Are you weak enough to lead?
As we move into the week of the General Election the Gospel reading of the Third Sunday of Easter seems more than usually appropriate. The final chapter of the Gospel of John is shot through with the theme of failure, forgiveness and a new beginning.
The context of the story – Simon Peter and some disciples going fishing – brilliantly echoes a return to the beginning: the calling of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Even the incident with the re-casting of the nets and the bumper catch of fish mirrors the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
But things have changed. These ‘fishers of men’ had abandoned Jesus during the Passion. Instead of standing with him they went into hiding. The ‘nets’, a symbol of the mission, were broken, shredded by their fear. And the leader of the disciples Simon Peter had even denied knowing Jesus three times before a cockerel had crowed the dawn of Good Friday.
In this story, however, in the early hours before dawn we see that once again they catch a load of fish – and the net does not break. This foreshadows what will happen: that from this group of failed disciples too weak to stand with Jesus in his passion something new would emerge. The Risen Christ renews his relationship with them – reconciles with them – and sends them forth to do the job he’d originally given them.
Even more powerful and moving is Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter. Three times he asks him “Do you love me?” and tells him to lead, to “Feed my sheep”. I am struck by Peter’s response, so human – all too human.
We can only guess Peter’s emotions, a mixture of guilt at betraying Jesus, love for Jesus, and a kind of anxiety about having to speak to someone he has so shamefully betrayed. (I think we can best imagine it as akin to the feeling one has facing someone we have loved deeply and then hurt through our own mixture of stupidity and fear).
But Jesus is not the angry aggrieved lover trying to make us squirm. Jesus’ threefold question to Peter is in fact an undoing, an unbinding of the threefold denial that has placed Peter in the depths of guilt and despair. It is the undoing of Peter’s self-imposed curse.
And in calling him to lead once more, it is Jesus saying to Peter: “You now know how you are to lead. You know that you are weak, that you have failed dismally. But though you are a failure – no, because in fact you are a failure – I choose you to lead my people. Because as one who has learnt failure, I want you to lead my people with humility. Lead my people knowing that you are a forgiven sinner. Lead my people with the compassion I have shown you.”
Dear brothers and sisters who are elected to office this week, whatever your religious beliefs, please take note. Lead South Africa with humility, knowing your limitations. Lead with compassion.
Who knows? Maybe you too will hear, as I think Peter must have head at that moment, a cockerel crowing a new dawn.