Theme: Even when we blow it in life and faith, God is there to restore us to grace and mission. The only proper motivation for serving others is love of Christ, and the only thing that can hold you back from serving God is your own unwillingness to repent and receive God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Note: This sermon had a different beginning at the 8:15 and 11:30 services: in those services it started with a video clip from “The Lion King” projected on the large screen illustrating how we allow perceived obstacles from our past prevent us from living life fully in the present.
For most of us, we need to hear something more than once for it to really sink in. Of course, most husbands don’t want their wives to know that, and most kids don’t want their parents to know that. But it’s the truth – we often need to hear things more than once. Of course, there are some things that we want to hear more than once – and that doesn’t include, “Have you taken out the garbage yet?” But it does include things like, “I love you.” I mean, how many of us want to hear “I love you” once and think that is sufficient? None of us. We want to hear it everyday, many times a day. Now whether we get it or not is another matter, but that’s what we want. We want to hear it often.
Well, in the passage that we are going to look at this morning, in John Chapter 21, Jesus asks the disciple Peter three times if he loves him. And Jesus had a good reason for asking him three times. But before we actually read the passage, which you can find on page 769 of your red pew bibles, let me give you just a little bit of background. You see, the apostle Peter was one of the leaders of the disciples. Often he put himself in the position of leader because he was the first to speak, for better or for worse. And the night that Jesus was arrested, the night of the Last Supper, Peter made some pretty bold declarations. In fact, he said things like this: “Lord even if everyone else turns away from you, I will never turn away.” He also said, “I am willing to die for you.” But less than 12 hours later Peter denied that he even knew Jesus Christ – three times! In fact, the third time, we are told that he even called curses down upon himself, which means in the context that he was calling curses down upon himself if he was lying – and he was lying! Now what kind of a disciple is this? And who in the world wants to follow a leader like that?
Let’s turn now to our scripture in John, Chapter 21, starting at verse 15, and see how Jesus deals with Peter.
“When the disciples and Jesus had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “You know that I love you.” And Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” A second time Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?” And Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” And a third time Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” And he replied, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” And 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.” And Jesus said this in order to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy word. Please join me as we pray.
Lord, we thank you for these words of scripture that come to us by your Holy Spirit and through the Apostle John as he writes this Gospel. And Lord, we pray that as we look at Peter, that you would teach us about who we are and how we are to deal with failure. Lord, we pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit you would change us by these words, that we might be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. For it is in his name that we pray. Amen.
When you look at this conversation that Jesus has with Peter, at first glance it seems almost cruel, doesn’t it? Three times asking Peter, “Do you love me? Are you really sure you love me? Tell me again, do you love me?” But it wasn’t really cruel at all. In fact, Jesus asked these three questions out of love. And his purpose was not to make Peter feel bad, although it might have done that, but his purpose was to heal Peter.
Look at the very first question that Jesus asks. It says, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” Now there is debate as to what “these” means, because the Bible doesn’t tell us. Some people say he meant the fishing boats, the fishing nets and the fish, since right before this Peter and some of the other disciples had been fishing. But that doesn’t make much sense, because Peter had never been torn between fishing and Jesus. Others say that maybe he meant “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples?” But that was also never a question for Peter. All the disciples loved Jesus more than they loved each other.
What Jesus was really getting at here was Peter’s earlier declaration that “even if everybody else leaves you, I never will.” The implication being, “because I love you far more than anyone else -take me word for it.” So Jesus is reminding him of his boast. “Do you really love me more than these disciples love me?” He’s not rubbing his nose in it, he’s giving Peter an opportunity to face his sin and failure head on and to deal with it. And what does Peter say? He says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Now at first when I saw “Yes, Lord” I thought “‘Yes’ you’re claiming to still love Jesus more than the others?” But that’s not what this “Yes” really means. Peter here leaves out completely any comparison to the disciples. The “Yes” here is the “Yes” of “I do love you.” He leaves out the comparison completely, because he knows now that he can no longer claim to love Jesus more than others. He realizes his arrogance, so all he can do is claim his own love for Jesus.
