Morning Zephyrs! Julie here. I miss the sea…
There’s something magical about being on a beach, something about the wide, open expanse. The ocean stretching to the horizon and beyond the eye’s reach; the vast vault of the sky; the unfathomable depth of the swell; the elemental connection of sand between your toes or pebbles shifting beneath your feet. It’s unconstrained. And that lift of constraint, I think, makes it a place where we can truly feel most like ourselves, throwing off the weight of failure and our flaws and expectation to just be. I like it. And I miss it.
One of my favourite Bible stories is the barbecue on the beach, in the days following Jesus’ resurrection. Confused and grief-stricken – having given up his way of life to follow Jesus and now finding himself steeped in confusion and uncertainty – Peter takes a small group of the disciples to return to what he knows best – fishing, in a boat on Lake Galilee, the very place from which Jesus originally called him.
They fish all night long – and catch nothing. Even this most instinctive of skills has deserted him. So when a figure on the shore in the early morning light calls out to ask them what they have caught, Peter must have felt frustrated. But when the figure tells them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat, memory stirs beneath the disappointment, recalling that first encounter with the man he relinquished everything to follow.
After catching more fish than they could fit in the boat, they realise that the person on the shore is Jesus – and the reflection of that first encounter becomes crystal clear. Peter wraps his coat around himself and throws himself into the water, swimming to shore to reach Jesus ahead of the boat. On the beach, Jesus has made a fire of hot coals, with fish and bread – and they eat together.
After they’ve finished eating, Jesus opens up a conversation with Peter – Peter, whose last act for his condemned friend was to deny their connection entirely.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
A second passes and he asks again,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Take care of my sheep.”
Another pause, then he asks a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
And Peter, hurt at the insistence of the questioning, replies, “Lord, you know everything – you know I love you!”
And Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep – and follow me!”
There is so much I love and could bang on about from this story. (For example: Isn’t it interesting that this story only appears in the Gospel of John, not known for its focus on narrative, but written by the disciple with whom Peter has had a continuous rivalry throughout the gospels? John, Peter’s rival, is the only Gospel writer to include the story of Peter’s restoration – even if he does end the story by throwing in a rumour started by something Jesus said that he, John, would never die! John’s Gospel ends with the story of his rival, Peter’s, restoration – there’s something holy in that, isn’t there?)
But, however much there is that I love about it, I think this is my favourite thing…
As a storyteller, I love how stories are structured. Here, in this encounter, the structure of the story gives us an insight into the relationship between Peter and Jesus. Peter has sought comfort in the familiar, fishing – and there, in the familiar, is where Jesus goes to meet him. Peter found identity in following Jesus, symbolised by his change of name – and Jesus recreates their first encounter, when Peter chose that new identity, to allow him to choose it again. Peter’s early morning swim in his coat, in all its impetuosity, shows exactly how instinctive and full his return to Jesus was.
Three times Peter denied Jesus before his death; and three times, using his old name of Simon, Jesus asks him if he loves him – giving him the opportunity to restore their relationship and renew his identity as Peter, Jesus’ disciple. And he ends this encounter in the same way their connection began, all those years ago, with an invitation – “Follow me.”
One of my favourite beach memories, from a few years ago, is of recreating this story with a group of friends on Bamburgh beach. We went for a stroll and met our friend Clare (former vicar at Heaton, now a canon at Newcastle Cathedral) and her husband ‘unexpectedly’ – they had a fire going in a brazier, and we sat around it as Clare told us this story. Then we broke bread and shared wine. And it was a beautiful moment with some of my closest friends. Afterwards, our kids, like Peter, threw themselves into the sea – unlike Peter, they were more appropriately dressed in wetsuits rather than coats!
That time, on the beach, was a moment of real, authentic connection, both with God and with one another. Made possible, in part, by the qualities of the sea I talked about at the beginning. We were in a thin place, where we could draw closer to God, just as Peter and Jesus did in the story.
On Easter Sunday, I came across this quote via my brother, originally written by Richard Rohr (I think), and it stays with me:
“Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us. Jesus came to change our minds about God.”
When I look at my friends, I see all their wonderful qualities – their creativity, their ability to effortlessly draw alongside others, their instinct for caring, their boundless energy to step up and help those in need. And sometimes, I think the world would be better off if I was more like them. We all do that. We all, too, sometimes think that God looks at us and sees all our failings, our flaws, our lack, our sin – how could he not?
But, over time, I’m learning to accept that God looks at me, looks at all of us, like I look at my friends.
God looks at us and sees all of our wonderful qualities, the ones that he gave us, and he loves us because of them.
Hear that and take it in. He doesn’t love you in spite of all your flaws and weaknesses and mistakes; he loves you BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE. And because of WHO HE IS. He loves you like Jesus loved Peter, knowing exactly how to offer you continually renewing restoration, because you are already worth it. Just as you are.
And that is transformative. The continually renewing restoration of learning to accept that love, into the very core of who we are, is where the freedom really comes from – it frees us, slowly, as a process, from worrying about who we are, so we can focus on loving others.
When all this is over, I’m going to go to the beach, to remind myself that who I am is enough.
Until then, God wants you to know, you’re full of wonder… these words are for you. Have a listen – and have good days, Zephyrs!