John 21: 1-17 (and read also Psalm 40)
Do you remember an incident in the news with Rex Hunt a couple of years ago? (He paid three women for sex while his wife had cancer). Did he deserve another chance? Should she have taken him back again? What do you think?
And what if his wife took him back. Do you think Rex Hunt would be able to forgive himself and accept what his wife had done for him? Or would he think to himself: there's no way I'm good enough for her, I'll just leave and keep on paying other women?
What about a friend at work who stands by and does nothing when you are attacked at work and blamed unfairly for something? What about a friend at school who stands by and doesn't do anything when other kids lie about you, because your friend is afraid of what this powerful group of kids might do to them? Do these “friends” deserve another chance? Or should they be shunned by you forever? If they realize what they've done are they just actually going to avoid you now, because of how ashamed they may feel?
Or what about yourself when you fail? Do you give yourself another chance or do you just think that it's inevitable that you'll fail again, so you give up really trying to grow into being a different kind of person? Are you just so ingrained in your habits and the way you are that you don't even think about trying to be a different person? Our experience often conditions us to think that there's no real hope for us - no real hope to be forgiven or changed. Is the best we can do about things we sense are not right in our lives to ignore them or hide them?
In contrast to this kind of expectation, Faith grasps hold of a hope beyond much of our normal experience and trusts that things will not ultimately turn out to be a disaster. This hope that God is working a new creation into our lives is what is meant to keep us going as Christians. We have to step out in trust that this is true every day if we are going to persevere in doing good to others. I want to show you what a powerful example the story of the disciple Peter's life is to encourage us in this kind of faith and hope.
The story of Peter's life and ministry didn't end in the courtyard of the high priest's house, when he fails so greatly, as to deny that he ever knew Jesus. He wasn't left in a ruined despairing heap, regretting for the rest of his life what might have been. There was a path back to a better discipleship. And the path back was foreseen and prepared and gently carried out by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you remember the terrible story that we looked at three weeks ago about the sifting of Peter? Jesus said to him in all his bravado: Simon Peter, satan has demanded to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail and that when you have turned back you will be able to strengthen other disciples in the future. Do you remember how Jesus foretells to Peter that he will deny him three times and fail in following him despite the 3 years they had spent together? And do you remember how Jesus says that he has foreseen this dismal failure but he has built it into his plans to turn Peter into a Christian leader and encourager of others? He tells him that he will turn back towards a faith that is surer, one that is based on Jesus' words and prayers for him rather than one based on his own impetuosity in jumping in to follow Jesus most of the time. The sifting and failure is allowed, to teach Peter how to be a leader. It is used by God to shape his future ministry of strengthening others with words of real hope.
The story we are looking at today is the culmination of that reshaping of Peter. It's the reinstatement of Peter in a way that leaves him understanding deeply that following Jesus is based on jesus' power to forgive and to transform us. There is a path back for Peter and it's meant to shape him and encourage us as well.
In the story Jesus is wonderfully kind that he should make it easy for Peter to return. He's in the superior position. He's got the high moral ground and Peter is the worm who failed so dismally. Jesus could very easily have made Peter go on squirming and grovelling. But he doesn't. Instead, for Peter and for us, Jesus makes a way for us to enjoy the forgiveness and restoration that we need.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus goes to where Peter is. He turns up in Galilee, many miles to the north of Jerusalem, where Peter and some of the other disciples have gone home, after the crucifixion. Peter was probably thinking to himself:
So what was I doing in Jerusalem anyway with all those stupid idealistic hopes! I'm just a northern country fisherman. What kind of fantasy land was I living in for the last three years?
So he's gone back to familiar surroundings and he's gone back to fishing. At the start of the story Simon Peter says, I'm going out fishing. Not now for people but back to fishing for fish. He's turned the clock back to the time before he was a failure, and before that whole enterprise with Jesus had gone so horribly wrong.
So what does Jesus do? Does he sit back in Jerusalem, drumming his fingers on the desk thinking, where are they? Where's their commitment?
No, he goes to where Peter is and he finds Peter when Peter isn't even looking for him.
Even in the depths of despair when God seems to have deserted us, Jesus can come to meet us, get down into the mire with us and lift us out. Have you experienced that in prayer? To be filled with a sense of love and comfort from God who wants us to know that he's there with us?
And then of course, Jesus engineers the timing to come and find Peter in exactly the same situation as he met him in at the start. Do you remember how Peter was called by Jesus to be a follower? … What happened? ….
Is there any similarity here?
