Sermon Podcast Audio
Today we wrap up our series called, “Unexpected: What You Never Saw Coming.” Over the last few weeks we have been looking at moments from the resurrection of Jesus forward. What Jesus did and how we respond can often catch us off guard, just as it did for the disciples back then. It’s not what we expect to see or happen.
Today we will look at what happens when we blow it. I am sure that doesn’t describe anyone reading this, but we’ve all heard about someone this has happened to, or we have a “friend” that comes to mind. I’m talking about those moments when we we mess up so badly that it shakes us to our core and we wonder if we can ever get past it. And we wonder if God can or will forgive us or if he will be so fed up with us that he just tosses us aside and moves on to someone better. And we wonder if we will have to live our entire life under this dark cloud of failure.
There’s probably no better example of this anywhere, no better moment that gives us insight into how Jesus responds when we fail, than by looking at one of Jesus’ own disciples, Peter.
Peter’s Failure and Restoration
At the end of John’s gospel, we find for the third time, the story of Jesus appearing after the resurrection to his disciples. The story begins with the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. After the resurrection, Jesus had told them to go there and wait for him. And while they waited, Peter looked at the other guys and said, “I’m going fishing.” They thought about it and decided to join him.
Many of these guys were fisherman by trade before they started following Jesus. We don’t know why they went fishing this day. Was it to pass the time—they had nothing else going on, so why not fish? Or did Peter have something else in mind? Were the words of his denial still so fresh in his mind that he thought, “You know, I am done. There is no way I could ever be of any use to Jesus ever again. Everyone knows what I did. These guys know. No one will ever listen to me or take what I say about Jesus seriously ever again. Maybe I should just go back to what I know. Maybe I should just move on and be a fisherman again.” I can certainly understand it if he thought that.
So, these guys got in the boats and headed just off shore about 100 yards and they fished all night. Now this is how these guys previously made money and supported their families. They weren’t novices. But tonight would prove to be a frustration. After all night on the water, they had caught absolutely nothing, not a single fish.
After his previous failure, I can imagine a night like this producing thoughts like, “I can’t serve Jesus right. And now, I can’t even fish right. I am just a complete and utter failure at everything!” But then, early in the morning, a voice from the shore called out, “Hey, friends. Have you caught anything?” ”No?” “Well, why don’t you try the other side of the boat? You’ll find fish there.”
This moment had a very familiar ring to it. We read about it in Luke 5. As Jesus began his ministry, when he called Peter to follow him, Peter had a night of futile fishing, working hard all night for nothing. And there Jesus said to him, “try again.” And they caught so many fish that they needed help lifting the nets into the boat.
There was something familiar about this moment. What did they have to lose? So they did what the voice from shore instructed them to do. And just like before, their nets were full.
John, another of Jesus’ disciples, put it together. “It’s the Lord! It’s Jesus!” Peter, always impulsive and impetuous, jumped out of the boat and swam to shore leaving the others to row in, dragging their catch behind them. When they got to shore, they saw that Jesus had already built a fire and had some fish cooking. He invited them to bring more fish so they could all eat.
This whole resurrection thing was still very new to them. They were still getting used to the idea that Jesus, who was very much dead, was now very much alive. And they sat with Jesus and had breakfast on the shore.
After eating, Jesus looked at Peter and asked him a question that cut him to his heart. “Peter, do you love me more than these?” More than these. Many have speculated what “these” could mean. Was Jesus asking if Peter loved him more than fishing and his previous career? Was he asking if Peter loved him more than he loved the other disciples? Maybe, but probably not.
I imagine Jesus was asking him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these other guys love me?” But why would Jesus ask that? Why was Peter being singled out? Hadn’t all of them pretty much deserted Jesus? Hadn’t all of them doubted the resurrection? Yes.
But in this moment, Peter knew exactly what Jesus was referring to. Jesus was putting his finger on the tender wound in Peter’s heart. Peter was the one who had told Jesus, “I will stick by you even if it costs me my own life.” (John 13:37 BAC) Loudly, emphatically, Peter made this proclamation and yet, only hours later, standing around a charcoal fire, he would deny Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter’s failure was so huge that it is one of the few stories that is shared in all four gospels. Peter must have thought, “How could I have been so weak?” He had images of standing side by side with Jesus as he was questioned, but Peter couldn’t even stand up to a servant girl. And three words had haunted him ever since that night. “I am not.” Jesus had called Peter a rock, but that night he crumbled into pieces. And the freshness of his failure was still there. The wound was still open. The sting of shame was still so painful. And Jesus was bringing up the sensitive subject.
I am sure Peter wished this could be swept under the rug, that Jesus would just forget about it, that they could act like it never happened. But here, around this charcoal fire, Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” And Peter replied, “You know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus asked him a second time. “Do you love me?” and a second time Peter replied, “You know that I love you.” And Jesus told him, “Take care of my sheep.”
