By Debie Thomas
Here’s a composite memory: I am five, eight, twelve, sixteen years old. I’ve sassed my mother, or lied to my father. I’ve ruined a new dress, stayed out too late, misbehaved in church, or ignored my chores. I’ve failed in some way, trivial or terrible, and I’ve been caught. But the most painful part of the memory is not the discovery. It’s what happens after I’m caught, after I apologize, after I’m punished and sent to my room. The darkest part is the shame.
I didn’t grow up in a home or culture that practiced restoration. Despite my family’s best intentions, we never found our way to a language of grace. We never said or heard, “I forgive you,” or, “It’s okay,” or “I still love you.” Instead, we abandoned the wrongdoer in our midst to a thick, damning silence. We withdrew affection to reestablish honor. We avoided eye contact, shut down authentic conversation, and rendered the offense and the offender invisible.
Eventually, after hours, days, or weeks — depending on the severity of the sin — the ice thawed, and life returned to a bruised normal. But a wound still festered below the surface. A thick, hot shame that filled my body and assured me that I was unfixable, unlovable, and wrong.
This week’s Gospel reading begins with shame so thick, it makes me cringe. It begins with the disciple Peter battling his shame on a fishing boat in the Sea of Tiberias. Peter the Rock. Peter whom Jesus astounded with a miraculous catch of fish. Peter, “a fisher of men.” Peter who proclaimed Jesus the Son of God before any other disciple dared to. Peter whose mother-in-law Jesus healed. Peter who walked on water. Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on a mountaintop. Peter who promised to stay by Jesus’s side even unto death. Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire on the night of Jesus’s arrest that I’ll bet he expected to spend the rest of his life fleeing from that single, searing memory: “Hey! I saw you with Jesus! You must be one of his followers.” “No. No, I am not! I swear, I don’t even know the man.”
That complicated, wounded Peter returns to his fishing boat. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re ashamed? Retreat to whatever is safe, comfortable, and familiar? Run headlong towards something — anything– that will help us feel competent and worthy again? Peter flees to his boat, his nets, his vocation before Jesus. As if there is some time or place in his life where shame is not. Where his wound is not. Where Jesus is not.
But of course, there is no time or place in our stories where Jesus isn’t. He is just as present in our fleeing as he is everywhere else. Just as loving in the midst of our failures as he is when we succeed. It’s not Jesus who has stakes in drawing out our humiliation or maximizing our penance. That stuff is on us. It’s on our flawed theologies. Our voyeuristic obsession with other people’s failures. Our need to rebuke and shame wrongdoers in order to keep ourselves pure. Jesus doesn’t have those flaws, obsessions, or needs; his will is reconciliation, and his pleasure is grace.
But Peter doesn’t know this. So he spends a long night trying to catch fish without Jesus, and he fails. Dawn breaks, Jesus shows up, a miraculous catch follows the night of futility, and Peter finds himself, breathless and soaked, sitting by a charcoal fire. Again. Looking into the eyes of the Lord he thrice denied. Again. Facing three costly questions. Again.
What I find both searing and instructive in this story is the way Jesus saves Peter by returning him to the source of his shame. He doesn’t wrap the humiliated disciple in gauze. He doesn’t avoid the hard conversation. He doesn’t pretend that Peter’s denials didn’t happen and didn’t wound. But neither does Jesus preach, condemn, accuse, or retaliate. He feeds. He feeds Peter’s body and then he feeds Peter’s soul. He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
As I meditate on Peter’s story, I wonder what our failures would feel like if we offered each other the safety Jesus offers his disciple. The safety to return to the heart of our wrongdoing and despair. The safety to wrap fresh language around our failure. The safety to experience unconditional love in the midst of our shame. The safety to try again. What would our witness look like if the Church epitomized Jesus’s version of reconciliation? What would the world be like if Christians were known as the people to run to in times of humiliation? Can we, like Jesus, become sanctuary for the shamed?
Around the fire Jesus builds, Peter’s fear and denial (“I don’t know the man!”) evolves into trust and worship: “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” In the end, Peter realizes that it’s what Jesus knows that matters. Jesus knows that we’re more than our worst failures and betrayals. He knows that we’re prone to shame and self-hatred. He knows the deep places we flee to when we fail. And he knows how to build the fire and prepare the meal that will beckon us back to shore.
Jesus’s appearance to Peter — like all of the post-resurrection appearances the Gospels record — speaks volumes about God’s priorities. In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.
In other words, Jesus focuses on relationship. On reconciliation. On love. He spends the last days before his ascension delivering his children from fear, despair, self-hatred, and paralysis. He wastes no time on triumphalism or smugness. Even at the height of his power, he chooses humility. He chooses to linger on a lonely beach till dawn, waiting for his hungry children to realize how much they need him. He chooses to ask Peter an honest and vulnerable-making question about denial, even though the answer might hurt. He chooses to feed and tend his sheep.
Peter’s shame meets Jesus’s grace, and Jesus’s grace wins. That’s the Gospel story in a nutshell. As writer and research professor Brené Brown puts it, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Meaning, shame cannot survive the living Word. Shame cannot tolerate the resurrection. When shame encounters the God who is Love, it burns to ash and scatters.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com