Jesus stands on the shore. He calls out to them, and they don't recognise him. It's early morning in dim light and they are about 100 yards off shore. He calls out to them, friends, haven't you got any fish? No, they answer. He called out again, throw your nets over the right side of the boat and you will find some. And when they did they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then, the lights begin to go on. Who could this be? There is only one person whom this could possibly be! This is the beginning of a reinstatement for Peter isn't it? He is being recommissioned to become a fisher of people for Jesus, despite or indeed including all his past failures.
Jesus is not standing over him crowing, saying, I told you so. I told you, you were going to fail. It's not God who piles guilt upon guilt, reminding you of your old sins. It's the devil, who does that. Jesus knows from the inside what our sins are like because he has already carried them, borne their cost and swallowed up their cry that they can never be forgiven. He's done all this already on the cross, so he doesn't need to stand there saying, I told you, you were that bad. He already knows and he's already paid the price to forgive those sins.
His reinstatement and recommissioning of Peter comes on the basis that he has already borne the cost of Peter's denial of him. And it's the same for us when we fail him. He invites us back on the same basis. He wants us back, like Peter, with a surer understanding of his grace and mercy to tell others about.
So when Peter senses this, nothing can keep him in the boat. He just jumps in to swim and wade back to shore. Jesus has brought out of him his own best response - the impetuous disciple so keen to be with Jesus is back. When they first caught that huge haul of fish Peter's response had been: go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man! But as we know, Jesus didn't go away but only drew closer to begin working with Peter. Now, having experienced his own failure in following the Lord and seeing again Jesus' power, Peter runs towards him, or rather wades towards him. His experience of Jesus has grown, hasn't it? He knows Jesus' mercy and kindness towards sinners. Nothing now is going to keep him in the boat when he senses Jesus' desire to have him back in his service.
Then in a lovely touch, when they get back to shore Jesus has already got breakfast set up for them and cooking. It's a lovely piece of practical kindness and service isn't it after a long night's fishing? It wasn't a seminar or a sermon or a bible study evening, it was a loving act of simple kindness that was just what was needed. It's a small picture for us about how people are drawn towards Jesus. We could do far worse in being part of God's mission than to work on doing more small acts of kindness.
And then Jesus says to the disciples, bring some of the fish you have caught. Hasn't Jesus already got some fish cooking for them? He has. Does he need their fish? No he doesn't, but he wants to include them. He's saying to them that he wants them to come back to his work of fishing for people and join him in it again.
Again, Jesus is paving the way for Peter to understand that he wants him back, that all is not lost, indeed much has been gained along the way.
So after breakfast Jesus takes Peter for a walk, with John the disciple following on at a distance. And by themselves, not embarrassed in front of all the others, Jesus says to Peter, Simon son of John, do you love me? Three times he repeats the same question. Three times he asks, to echo the three times that Peter denied knowing him. Simon son of John do you love me? Peter had to know that he was forgiven and reinstated in Jesus work on a different basis from before. It's not his ability or success that qualifies him to feed God's people is it? It's his love for Jesus because of Jesus' gentleness with him, his forgiveness of him and his care about the kind of follower he became, that is the basis of his future leadership.
So Jesus commission to him is to feed my sheep: To take care of us by being able to encourage us in the truth of Jesus' ability to forgive and to transform. To help us to see that Jesus can use even failure to draw us into applauding him. He wants to be absolutely certain that Peter will point to him rather than to himself as the basis for others following Jesus. That's what it is going to mean for Peter to feed Jesus' sheep. Out of his own experience of failure and reinstatement, he is going to be able to point people towards Jesus' grace and kindness.
So I want you to imagine that you are a failed person or a failed Christian in a church. What should we say to you?
Will you try harder next time?
Don't you feel rightly miserable now?
If we heard a really sincere tone of voice in your apology then we might believe you.
That may have sometimes been our experience in the church, or with other people. But he better question is the one Jesus asks: Do you love me? Do you love Jesus?
Because failure is not the end of where we will end up. Hope is where we end up. Hope that is based on Jesus' ability to forgive and to transform us and to reinstate us in his work.
Where we need to point people is towards loving Jesus, because he is where forgiveness, transformation and reinstatement all come from. Peter's path through failure and reinstatement was meant to shape his future leadership in the church. And it's meant to encourage us and help us to see how we might encourage others.
Let's sit before god to reflect on Peter's story for a moment and ask him to show us how it can shape us too.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are with Jesus, in Peter's place on the shores of the lake early in the morning. I want you to imagine that Jesus sees all about your life. And I want you to imagine what he would say to you having come out to meet you and cooked you breakfast….
Not, I told you so, you've really stuffed it now
But words of hope and encouragement, …
And the best question of all: do you love me? Do you love me? …
Yes, Lord, we love you because you died for our sins and rose to new life to transform and change us. We pray that we might be able to feed others with that story. Amen.