And then, a third time, Jesus looked at Peter and asked again, “Do you love me?” And at this point, Peter was hurt. Some pastors want us to look at Greek words and say that Jesus changed the word he was using from agape, a Godly love, to phileo, a brotherly love, but a deeper look at this shows that it was very common in this day to use these words almost interchangeably. So, if it wasn’t the change in terms, what was so hurtful?
Well, if there was a question before, there can be no doubt now. There were three denials and three questions about his relationship with Jesus. The third time ripped the scab right off the wound and exposed it. And it was painful.
But instead of running away in tears, instead of becoming belligerent or defensive, Peter answered, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Peter appealed to the all-knowingness of Jesus. He said, “Jesus, despite my utter and complete failure, you know me. You know my current guilt and shame over what I’ve done. You know how I struggle to even look at you now. You know deep down, I love you.” And Jesus told him a third time, “Feed my sheep. And Peter, follow me.”
How We Respond to Failure
I don’t know about you, but if I’m Peter, I am talking to the guys who wrote the gospels and asking them, “Hey, can we leave out that part of me denying Jesus? It wasn’t that big a deal. Let’s add another miracle of Jesus instead.” No. Peter’s denial is in full view for us to see. But equally, if not more importantly for us to see, is his unexpected restoration.
What’s interesting about this story, in fact the entire chapter 21 of John, is that most scholars don’t believe it was in the first edition that John wrote. They believe that when he wrote his gospel the first time, he ended with chapter 20, which makes sense if you read the end of chapter 20. But somewhere toward the end of his life, John, prompted by the Holy Spirit, realized that the story was incomplete—that a little more needed to be said, especially about his friend Peter.
I think one of the main reasons this story is here is because we can all identify with Peter. There are times in our lives where we have failed God. That sin we can’t let go of trips us up again, that emotion that looks nothing like Jesus overwhelms us and controls us at times, our marriage falls apart, the moment passes when we should have talked to our coworker about Christ but we didn’t.
We all identify with Peter at some point. And because we all experience failure, we can relate to how Peter felt in this moment. But this chapter also highlights for us the incredible difference in how we respond to failure and how Jesus responds to failure.
Let’s start easy. Let’s talk about other people’s failures. That’s a lot more fun, isn’t it? How do we respond when others fail? Easy—judgement and condemnation. It doesn’t seem like we can go a week now without seeing some popular megachurch pastor in the news for some failure. And when we do, often those who say they follow Jesus have the same response as the world: “How could they? He is nothing but a hypocrite.” We judge them. And then we condemn them, not in a loving, “let’s help restore them” kind of way, but in a “here’s the bus, let me help you under it” kind of way.
And after we judge and condemn them, we toss them aside and write them off, as if second chances are impossible. We think they should go and live in the desert alone for the rest of their lives. Even I think this at times.
About 18 months ago, a very well-known pastor had a very public blow up with his church and a successful megachurch ceased to exist. The pastor was removed, not because of a moral failure like sexual sin, but because he dealt harshly with his staff and had created a power structure in his church that he controlled without accountability.
Easter Sunday this year he launched a new church. You know what I thought? “How dare he! He can’t do that. He’s a horrible person for what he did. He hasn’t paid for his sin yet.” That’s our human nature: judge, condemn, and toss aside.
But when it comes to our own failure, we hope nobody treats us that way. We hope for mercy. But what we really hope for is that nobody notices. And we do our best to try to hide it, keep it out of sight. A fundamental belief we have is that God is a strict disciplinarian just waiting for us to screw up so he can smack us, instead of the picture we probably should have of God as the father of the prodigal son, ever watching for his children who have fallen to return home so he can not walk, but run to greet them with open arms.
And if we can’t hide it, then we run from it. If we had been Peter, we would have packed up the family and been long gone. We remove ourselves from family and friends. We leave our church, because the underlying assumption is that failure is not allowed. “Good Christians don’t mess up this bad, so I’ll go somewhere they don’t know about me and my mistakes.” And because we often are judgmental and condemning of others when they fail, we believe the same will happen to us when we fail.
I think we see all these responses in the story. I am sure the other disciples sat around and talked about Peter. His failure had been public and I am sure they thought he could never lead again. Peter’s fishing trip that morning might have been about killing time, but more likely it was about returning to what he knew. His failure as a disciple was known. Maybe he could just fish the remainder of his days.
But how we respond is nowhere near how we see Jesus respond.
How Jesus Responds to Failure
Where we try to hide or run from failure, Jesus brings it to the surface. He doesn’t let us ignore it or pretend it is not there. Why? Is it because he is a mean, sadistic person that enjoys causing us pain? Absolutely not. He brings the pain into the light because he knows that only when it is brought to the surface can we find healing. Only when we come face to face with our own depravity can we find salvation. Only when we stare our failure in the face can we find restoration. Then and only then can we begin moving forward.
