If you’re in a boat, and look in towards Crosby beach, in Lancashire, you’ll see an Antony Gormley sculpture on the beach. If you at the beach at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, you’ll see a memorial sculpture to Benjamin Britten. If you look at Brighton beach, well, you get everything you deserve!
The disciples were out on the sea of Galilee, and they looked at the beach and saw someone there. It was Jesus standing on the beach. You can visit the place still. At least tradition names a spot on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as the site of this encounter. The morning light is gentle there. The lake is grey but bright, with a strange mixture of sunshine and mist hovering on the surface, picking out hints of pastel blue and green from the deep. The ripples lap evenly, calmly onto the pebbles. Kingfishers swoop and settle among the reeds. There is a heavenly stillness. You look across the water, and the visibility is good but not quite clear. The day opens up slowly, patiently, gradually.
Our gospel reading is all about new beginnings, about the opening up of new possibility, pardon and promise. It’s a morning story, a sunrise meeting. It’s part of the Easter record, of the season of resurrection. It’s a time for restoring companionship after crucifixion and service after sorrow. It’s the edge – of the sea, of the day, of a new moment in history. It’s dawn out of darkness, life out of death, welcome out of toil – and making up after falling down.
For Simon Peter, this is a time to look Jesus in the eye once again. Simon, son of John, do you love me? Three times over. As if to undo, to erase, to set to one side, the three times that he denied Jesus. There’s a charcoal fire on the shore, like the brazier in the high priest’s courtyard in Jerusalem. And beside a charcoal fire, the memory doesn’t need to be voiced; it just needs to be acknowledged and put away.
Jesus wants Peter to start again. It’s morning, and time to leave behind the deeds of the dark. It’s Easter – God’s great affirmation – and time to let denial slip into the past, and stay there. No longer will Peter be defined by his worst mistake. No longer need he hold against himself what Jesus has forgiven. No longer need he hang his head when Jesus wants to look him in the eye.
Forgiveness frees us to be new. It’s not the same as never having got anything wrong. It’s a more mature, more weathered, kind of experience. It turns you to God, with praise that comes from deep inside – we’re grateful just to be accepted, and we’re secure because grace has been there when we needed it.
Our psalm, Psalm 30, is about new dawning too: grief turned into dancing, tears into joy, sackcloth into garments of gladness, desperation into delight, and lifting from the pit up to praise.
Dwell with the Psalms, and you are in a fragile world – the world we live in, with its dangers and difficulties. The Psalms hold before God the experiences by which and through which we live, the undulations and unevenness, the unhappiness and uncertainties, the unexpected and unwelcome.
The Psalms take us into the great silences, and invite us to listen for the voice of God. They walk with us through dark days, and help us to believe in light that cannot be overcome. They meet us in places where we are forsaken, and teach us to seek the face of God.
Talk to a Christian who lives with mortal illness, and ask what they read to gain calm and courage: the Psalms. In the long desert of bereavement, ask what text seems to walk in step with the slow unfolding of grief: the Psalms. Listen for the voice of Jesus on the cross, and hear the Psalms.
When friends turn away and fists clench tight with tension, and fear grips and frustration grinds us down, there are passages in the Psalms that speak for us, to let us know of others who have gone this way before and of God who went with them and brought them through.
And the Psalms take us on from there, when we are ready, to the dawn we need, to the gentle light that comes gradually, to the pastel confidence of new beginning. Out of darkness, out of tiredness, out of disappointment, even out of our failure and guilt, they speak for a Lord who waits to meet us on the shore of a new day. They tell, ahead of time, from the shadows of the Old Testament, of a God of Easter, of a resurrection hope, of a Messiah of the morning.
Psalm 30, that we read today, helps us to find the way again, recovering one’s bearings, regaining direction and purpose. It’s something like a little diary excerpt. The story it tells is a drama in three acts. To start with things were alright; faith seemed easy. Then a dreadful calamity swept in; body and spirit were threatened; there seemed no way out. And now, thank God, danger is passed. You have turned my mourning into dancing … that my soul may praise you.
But this find the way again, this new ability to dance, is no easy return to base camp. Things are not as they used to be. Insight has deepened. Now there is a wider view, across the dark valleys as well as onto the sunlit uplands. The sun is back in the sky, but we take the morning as gift rather than for granted. For now faith has lived with difficulty, and hung on. This is a song of experience – going forward, growing with God, and gaining a sense of perspective. We trust and praise a God of the shadows as well as the sunshine, of darkness as well as day, of suffering and crucifixion, and life out of death.
So it was in Galilee at that first Easter, on the seashore with Jesus. There are a couple of vacant seats in the boat. Simon Peter, it says, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael of Cana, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Almost as if to say, one of those two could be you. Put yourself into this story. What do you need to take home today?
– a sense of coming into land, from weariness into welcome?
– a knowledge that you have been pardoned, by Jesus, of that wretched memory you thought you would never leave behind?
– an invitation to lift your head and say that you love the Lord?
– to greet the stranger Jesus on the shore of your life?
– to enter morning and begin again?
There are two vacant seats on the boat. One could be for you.