Close Encounters: Peter

John 21:15-19

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.”19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

This week, we will wrap up our series on Close Encounters of the Risen Christ as we explore the complex and compassionate relationship between Jesus and Peter.  In this encounter, Peter has the conversation of a lifetime with the Risen Christ over a fire and breakfast.  Last week, we left Peter on the shores of the sea after he had jumped into the waters to swim ashore to see Christ for himself.  For whatever reason (I think it’s funny), the text tells us that Peter was naked on the boat, but put on clothes to jump into the water.  I always thought this was more than a random and intriguing detail.  I think this moment is when Peter is most vulnerable to Jesus.  He is living in the in between- between his past failure of betrayal and the hope of restoration and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer.

Once on the shores of the sea, Peter encounters the Risen Christ by the fire, which mentally takes him right back to the fire that warmed Peter as he denied Jesus three times.  Scent is connected to memory.  There have been times when I have been walking somewhere and have caught a scent of my grandmother’s perfume, and it takes me right back to memories of when she was alive and would hug me so tight that I thought she would never let go.  The scent also reminds me of my teenage years when, admittedly, I wasn’t so nice to her, and I find myself feeling guilty that maybe I didn’t apologize to her enough in my adult life.  Scent can bring back parts of our lives that either bring us joy or that we no longer wish to remember.  As the scent of the fire takes Peter back to his betrayal and failure, the risen Jesus meets him in the midst of his shame, and offers both compassion and a challenge to turn it all around.

And it all begins with a question (or three!) from the Risen Christ: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  What is Jesus referring to here?  What are the “these”?  Perhaps his question is really, “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these other disciples do?” Peter responds the first two times, with “Yes, Lord you know I love you.”  What kind of love is being referred to here?  There are three types of love discussed and used in the Greek language.  Eros usually refers to an intimate or romantic kind of love.  Philos is friendship or family love, and a love shared between equals.  Agape love expresses a love between God and humanity, and the kind of love we show when we are charitable to others.  As Thomas Aquinas put it, agape love is to “will the good of another.”

The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus uses agape love, and Peter answers with philos love.  But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the wording, asking Peter, “do you love me?” using philos love.  Peter answers for the third time, “yes, Lord, you know everything, and you know that I love you (using philo love again).  In this we are reminded of Jesus words to the disciples when he tells them, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends” (15:15).  Jesus calls Peter not just to love, but to love others and love them to the end, even to the point of laying down his life for his friends.  Sound familiar?

This kind of love, whether it is called philos or agape love, expects to be shown in action.  This kind of love is not about just feeling- it is about doing.  Love is as love does.  This kind of love personifies courage, risk, and unwavering commitment, regardless of what we are being asked to do.  In these three repetitive questions, the Risen Christ calls Peter (and us) to follow him, even to the places where we may not wish to go.  Echoing Peter’s three denials, Jesus then gives him three opportunities to make it right.

The church is at a crucial point in our world right now where we cannot afford to waste our time with “we have never done it that way before,” or trying to get back to how things used to be.  Instead, we need to be listening for this very question from Jesus himself, “Do you love me?” and be willing to respond over and over again, “Yes, Lord, I love you.”  But that’s not the end of the story.  If we love Jesus, really love Jesus, then we are to show it through the way that we are brought to life through him.  If we don’t do this, then our words are empty and meaningless.  We must be willing, as Jesus commands Peter, to take care of, feed, and tend to all persons as those who belong to God- the sheep of the Great Shepherd.

But in order for Peter to be equipped for this great cause, he must be willing to face his failures and open himself up to the restoration and healing that comes with confessing what has been and moving forward.  After all, Peter, in spite of his deep betrayal and failure, swims to Jesus and meets him by the fire, perhaps with the hope that he could move on from his failure.  In order to do this, he would need to depend on the grace and compassion of Jesus.  So it must be with us.  Before we can minister for Jesus, we must allow him to minister to us (Bradford).

Peter has been living with great shame, but it is here at the fire that Jesus forgives, heals, and restores him.  And he does this in a way that Peter is not condemned or that he remains in his failure, but in a way that he is healed.  Author Brennan Manning once wrote, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion.”  Peter had to learn this lesson in order to move forward and become the rock of the church.  He had to become a “forgiven failure,” and that is enough for God to take him and use him.

We live in a society today where success is the driving force behind everything.  To fail is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to us as individuals.  Failure has become synonymous with shame.  We have forgotten just how broken we are, and that there is beauty in recognizing that despite our brokenness, we are loved unconditionally by God.  That is the heart of this story of Jesus and Peter.  In this we remember that Jesus himself was willing to “fail” and lose his very life in order that he might gain it again and show us a better way.  There is a quote that says, “Never trust a leader without a limp.”  Peter would walk with a “limp” for the rest of his life, and it would actually add to his strength in loyalty and leadership for the cause of Christ.

What if instead of pushing our failures aside and hiding in our shame, we bring them to the surface and are honest about who we really are, despite our failures and brokenness?  What if we were to pray each day for daily humiliation or for at least one thing that doesn’t go our way in order to remain humbled and honest with ourselves and who we truly are?  I have found that as a mother, I have a whole new definition of success and failure.  There are moments each day when I feel as if I have failed my son, either because I feel that I am not doing enough or not doing something right, or because I can’t seem to figure out why he is crying or unhappy.  The perfectionist in me wants to fix everything in every moment, and with a baby, that’s just not possible.

