Conversations is starting a series on the life of Peter after Jesus’ death and over the next few months we’ll be exploring that.
Peter’s story begins on his home turf. Jesus arrives in a fishing village, he teaches, he meets some of the fishermen. They recognise him as the real deal. They follow.
This group of men includes the sons of Zebedee: James and John as well as another sibling pair – Andrew and Simon. At some point Simon’s becomes known as Peter. This change gains significance in Matthew 16 when Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do people say the Son of Man is?’. Peter gives the Sunday School gold star response: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ and Jesus is delighted with Peter and says ‘On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it’. Simon’s name having become Peter is significant because Cephas/Petros means rock so Jesus is saying – ‘On this Peter I will build my church…’
So Peter is held in high regard by Jesus – he is also always mentioned first in the lists of the Twelve Apostles; he is present at more exclusive events such as the Transfiguration of Jesus; and he joins Jesus in walking on the water. John’s gospel gives Peter prominence – at the last supper he’s reluctant for Jesus to wash his feet and later names Peter as the disciple who cut off an ear when Jesus was arrested.
But the lowest point of Peter’s life (before Jesus’ death) is the denial. All four gospels detail how Peter was to deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. Matthew 26:33-35 records the following exchange:
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
But he did.
Despite his closeness to Jesus; despite the promises; despite the privileged position Peter held – he shows himself to be abundantly human. To be flawed. To fail.
And worst of all, he’s caught in the act.
Luke writes this:
Just as he was speaking [to deny Jesus for the third time], the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Just at the point where he completes the denial of Jesus there’s a look between the two men. Is Jesus’ glance full of recrimination? Is it angry? Is it hurt? Is it the look of one friend to another? We don’t know but we can see repentance and frailty in Peter’s response. He knows he’s messed up.
And this brings us onto the actual passage I’m preaching on tonight, John 21:15-25: the reinstatement of Peter.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter,“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
There’s an obvious symmetry between the three time denial of Jesus by Peter and the three times Jesus presses the question. But I think there’s something in this passage which is more than simply Jesus repairing a relationship – I think that healing already started with that look they shared when Peter was caught. His response was to weep sincere tears of repentance. And God honours the attitudes of our hearts.
After Jesus rises the first message from the empty grave was ‘Go and tell his disciples and Peter…’ – Jesus doesn’t forget Peter, he doesn’t ostracise him and he pursues his restoration. Even though he’s one of the disciples, Mark makes a point of mentioning him specifically by name. And when those reports reach the disciples, who is first to the tomb? Who is described as running to get there by some accounts? It’s Peter. And it’s also Peter that Luke records as being the first disciple to meet with Jesus post-resurrection.
This doesn’t paint a picture to me of a fractured relationship in need of repair. God wants to know us, he forgives us absolutely and he delights when we live life to the full. Peter before this passage in John doesn’t look like he’s carrying the weight of his denial.
I’d suggest Jesus and Peter are mates before this meeting takes place. So this is not about these two as mates, it is about Peter’s restoration to ministry – to the work that God has in mind for him.
Jesus addresses three essential themes: motivation, content and focus.
After getting the practicalities of breakfast out of the way, Jesus’ hunt for motive starts with a question – “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”.
The disciples have dealt with their physical hunger (their literal daily bread) but Jesus starts with the most important question for people looking to be part of what God’s up to – our love for Jesus Christ.
He could have asked all sorts of things – why did you deny me? What were you thinking? How could you do that to me? But he doesn’t imply that Peter doesn’t love Him. He’s seeking out the very core, the very foundation of the Rock – no question is more basic than whether Peter loves Jesus. And no question is more basic for us – it’s not about our skills, our talents, our personality traits. The one basic qualification for serving God, our community and this city is this one – Do you love me?
What motivates us to serve? Is it so we can be judged as successful? Is it to hunt down rewards? Or is it simply the basic truth that we love God. Because that is the only motivation that can last. If we come from any other starting point then we haven’t put Christ at the centre of our lives but made Him somehow secondary to whatever good intentions we’ve got.
