IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 4, Number 16, April 21 to April 26, 2002


by Rev. Russell B. Smith

Most of you know that before I was a preacher, I was a technical writer and trainer for Wachovia Bank in North Carolina. I was part of a team that supported a 400-member department that took up three floors of a building. One of our efforts centered on developing electronic procedure and policy manuals that were available at each person's computer. I had quickly picked up the software package we used, and therefore I had a lot of responsibility for this effort. We had a system in place that would allow each person to customize their own manual — they could type in their own notes; highlight important passages; set electronic bookmarks that would take them back to where they wanted to go. Even with all that personalization, when the manual was updated, everyone instantly received the updates. It was a terrific system.

At least until I made a terrific error. It's to complicated to get into the details of what I did, but suffice it to say, I made a mistake. That mistake single-handedly wiped out the procedure manual for one of the largest departments in our division. I was also the first to figure out what I had done, and my heart sank as I went in to tell my boss what had happened. Then I got right to work figuring out what we could salvage. Fortunately, we had a computer backup of the manual — but everyone lost all his or her personalization. It was a horrible, humiliating failure. I was supposed to be this wizard on this software package; and instead I appeared to be a real klutz.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever so publicly failed that you couldn't avoid the embarrassment and shame of it all? I suspect that if you've tried to do anything of significance at all, you've encountered your share of failure. That still doesn't make it more comfortable. Failure hurts, and the natural response for most of us is simply to lower our standards.

I think Peter understood what it was like to be a failure. Here he was, one of Jesus' inner circle, and he had fallen so many times — like that walking on water episode. Peter and the disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm kicked up. Then, in the midst of the storm, they saw Jesus walking across the sea. Peter called out to Jesus asking him to walk on the water. Jesus beckoned him to come. Then when Peter stepped out onto the water, he stayed up for a step or two — until he became afraid of the waves. Then he sank into the water and had to be pulled out by Jesus — a big failure in front of the other disciples. Or how about when he fell asleep when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane — that was the night when Judas betrayed Jesus; it was a time when Jesus needed him most. But the most humiliating failure — when he was lurking by the fire trying to overhear Jesus trial — three times a servant girl identified him as a disciple of Christ, and three times, he denied knowing anything about…ahh…whatever His name was. Sure, all the others ran away. At least he had the courage to stick around. But even so, he was supposed to be Jesus' right hand man. How could he of all people have betrayed him like that? Yes, Peter had failed. Let's take a look at the text of John's last chapter (21:1-25), which highlights the resolution to Peter's situation.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. "I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered.

He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught."

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

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. 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." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

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?") When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"

Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers 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?"

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. 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.

So when Jesus sent word to his disciples to meet him in Galilee (Matt 28), Peter went straightway. They had gathered and were waiting, and they decided to go fishing. Then, unexpectedly, Jesus appears on the shore calling them to breakfast. It must've reminded Peter of when he was first called to be a disciple. Luke 5 tells the story — a carpenter jumps in the boat with the fishermen and starts telling them how to fish — and his advice brings in such a catch that the nets burst. Here again, the stranger gives advice, and they bring in a huge catch, but this time the nets hold. Peter knew right away and he jumps out of the boat makes for shore. Don't you love his passion and intensity? His heart is so captivated by Jesus that he plunges ahead, come what may. And then when he gets to the shore, Jesus has breakfast prepared and he takes Peter aside for a private talk.

Peter was a failure. But Jesus came to him personally and gave him the opportunity to succeed. Notice first of all that Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me." There were three denials — and three opportunities to affirm commitment.

First thing, note that re-commitment after failure is painful. Verse 17 ("You know that I love you!) tells us that Peter was indeed hurt and his language conveys that tone as well. The hurt comes from truly admitting our failure and moving beyond it.

Second, note that the encounter is about Peter, not about anyone else. In verses 20-22, Peter turns and sees John following behind. Here was another one of the inner circle — he had overheard the whole conversation. Peter, understandably says, "What about him?" In other words — "He did it too, what are you going to do with him? Will it be as painful as what you do with me?" Jesus says back "What does that have to do with you? You must follow me?" I imagine that Peter was suddenly reminded of the saying Jesus said about looking to the log in your own eye before looking at the speck in someone else's (Matthew 7:3-5). Jesus is saying, "Don't worry about what I'm doing in his life — you focus on what I'm doing in your life."

Third note that the encounter was energizing. Jesus gives Peter three commands — feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, follow me. Each time, Jesus conveys to Peter that he's entrusting him with spiritual responsibility. No matter what Peter's past failures, Jesus still has a job for him to do, and he wants Peter to get after it.

What did this reinstatement do for Peter? Where did Peter go after that? Take a look at the book of Acts and Peter's letters for the rest of the story.

Peter engaged in heartfelt worship: Acts 4:31 — his powerful prayer with John enabled him to be released. He reflects this in his writing when he talks about the purpose of the church in I Peter 2:4-5.

Peter engaged in joyful witness: Act 2:14ff — He simply told the story of the good news of what Jesus had done — the people responded. In I Peter 2:9, Peter reminds us that the purpose of the church is to tell the story of Christ to a watching world.

Peter engaged in continual study of Scripture: Look at Peter's sermon in Acts 2 — he quotes the prophets and Psalms. His first letter is littered with quotes from the Old Testament. I Peter 1:10-12, Peter shows his reverence for the Old Testament Scripture.

Peter engaged in sharing with his fellow Christians: With all the disciples and converts in Jerusalem, he had close and tight relationships (Acts 2:42-47). 2 Peter 2:13-3:8 shows a practical outworking through advice for mutual submission to one another.

Peter engaged in service to those outside the church: In Acts 3:1-11, Peter heals the beggar outside the temple for God's glory. In I Peter 4:10, he puts the capstone on it. Each one of us should use our gifts to serve others.

After the Resurrection, Peter rediscovered Jesus. He rediscovered the fact that our standing with Jesus is not affected by success or failure. In that breakfast by the seashore, Peter rediscovered that it is our standing with Jesus that enables us to attain new heights. Peter went on to fully develop in spiritual maturity in worship, witness, studying, sharing and serving.

I'm sure that each of us has struggled with the feelings of failure — particularly in the spiritual realm. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase "I'm not the Christian I ought to be." What's worse is that we get caught in the trap of thinking that we'll feel better if we just try harder. Trying harder won't make you feel better. Why? Because we're human. Humans face spiritual failure the rest of our lives. Only that personal encounter with Christ — that opportunity to tell him we love him will help us. It is that encounter that will energize us to fully engage in worship, witness, study, sharing, and serving.

As we've studied the gospel of John over the past year, I hope you've seen how Jesus energized everyone he met. I hope and pray that many of you have been personally touched by Jesus' presence in your lives and even if you've been his disciple for years, he's taken you to a new level of commitment. Amen and Amen.