What Jesus does for Peter he also wants to do for us. You see Peter needed to get his sin out in the open and to deal with it, rather than to try and hide it away You see, when we try to hide our sin, it just festers within us – it grows. It produces shame and fear and it often leads to self-imposed isolation from other people, because being around other people can sometimes remind us of our sin even more. Or maybe we are afraid that they might find out about our sin. But Jesus knows the only way to really accept the grace of God and to be able to move forward in that grace and forgiveness is to deal with our sin and failure head on. So he does that with Peter. He allows Peter to confess his love and to move on.
Of course Jesus doesn’t ask him just this once. He asks him three times, “Do you love me? … Do you love me? … Do you love me?” And the third time we read that Peter was hurt, although the word is actually very strong, he was grieved. He was grieved that Jesus asked him again. Why? Well first, there is the normal hurt if somebody you love questions your love for them three times and each time you say, “Yes, yes, yes!” “Why do you keep asking? Please trust my words this time!”
But Jesus intentionally asked him three times, so that Peter could symbolically erase the three denials. Now in one sense, one time should have been sufficient, but we often need repetition. We often need these very concrete examples. Three times Peter denied him so Jesus gives him three opportunities to confess his love. It’s for Peter’s healing that he asks three times. It is also to allow Peter to reflect on his love for Jesus. Notice how Peter replies the third time. The first two are exactly the same, but this time it’s a little different. He says, “Lord you know all things.” Before he always declared, “Yes, Lord. I love you,” but this time he leaves off his own self declaration. All he says is, “Lord, you know. You know my heart better than I do. You know that I love you.” He trusts in Jesus Christ more than he trusts in himself. Through this Peter has learned humility. A humility that was going to be very important for the rest of his life and ministry.
But then after each of Jesus’ questions, and each of Peter’s replies, there is a third element of the conversation: Jesus’ response, where he says, “feed my lambs,” “take care of my sheep,” “feed my sheep.” There are at least three significant points about Jesus’ response. The first is that devotion to Jesus is not enough. Devotion to Jesus is not enough. There are a lot of people who sit in church pews around this country and around this world who profess love for Jesus Christ, but by whose lives you would never know it. If we truly love Jesus, it will work itself out in ministry – to his people and to his world. Emotional devotion is surface and is not enough. Our love needs to be so deep that we are led to really follow in Jesus’ footsteps and to love those around us. Which leads us to the second significant thing about Jesus’ command or commissioning of Peter: love of Jesus is really the only foundational motivation that we can have for good ministry.
There are all sorts of different motivations for ministry, but love for Jesus is the only truly proper motivation. Many people serve God out of guilt. They serve other people because they think, “If I can only do enough good things, somehow it will cover over the bad things I have done.” They serve out of guilt. The problem is that it can never work. We can never cover over our sins, they will always be there. The only way to move beyond our sin is to accept that Jesus’ death on the cross was the payment for my sin and that his resurrection is his invitation to me for forgiveness and for new eternal life with God. Therefore our ministry needs to not be about earning something, but about responding to God’s grace in love.
Notice here that Jesus does not ask Peter, “Do you love my sheep?” He asks, “do you love me, and if so, feed my sheep.” Because let’s be honest, you and I are not always terribly lovable, are we? The proper foundation for ministering to other people is not guilt, which focuses on our selves, not even love for others, which focuses on people, but love for Jesus Christ, which is the only true focus of ministry. And it’s as we love him, that the love for others will grow.
