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A Pathetic Interview
We cannot tell what happened at the interview between Jesus Christ and his penitent disciple. We remember how Peter denied his Lord: we have rejoiced to find him reappearing in the sacred story, and we have been made aware that when Peter was given to understand that Jesus was standing upon the shore, he went out to him he "did cast himself into the sea," and he was the first to see Jesus, and he saw the Saviour alone. What happened at that interview we shall never know. We do not know the secret interviews which men have with their Lord; we hear somewhat of their public prayer, but what they say when they are quite alone we may never understand. Blessed be God, there are such interviews, occurring daily, and feeding the soul with grace most secretly; and all that aspect of worship must for ever remain known only to those who take part in the sacred exercise. Yet we have opportunity of drawing inferences so far as this narrative is concerned. One word is uttered by Peter which enables us to penetrate in some permissible degree the interview between Jesus and Simon. That explanatory or suggestive word is "knowest." In the first answer we find this "Yea, Lord; thou knowest"; in the second answer it returns "Yea, Lord; thou knowest"; in the third answer it appears again "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest." How did Jesus know that Peter loved him? So far as the open history is concerned, the last incident points to Peter's denial of Jesus Christ; but we have not to deal with the open history alone, but with the secret and unreported interview: in that solemn colloquy it was made clear to Jesus Christ that under all the blasphemy there lay an affectionate heart, under all the lapse, and shame, and treason there throbbed an immortal love. So in the speech of men we hear words now and then full of significance; they are to be interpreted in their larger relations. We are surprised when we hear such words, and we try to fit them into the current and open story of the lives of the speakers, and we cannot do so; and then the mind is thrown back upon the fact that the minutest history contains only occasional references, points here and there; the line as it is written is full of lacunae, great open gaps which we cannot supply: but the words which have surprised us and affected us enable the reader to fill up these vacancies with some degree of intelligibleness and adequacy.
How wise was Jesus, Son of man, Son of God! He instantly set the disciples to work: "Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught. Simon Peter went up." It was the very word he wanted. Contemplation was not his forte; to sit still and engage in an exercise of self-introspection to read the black book of his heart was not Peter's delight; but to be called to activity, to have something to do, to have all his faculties called into exercise, that was the medicine he needed for his heart's healing in that hour of poignant and humiliating memory. We have been in the same condition, oh for something to do! This perpetual contemplation of life, this looking into it with an analytical vision, this taking it to pieces in order that we may examine its motive and the quality of its fibre, this we cannot endure. Oh that God would call upon us to plunge into the sea, to run across a continent, to carry a message for him to persons thousands of miles away anything to awaken us out of this contemplative mood; because in service, in energy, we should find healing and comfort, and in the open air we should throw off much of that which now oppresses us with the burden of a mystery.
This work having been done, a very singular incident occurred "None of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou?" If we may invent a word, we should say there are unaskable questions in human life questions we dare not ask, and other questions we may not ask, and burning questions to which we know the answer without putting the inquiry; so that the heart is full of dumb questioning. A sacred fear kept the disciples quiet: they knew, and yet they did not know; they were perfectly assured, and yet far away; almost beneath their consciousness there lay a wonder as to the personality of this most distinguished presence. Do we not all know what it is to want to ask a question, and yet to feel the needlessness of asking it because there can be only one answer to the inquiry? We dare not ask, Who made the world? knowing that it was the Lord: it looks so like him; it is as to bulk and range and lustre worthy of him. Even if we dissect it and take up one speck of it we know that only the Lord could have made the microscopic atom, for it is as beautiful as ever the great sun could be, and, indeed, the sun himself only exceeds the atom in mere bulk and size and weight; the atom and the sun are one in quality, in make, in insignificance, in suggestiveness. Sometimes we do ask the question; but why we ask it we cannot explain, because we know all the time that it was the Lord who made it. We dare not ask, Who made man? knowing that it was the Lord. Verily, he looks as if he were God-made! Sometimes he is common enough in his aspect; sometimes he shows that he was made of the dust of the ground; but now and again there flames within him a fire which has never been found in the dust; now and again there issues from him a tone of which it might be said that it came from heaven. Man is so mysterious, so complicated, altogether so marvellous in his constitution, structure, energy, inspiration, that we feel that it was the Lord that made him. We durst not ask, Who made history? knowing that it was the Lord. The workers never saw one another; they were, so to say, carrying on their manufactures in different factories or places of work: one was making part of the machine, and another was making another part of the same machine, and not until long years transpired did the parts come together and begin to show their relation one to another, and to something yet larger than themselves. Were any man to ask for a proof of God's existence, I should refer him to human history. Some one was asked to give a concise proof of the inspiration of the Bible, and he answered, "The Jews." It was a full reply. Who has read the history of the Jews? So, were any now to ask, "Give us a concise proof of the existence of God," the answer might well be Human history, not of today, or yesterday, or any one day or decade or century, but the whole quantity comprised by the human story, in all its varieties, undulations, in all its transitory aspects and flashing phases, in all its rises, lapses, recoveries. Understand that, then no man durst ask, Who made human history? knowing that it was the Lord. There is a half-concealed God; there is a half-disclosed Omnipotence, bright to dazzling at points here and there, and quite clouded almost to concealment in vast sections of its infinity.
