I’m excited to share our gospel story today because it’s been one of the most important on my faith journey. It’s my go-to scripture whenever I feel the shame of a monumental screw up. The story is a great reminder that your mistakes and failures don’t get to define you. Any story has the potential to be a redemption story that can propel you into something better. We all mess up, the important thing isn’t how you mess up, it’s what you do after you blow it—even if you blow it big time!
There are multiple ways to tell your personal story. The themes of these narratives shape how we see ourselves and approach situations and treat other people. You can yourself as a victim where everything happens to you and nothing is your fault, ever. It’s a miserable way and mistrusting way but it is a very popular story option. A second way is to always think of yourself as the hero. You are blinded to your ability to cause hurt to those around you. You are always right, clever, and deserving of a pedestal. But pedestals are lonely, and you have a tendency to look down on others from there.
A more honest and gratifying way of telling the story is to say it is a process story where you acknowledge your mistakes, make amends, get up and learn to love more deeply, and use your experiences to help others.
A quick recap of Peter
The story of Peter in the Bible is told in this way. The interaction between Peter and Jesus that we read today is the last story of Jesus in the John’s gospel. It assumes paid attention to all the interactions of these two throughout the story, so let’s recap.
Jesus met Peter when he was preaching on a lakeshore but the crowd swelled so large that Jesus couldn’t effectively speak to them all. So, Jesus climbs into a nearby boat owned by Peter, has him put out a little way, and addresses the crowd from offshore. Afterward, Jesus tells Peter to go out to the deep water and let down his nets. We learn that Peter and his buddies, James and John, had been out fishing all night but got skunked—they caught nothing. Yet, he trusts Jesus goes deep and pulls up a catch so enormous that it nearly capsizes the boat. Jesus asks Peter to follow him and that he’d be fishing for people.
Jesus gathers the other disciples and sets about his ministry. Peter becomes Jesus’ right-hand, the leader of the disciples. Peter was the nickname Jesus gave to him; his real name is Simon. Peter means rock and Jesus tell him his confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the rock on which he will build the church.
Although impulsive and hot-headed, Peter absorbed Jesus’ teachings. He asked Jesus if someone wrongs you how many times do you have to forgive them, as many as seven times? Jesus says, no. You must forgive 70 times 7 times.
Highs, Lows and a Prediction
After three years together, Jesus asks the disciples what’s the buzz, Who do people say that I am? Peter says I say that you are the Messiah. Jesus then goes into an explanation about how the Messiah would suffer, die, and be raised up on the third day.
Peter would have none of it and he rebukes Jesus. Then Jesus puts him in his place saying, Get behind me Satan! Jesus reiterated his commitment to nonviolence and told Peter that if he or anyone else wanted to be a Jesus follower, they’d have to be willing to pick up their cross and be willing to sacrifice themselves as well.
Peter, though confused, hangs in there with Jesus. He must have gained some encouragement by being there for the transfiguration and hearing God’s voice say this is my beloved son, listen to him.
During the last supper Jesus reveals that someone was betraying him and according to Mark’s gospel, Peter was indignant who was it? and said, Surely, not I. Jesus says this very night you will deny me three times. No! Lord, even if I have to die, I will never fail you.
Peter fails at least 7 times
Before the denials, Peter fails Jesus in a number of ways. After the supper, they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus twice begged Peter to stay awake with him. Jesus was so anxious it was as if blood was dripping from him while he prayed. But Peter kept falling asleep.
Then Judas and the guards crash into the garden to arrest Jesus. Peter pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the arresters. What is Peter doing with a sword? Earlier in the gospel, the disciples are told not to carry them. Jesus was clear about non-violence yet Peter commits an act of violence. In case you missed it, slicing off the ear was not a surgical act. Think about it. Cutting off the ear just meant Peter missed when he tried to chop off the man’s head. Not only did he fail Jesus’s command about non-violence this assault was attempted homicide. As they took Jesus into custody, Peter violated his promise to stay with Jesus no matter what when he ran away. But later follows from a distance to “see how it would end.”
The scene portrayed of the evening is vivid. On one side of the wall, Jesus is being tormented, whipped, screaming out in torture. On the other side of the wall, Peter warms himself by a charcoal fire. People recognize Peter and say, “Hey, you are with Jesus.” No, I’m not. I can tell by your accent. No.
A relative of the guy whose ear got chopped off is there at the fire. You are part of Jesus’ group. No. I never knew him. He doesn’t just deny, but he swears an oath. Not just a denial but invokes God’s name in the lie. A big sin. After the third denial the cock crows and Peter comes face to face with his abject cowardice and failure.
