The first time I ever experienced making my individual confession to a priest, the penance I was given was to read John 21. I remember that my immediate feeling was a combination of very relieved (clearly I wasn’t all that bad if all I had to do was read a chapter of John’s gospel!) and disappointed (would it feel like a proper bit of penance if it wasn’t actually difficult to do?).
It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Making me read this passage from John’s gospel was, I think, a stroke of genius on the part of my confessor, and it was just what I needed, in so many ways. Here are just a few of them.
First, at that stage in my life I was at my final year at theological college, a time when over-confidence and anxiety battle it out for the upper hand. I needed to read the part about the disastrous fishing trip to realise that God does not waste or deny the gifts and experiences that we bring from our earlier life, rather, he enhances them and uses them. The disciples must have thought back to their own initial calling when Jesus promised that he would make them fish for people here he was again, showing them how what they were and what they had to offer could be made more, and better, by doing it God’s way. At that stage in my life (as I suspect is still the case) I needed to hear both that my past experience was of some worth, and that God could help me use those experiences to greater effect in the ministry to which he’d called me.
Second, I needed to see not only Peter’s impulsive jumping into the water, but also the other disciples’ more sensible gathering in of the miraculous catch of fish and slower return to shore. I needed to be reminded that there are people who make a splash in ministry, and those who work more slowly; there are people for whom leaving the safety of the boat is normal, and those for whom fishing from the boat is the most fruitful place to be. And that both ways of reaching the shore are effective.
Third, I needed to remember that some of the best fellowship and growing in discipleship takes place in the context of hospitality, and that as God’s ministers we share in that. Jesus is the one who got the barbeque going, but it is the disciples who bring the fish to cook on it. Jesus is the host, but we bring and offer what we have to his table, and it is our gathering around him, bringing what we are and what we have, that makes the whole thing special.
Fourth (and I suspect that it was for this reason that I was asked to read the chapter in the first place), I needed to read Peter’s threefold commission, that wonderful moment when Jesus takes him aside and reminds him of that other occasion, also gathered around a charcoal fire, when Peter had denied Jesus three times. Here, he is given three opportunities to affirm his love for, and loyalty to, Jesus. Here was my penance, and my absolution, here were my three chances to reflect on the times when I had wandered away from God or rebelled against him, in my own mediocre way; here were my three chances to affirm, prior to my ordination, that I really did love God.
But more than that, this little story of Jesus and Peter makes something absolutely clear which has been hinted at throughout the Easter narratives: belief in God, and love of God are not an end, they are a beginning. Read through the Easter stories and you will see a very clear pattern that every act of recognition of the risen Christ, every realisation of the truth of the resurrection, every declaration of faith, is followed immediately by a commission. Peter’s love for Jesus is just the beginning, but it is the firm foundation from which he will make his next leap of faith – Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith and love is not ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ or ‘you are forgiven’, but ‘feed my sheep’, ‘tend my flock’, and ‘feed my lambs’.
With repentance and absolution, with any declaration of faith, with any moment of conversion (as we hear in Saul’s story in Acts today) comes vocation. Disciples can only be true to their identity as disciples by turning into apostles. Those who feed on the body and blood of Christ must respond by becoming the body of Christ in the world, continuing his work, and empowered by his Spirit, his very breath of life. This was his commission to his friends almost 2000 years ago, and it is still his commission to us, his friends now.
We know what this ended up meaning for Peter and the other disciples, and for Paul. But what will it look like in our lives, this week, this month, this year? How will our own faith respond to Christ’s commission, continuing his work? How will the new life that we experience in absolution flow from us to be a force of life and forgiveness in the world? How will what we do in this service with the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, help to shape us into individuals and a church that is truly Christ-like?