by Craig Simonsen
“After these things, Jesus showed himself again.”
After all these things: Arrested and bound, accused and questioned, crucified.
After these things, an emptied tomb, and so much weeping.
After locked doors that stayed shut a week later, after seeing, after believing, after outbursts of joy, “Teacher!” “My Lord and my God!” –
After all these things, Easter could perhaps end there…
And yet, the gospel says there is still more.
After all, it could have simply ended with chapter twenty—it could have simply ended two Sundays ago, or maybe even three.
It could have ended there—with the risen Jesus showing himself the first time, and our joy at beholding him, alive among us again, our joy in him gushing up into eternal life.
It could have ended there. And maybe we’d kind of prefer it that way.
After all, three weeks in, Easter can start to feel a little trying. Even with our initial outbursts of joy in all their sincerity, three weeks in, and our Easter gladness can start to feel a little forced, a little spread thin. Three weeks in, and the news of that first Easter morning has probably long since been filled in with the other news of our day— not resurrection but just more death, innocent lives cut short, senseless violence in Boston, in Iraq, across Chicago, cancer, Alzheimer’s, brain tumors, relationships gone dead.
Three weeks in, and our hearts may have perhaps gone a little cold too, perhaps a bit calloused over again, as it sinks in that there is still so much to grieve.
Three weeks in, and those “Alleluia, Christ is risen” greetings from the minister can feel a bit strained, our responses a bit wearied, as if we were being asked the same question over and over again. How else are we to respond? “Christ is risen indeed already!” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you!” “What else do you want me to say, God!?”
And yet we keep saying what we think the world expects of us. We keep saying what we think Jesus wants to hear. We are typically so eager to say the right things, whether or not they actually reveal the inner messiness of our lives.
It is perhaps when we are most weary that we become most unsure of what is going on inside. We are so eager to pretend that we are okay in order to protect ourselves. We so automatically keep the parts of us that are grieving and hurting covered up. We are so prone to say the first thing that comes to us. We are so quick to get back to work and get on with our lives. How easily we can tuck away our hurting and the grieving still to do. How easily we can rush in and rush on with our lives after trauma and tragedy.
Like Peter, we are so eager to make things right again, pretending – if he must – that he can somehow make his relationship with Jesus right again by saying the right words.
After all, Peter has been so eager to make it right the whole time—
Peter is the first to go into the empty tomb, charging in ahead though it was the Other Disciple who arrives first (and Mary Magdalene before both of them). Peter is the one who dives first, by himself, into the waters, though it is the Beloved Disciple who recognizes Jesus first. Peter is the one hauling in the net full of large fish onto the shore, so eager to respond to Jesus’ call.
It is difficult to overlook Peter’s eagerness—
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life,” he boldly proclaims after many of Jesus’ early disciples turn away.
“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!,” he blurts out when Jesus insists on washing the disciples’ feet.
“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you!,” Simon Peter pleads, before Jesus tells him that he will deny three times in mere hours.
In our picture of Peter as the one who denies Jesus around the fire, we perhaps too easily overlook that even in the garden, out of all the disciples, Peter is the one who draws his sword—trying to prove that he will follow his teacher and master to the end, no matter the cost.
And when Jesus tells him to put the sword in its sheath, Peter continues to follow Jesus— into the courtyard of the high priest. There, Peter stands around the first charcoal fire, as if to follow his teacher to the end. Right up until those first words of denial, Peter will – it seems – follow Jesus to the very end.
Peter’s eagerness is nothing new.
The surprise then for us and probably for Peter too – perhaps lost on those of us who have heard the story countless times – is for Peter to hear himself say three times: No, “I am not.” No, I am not one of this man’s disciples. No, I do not follow him.
After these things, after all these things, Jesus gathers Peter around a second charcoal fire. And Peter may be just as startled to hear what he tells Jesus at this second fire. Surprised perhaps by Jesus’ questions and perhaps even more by his own reflexive response:
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Those words, it seems, come across so confident, so sure; perhaps even arrogant. And yet, didn’t his words at the first fire likely sound just as certain?
Peter’s denial of Jesus at the first fire is undoubtedly an attempt to protect himself for fear of the authorities, and to keep covered his own grief, shock and disappointment. His denial at the second fire is that he dares not reveal how much there is still left to grieve. He doesn’t want Jesus to see the messiness inside.
From the first fire to the second, it is not clear to me whether Peter ever stops denying some part of who he is. We don’t know that Peter ever resolves the hurt and grief that continues to nag him from the inside. Even as he blurts out, “Yes, Lord,” it is not clear that he really believes what he’s saying. It is a painful exchange for Peter, perhaps because Jesus will not let Peter’s denial continue. Jesus will not let Peter’s denial have the last word.
Unlike those gathered around the first fire, Jesus sees through Peter’s sure sentiment, sees through to everything still left to grieve. Unlike those gathered around the first fire, Jesus knows Peter. Jesus has known him all along:
“You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Peter,” Jesus tells him the very first time he sees him, before Peter has even opened his mouth.
And Jesus sees us. Jesus sees us first, before we can even recognize him. Jesus calls us first.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times—because he knows who Peter is, because he knows who we are, because he has known all along.
After all these things, Easter is not over because Jesus is not done with us yet. Easter does not mean that what grieves our world suddenly goes away. Easter does not mean that the messiness inside us magically disappears—anger, grief, shock, a sense of inadequacy about how strong our relationships really are or doubts about how deep our love really goes.
How often we rush in or rush on when we’re hurting, hoping we won’t be found out, hoping that we can put behind us what continues to grieve us and what we feel ashamed of. How often our eagerness and even our arrogance is a front to what is really going on inside.
When Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?,” each time I hear him not asking but telling, three times: I love you. I love you. I love you.
The third time something changes. Perhaps it is a simple realization, a simple acknowledgement that God sees more in us than just the automatic response, than just the lip-service that will keep us safe:
“Lord, you know everything” whether or not we can say it. Whether or not, we can tell God about everything on our hearts and the parts of us that are still dead. Whether or not, the stone that keeps us in our tomb is still in place— Jesus is risen, and he knows everything about us. He has known all along.
Jesus does not stop asking, “Do you love me?,” because he will not give up on us.
After all these things, Easter goes on, the risen Jesus keeps showing himself to us— in the night, just after daybreak, beside our tombs of death.
After all these things, Jesus does not stop showing himself because he will not give up on those who hear his voice, because he will not give up on us, because he has known us all along. He’s known everything about us all along, and still he finds us again and again. Jesus finds us and tells us:
I love you. I love you. I love you.
John 21: 1-19