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The Fall Guy

April 22, 2007

Denise Kelsall

Easter 3     John 21:1-19


Just imagine you had betrayed your best friend, the person whom you loved or admired the most, the person who revealed something startling wonderful and new, someone you had shared all sorts of adventures with and talked to deep into the night, whom you realized was a pretty extraordinary person, who offered you hope and a vision of a new future. One to whom you had made heartfelt promises and vows.


Imagine that you had denied what you believed, that your very silence condemned your friend, that you gave way to that gut-wrenching and shrivelling hot fear when confronted, or when put under pressure you conformed and disavowed what you knew was good and true.


People, and that’s us, do it all the time. Perhaps not as dramatically, but we get cross, defend ourselves and lay blame, we point fingers and privately accuse others – we want to be accepted, part of the in-crowd and maybe secretly see ourselves as superior or above another. Most of all we want to be safe, and that asks us not to rock the boat when things get rough and in our silence we deny our best selves and condemn the other in our midst.


This passage from John’s gospel is very evocative and explores these very human responses.


The seven disciples who had followed Jesus seem forlorn as they set out at night to go fishing.


It feels quiet and sombre as they resume their lives as rough fishermen. So much has happened – their friend who loved them so well, who opened their eyes to astounding possibilities, their leader and mentor has been crucified - their hopes and dreams are dashed, they feel rotten because they denied knowing him and now he is dead. Imagine them thinking – “If only we had said something… if only,” full of regret – “is it too late, can I make amends,” and knowing how impossible it is…wishing it were just a bad dream and go away - we all know how that feels.


The catch echoes their mental state – empty, nothing, no fish. At dawn as they are heading back in someone calls from the beach and tells them to cast their net again. Instantly it’s overwhelming – fish galore. At that moment they realize that it’s Jesus. Peter desperately leaps over the side and races through the water to the shore. Is it really him they think, as they eat the fish and the bread that Jesus has waiting for them by the fire. They are too afraid or awestruck to ask – perhaps they are frightened of condemnation for their faithlessness and betrayal. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, if he loves him best of all, and each time Peter responds more fervently “Yes Lord – you know I love you” or words to that effect. No recriminations, no punishing words, no laying on of guilt – you could say it was the second chance we all want when we have wounded one we love.


This story at the end of John’s gospel is outwardly about post-resurrection appearances, miraculous abundance and the commissioning of Peter as leader – but it is equally about guilt and redemption.


Most dramatic stories and situations have a fall guy. Someone who takes the rap.


In this instance all of the disciples were complicit in their fearful silence, but it is Peter who gets to speak and denies Jesus three times in the garden. This casts him as the fall guy, and consequently he is the one who is marked or gets the bad press – he betrays himself.


However, it is Jesus who is really the definitive fall guy here. The disciples were not steadfast or loyal. They melted away when the heat was on and he went to an ugly death. Jesus could also be seen as the scapegoat or the sacrificial victim that many ancient cults and belief systems have demanded.


In Judaism one of the holiest days of the year is Yom Kippur – the day of Atonement when collectively people fast and pray – a day that even most secular Jews observe. Its central theme is one of repentance and reconciliation. In biblical times the priests took 2 goats to the temple. One goat was sacrificed, the other was prayed over and took on the sins of the people. Then this goat, dressed with a scarlet strip its head representing the sins of the people, was driven into the wilderness to die – usually driven over a cliff. This was the scapegoat, euphemistically the fall guy who took on the sins of the people.


Rene Girard is a prominent and influential contemporary thinker. He maintains that Jesus was taken to the temple and sacrificed to satisfy and satiate the pent up frustrations and desires of the people. Girard believes that society inherently runs on “mimetic desire” or imitation. That instinctively or deep down we are imitators – what another has determines our desires, we want things we can’t have or be – power, prestige, possessions, money, the car, the girl, to be like Dad – whatever. He states that this is the root of all the violence in our society and here it culminates in the death of Jesus. This frustrated desire builds up to fever pitch and explodes in the sacrifice of a victim. Jesus is the ‘other,’ the victim, the scapegoat and once he is sacrificed the wild violence is diffused and he is elevated and becomes holy. The people have released all their inner turmoil, ferocity is spent and is replaced by a desire for sanctity. Importantly Girard believes that once we realize this internal mechanism is at work we can alter our behaviour.


Scapegoating is something we have all witnessed or experienced where the weakest or most vulnerable, ‘the other’, is picked upon and driven to misery, awful fear and alienated, perhaps unto death. It is seen in the transferring of the amassed human pain and rage of a group on to an object, an animal, a person or a whole race of people – we have seen it in school, we see it in the violent frustration of gangs, in parliaments, in families, in all strata of society. I’m sure it contributes to our terrible child abuse record in this country. Probably some of us have suffered this at some time in our life.


Girard believes that Jesus is killed because his humility, wisdom, goodness and compassion are a threat to others who claim these values and for themselves. Furthermore, his resurrection reveals that we are always wrong in the one we alienate or destroy, and that often this one, this scapegoat, the disturbed or the victim in our midst is the very one we need to help us see ourselves, to redeem us and to make us whole.


In this light the story of the barbeque by the lake becomes a much deeper look at us and what Jesus offers. He is resurrected here not to prove that we can attain immortality, or that with him on our side we can have what we want, or that we are right. This story shows us what we are and what we can be, what I believe we really want to be. It helps us to see more clearly what is happening around us, to observe ourselves, our own shortcomings and of those close to us, and to try to live openly thoughtfully and intentionally into that awareness.


Jesus doesn’t condemn Peter and the disciples – he feeds them with fish and bread and with a wide open and abundant generous love. A love that liberates, absolves and brings the hope of a new life free from victimization and guilt. Peter and the disciples are reconciled and redeemed – to a clearer and better understanding of the possibilities of love and of life, offered freely in the gift of knowledge in Jesus Christ.


As are we.

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