If everything starts with our love for God then our love for those around us will necessarily be in their best interests. If everything starts with our love for God then it can keep our priorities configured well. If everything starts with our love for God then we can face hard times together.
And doing this together is important. On the night before the crucifixion Peter claims a higher devotion than the others, Jesus asks him whether he loves ‘more than these’ but it seems Peter has learnt not to deal in comparisons. We can’t second guess how other people relate to God. We can’t pre-judge their experiences of Him. Equally, we can’t necessarily rely on ourselves to stand firm in the face of anything that comes our way. No longer is Peter boasting, he’s hurt and submits to Jesus who knows everything and says “Yes Lord you know that I love you.”
Three times Jesus asks the question. Three times Peter replies. Jesus isn’t looking to past failure or success but rooting Peter firmly in the present – my ability to serve God is all about my love for Him now. Peter’s abilities going forward have to start from where he is, not where he was.
So if our motivation is love for God, what’s the content of what we do? Jesus gives Peter his orders, and then reiterates them: Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.
Our love for God has to be visible in the way we behave, the choices we make, the lives we lead. Jesus’ request of Peter isn’t to kick back on the beach and enjoy the view. Of course, sea-front barbecues are all well and good but being Christians is about feeding sheep, it’s about serving the world.
How does our love for God affect our behaviour?
We live lives that reflect God’s grace – the outrageous generosity of going the extra mile, of turning the other cheek, or forgiving and forgiving and forgiving. Everybody you meet every day this week is valued by God as much as you are. He loves them as much as he loves you. How does that inform the way we treat them? How does that translate into the choices we make or the things we say?
Our response must be compassion. Our response to loving God is to feed his sheep.
And Jesus uses different verbs to express that but both are bound up in the idea of shepherding. In the original Greek the word boskoo emphasises feeding (which Jesus uses twice) and the word poimainoo emphasises the role of leadership – the looking after of sheep. We can all take on a role in that dynamic. Which chimes with you?
Jesus uses both and as he does so he restores Peter’s capacity to be trusted. After the denial (and despite his forgiveness) Peter may have forever carried a fear that he couldn’t be trusted again. Jesus deals with it. We know that trust doesn’t necessarily follow forgiveness – we can’t always successfully forget past disappointments; we can repair relationships but sometimes trust is missing.
Jesus gives Peter both – feed my lambs; feed my sheep.
Serving God begins with love for the Lord. But it doesn’t stop there. Love for God extends to loving and serving people. It’s all about those people out there who don’t know God, who don’t know community, who don’t know family.
This little exchange between Jesus and Peter embeds that knowledge firmly into Peter’s later ministry. His later teachings (of which more as the series progresses I’m sure) don’t single out people to enter a profession but call on us all to embody a mature lifestyle that isn’t afraid of personal sacrifice to serve others.
For Peter that meant the words of Jesus in verse 18 coming true: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Peter had boasted about dying for Jesus but not long after he shrunk back and denied Him. Nevertheless Peter’s final act was to stand up for his saviour and to die for his faith with Nero crucifying him upside down.
It’s unlikely in 21st century Britain that our faith will lead to martyrdom but it should be our goal to see the death of our selfishness. That’s about giving our ambitions, our hopes, our dreams to God and serving Him; not serving them. This is something that I wrestle with all the time. I want signs and wonders to know what I should do but am I really giving everything to God? Trusting him? Or do I still keep the idea in my head that I know best? It’s hard to do but God is faithful to his promises – if God has given you gifts they’re not to be wasted; if you have skills then they’re part of who you are; if you have a passion then it’s unlikely God wants it to burn out without igniting others.
After Jesus asks Peter the same question three times and reiterates the original request for him to follow Peter gets distracted. As he sets off to follow he notices John and asks ‘What about him?’.
With the resurrected Jesus in front of him, with the questions all answered and the content for his life re-established, Peter looks away from Jesus and looks back to John. And you can maybe see what’s going through his head – Jesus has told me to look forward to personal sacrifice and suffering but what about him – is he going to have it cushy?