When we refuse to deal with our failures, we leave ourselves open to self-doubt, shame, and confusion about our purpose in life. These experiences left unresolved are paralyzing, depressing, and as destructive as any feeling in the world. But Jesus goes where the pain is. And this is the most gracious and loving thing he can do.
Think about it for a moment. Why did Jesus ask Peter the question three times? Did he do it for himself? No. He is all knowing. He already knew Peter loved him. He asked Peter three times so that Peter had the chance to confess his love for him, to cover every devastating denial he had made on that night.
Jesus knows there will be times we fail, but by bringing it to the surface, he shows us that he saw our failures before they ever happened, and it was for those failures he died and offers forgiveness and restoration. Because he is the great restorer of those who repent.
We also see in Jesus something truly amazing. His response to Peter is not an arm around his shoulder and a pat on the back and a, “There, there. That’s alright. Everything will be okay.” What Jesus says to Peter is a fresh challenge, a renewed mission, an invitation to be a part of his great work in the world. That should truly amaze us.
When people fail us, if we don’t write them off, and if we allow them to continue to work with us, and that is a big if, we give them small insignificant tasks to complete and we micro-manage them so they don’t screw up again. Not so with Jesus. He invited Peter back into the greatest mission in the world: revealing the kingdom of God, witnessing about the greatness of Jesus to the world, making disciples.
He gave Peter a huge task. Jesus told Peter, “I am not done with you yet. This failure will not be who you are. My plan and purpose for you is not complete. Peter, take care of my people and follow me.”
Why does Jesus do this? I think it is because of the greatest thing we see from him in this story. Jesus doesn’t define us by our failures. Listen to that again. Jesus does not define you by your failures. He understands that failure may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.
Yes, failure is horrible. Yes, it is painful. But it will not define you. And Jesus paid for every single failure on the cross.
How does this restoration take place?
The Restoration Process
Restoration begins with love. The greatest priority in life is to love God. Our failure calls into question our love for God. Jesus affirms Peter’s love. If you are still seeking, still searching, still praying, still reading the word, it reveals that deep down there still exists a love for God in your heart. God knows this. And God wants you to find that love, and then express that love in service. Because when we love, we serve. We all know that talk is cheap. God called Peter from his failure to service in his mission. It is an invitation to be a part of what God is doing in the world.
And we must be careful to not get these two reversed. Our service isn’t penance for what we’ve done. It is not to earn forgiveness. Nothing can ever do that. We can’t pour ourselves into working hard out of guilt, trying to make up for something. We also can’t allow ourselves to become so overwhelmed with despair that we stop all together.
We see that even though we might have failed, we still love God and we are moved by that love to serve him. Love and service heal the hurts and failures of the past and keep us on track with the mission of God in the world.
What would Peter’s future have been if this had not happened? Yes, it was unpleasant and difficult. Yes, it seems harsh and unkind of Jesus to bring up difficult memories, but what do you think might have happened to Peter if he hadn’t had this moment with Jesus?
I want to make some guesses based on typical human behavior. I think he would have never overcome his guilt, and this guilt would have eaten him up from the inside. His feeling of failure would have defined the rest of his life. He would have felt worthless and incompetent, living a life haunted by his past failures. He would have stopped moving forward in faith; he would have never become one of the leaders in the early church.
He would have probably returned to what he knew and lived out his days as a sad, depressed, self-defeated fisherman. And his story would have ended there.
But praise God, Peter’s story didn’t end there. And neither does ours. The real danger is not in failing, but in the potential of the failure taking us completely off track and away from God.
Theologian J.I. Packer writes, “Failure can be a learning experience. That’s one of the reasons our master, in his providential ordering of things, does allow us, his servants, again and again to fail.” If we did not fail, we would not make progress. Failure demands we assess our past and get rid of those things that led us there.
Our failure doesn’t have to be fatal. In fact, it can lead to amazing transformation if we are willing to repent of it, love God, and serve. In Jesus, we see that he can transform our failure into something amazing. Peter became the rock of strength for the church.
Are you struggling with your own failure? Is Jesus saying to you this morning, “Do you love me? Follow me.” Jesus is in the business of restoration. Will you allow failure to define you or pull you away from God, or will you run to the arms of a Savior whose death covered that, and find new life, a second chance to live for and to reveal Jesus to the world.
And for those not dealing with your own failure right now, how will you respond when those sitting right next to you fail? Will you be Jesus to them, gently restoring them or will you be the voice of judgment and condemnation? Determine to be one who speaks words of life to those seeking forgiveness and healing. Determine to be a restorer like Jesus. In our failures we find an amazing Savior offering you an unexpected forgiveness and restoration today.