Just earlier this week, Xavier and I took a trip to Indianapolis to see my best friend and her new baby.  On the way home that afternoon, we ran into rush hour traffic, and on top of that severe thunderstorms and heavy rain.  By the time we finally reached Greenwood, Xavier was in the back seat screaming bloody murder.  I had to pull over twice to calm him.  Let me tell you, you haven’t lived as a mother until you find yourself climbing in the back seat of your car in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in the pouring rain to hold your screaming child and pray just to make it home.  I called Corey in tears twice before it was all said and done.  To make matters worse, state road 135 was closed at Whiteland Road, and I had to take a detour to get to our house.  What should have been an hour long car ride took us 2.5 hours!  I began to feel as if I had failed as a mom and wondered if it was a mistake to bring him along for the day because he was tired, fussy, and hungry.  The trip home was full of unplanned scenarios and detours and hardships.  But I was humbled by the fact that I did everything that I could have done.  And you know what?  It was success that we made it home safely.  What I perceived as failure made me rearrange the way I saw my day of motherhood, and I was able to move forward in order to get us home safe and sound.

Every day I have to shift my perspective of success and ask, “Is he fed?  Does he have clean clothes?  Is he warm enough?  Is he safe?”  When I answer yes to these questions, I know we have succeeded, even in the midst of moments when I question if we have failed.  The worst words for me to hear are, “I am disappointed in you,” and I try to avoid hearing those words at all costs.  But perhaps it is good for us to realize from time to time that we are not perfect and not to be ashamed of our imperfections.  It is good for us to realize that we stand in need of grace and compassion from others, and especially from God.

I have a friend and colleague who struggles with the mental illnesses of anxiety and depression.  The other day, she posted on facebook that she usually enjoys sharing photos and thoughts about the good things in her life and about her accomplishments- the things that make her proud.  However, this particular day, she shared that she was battling with her disease once again and shared her thought process that happens to her: a downward spiral of thought and self-hatred.  Yes, she is on medication and seeks medical attention.  But I admired her bravery for sharing her struggle in such a real and raw way for people to see and get a glimpse into mental illness and the effect it has on a person.  She even posted a photo as a real look into her struggle.  It was met with many people who commented that she was a courageous young woman for opening up and sharing such emotion and struggle, because so often we just want to share the good parts about our lives and we often do not show who we really are and name our imperfections.  This was a good reminder to me that as Christians, we are called not to hide in our shame, but to name it in community and draw strength from a God who takes us as we are, even when we are struggling or failing. For my friend, sometimes success is simply getting through the day.

Peter, in the midst of his failure, had to find a new definition of success.  Not as a fisherman, but as someone who is radically beloved by God, and to live into that identity by feeding Jesus’ sheep.  In his encounter with the Risen Christ, Peter walks away with 2 things: freedom from his failure, and a future ahead of him.  Peter’s restoration to renewed relationship with Christ is also a restoration to a new kind of leadership and a call to true discipleship- the kind that brings us to the point of discomfort as we name our need for God and are sent out into the world to bring others to him.  As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading a chapter in the book, Encountering the Risen Christ by Mark Bradford, and this particular quote nearly took my breath away.  Mark writes, “the trouble is that, without a sense of the true cost of discipleship, so many of us never truly hand over our lives to Jesus in the first place.  Christianity is all too often for us a ‘lifestyle accessory’ rather than a dying and rising in the path of our Master.  When the going gets tough, we sometimes try to save the very life that we are called to lose, and we still cling on to the world, at the cost of our souls.”

This really struck me because it was a hard truth to swallow.  I had to ask myself, “have I never truly handed my life over the Christ?  Do I tend to see my Christian faith as nothing but a lifestyle accessory rather than the way I live my life?  Am I so concerned with what people think of me on the outside that I’ve neglected to show my true self as an imperfect person in need of the same kind of grace that was extended to Peter?

Jesus stands before us asking us over and over, “Do you love me?”  How will we answer him?  Will our words echo what is in our hearts and our hands and the way we will serve?  Will our brokenness, our mistakes, or our pasts stand in our way of loving and being loved by the Risen Christ?  I certainly hope not.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu says, “True forgiveness deals with the past, all of the past, to make the future possible.”  The past he refers to deals with the horrors of the apartheid in South Africa where those of darker skin color were labeled as less than those with white skin, and violence, torture, and death came upon those who were different.  Following the end of the apartheid, Tutu headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job was to hear the stories from victims and perpetrators alike about the atrocities of the apartheid.  The hope was that instead of more violence and retaliation, healing and forgiveness would occur in order for the country to move forward.  The realization was that the past does not simply go away, either on a political stage or in personal lives.  Wounds that are pushed down deeper are bound to resurface at some point.  So we must allow the truth about ourselves to be told and to live with it.  As a people, we struggle to tell our difficult stories or show our scars and imperfections, all because we feel that success is the only thing that should be shown to the world.

There were some beautiful things that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mainly that people were able to share their stories and the truth was heard.  It was thought to be a success overall, despite a few flaws.  Those who shared their stories were given the gift of freedom from the past and a hopeful move toward the future.

Peter was given freedom and a future as he sat with the Risen Christ by the fire that morning in Galiliee.  He had to become a “forgiven failure” in order to move forward and begin his mission to change the world.  So, too, Jesus calls to us to come sit with him by the fire awhile, or to the communion table, to ask us this very question until we really get it: Do you love me?  To love Jesus means that we come forward as broken people in need of forgiveness and compassion, and then to follow, feed, tend, and even lead out of our failures.

The Christian life is one of humility, admitting our failures, and standing in need of a God who loves us anyway and calls us to restoration.  It was at this low point that Peter came to find his place and identity in the love and forgiveness of Jesus.  Maybe this is where we need to encounter the Risen Christ for ourselves, too (Bradford).  Amen.





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