Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part One)

You can’t get a new past.

No matter what the science fiction writers propose, past events are fixed, immovable, unchangeable. The past cannot be changed. Only the future is fluid, contingent, still to be determined. This is one of the ways in which we might meditate on this text together. “In short, life is about regrets,” the authors of the Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness write in their preface, “doing what we should not do and not doing what we should. Only the conscienceless,” they conclude, “are immune” (page vii).

I have done a fair bit of work on the subject of forgiveness over the years. I find that the topic of “self-forgiveness” is often the one that occupies much of the conversation for people. I wonder if that was a struggle for Peter as well. The Johannine gospel reports, as do the other gospel accounts, that Peter “denied” his association with Jesus in some way. In the Synoptics, he denies that he knows Jesus. In the Johannine account, Peter denies three times that he is one of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps a greater failing in the framework of the Johannine gospel).

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While Simon Peter is really a bit player in the majority of the Johannine account, here in chapter twenty-one, he takes center stage. He is mentioned by name and by pronoun nearly two dozen times in twenty-five verses. Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter’s love for him makes it clear that this chapter is the epilogue for the denial narrative and for the gospel account as a whole. Peter cannot deny his denial but rather must deal with it if he is to function as one of the risen Lord’s disciples. So, there is a reckoning in this chapter.

You can’t get a new past. So, what is Peter to do? “In contrast to strategies to cope with wrongdoing by either accepting responsibility or prioritizing oneself over others,” the editors of the Handbook write in their preface, “forgiving oneself entails accepting responsibility for violation of a socio-moral value while also accepting oneself as a person of value” (page viii). It doesn’t appear, from the text, that this sort of self-forgiveness will suffice for Simon Peter.

Thus, he goes back to what he knows. He returns to who he was before this three-year journey with Jesus began. “I’m going fishing,” he tells six of the other disciples. These six include the main disciple characters in the Johannine account, although their identities are rolled out a bit slowly. They decide to go along and get back to the work that they know as well. But there’s no real future in that work. They catch nothing.

The first scene in this text is one of quiet despair in the dark. You can’t get a new past. Peter doesn’t know how to move into the future, carrying the burden of that past with him. There they sit in the boat, at night, doing that which takes as little thinking as possible. It is a poignant picture of anyone who is caught in the dead-end of guilt and shame for a past sin.

Then, the sun comes up. This is the Johannine account, so every small detail matters. Dawn is resurrection time, as we know from the gospel report. New light brings the possibility of new life. Perhaps there is some path forward into a life that is more than an endless cycle of rumination, regret, remorse, and self-recrimination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, there is no future without forgiveness. But perhaps with forgiveness there is also a future.

Tutu wrote his book to report and reflect on the work and experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. Tutu was the chair and guiding light of that commission. One option in the aftermath of that diabolical system was to simply condemn the perpetrators en masse and abandon them to perdition. Tutu and others discerned that such a path would leave South African society hobbled by the past and destined to a hate-filled future.

Thus, he was certain that there could be no future for that society without a process for confronting the evil, hearing the testimonies of both perpetrators and victims, fostering accountability and forgiveness (if appropriate and helpful), and finding paths toward rehabilitation and hope.

“The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons,” Tutu wrote, “then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly,” Tutu continued, “it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better” (page 83).

I cannot get a new past. But I am not imprisoned by that past to pursue an unchanging destiny either. I can be changed. I can grow. I can hear the call to follow Jesus and respond with a life of discipleship. The future is history still to be written. And that future history, as we read in our text, is to be written in the language of love.

“God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become,” Tutu writes, “and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover. Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity,” he continues, “have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law” (page 85). Thus, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

What follows this question is not an accusation. We might have asked a similar question and followed up with something like, “Then how could you have denied in public three times that you were not one of my disciples? What kind of love does that!” I might have pushed for an explanation of the misdeed, a way to make sense of why a supposed loved one did such a thing to me. I have asked such questions, and I have been asked such questions. If I loved you, how in the world could I have done that thing that hurt you so much?

On the one hand, Jesus already knew the answer to the question about the past. Peter denied his discipleship because acknowledging it would have cost him his life. It wasn’t a hard thing to figure out. On the other hand, what explanation would have really helped? If I could give an adequate explanation for why I hurt and betrayed someone I loved, then that explanation would become a justification for the action. And, Voila! I would no longer be guilty and in need of forgiveness.

To forgive is first of all to accuse, as the French proverb reminds us. And to repent is first of all to confess. Confession is not explanation. Confession is not self-justification. Confession is not spreading the blame or defending the action. Confession is acknowledging that I did something wrong (or failed to do something right). The result was that someone else got hurt. No, I hurt someone. End of discussion.

“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are,” Tutu writes. “It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation,” he continues, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is worthwhile,” Tutu argues, “because in the end dealing with the real situation brings about real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing” (pages 270-271).

The breakfast on the beach is certainly a meal of reconciliation. It has echoes of the feeding of the Five Thousand and thus is the Johannine author’s way of connecting us to the Eucharistic meal. Yet, that meal of reconciliation is not the end of the scene. Therefore, when they were done eating, the Johannine account says, the conversation began. “Simon of John, do you love me more that these?”

If you do, Jesus says, then put that love into action now and in the future. Love the ones I love in the way that I love them. Peter, you can’t get a new past. But you can live into a new future – one that is not bound to the brokenness of that past. For Christians, all hope is resurrection hope. And for Christians, the outcome of forgiveness is always new life, both now and forever.

We all know that we can’t get a new past. We can suppress and deny that past. Or we can confront that past, take responsibility for it, make repairs in whatever manner possible, and live in ways that prevent us from repeating that past. These changes may be painful. They may even cost some of us our lives (as was the case for Peter). But without forgiveness, our futures will be just more of the same.

I think it’s impossible, or at least irresponsible, to read this text without thinking about what it means for systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our American history and in our current lives. We will think together about those implications as we move forward this week.

References and Resources

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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