Do you compare yourselves to others? You want to be doing something in life but you’ve wound up elsewhere? You had it all carefully mapped out but you can’t get on whilst these other people get things falling in their laps? It’s so easy to start comparing ourselves to others but Jesus doesn’t ask us to compare, he calls us to obey.
And Jesus puts Peter in his place – mind your business chap, I’ll do whatever I decide to do and I’m not answering to you. Authority is something we 21st century folk don’t get on with – we want to understand and to know the rationale without blindly following. We’re very unsheeplike in that way – questioning everything, wanting answers, thinking things through and often unwilling to act if we’re being told to do something that we don’t agree with. And so it’s one of the hardest disciplines we’ll learn to obey God, even if we don’t want to, and especially if we can’t get our heads around the reasons.
Life will distract us. The stuff of life eats into our time, and it sucks our energy so that we marginalise God. But that’s dangerous – we need to take time for God. The focus of our lives must be responding to the call of Jesus – Follow me.
It’s the new year – do you do resolutions? I don’t but I’m trying to get back into a routine of reading my bible and spending that time with God. I want to have more of Him in my daily life so that my focus is on God, and following Him and not on the distractions from elsewhere.
Peter may have felt that even though he’s forgiven that he could never be trusted again. He had failed. Failed spectacularly. Relationship restored but guilt not necessarily diminished. Damage repaired but not without scars.
But God deals in wholeness and fulfilment, not unfinished business or cliffhangers.
The Bible is full of examples of people for whom failure is part and parcel of their story. The mistakes they made and the stories they tell give us a big picture of humble, accountable, integrity and not the fake postcard of successful, problem-free glory.
Take Abraham – he lied about Sarah being his wife. And Sarah herself laughed at God’s promises.
Moses who was banished from his people for murder and stuttered, led them to freedom. But only after 40 years in the wilderness.
David was a boy whose armour didn’t fit and then grew up into an adulterer who abused his position to have a man killed.
Jonah ran away from God, Gideon was another one who doubted what God had promised.
Just a handful but all of them trusted by God to do great things.
And for us there can perhaps be a sense that we’re not good enough. That God can’t use us. That there’s this thing that will get in the way of our walk with God. It might not be epic failures but what we think are character flaws or weaknesses.
I imagine we’re all familiar with the story of Joseph. Young, spoilt brat envied by his brothers because of his close relationship with the father. He dreams, he tells his brothers they’ll bow to him, he says that it’s from God.
They sell him into slavery. He winds up in Egypt. He rises from slave to trusted servant before being unjustly imprisoned only to rise again as trusted advisor and eventually to position of authority.
But that success is tinged with the separation from his family. And years have passed since he had those dreams. But eventually there is reconciliation and restoration. And there’s fulfillment of promises long-held by God. Not in the way Joseph imagined as a child but unmistakeable as the future echoes of that hope.
If God has put something on your heart, if God has given you gifts and abilities, if God has inspired you with a passion and you think he’s made you a promise then that’s not for nothing.
But its fulfilment might not look like we expect. And there may be dark moments on the road to get there. And successfully arriving at that long-promised destination may not be easy either. But God is faithful to his promises. Joseph’s story tells us that. And so does this episode with Peter.
It is a great and exciting truth to be invited into the stuff God is doing but it’s not easy. I think this episode in the life of Peter is helpful in getting us to check up where we are with God in our lives.
Motivation, content, focus.
Are we motivated by love for God first and foremost?
Do we know the precise details of our orders? It’s OK to be working them out – you’re where you are now so how can our gifts, skills, talents serve our community or our city?
Are our eyes fixed on God, is our walk with him still the focus of what we do when we share fellowship, when we pray, when we come to Conversations?
Over the next few weeks we’ll see what Peter’s reinstatement means for his ministry and by extension the impact it had on the world. A man of failure but a man of great success too.