How shall we know that it was the Lord? The answer is in the 13th verse, "Jesus then cometh... and giveth." That is the proof. It is an eternal proof. When did Jesus do otherwise than give? He said of his Father in this very Gospel, "God so loved the world, that he gave." This is the proof of Christ's deity. He is the eternal Giver. He "giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not." He giveth to men in their need; when the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, he hears them, and he opens a fountain in the sand, or makes the rocks pour water upon the parched ones. Read the history of the blessed Christ of God, and you will find it is a history of Giving. What did Jesus do in this instance? He performed a miracle of healing. How do we know that it was a miracle of healing that he performed? What was the disease? The disease was the double disease of fatigue and hunger. Why talk of disease as if it were limited to only one manifestation or form of suffering? Disease is a large term; it includes weariness. What ails thee, O thou throbbing, energetic life? and the answer is, Nothing positive, but I am weary. Thy Lord will heal thee. Hunger is a disease. Only Christ can appease it. This is the daily miracle of the world. We look for miracles amongst the diseases which are familiar to us by ghastly names; we speak of "all the ills that flesh is heir to"; and probably there is hardly a man who could not write out a list of ailments or diseases, but who would put into that list, sorrow of heart, tears unseen, hunger, thirst? Yet it is in that region that Christ performs his most gracious wonders. He heals the hunger that kills, and the weariness that gives sense of exhaustion even in the presence of the tempting and exciting universe. We should need no proofs of Providence if we opened our eyes. Men are always looking in the distance for proofs of God. We have already seen that about the time of our Lord's coming, when it was already announced in the land, people looked far away, as if they were searching the horizon for his figure; and behold a voice was heard saying, "There standeth one among you." Why do we omit the God that is near and distract ourselves by seeking for a God afar off? He is nigh thee, in thee, nearer than ever thy dearest friend could be to thee; he burns in thy life-blood, he glows within thy garments. Find the sacramental bread upon your table; find the wine of God's love in all the succour of daily life.
How wise is Christ, we have said: and is there not a proof of his wisdom in that he first healed the fatigue and hunger of his disciples, and then began the spiritual examinations? "When they had dined, Jesus saith." That is his plan on earth: first heal the hunger of the hearer, then ask him spiritual questions; first show your beneficent regard for his bodily needs, and then begin to address his higher nature. "So when they had dined." The dinner should never end in itself; the meal should open the way for the Sacrament. After supper he took the same bread and made new meanings of it. So when our daily meal is ended are we to end our thought concerning it, as if we were but animals made to consume? Shall we not after dinner think and inquire, and wonder and pray, and pour out the heart in acknowledgment and love and thankfulness? What questions Christ might have asked! Simon Peter, hast thou repented? Simon Peter, hast thou humbled thyself? Simon Peter, hast thou told the disciples whom thou didst desert that thou art a wicked man? Nothing of that kind was said by the gentle Jesus; he uses the word which is chief in that Christian vocabulary, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" a question you might put to a child; the deepest question of all. This was profound, because love carries everything; it is a fire that burns up all the roots; it is a furnace that purges the gold of all its dross; it is an enthusiasm which means prophetic insight, and sympathetic identification with all things pure, true, and lovely. This is the question which ought to be put to men in connection with Church life Lovest thou the Son of God? We are not made theologians. The theologians can be but few in number, as the poets are, and the philosophers, but we can answer the question as to our love. Where there is love there will be no difficulty in the progress of the Christian life: love sees in the darkness, walks on the water, turns the wilderness into a glowing garden burning with flowers that are not consumed; love is cast down, but not destroyed, persecuted but not forsaken, in continual peril and yet in continual security. When there is more love there will be more progress. Love opens the door of every difficulty, and love makes Christian education a daily delight.
This was gracious as well as profound, because it excited hope. We sometimes ask a question, and convey the answer in the very tone of the inquiry, so that the interrogation becomes its own affirmative. Everything depends upon the tone in which a question is asked. Who can tell the music of the inquiry as addressed to Peter, "Lovest thou me?" Hidden in that inquiry was the answer I know what the reply will be, for thy great heart is just a child's simple honest love. To say to a man, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" is to excite the hope that he may possibly understand it. Lovest thou the Church of the living God? I have seen thee in the sanctuary sometimes: did thy being there signify that in thy poor heart there is some flame of love towards the Father? The very inquiry stirred the spirit into hopefulness. Give a man to understand that you despair of him, and he may despair of himself; but ask him a question which has the effect of opening a door, and he might rise to the inquiry with a new energy and a new confidence.
