I recently heard a true story about a bishop and a dentist. The dentist had just finished fitting the bishop out with a complete set of new teeth. As soon as the dentist had finished, the bishop went over to a mirror. And as looked at himself and inspected his mouthful of fine teeth, he said, “Jesus Christ.” And then again: “Jesus Christ.” The dentist was rather appalled when he heard such profane language coming from a man of the cloth. But the bishop explained. “This is the first time in 20 years,” he said, “that I’ve been able to say that precious name without whistling!”
That dear man evidently had a strong love for Jesus. And love for Jesus is a central theme of our Bible passage this evening. Three times Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times comes the reply, “Yes, Lord, I do love you. Of course I love you. You know that I love you.”
There is, of course, an intriguing back story to this interaction.
Scene 1. Round the table
Jesus is meeting with his twelve disciples for what we call the Last Supper. One final meal – a very special meal – the precursor of our service of Holy Communion.
Mt 26:31ff – ‘Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Peter replied, “Even if all [these others] fall away on account of you, I never will…Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”’
It is a typical Peter reaction: blustering, self-confident, boastful even. “Even if all [these others] fall away on account of you, I never will.”
Peter hadn’t reckoned with how vulnerable we can all be at critical times. I remember the time when a relative of mine – a Christian – lost her husband at quite a young age. Soon afterwards, she was tempted to be drawn into a relationship which she knew would have been completely inappropriate. Her prayer at the time echoed a song by Paul Field: ‘Don’t let me fall’.
1 Cor 10:12 If you think you are standing firm, be careful you don’t fall!
Scene 2. By the fire
We move from the upper room to the courtyard of the High Priest. Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, and his trial has begun. Peter, who has been following behind, is challenged: “You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?” Peter replied, “No, I am not.” A second time: “Surely you are one of Jesus’ disciples?” Peter again denies it again. Then a third time: “I’m sure I saw you with Jesus earlier this very evening.”
Mk 14:71 records that Peter ‘began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”’
Proud, boastful Peter had failed, he knew it. We read that he broke down, and wept bitterly. But of course he was not the first or the last person to fail as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Some Christians fail very publicly. A well-respected clergyman gives in to sexual temptation. Overnight, their reputation is shattered, their career is in ruins, their Christian testimony is brought into disrepute, and many relationships are in tatters.
Some Christians fail very privately. They may not been on speaking terms with the Lord for a very long time. Yet they know enough about how they are supposed to speak and behave amongst Christians that they can keep up the pretence for years. They have the form of godliness, but not the power.
Some Christians fail repeatedly. They find themselves in a seemingly endless cycle of disobedience. Each time it’s followed by regret and self-recrimination, and by a determined effort to reform behaviour by an exercise of will-power. Indeed, some of us done this so often and for so long that we have despaired of ever breaking the cycle.
And then, of course, there is the failure that is common to all of us, for each of us fails in what do and in what we fail to do, in thought and word and deed.
But I have good news for you. Whatever you’ve done, or not done, failure is never final.
Scene 3. On the shore
The disciples decide to go fishing. They have toiled all night, but catch nothing. Jesus appears, and they soon find their net bulging with a fantastic haul.
They have breakfast together on the shore. And then comes that threefold question from Jesus to Peter: “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you. Of course I love you. You know that I love you.”
I want you to notice that Jesus handles this conversation with the utmost sensitivity.
All this takes place on Peter’s home turf of Galilee. He has just been doing what he knows best, which is fishing. It happen in the context of an early-morning breakfast barbeque by the lakeside. But notice a few more details. They were probably within a few hundred metres of the very place where Jesus had first called Peter to leave his nets and follow him. Jesus goes on to address Peter by his pre-Christian name of “Simon, son of John.” And then Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me”. But these were the very words which Jesus used when he first called Peter, Jn 1:43. So you see that having chosen the right time and the right place, Jesus makes it very clear that this is going to be a fresh start, a new beginning. But there’s even more to it than that. I have said quite a lot about Peter’s failure. But Jesus doesn’t mention it at all. Of course, he didn’t need to. There is just a hint of Peter’s threefold denial in Jesus’ threefold question, “Do you love me?” But, beyond that, Peter didn’t need a lecture on how badly he had failed. He’s already feeling terrible about it, and Jesus isn’t about to make him feel even worse.