As if nothing happened…
Peter is not present for the crucifixion. When Jesus is raised and meets the disciples for the first time. Peter has to be anxious. How much trouble am I in? The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Peace be with you.” Phew. Jesus doesn’t mention it. A week later, Jesus appears again and his focus is encouraging Thomas to move beyond doubt. Nothing about the denials. It was as if none of that happened.
Maybe Peter thought Jesus didn’t know. After all, he didn’t hear what Peter said over the crack of the lash and his own shrieks of agony. It feels like John’s story ends with an epilogue to the Thomas story with a line about John’s purpose in writing his gospel.
Jesus departs and Peter and the boys figure out what to do next. They hightail it out of Jerusalem and within days they are 80 miles away back at their fishing job as if the last three years had been an amazing adventure, but now they’d go back to what they’d always known, back to the familiar. Peter was again a fisher of fish as if nothing had happened.
After another failed night of fishing, Jesus shows up on the beach in the early morning. They don’t recognize Jesus. To the disciples, he’s just a stranger on the beach. He says You haven’t caught anything have you? For some reason, these professional fishermen never catch a fish in the gospel without divine intervention. The stranger tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. They do and there is another huge haul of fish.
You aren’t going to believe what happens next
The beloved disciple exclaims, “It’s the Lord!” Then we learn something weird. Peter had been fishing naked. He puts on clothes and jumps into the sea. Uh, what???? So many questions.
Why naked? Was it a hot night? Did fishermen keep their clothes from smelling fishy? The other guys seem to be clothed, why is Peter naked? Given what happens next this is a literary way of emphasizing Peter’s shame. It’s an allusion back to Adam getting caught in the garden after eating the apple. Like Adam covering himself, Peter covers himself with clothes and the sea which seems like immersing himself in a baptismal pool of forgiveness.
The other disciples bring the boat and fish to the shore which was about a hundred yards away. Jesus is on the shoreline grilling fish and bread. Jesus tells them to bring the fish they caught. In this communion, they all get to contribute—like our potluck after church. By this time Peter catches up to them and shows superhuman strength hauling the net of 153 large flopping fish to Jesus. 153 seems to be important. Some commentators say there were 153 known nationalities at the time so it represented bringing every kind of people to Jesus.
After breakfast comes the reckoning. They stand by a charcoal fire, just like the one where Peter denied Jesus. Just as Peter denies Jesus three times, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I do.” Peter is slow to catch on.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t call him Peter/Rock but addresses him by his formal name before they met. Simon, son of John do you love me more than these? These what? The other disciples? Life, property, security, your fishing life? You know that I do. Jesus says, feed my sheep.
Again, Simon, son of John, do you love me? You know I do. Feed my lambs. The third time, Peter feels hurt. You know everything. You know I love you.
The trifold asks and gives Peter a chance to recognize and atone for his actions. He’s held to account, but not condemned. Made to face it but was given a chance to redeem himself.
Social scientist Brenee Brown wrote a wonderful book, Rising Strong that came out of extensive interviews of people who have risen from all sorts of devastating failures. She reveals that the common element for those who rise stronger is that they honestly reflect on the truth of what happened, feel the pain of it, and incorporate their fall into a larger story.
Jesus isn’t focusing on his past but on his future as the leader of the church. Feed my sheep.
What’s up with the feeding sheep language? Did Jesus have a flock of sheep somewhere? No, Jesus had previously used the metaphor that his followers are his flock. This was a job interview for being the leader of the whole movement Jesus created. Think about that, just two weeks after this man had betrayed everything Jesus was about, two weeks after an 8-fold failure and abject cowardice, Jesus sees beneath all of that and sees his heart and trusts the entire enterprise to this guy. You are going to be okay. You are going to succeed, just follow me. Live by my teaching and example and you will be okay.
When you screw up
This story is so powerful. It shows us that Jesus isn’t as interested in how we screw up as he is in our potential to do better, to help people. When you mess up you can wallow around in guilt or shame, but that’s not what Jesus wants.
Here’s what we learn by this story. No matter how bad it was, you can always choose to see your story as a redemption story. The good you can do, eclipses what you’ve done. Like Peter, there is a point where we have to come to grips with what we’ve done and choose to go in a better direction. The way is paved the precedent set. You don’t get to have the excuse not to do good because of what you’ve done. That’s forgiven. Move on.
The reckoning ends with Jesus’ third prediction for Peter. The first prediction was that he will be a fisher of people. The second prediction was the three denials. The third prediction is that Peter will be a good shepherd. He will be faithful—even to the cross. He will lead. And he will be followed all the way to his own cross. It’s not all going to be a bed of roses for him. But he will have integrity. He will be supported by God’s grace. He will make a difference. He will leave a legacy.
These are the things predicted for you, too. All you have to do is have the faith to make yours a redemption story. Amen.