how profoundly right this holy place was. Over twenty centuries of time, cities appear and vanish; buildings, streets, and trees come and go—but the sea today is still the same as it was then, and contemplating the story in that place was incredibly easy.
They call the church the Primacy of St. Peter. Now “primacy” is a grand sort of word—and if your piety is one that celebrates strong papal authority, perhaps that’s the aspect of the story that works for you. As I imagine Peter experiencing this encounter with the risen Jesus, though, it hardly sounds as though he’s feeling very primatial. Here he is in his soaking wet clothes, huddling by the charcoal fire as the rest of the disciples make their dry way back to shore in the boat. This is now the third time, the evangelist tells us, that the Lord has shown himself to the disciples. There’s been joy and astonishment as the reality of what has happened has sunk in. And yet for Peter, there’s something that remains unaddressed—an awkward, unwelcome memory.
There are only two charcoal fires mentioned in the pages of the New Testament. They are both in John’s Gospel. One is here. The other is just three chapters back.
We heard about it what feels like a lifetime ago, but was only two weeks back: in the gathering darkness of the Passion Gospel on Good Friday. Huddled around a charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard, Peter has the opportunity to remain faithful to Jesus, even to the point of sharing in his suffering and death—and instead he betrays him, taking the easy way out; denying three times that he even knows Jesus, just as the Lord had predicted.
How is it for Peter, as he sits here dripping by the fire, one-on-one with the friend he betrayed, as he waits for the others to reach the shore? Is it too much of a stretch to imagine the unspoken questions filling his mind?
“Does Jesus even know what happened? Should I bring it up?
“What’s this charcoal fire doing here, anyway? Is this Jesus’ way of trying to make a point?
“Oh God, I have to tell him I’m sorry. Wait, that’s stupid. Maybe it isn’t really such a big deal. If only I could stop thinking about it.”
There’s a word for the experience of having an unnameable secret, something you can never let anyone know about you. That word is shame. Peter’s shame is the shame most of us know at some point in our lives—the conviction that we have done, or been, something so unworthy that even to acknowledge it would feel like something close to undergoing a death.
And yet death is precisely what Jesus is in the act of triumphing over.
Here by the rocky shores of the lake, he offers his disciples not death, but life. In what must surely be one of the most loving, intimate, ordinary lines in Scripture, he tells them: “Come and have breakfast.” He cooks for them and feeds them the same meal of bread and fish he once fed five thousand people by this same lake, back when he first told the disciples that he himself was the bread of life. And when the ordinary-yet-sacred meal is over, he turns his attention again to Peter and asks him the same question three times: do you love me?
It’s a threefold undoing of a threefold betrayal.
Gently, insistently, Jesus repeats the question until it reaches the core of Peter’s shame. Twice Peter tells Jesus, “Lord, you know that I love you.”
After the third time, the story tells us, Peter feels pained and blurts out: “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you.” As I imagine Peter’s tone of voice, I hear this not as him making a theological statement, along the lines of “you’re omniscient.” Instead, I hear him saying this in the tone of voice of a condemned criminal who knows the cop arresting him has got the goods. “You know everything!” And Jesus does know everything—the betrayal, the shame, the love Peter still holds. He sees Peter inside and out, and looks at him not with condemnation but with love. And as the forgiven Peter’s threefold confession of Jesus undoes his threefold betrayal, Jesus puts him back in the role of faithful disciple with the old, familiar seaside call: Follow me.
Peter has been fed by the risen Lord. His betrayal is forgiven and his shame is healed. And he is commissioned to follow him on the path of life, a path that will not be free of suffering for Jesus’ sake. Indeed, Jesus predicts the day when Peter will again have the opportunity to share in his suffering and death, stretching out his hands and going where he does not want to go, glorifying God by the death of a martyr. In the meantime, he will be a leader of Christ’s people, called to feed his sheep. The call to follow Jesus is a call to suffer and to serve. But it is a call that comes with the deepest, most tender forgiveness of the ways we continually fail it.
So what about you? And for that matter, what about me?
Where are the places of shame in you? Where are the things that paralyze you, that fill you with fear, and that make you a slave to death?
I know in my life—and I imagine it’s the same for you—that the sources of my greatest shame have not always been my worst actions or experiences; but usually they have been my most secret. Sometimes the things that trap us in shame are things we have done wrong, like Peter. Sometimes they are things that have been done to us. Sometimes they are our fault; sometimes not. What is always true is that the risen Jesus offers us forgiveness for what we have done wrong and healing for whatever traps us. Just as he does for Peter, he gently but insistently moves to the core of our slavery to death, calls us his faithful disciples, and commissions us to follow him.
Maybe that’s the secret of the “primacy” of Peter. Not that he’s the first among Christians as a ruler of the church; but that he’s the first model for all of us disciples who come along later: the first model of what it truly means to be healed by the risen Christ, and to be sent to serve in his name.
I don’t know for certain whether this story happened on the site of the Church of the Primacy. I don’t know whether the rock in that chapel is really the Table of the Lord. But what I do know for certain is that this is the Table of the Lord. Because the risen Jesus continues to come to his disciples. He is here again to appear to us, this very morning, and to feed us with the bread of life.
It is Easter; our Lenten fast is broken; our sin is forgiven; our shame is healed. This Table of the Lord is about to be set.
Come, and have breakfast.