Easter 3 ~ Peter and the pleasures of the table

The Shepherd and the Fish

Peter and the pleasures of the table

John 21:1-19

The eighteenth-century French Philosopher Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1828), wrote a treatise called La Physiologie de goût which is known in English as ‘The Philosopher in the Kitchen’. He writes this:

“The pleasure of eating is the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied. The pleasures of the table are considered sensations born of the various circumstances of fact, things and persons accompanying the meal. The pleasure of eating is common to ourselves and the animals, and depends on nothing but hunger and the means to satisfy it. The pleasures of the table are peculiar to mankind, and depend on preliminary care over the preparation of the meal, the choice of the place, and the selection of the guests… When the need for food begins to be satisfied, then the intellect awakes, talk becomes general, a new order of things is initiated, and he who until then was a mere consumer of food, becomes a table companion or more or less charm, according to the qualities of nature bestowed upon him by the Master of all things.”

(Brillat-Savarian, trans Anne Drayton, The Philosopher in the Kitchen, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, pp 161-2)

These words perhaps resonate with the Last Supper, or indeed with the beachside breakfast that we heard about in our gospel reading. But let’s go, not first to the beach where Jesus is waiting on the shore, ready to serve breakfast to hungry hardworking fishermen – but to another place, a few weeks earlier. The location is a courtyard, and there is another charcoal fire. The Greek word for courtyard is aulen, and we find exactly the same word used by John to describe not only the courtyard of Annas the high priest, where Peter denies Christ three times, but also the sheepfold in the parable of the Good Shepherd. So Peter, on that fateful Thursday night, while his Lord and Master is being interrogated, tortured and sentenced to death, is located in the sheepfold – the ‘aulen’. And, while he is there, he lets Christ down, three times. John is telling us, if only we could read Greek, that Peter has been a bad shepherd. He runs away, he does not do as he is asked, he lets God down, and the sheep are scattered. The key is a Greek word that is translated differently in English. And it all happens around a charcoal fire.

And now, in today’s gospel we have another charcoal fire, and breakfast on the shore, when Peter rushes to join in – pleasures not of simple fish alone, but of food fellowship with the leader and friend he loves. Or does he? Jesus tests him. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’

Notice that Jesus calls him ‘Simon son of John’, not Simon Peter. In denying Christ in that sheepfold courtyard, Bad Shepherd Peter lost the right to his new name. He has forfeited the rock-like status that he had been given.

Peter, you may remember, means’ ‘rock’. But now, around a second charcoal fire, he has a second chance, and through the questions Jesus asks him Simon is restored to Peterhood. He is asked to profess his love three times - each one counters those three denials - acts of despair and untrustworthiness the remembrance of which hurt Peter as much as they do Jesus. None of us like having to say sorry, and few of us have something as momentous as Peter to have to own up to.

Love and trust are intimately connected in this story at the end of John’s gospel.

It is fitting, because John’s understanding of Christ’s gospel was of a Gospel of Love - supremely characterised by the image of the Good Shepherd. Jesus entrusts that rôle to Peter, but only after he has taught him a lesson about love. Again, as non Greek speakers, we cannot see it hidden in the text. For, you may have heard that in Greek there are three words for love and in this passage it matters. Eros, is sexual, philia is linked to friendship, and agape usually refers to a sacrificial, total commitment. We know this word from the agape suppers we share in Holy Week. In this final encounter between Christ and Peter, Jesus asks Peter twice if he loves him, using the verb agape. Each time Peter replies using a different word – philia. That is to say that he does not answer the question. Jesus asks: ‘Peter do you agape me?’ ‘Yes Lord I philia you’. And then, the third time, Jesus uses the verb philia himself and Peter gets upset, affirming once again that he does, indeed it’s what he’s been saying all along. It is ironic really, for we would expect Jesus to be the one getting upset here, as Peter evades his questions, and reveals that he cannot love Christ as Christ loves him – in a self-sacrificing, committed way. Peter is not ready to make the kind of absolute commitment required of him – and let’s be honest – are any of us?, and he seems to have a different understanding of love to Jesus.

But in spite of all of this, Peter is released from the bonds of his denial, and even though he has already behaved as a bad shepherd, he is entrusted with the future of the Church and his rocklike shepherd status is restored to him. This is why Jesus says, ‘feed my sheep’. It’s not just a nice idea, it relates directly to the metaphorical language being used. It is as if Jesus says to Peter, “Peter, you are once again the rock, the fallible, but strong and human rock, on which I build the church – to you and your spiritual descendants I give the keys of heaven; now go and shepherd my flock”.

It is a terrifying, humbling and fantastic moment, on which the future of the world turned. And the key is a couple of Greek words that translate into the same English word. This is what happened to Peter around a simple breakfast, cooked on a beach: during a meal, Peter’s world changed. We might wonder why it was around an al fresco breakfast of fish and not a bread and wine occasion such as on the road to Emmaus. In a way that would have been too obvious: another Eucharistic type meal, and it would have suggested that Jesus, while present with us in bread and wine, is somehow only present in bread and wine. This story shows us that he reveals his presence – is present among us - wherever agape is shared. And we might be reminded of other loaves and fishes, 5 of them in fact and of five thousand others present, who were fed from so little but whose table fellowship stretched so far. A book I once read a few years ago contained the comment that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is most of the time, either going to a meal, having a meal, or leaving a meal. It’s a bold statement, but it emphasises the culture of Jesus’ time, in which meals were not only important for the feeding of the body, but in the tradition of the symposium inherited from Greek culture and embraced by Judaism, the meal was the major context in which teaching and learning would take place. Symposium, which we take to be a word denoting an academic gathering, is actually a Greek word meaning ‘to drink together’ and it meant, basically, after dinner talking, with wine, of course. The Last Supper was a symposium, and the disciples reclined on couches to listen to Jesus teach. Leonardo painted it wrong, and has not really helped our understanding, let’s say. We have a sort of symposium on the beach when Jesus teaches Peter by asking him awkward questions – which is exactly what Socrates used to do as recorded by Plato in his book called ‘The Symposium’, and from which we have inherited the pedagogical technique known as the Socratic Method. And we have it writ large in the feeding miracles, when, whether it is four or five thousand souls who have been fed as they come to hear Jesus’ teaching, then their bodies need to be fed too. It’s not that body and soul are to be separated as such, but that one is a metaphor for the other. To be truly fed is to be fed in both, and Jesus is the feeder of the soul and this is made real in the feeding of the body.

Communion is a little bit of daily bread, which, at an extreme level, will stop us starving literally. But communion is also a little spiritual top up, a necessary morsel of spiritual food. We are taking far more than a little bit of bread into ourselves at Communion.

And this story, among others, rich as it is in meaning, shows us that Christ is with us whenever we share table fellowship in a spirit of agape or even philia, and as Matthew put it at the end of his gospel, Jesus will continue to be with us in this way, now and to the end of the age. This is why Holy Communion is so important, physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, communally, personally. It is a public, private, personal, corporate devotion.

And it is, as Brillat Savarin might have mused, a a pleasure of the spiritual table that may be enjoyed on earth and in heaven. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 05/05/19