Finally, the third thing about these words of Jesus is really the most amazing – that Jesus doesn’t view Peter as disqualified for ministry. I mean this was not a small thing that Peter did. He denied Jesus Christ – denied even knowing him – any connection to Jesus. He even called down a curse upon himself if he was lying – and he was. It is amazing that this betrayal of Jesus did not remove Peter from leadership. Jesus wanted to restore him – and not just to a relationship with Jesus. He wanted to restore him to a significant ministry in the church. To be an under shepherd of Jesus Christ. To be Christ’s representative to his people. And the truth there is clear. There is no sin, no sin that can disqualify us from serving God. No sin that can disqualify us from serving God. Except. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? There had to be at least one. The only sin that could disqualify us from serving God is our own unwillingness to repent and receive God’s grace. That’s the only sin. In fact, when the Gospel speaks about the unforgivable sin, that is it. The unforgivable sin is being unwilling to repent and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and grace and healing and restoration. You see, ministry is not a privilege for the perfect. It’s not a reward for those with no sin. Ministry is a gift, it’s a gracious privilege given to repentant sinners, and we are all sinners. To be a pastor, means to be a sinner like everyone else, but with a role of trying to help other sinners find the same restoration we have found, and to find the right path with Jesus Christ.
You know the Bible is full of people who are given second chances. One of them is Abraham. Think of Abraham: chosen by God to be the father of the Chosen People, Israel. Given this wonderful promise that “Through you, I will bless all nations. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” And what does Abraham do shortly thereafter? He takes his wife, through whom God said his child would be born, and he goes to another country where for fear of his life, that they might kill him to get his wife, he lies and says, “Oh she’s not my wife, she’s my sister. Go ahead and take her.” What kind of spiritual leader of the household of God is that? Later on he takes his wife’s maid in order to beget a child, hoping to get around the difficult part of the promise. Not exactly your regular, upstanding, spiritual leader. Yet God never left him, and Abraham was ultimately repentant for his failure and trusted that Gods grace was greater than his sin. And he did end up being the father of a great nation and ultimately the great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Or how about David? The greatest king of Israel. Pretty good guy except for the time he committed adultery with the wife of a commander in his army and then had the commander killed on the front lines to try to cover things up. Now there’s a spiritual leader, for sure, right? But remember what happens? David tries to hide it for a while, but God doesn’t let him. God sends Nathan the prophet to expose him. And David, when confronted, confesses and repents. He turns to God and asks for forgiveness. He has to suffer some consequences for his sin, but God continues to use him for his purposes, for great purposes in the world.
Even Paul the Apostle, who was approving of the stoning of one of the early Christian leaders, Saint Stephen, and who went on to persecute the church – God restored and healed him. Each of these people ended up dealing with their sin head on, were willing to receive God’s forgiveness and move forward in the ministries to which they were called.
And it’s the same with you and me. What is your sin, what is your failure that often prevents you from moving ahead in life. Whether it’s moving ahead in ministry or moving ahead in a relationship, what is it that holds you back, because you have not been willing or able to receive God’s forgiveness. You keep berating yourself for it, over and over again. Maybe your marriage is a mess and you know that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be and you’re trying to hide it and it prevents you from moving ahead in ministry for God. Maybe it’s a problem that you have with alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, and it makes you feel like a hypocrite. Maybe it’s that you are violent, you have a bad temper and that you are abusive. Maybe it’s that you have cheated on your income tax, or on that expense form at work where you put in more money than you should, because you figured nobody would catch you. Maybe it’s that you have not been a good friend to others or you have turned away from others in need. Maybe your sin is like Peter’s. Maybe you have denied Christ before the people at work, or in your neighborhood, or at school, for fear of looking stupid or looking different or not fitting in.
Whatever your sins are, no sin is greater than God’s ability to forgive. And if we are willing to confront it head on, and receive God’s forgiveness, he can take us on to even greater heights of ministry. In fact, often it is those very areas of failure and sin that God will use in the future in order to produce the most fruitful ministry. Often it is those very areas where we used to be most ashamed that God will turn in to the greatest areas of blessing to others.