This was practical as well as gracious and profound, because love is the true qualification for labour. A man cannot labour for Christ if he does not love Christ. It is love that fails, and therefore service goes down. But the heart will not confess this; the heart is fertile in inventions and excuses for the lapses of life. Why do you forsake the sanctuary now? Then will come a list of lies accursed, unpardonable lies. Why do you not give so liberally now as you used to give? Then will come anything but a confession of the truth. What is the truth? that love has gone down, the temperature of affection has rushed on its zero way. When we fail in love we cannot attain to service; we cannot reply to Christian appeals; we cannot co-operate with energetic men, we complain that they are too enthusiastic, and wish to go too quickly for us, and we begin to think that something of another kind is needed: and thus we lie, not unto man, but unto God. Could we say, "Our love has changed: we do not love the Cross as we did, we are not drawn towards the Son of God as we once were," we should have at least a statement made credible by its obvious truth. Peter gave a great heart-answer at the last, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee," and his voice trembled when he said this. It was a noble voice, was Peter's, accustomed to speak out in the open sea, and to give orders whilst the wind was raging; but when this inquiry touched his heart all that great voice shrank into a tearful whisper, and he said, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee." Right away down in the soul there is a true affection for thee; outwardly there are many things to disprove my affection, but in the centre and the heart of things there is a real loyalty to thee which I never felt to another. Christ, I love thee! Until we get a heart-testimony like that, the Church will hesitate and flounder, will aim at nothing, and will beat the air.
Now then, said Christ, If you love me "feed my lambs," "feed my sheep," and again, "feed my sheep." They were all, too, the little sheep; even the sheep were lambs, and the lambs were lambkins; the terms are diminutive, so that we are taken down to the very first germs of love as well as of life. We need the love if we have to do the work; we cannot keep up the process of feeding, or succour, or education, or consolation, unless the love is in excess of the service. A man cannot go beyond his inspiration. He may attempt to do so, he may appear to do so; but by his languor, his reluctance, his half-hearted ness, we should know that the life has gone out of him and all that is left is the flutter of an expiring pulse. And Jesus said, This feeding of the lambs, O Simon Peter, is only preparation for another form of service thou shalt have thy love tested. There is a cross in every life, a place of crucifixion on every path: our love shall not be allowed to go forth merely as a verbal testimony, it shall be crucified, head downwards; it shall be tried as by fire.
John drops his pen here; he says, Many other things did Jesus do, but these can never be told "If they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." What a beautiful climax! Yet without any rhetorical artifice. What is the climax? An et cetera. No artist could have ended with more consummate skill. We expect the rhetorician to climb the lofty steep and wave his triumphant flag upon the summit. But John, whose rhetoric was one of love, said, Now that I read what I have written I feel that I have written nothing worthy of the occasion; as I begin to think, the vision begins to grow. Miracle upon miracle did Jesus do of which no record is to be found; yea, if all he did were written the world itself could hardly contain the literature. That is true, because the world could not contain himself; he overflowed the empty space. It is the experience cf all who follow Jesus that he never can be fully told. A man shall undertake to read the Bible through from end to end, and in proportion as he reads it minutely, will he say at the close, Let us begin again, for we have not begun at all.
Oh, thou who art merciful and gracious, full of compassion and long-suffering and tenderness; thou art kind to the unthankful and to the evil! We hasten to thee with our offering of praise, inasmuch as thou hast crowned our life with lovingkindness and tender mercy, and made it beautiful with continual love. We praise thee; we magnify thee; we offer thee the whole strength of our heart. We hasten to thee as men who have been mocked by the promises of the world, and who long to find satisfaction in thine infinite and unspeakable peace. We have been disappointed. The staff has been broken in our hand and pierced us. We mistook the scorpion for an egg. We have hewn unto ourselves cisterns; they are broken cisterns, which can hold no water. Foiled, smitten, wounded, humiliated, and disgraced we come into thy presence, knowing that in God, as revealed in the person and doctrine of Jesus Christ, and made known unto us by the ministry of the Holy Ghost, we can find rest which our souls could not find elsewhere. All our springs are in thee. Thou givest us what we need. They who are in thy presence, who live in thy light and thy love, hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither are subjected to weariness or decay. We would live in God. We would have our being in the Eternal. We would know nothing among men but Jesus, and him crucified; and by the mystery of pain and the mystery of love, symbolised by Christ's Cross, we would endure the trials of the world, and discharge the whole service of life. Meet us as sinners, and pardon us. The blood of Jesus Christ, thy Son, cleanseth from all sin. May we know its cleansing, healing power. We have done the things we ought not to have done; we have withheld the testimony which it became us to deliver; we have often been timid and unfaithful; we have hesitated when we ought to have gone forward; we have compromised where we ought to have died; we have become self-seekers where we ought to have sought the crown of martyrdom; we have kept an unjust balance and an untrue weight; our measure has been false; our word has been untrue; our spirit has been worldly; our very prayers have been selfish. All this we say when we truly know ourselves, as we are revealed to ourselves by the indwelling, all-disclosing Spirit. God be merciful unto us sinners, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness! Give us the hearing ear and the understanding heart, the obedient will, the ever-industrious hand in the service of Jesus Christ. When we have done our best to serve our day and generation, and the time of reckoning has come, may we find all our worth in the worthiness of the Lamb, and be accounted fit to sit with him on his throne, because in our degree we have shared the pain and shame of his crucifixion. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 21". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany