Many popular movies give audiences the pleasure of an epilogue. A chance to look in on the characters later in their lives, as evidence that the redemption we have witnessed is, in truth, still holding.
It’s widely agreed among biblical scholars that the Holy Gospel according to St. John, the twenty-first chapter, is an epilogue. That a later author tacked it on.
John didn’t write this chapter of the gospel. And yet, in edition after edition, across all the various translations and paraphrases of the Bible, I have never yet seen one that left it out. John 21 is always there. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s left in just because it’s so hopelessly redemptive that we can’t bear the thought of taking it away.
We have all agonized with Simon Peter, Jesus’ apostle who puts his foot in his mouth every time he speaks and ends with betrayal. Here, he finally gets the redemption that we all want to see. In the last two weeks we have been exploring the concept of forgiveness: how it changes who we are, and why it is so challenging to be on the receiving end of forgiveness.
Here, though, we see that Peter is not only being forgiven; he is being redeemed. What is the difference? If forgiveness says, It never happened, redemption says, It happened, and it’s changed both of us. So now we must find the way forward from here. Jesus is forever changed by having gone through the agony of death for the whole world. And Peter is being transformed not only in this moment, when he is experiencing the breathtaking joy of being given a second chance. He’s also been transformed by what he had to go through first. After the denial in the courtyard, after the crucifixion, Peter had to seek out the other disciples and ask to be let back into the family.
Peter had the courage that one of the other disciples lacked.
Peter had the courage to face up to his betrayal. Judas did not. And history remembers these two disciples very differently.
Peter the saint, Peter together with Paul keeping alive the new Jesus Way and making a foundation for a faith. Peter to whom Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom, Peter who is historically the first pope. Saint Peter.
There is no Saint Judas.
No one would dream of naming their child after Judas. To be a Judas is to be an unredeemed and unrepentant sinner. But in those high-tension hours of betrayal, arrest, waiting that would lead to the cross and the crucifixion, both Judas and Peter behaved the same. Both acted to betray Jesus.
Their stories run along the same path leading up to the crucifixion. So how is it that their stories, afterward, become so very different?
In a word: courage. Heart. Peter faced up to the hardest action he had ever known. And because he did, he was able to be in the right place at the right time, to receive the redemption that Jesus would have willingly and gladly given to poor Judas.
The Scriptures record that almost as soon as Judas betrayed his teacher, he was horrified and disgusted by what he had done. He threw the money at the feet of the elders. Take it back, he said. I don’t want it. What have I done? And it was then that Judas committed his ultimate sin. Not the betrayal of Jesus. The sin of arrogance. The sin of pride. Judas decided that what he had done was utterly unforgivable, that not even Christ himself could forgive him. And so Judas, consumed with despair, believing himself to be beyond the reach of God’s love, took his own life.
And here we see Peter. In the frozen pre-dawn courtyard, the echo of the rooster’s crow still hanging in the air, Peter realizes what he has done. For three years, he has been the most loyal disciple, the most faithful follower. “I would never betray you,” he said just that evening. And yet he has. Jesus was right. Jesus is always right. Now what?
Judas, his fellow disciple, has judged himself. He won’t return to the group. He won’t be back. Peter must have agonized about what to do next. But by the grace of God, into Peter’s wounded heart breathes the words and the actions of the teacher he has been following. My peace I give to you. With God’s help, he chooses to face the group. He will take the anger, he will take the resentment, he will take the tongue-lashings that are sure to follow because the others are his home and his family and he has to make things right. And that is always possible. There’s always a chance: he knows that because Jesus has told him so.
It must have been a very awkward reunion. The others are in hiding, fearing for their lives after the death of their teacher. But Peter keeps his ear to the ground. He hears things. He knows their behavior patterns. He guesses where to go. And after a few false starts, he finds the right alley. The right doorway. Hesitantly, he pushes aside the curtain. The others look up as the light comes in, and there is Peter framed in the opening, the others staring at him.
An apology made. An apology accepted. We don’t know exactly what went on, but we do know that Peter knew that we are never alone and that to be created of God means that we must be in relationship. And because of his courage, because of the teachings of Christ, that means that when the disciples decide that they might as well return to what they know, Peter is with them.
Peter is with them when they go out in the boat to fish. Peter is with them, sharing their disappointment as they fish all night and catch nothing. Peter is with them when they see the stranger on the beach. And from that group, from that restored relationship, it is Peter who sees the man for who he is. It is Peter who can’t wait to run to Jesus and seek forgiveness.
And there on the beach, Jesus takes Peter aside, glad to offer him the second chance that Judas will not receive. It’s no accident that Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter denied him, three times Jesus gives him a chance to say, “Lord, you know I love you.”
And Peter knows that Jesus has redeemed him, and that he trusts him, that this relationship too has been restored – because Jesus gives him work to do. “Feed my lambs,” he says, “feed my sheep.”
So what is the message for you and for me, across the millennia? How can we avoid the hubris of Judas and embrace the courage of Peter? For you and for me, it is Christ. We can gain courage, just as Peter did, from the teachings of Jesus. It is Jesus who can strengthen us when we are afraid of facing up to others. It is Jesus who can give us the words to say when we know we have done wrong and must seek out those we have wronged and apologize. It is Jesus who will always find us where we are, it is Jesus who will whisper into our hearts: Feed my sheep.