Many of you know that Ron Scates (our former Senior Pastor) had a child, Anna, 3-years old, who drowned and died while under Ron’s care. And for a long period of time Ron’s life basically caved in. He was racked with guilt and shame. He almost left the ministry. Ultimately, he was able by God’s grace to confront the issues in his life and was able to resolve them and find healing. That was before he came to Central, but shortly after he came to Central – about 2 months after – one of the elders here at Central lost their daughter to suicide. And because Ron had gone through his own dark time of losing a daughter and feeling responsible for it, he was able to help this family go through their pain in a way he never would have, without having gone through it himself. And now that family has been able to minister and be a blessing to many others who have gone through very similar things. Often it is the point of our greatest pain, our greatest struggle, our sense of shame or failure or sin, that God is able to use most powerfully in ministry.
All you have to do is read the first letter of Peter that you will find in the New Testament. In fact, I encourage you to do that either later today or this week, and as you read it think about Peter and what he went through in the past. Think about how he learned humility and how that comes out in his letter. Think about how he learned about the grace of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of all of our sins, and how that frees us up to be someone new and different, because he learned that personally early on. You see, often we don’t get beyond “Woe is me. I’m sorry for my sin,” and move on to ministry. But that’s what God wants for us. That is what God wanted for Peter. Peter might have missed the great destiny that God had for him, if he hadn’t received that forgiveness.
To illustrate, let me read a humorous account from Garrison-Keiller about Larry a resident of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.
Larry was saved twelve times at the Lutheran church, an all time record for a church that never gave altar calls. There wasn’t even an organ playing “Just As I Am Without One Plea” in the background. Regardless of that, between 1953 and 1961, Larry Sorenson came forward 12 times, weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the shock of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon on stewardship. But now he needed to put his arm around this person, pray with him and be certain he had a way to get home. “Even we fundamentalists got tired of him,” Keillor writes. God didn’t mean for you to feel guilty all your life. There comes a time when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof. But Larry just kept repenting and repenting. 1
How many of us are in that same place? We just keep repenting for the same thing, over and over and over again. When what Jesus wants to say, “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Then feed me sheep.” “Receive my grace and get on with it.” Or as he says to Peter at the end, simply “Follow me!” “Allow your past to be your past. Allow me to redeem your past. And let’s move on, because I have got great things in store for you and you’re the only one holding things up.” My unwillingness to repent and receive the love and the forgiveness and the grace and the healing and the call of Jesus Christ is the true obstacle
You know, Jesus goes on to say one more thing to Peter. He says in verse 18, “I tell you the truth when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted. But when you are older, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you to somewhere you do not want to go.” And John comments that this was a prophecy to show how Peter’s death would glorify God. The end of the story comes from church history where we are told that Peter was crucified in the year 64 AD, by the Roman Emperor Nero. And when he was crucified Peter asked to be crucified upside-down, saying, “I am not worthy to die in the same manner as my Lord Jesus.” Remember what Peter boasted that night Jesus was arrested? In his arrogance he said, “I am ready to die for you.” Well, twelve hours later he wasn’t even willing to suffer a little for Jesus. But with these words, Jesus tells Peter, “You’ve got a second chance for glory. I’ve got great things in store for you. And you’re going to have your chance to die for me.” Then he gives those final words, “Follow me.”
And the words Jesus spoke to Peter are the same words that he speaks to us. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep … care for my sheep … minister in my name … and follow me.” Hopefully crucifixion is not in store for us, but that crucifixion was just the exclamation point, the final act in the grand drama of Peter’s faithful leadership and ministry. In fact, it is on a foundation of Peter’s faithfulness and that of the other disciples that you and I are able to gather here this morning and to sing God’s praises and to enter into his presence. May we, like Peter, receive God’s grace, hear his call and follow our Lord Jesus Christ. Please join me as we pray.
Lord, we thank you that our sin is not the last word, but that your grace is the last word. We thank you that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for every sin, past, present and future, that we might be forgiven, that we might find your grace and live for you. Lord, impress that truth upon us that we might serve you out of hearts full of love and gratitude, for we ask it through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.