I have been worrying for a quite a long time now about a couple of comments made by two different members of this church, both of whom I hold in high regard. The first person said, “We really must teach more clearly and plainly about sin, and about Jesus as a Saviour from sin. Otherwise, the gospel will make no sense to anyone.” The second person said, “There are people out there who know very well that that have done wrong. If we keep banging on about sin we’ll simply make them feel even worse about themselves and we’ll end up alienating them even more from the church.’ Who was right? I think this conversation between Jesus and Peter has helped me to see that they were both right. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t ignore or trivialise Peter’s failure. And yet, on the other hand, he doesn’t need to point the finger of accusation. Jesus, let me remind you, had no hesitation in giving the hell-fire treatment to the proudly self-righteous, but those who, like Peter, knew that they had failed badly he treated with utmost gentleness and compassion. And don’t you think that’s a good model for us to follow?
In all of this we see clearly Jesus’ love for Peter. That was never in doubt. What our Saviour quizzes Peter about is his love for Jesus.
Friends, love for Jesus is at the heart of Christian experience and usefulness. Mere habit, or sense of duty, or act of will-power, will never sustain our faith and service through difficult and challenging times. Other skills and qualities may be desirable, but love is indispensable. Without love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal; indeed, I am nothing. But with love I am patient and kind, not envious, boastful or proud. Not rude or self-seeking. Not easily angered or keeping a record of wrongs. Not delighting in falsehood but rejoicing with the truth. I am always protecting, trusting, hoping, and persevering.
Ah, yes, perseverence. The very thing that Peter had failed to show. But now, the Saviour gives Peter an assurance that he will now persevere to the end of his life. Verse 18 – ‘“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.’ How reassuring for Peter, who had boasted of his loyalty to Jesus and yet had so quickly denied his Master, to receive this assurance that he would now remain faithful to the end of his life.
There may well be a number of us here this evening who are only too aware of having failed our Saviour, who would now welcome the opportunity to tell him that we love him, and to ask him for his renewing grace. Maybe we will want to go home this very evening and do that quietly in private prayer. Or we might take the opportunity at the close of this service to spend a few moments with members of our prayer ministry team. Or have someone pray for you briefly after you have received holy communion.
We have come to the end of the Gospel of John. I just want to say something about how this Gospel finishes.
Look at the closing words of ch 20:-
‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
How do you follow that? You would expect to turn over the page and start reading ch 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. But you don’t. You get one more chapter. I used to think that this extra chapter was just a way of tying up a few loose ends. How did Peter, who was known to have failed his Lord in such spectacular fashion, come to be restored to a position of leadership amongst the first Christians?
But I now think there’s more to it than that. Each of the four Gospels, in its own way, points to the future worldwide mission of the Christian church. And John’s Gospel is no exception. John wants us to know that believing in Jesus, and receiving life in his name, is not the end, but just the beginning of the adventure. And there will be two roles in particular that will be essential to the expansion of the God’s kingdom. What are these two roles? Fishing and shepherding. The first part of this chapter is about fishing, and the fact that without Jesus be can do nothing. And the second is about shepherding, as Peter is reinstated and recommissioned to take care of Christ’s sheep.
Fishing and shepherding; evangelism and nurturing; mission and pastoral care. These twin tasks define the core business of the church in every generation. And may the church today fulfil those tasks in the power of Christ’s Spirit and with all the compassion and sensitivity that Jesus showed when he reinstated and recommissioned Peter for his work in God’s kingdom. And let’s work for Christ in love, just as he first loved us.
[Credits: the story about the bishop and the dentist comes from the oral ministry of Dick Lucas]