We ought to pay close attention to Peter in today’s Gospel lesson, because he is all of us. Like Peter, we all belong to God. We all have known shame and failure in our lives. And we all have been and always will be called forward by God’s Spirit to new life. The beautiful words of this passage are not for Peter alone. They are for all of us. From “I do not know him” to “Feed my sheep.” From a life of failure and shame to a life of love and service, that is the resurrection that Christ intends to work in all of our hearts… in all of our lives.
Peter and Paul, Apostles
June 29, 2014
In my opinion, today’s Gospel lesson is one of the most beautiful and most moving exchanges that occurs anywhere in scripture. When I hear it read aloud, it is like a beautiful piece of music to me. I like to just close my eyes and let the power and beauty of the words flow over me and through me.
The exchange between Jesus and Peter occurs on the shores of Lake Tiberias. It begins with the disciples in a boat out on the lake. This is after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the disciples are at a loss for what to do; so they decide to return to something familiar… their old life. Led by Peter, they decide to go fishing. While out in the boat, they spot Jesus on shore. He is by a charcoal fire, preparing fish for his disciples to eat.
The charcoal fire is significant. The author of John wants his readers to recall the last time Peter stood beside a charcoal fire.
There are only 2 places in the entire Bible where action is set by a charcoal fire. One is today’s passage from John. The other is on the day that Jesus was crucified. On that terrible day, while Jesus was being held and questioned by the Chief Priests, Peter approached a charcoal fire in order to warm himself. There he was questioned three times by others also standing around the fire. “Are not you also one of his disciples?” asked one. “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” asked another. “Certainly, you are one of them; for you are a Galilean,” said a third. In response to each question, Peter denied that he knew Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is just a few days later. Jesus — the man Peter three times denied — has recreated the scene. He has made a charcoal fire. He has gathered Peter and the disciples around it. And he comes with his own set of three questions for Peter to answer. He begins with: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Jesus’s question creates dismay. Just to be clear… the question means, “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?” Why would Jesus ask this question? What could be his point?
The old Peter would have certainly blurted out, without thinking and without hesitation: “Yes, Lord, I do love you more than these others love you.” Because that’s the way the old Peter was.
But Peter is not the same as he was before. In fact, Jesus’ question seems to throw back in Peter’s face that very boast he made earlier. After Jesus told the disciples that they would all abandon him, Peter declared: “Even if [all the others] fall away, I will not,”
That was Peter’s boast… that he loved Jesus more than the others. But as everyone knows… when the heat was on… he fell away, the same as the others. That was Peter’s shame.
And now Jesus, the man Peter abandoned and denied in order to save his own skin, is standing there and asking him, “Do you love me more than these?”
What could Peter possibly say? His answer is the response of a broken, but honest man who is being held together by one thing… the power of God’s love.
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” There is in Peter’s answer affirmation (“Yes, I love you”); but no boasting…. no… “I love you more than the others love you.” Instead, Peter humbly defers to what Jesus himself knows. “You know that I love you.”
Peter has learned a painful lesson that bragging, good intentions, lofty images of who he is and what he can do mean nothing. He is who he is. He doesn’t know anymore what he’s capable of or who he’s better than. He knows only that he loves Jesus.
Once Peter has replied, Jesus says to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Two more times, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
The third time Jesus asks the question, we see what pain it brings to Peter. “Peter felt hurt…” the text says when Jesus continued to ask this question. Peter, after his complete failure to be a good man, to be a loyal friend, and the kind of person he was sure that he was… has lost everything, and Jesus’s repeated question reminds Peter of that fact.
But Peter persists in his answer, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter has lost everything, but he hangs on to one thing… the love that binds him to Jesus.
Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He says it 3 times. 1 time for each question. 1 time for each response by Peter. It is as if each command of Jesus cancels each previous denial by Peter, and points Peter to new life.
“Feed my sheep.” That is the life to which Jesus points Peter. Peter’s shame and failure are a fact of his life, but Christ will not permit that to claim his future. There will be no return to Peter’s old life. There will be no wallowing in shame over past misdeeds. God’s will for Peter’s future is a life of love and service, powered and made new by the Spirit and grace of God.
Peter’s failure to be who he should be, to be who he wanted to be and who he thought he was… was devastating for him. But Jesus would not let go of him because Peter belonged to him. The power and love of God continued to work on him, in him and through him.
What Jesus is saying to Peter here, through his questions and commands, is: “Peter, it’s time to leave your past failures and shame behind. It’s time to move away from your old life. I’m calling and drawing you to something new… life lived in the grace of God, and now you need to let my forgiveness set you free to move into it. You need to be strong and wise and move forward… for good. Turning back is not an option for you anymore.
We ought to pay close attention to Peter in today’s Gospel lesson, because he is all of us. Like Peter, we all belong to God. We all have known shame and failure in our lives. And we all have been and always will be called forward by God’s Spirit to new life. The beautiful words of this passage are not for Peter alone. They are for all of us.
From “I do not know him” to “Feed my sheep.” From a life of failure and shame to a life of love and service, that is the resurrection that Christ intends to work in all of our hearts… in all of our lives.
You young people here at Y.C.C…. You are Peter. And Jesus asks you, “Do you love me?”
You’re here because your life isn’t working. When that happens, we often fall into despair, wallow in shame, blame others, make excuses, deny or minimize our problems and just keep doing the same old thing. That’s because the old life is comfortable even if it is no life at all.
But it’s not what we were created for. And God will never stop calling and drawing you to the life you were created for.
To move into new life is not easy. Like Peter, we often don’t know the way. And like Peter, we need to move away from grieving and blaming and looking back to our old life. We need to start receiving the forgiveness and grace of God and embrace new life. We need to start taking responsibility for those things over which we have control. We need to stop avoiding the hard work of real change. We need to stop lying to ourselves and others. We need to start thinking. We need to grow a backbone and stand up, follow Jesus and do what needs to be done.
Every human being’s relationship to God is characterized by God calling, commanding, pushing, and pulling that person into change and new life.
Christ’s promise is that he will plant in us… as he planted in Peter… love that will not fail… even when all else does. That love is the seed from which new life, great beauty, and vibrant strength will grow. It is the seed of resurrection. God’s forever gift to all of us.