Sermon: Sunday, 11th April, 2021 John 21:15-22
In this well-known passage we see a moment of terrible pain which brought incredible relief as the Lord Jesus restores a desolate and downcast disciple. I’m sure we’ve all known the sense of failure that Peter felt. We’ve all let Jesus down at one time or another. So, let’s look at how the Lord Jesus deals with the sin of self-confidence that had been Peter’s downfall.
1. The pain Jesus inflicted (Verses 15-17)
Peter is filled with guilt and self-recrimination. What Peter had done couldn’t be undone. It was in the past. But he still felt awful about it. Well, action is often a good antidote for depression. ‘Some hard work will get it out of my system,’ Peter must have thought. But they caught no fish that night. Their empty nets symbolise the futility of life without Jesus. One of the first things Peter sees when he gets ashore is a charcoal fire. The memories he’d been trying to force from his mind are suddenly back in full force. It’s so similar to the fire he’d been warming himself at a few weeks before. It was the scene of his denials!
Then Jesus took him to one side. It was the moment Peter must have been dreading. Jesus asks, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ Peter has perhaps learned something from the denials. He can’t bring himself to use the same word for ‘love’ which Jesus did. The word Jesus used is the most common one for God’s love in the New Testament. It describes God’s steady, persistent love for those who don’t deserve it. But Peter uses a different word; a word that expresses the idea of love as a close friendship. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘You’re my very best friend, Jesus.’
Jesus persists, however, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?’ He gets the same reply: ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ And then – and this must have really hurt – the question comes a third time. Three denials… now three questions! And, as if to give the knife a twist, this time Jesus uses the word Peter has been using in his replies. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ It’s as if he’s questioning the limited expression of love Peter offers. ‘Are you my best friend, Simon? I wonder?’
Have you noticed that Jesus uses Peter’s old name, Simon? The name Simon reminds us of Peter’s frail human nature. Jesus reduces Peter to a point of brokenness again. Now we have to ask, Is this some sort of vindictive cruelty on Jesus’ part? Is He getting His own back on Peter for those denials? Of course not! It’s hard: yes. Painful? Certainly! But cruel? Oh no! Quite the opposite in fact. It’s all done for Peter’s good that he might experience the full extent of Jesus’ forgiveness. It’s only when we’ve faced the awful reality of our sin that we understand the wonderful grace the Lord shows us in the forgiveness He offers. That’s why the Saviour probes the dark places in our hearts. He takes His knife to the specific sin, like a surgeon cutting out cancer. It’s a painful, but healing, process. And it brings wonderful relief.
The devil has the opposite approach. He wants to keep us obsessed with our wrongdoing, but without offering us any hope of forgiveness. ‘How can you call yourself a Christian,’ he sneers, ‘when you’ve done that?’ That’s why we need the grace described in our closing hymn:
When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me,
To look on Him and pardon me.
God’s amazing grace for those who don’t deserve it! We don’t place confidence in ourselves; we trust Jesus our Saviour and Lord.
2. The task Jesus set (Verses 15-17)
But all the while this painful process is taking place, something else quite wonderful is happening. Jesus is giving Peter a job to do. He’s enlisting Peter into His service. “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Does Jesus wait for the process to be complete, and for Peter to become the perfect servant? No; for Peter was never that in his life on earth. Peter’s letters show there’d been tremendous growth in him. He’s learned so much. But life still wasn’t without its ups and downs. Paul at one stage had to rebuke Peter, putting him right on an important issue. Peter was never perfect. But what a tremendous encouragement that is to us all in the part we play in our church fellowship. We’re not all we could be, or should be; but God can use us to support one another as disciples of Jesus. Perhaps we could liken it to a scene after a wartime battle. Wounded soldiers help one another forward. One soldier with his arm in a sling supports another with a injured leg. A man who’s been blinded in an explosion is guided along by a comrade who has a wound in his side. He leans on the blind man for support, even as he points him in the right direction. We’re all wounded soldiers in the service of our King, Jesus. Our many sins and failures drag us down; but we’re not useless – far from it! We may have betrayed Jesus by what we’ve done. We may have denied him by what we’ve said, or failed to say. But we can still help one another along on the road of discipleship. We don’t do this with any sense of pride or superiority, but as fellow sinners, forgiven by the God who loves us more than we fully understand. That’s one of the great values of fellowship together. We may see one another’s imperfections; but we still help one another grow in faith and commitment, and in witness and service – all to the glory of God!
3. The command Jesus issued (Verses 18-22)
The task Jesus committed to Peter would also involve suffering. It’s significant that Jesus makes this clear before issuing the command, ‘Follow me!’ There were no secrets from Peter – no hidden agenda. The cards were laid on the table! This is an essential part of true gospel preaching. Listening to some preachers you would get the impression that the Christian life is a bed of roses. They suggest that the believer floats along on “cloud nine”, with every wish granted and every desire fulfilled. The ‘Jesus’ they portray bears more resemblance to the genie in Aladdin’s lamp than the Jesus who walks the pages of the New Testament. So, while we rejoice in the privilege of being part of Jesus’ ‘task force’ to change the world, we must also recognise that there may be a price to pay. We may face suffering, rejection, and even death.
I used to have a book on my shelf about a missionary couple in China. Its title is ‘The Triumph of John and Betty Stam’. What was their triumph? Was it a glorious impact on the people they served, or victory over tremendous odds in the face of great hardship? In a sense, both could be true. The main reference of the title, however, is to the fact that they were brutally executed, beheaded by Communist guerrillas who overran the area in which they served. Their ‘triumph’ was to lay down their lives in the service of the King of kings. That won’t happen to most of us; probably not to any of us. But would we be prepared for it if it did? That’s what Jesus was asking of Peter, and asks of us, when he says, ‘Follow me!’
One of the best things about the Christian faith is the caring attitude it creates between believers. Christ’s love and compassion are mirrored in the lives of his followers. It’s right that there should be this concern for one another. But we must beware if that concern goes too far and topples over into jealousy about what God’s asking others to do, but not us. Peter was aware of the special responsibility entrusted to him; but was there a sense of rivalry between him and John, who was so close to Jesus? In verses 20-21, Peter looks over his shoulder and says, ‘What about him?’ Jesus is quick to nip this in the bud (verse 22). His answer is, in effect, ‘None of your business, Peter! You follow me in the way I want you to. I’ll get him to follow me in the way he should. That’s my job, not yours!’
It seems to have worked too! Far from being rivals Peter and John ended up working closely together as a team in the early part of the Acts of the Apostles. Rivalry, or bitterness about gifts given to some, but not others, is one of the most destructive things in a Christian fellowship. We’re all debtors to God’s mercy. We’re all given gifts by the Holy Spirit. And all are used in the service of the same Lord. We use the gifts God gives us to build one another up, not pull one another down. Is there someone in the fellowship of whom we’re jealous? ‘He seems to get all the good jobs.’ ‘She seems singled out for special attention!’ Well, perhaps they have special responsibilities, too! They’ll have to answer to God for the way they’ve fulfilled them. Indeed, we’ll all have to give account to the Lord for what we’ve done with our gifts, our talents. We won’t have to give account for what they’ve done with theirs!
Following Jesus isn’t always easy. He might challenge us in ways we don’t like, over issues we’d prefer to forget. Perhaps He’s doing that even this morning? If so, remember He’s doing it because He loves us! He wants the very best for our lives and for our fellowship together!