The Last Chapter is About Us
This last story of the risen Jesus appearing to Peter and the disciples is an add on, a second thought by someone writing after the gospel of John was written – it is widely thought by scholars not to be original to the gospel. The action was supposed to have finished with last week’s story of Jesus appearing in the locked room and showing his wounds to the eleven and most vividly to doubting Thomas. But for the faith community who told this story, that ending wasn’t enough; they needed something more. Perhaps some need was still lingering, something still festering in the brain about Jesus and his resurrection that wouldn’t quite go away. And so they kept writing until they got the ending they needed.
Something has been lingering in my brain over the past few weeks. Something that was at the back of my mind. It was the appearance of the risen Christ and what that meant to his absolutely terrible followers. See we are conditioned by repeated tellings of this story to assume that Jesus is very chill and that showing up on the shore of the sea is nice, but kind of like seeing a long lost friend and catching up for breakfast.
But, the thing is, the last time Jesus was alive, just the other day, for these folks, they had abandoned him, fled from his side. Peter actually bragged about how he would die for him. Then Jesus was arrested, publicly humiliated, beaten, and tortured to death.
This risen body, with its open wounds and bloody gashes, must have been a horror show. And actually this whole scenario sounds like a horror movie script: a group of friends betray one of their gang, their actions lead to him dying horrifically, and alone. They try to go on with their lives, but he shows up – alive. Everything in our culture trains us to think of this as some kind of set up for violent revenge. It wouldn’t be a satisfying narrative without a showdown between the wronged Jesus and his cowardly friends. There are many artistic images of Christ, but one that caught my eye this week was a sculpture of him, crucified: a shrieking, emaciated, ruin of a man. The stuff of nightmares. This is who eats breakfast and shares a conversation with Peter, the very worst of these sniveling cowards.
But what happens isn’t the horror movie scenario. And what happens isn’t just another resurrection appearance with Jesus showing up and saying, “Look at me!” It’s a reckoning with Peter. Peter needs something more out of his encounter with the risen Christ.
I can’t imagine the fear, the guilt, and the shame Peter bore. Shame, such a defining state of being for so many of us humans. The Book of Genesis tracks its origin in our human story early in the story of the Garden of Eden.
John’s gospel has Genesis in mind in many places. Most famously, John takes the imagery from the creation story in Genesis in the prologue. You may remember John’s opening, “In the beginning was the Word.” This is meant to remind us of Genesis. This ending, is meant to also provide an echo of that first story of God and humanity.
In Genesis, the man and the woman also have a special relationship with God. But they disobey him and eat from the forbidden tree. They know nakedness and they are ashamed. Their vulnerability, their exposed state terrifies them. They hide from God. Shame, for them, leads to a kind of death, they are cut off from their special access to God and forced into a harsher world. Shame, for us, is like a kind of death because it renders us, or a part of us, unlovable. But God’s own self makes clothes for them to prepare them for light in that harsher world.
Just like in Genesis, Peter also needs an encounter with God that will set straight what has happened; the story isn’t finished without it. Peter is also naked, like Adam and Eve, when he hears Jesus is near. He does not hide, however. In a strange detail, he puts on his clothes, leaps into the sea and swims to shore. Most of us don’t put on clothes to swim. In contrast to Adam, Peter does not allow his shame to keep him from moving toward God.
And Jesus does not accuse him or exact revenge; he asks Peter if he loves him. Three times. In fact it kind of annoys Peter that Jesus keeps asking. Always a little slow on the uptake, Peter doesn’t quite realize that Jesus has given him the opportunity to wipe away his three denials. The charcoal fire, the near dawn light, the exhausted Peter are all the same, but instead of weakness and betrayal, Peter has the opportunity to show love. He has the opportunity to see himself differently, to see himself as the loyal disciple – a shepherd of God’s sheep. In declaring his love for Jesus, he can see himself as lovable again.
Shame is such a burden to us poor creatures. It was a revelation to me to read a book by theologian Thandeka (she goes by one name). Thandeka is black herself and she wanted to write a theological book about race, racism, prejudice, and white supremacy. She interviewed hundreds of white Americans and found a common thread that kept her from writing about the familiar terms, because the common thread among all these white interviewees was not that they were racist, but that they all had early experiences of shame.
She called her book Learning to be White. And in it she argues from these stories that white Americans are sick with shame. This shame is developed at an early age to enforce whiteness. As wave after wave of immigrant group hit these shores, new varieties of people would have to learn how to adopt whiteness and hide away what didn’t conform.
I never knew my paternal grandfather. But George Schunior had an anglo name and an education. He could pass for white and when he married an anglo woman they had anglo children and his Mexican heritage was lost for good. The unacceptable part of him was put away. When I find Schuniors online, mostly on Facebook, many of them are clearly Hispanic and I think about the connections we might have had but lost because of shame.
The book made me think in a new way, not just about race relations, but about hidden shame. I’m ever too familiar with the everyday failures and sense of inadequacy most of us are burdened with – these things we carry around with us but know they are with us. But Thandeka’s work showed me that there is often still deeper, hidden shame that is the source of our feelings of fear and powerlessness. It has to be exposed and healed.
But like the anonymous writer of this bit of John’s gospel, we have the opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives. We have to finish the story
Surely the pattern this writer wanted us to pick up about Jesus is that he’ll keep showing up. And even though the shame we so often carry around with us like a dead body thinks he shows up like the star of a revenge flick, he shows up looking for ways to nourish us and heal us.
Peter, vulnerable, naked, leaps into the sea and we are encouraged to leap as well. For there is no way forward with shame. I don’t think there is an easy path to face it.
Peter does find his way forward. Notice that his calling, his commission, arises out of his love for Jesus, not his feelings of failure or a need to compensate for past wrongs. In response to each declaration of love, Jesus tells him to care for his community: “feed my sheep.”
Imagine if we approached the needs of our community not with our own sense of inadequacy, but built on our love for ourselves and each other. Oh good, we can say, we get to love white people! And black people! And brown people! And trans people! We need to send them some special love because North Carolina and Mississippi are doing such a very bad job of loving them. And we need to love ourselves. Then each need in the world is an opportunity to serve not another burden to weigh us down. When we let go of shame we find abundance, not just from God, but, I believe in ourselves. The last resurrection story can be and should be about us.