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John 13 & 21
This Sunday, we are looking at the disciple who failed and how failure can sometimes be an important step and gateway towards our growth as a resurrected people.
Question 1 (Word Cloud)
Who in your mind is the disciple who failed?
Peter, you, me. All of us have failed at some point.
Peter. Peter, who said to Jesus, ‘I will lay down my life for you,’ and hours later he denied three separate times that he even knew Jesus. Peter, who resorted to violence and cut off the servant’s ear, even though Jesus taught them to love their enemies. Peter wasn’t the only one who failed, of course. That Easter weekend, most of his disciples were filled with fear and ran away.
We are no different from Peter or the other disciples. We have all failed at some point in the past, and we still fail sometimes. Even though we are a new creation, in this life we are a work in progress and there are moments we fail. Living a resurrected life means knowing we will all fail at times but…and this is important, failure can be a gateway towards growth. In fact, I would say being a resurrected people doesn’t mean we won’t fail or make mistakes but it does mean we allow God to help us grow through them to become better people.
There is a certain amount of grace that comes to us when we are willing to face our failures squarely, seeking to learn what we can from our missteps and mistakes.
Indeed, failures are fertile ground for growth.
Do you remember this scene after the resurrection where Jesus comes to Peter? This is found in John 21. Peter had gone back to fishing, and the other disciples went with him. Perhaps he needed just a moment to do something familiar as he digested and tried to make sense of all that had happened with Jesus’ death and resurrection.
They spend the whole night trying to fish but caught nothing.
Morning comes, and they see a man is standing on the beach. Once again, just as before, they don’t recognize him. The risen Christ is different. They don’t realize it’s Jesus until his clear instructions on where to cast their net yields a staggering amount of fish. Then their eyes are opened and Simon Peter—the one who was trying to get away from it all to begin with —Peter jumps into the sea to swim, as fast as he can, to Jesus’ side.
Question 2 (Open)
If you were Jesus, what would be the first thing you’d ask or say to Peter?
What was the first thing Jesus said to him? Breakfast is ready.
Breakfast is ready. What tenderness and love in such a short mundane-sounding phrase!
In those three words, Jesus was saying, “I care about you and your needs.”
In those three words, Jesus was inviting Peter to the table again, “Let’s break bread, let’s share a meal together again, my friend. Let’s talk.”
After breakfast, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
And Peter, perhaps grateful to have the opportunity to say it, and say it to Jesus’ face, says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” It’s a relief, after all that denial, lying and hiding. It’s a relief to be able to say it, to be able to make it clear: I love you. “Feed my lambs,” Jesus replies.
Then Jesus asks him again, “Do you love me?”
I don’t know if you’ve been asked this question before or perhaps you have asked this question yourself at some point, “Do you love me?” There is a vulnerability, a tentativeness around this question. And Jesus is making himself vulnerable because of love. Peter replies again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep,” Jesus says.
So is Jesus satisfied with his reply? Perhaps not, because he asked Peter one more time and we are told that Peter feels hurt. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.
Do you love me? What is this strange exchange all about? Is it about Jesus’ need? Or is it, maybe, about Peter’s need?
Question 3 (Open)
Why do you think Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him?
Peter is given an opportunity to affirm his love for Jesus once for each time he denied it before. And along with the opportunity—to heal the wound of his denial and betrayal.
Prior to this encounter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the last conversation Jesus had with Peter was at the Last Supper. During the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them only a little longer. And so he left them these parting instructions: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
Peter immediately responded by asking Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?”
When Jesus responded that Peter can’t go with him but would follow him later, Peter protested, “But why can’t I come now, Lord? I’m ready to die for you.”
To which Jesus replied, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter – before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me” (13:36-38).
Peter was quite a big talker, telling Jesus that he would die for him. But when push came to shove, he did just as Jesus foretold: he denied Jesus three times.
Now, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, in his first real conversation with Jesus since the Last Supper, I wonder how Peter was feeling. Perhaps he felt ashamed and wondered if his word had any integrity. Maybe he even doubted the strength and sincerity of his commitment to Jesus.
After all, I’m sure he believed he was sincere and committed on the night of the Last Supper too. And yet, hours later, he had denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. What he needs in this moment, then, is not for Jesus to tell him, “Your denials are forgiven. Let’s just forgive and forget, and we can move on together.”
It wouldn’t repair the relationship in the present and it wouldn’t calm Peter’s doubts about his actions in the future. The issue isn’t Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus as much as it is Peter’s lack of faith in himself. Is his word credible? Will Jesus be able to count on him again?
So Jesus gives Peter a parting gift. The gift Jesus gives Peter is the threefold reminder of how he can demonstrate his love for Jesus.
At the Last Supper, Jesus had told the disciples that to demonstrate their love for him, they were to love each other. But at that time, that simple command didn’t sound heroic enough for Peter. He wanted to declare his love for Jesus in a grandiose way. So he shouted that he loved Jesus so much he was ready to die for him – only to find hours later that he wasn’t ready at all.
What Peter needs now is not just forgiveness. He needs to be restored to wholeness. And so Jesus tells him, “I don’t need your heroism, Peter. I don’t need grand gestures or declarations of love. You just need to express that love in action by feeding my sheep.”
Instead of berating Peter for his lack of faith, or for his failures, Jesus invites him to express his love once more and issues him a call: “Feed my lambs.” Peter has failed multiple times, yet Jesus continues to call him into service. It is the same with us. We may fail at times but Jesus is inviting us to express our love once more and to put it in action by taking up his call to take care of God’s people.
Do you love me?
Why is this the most important question? Because it boils back down to our motivations. Peter had good intentions but his motivation in the earlier stages of his relationship with Jesus was wanting to prove himself: “Jesus, why can’t I come with you? I’m ready to die for you.”
I wonder how many of us have had a similar experience. How many of us feel like we have to prove ourselves at work or in our relationships or in our families?
I was listening to Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast recently and one of her guests, Adam Grant said this:
“Instead of saying I’m here to prove myself, think of it as I’m here to improve myself.”
Adam Grant with Brene Brown on Dare to Lead Podcast
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
How often have you felt the need to prove yourself? I have. Whether it’s as a daughter or as a pastor or as a friend or as a leader, I have sometimes felt the need to prove myself. We live in a society that constantly demands that we prove ourselves and our abilities. Sometimes like Peter, we think we need to prove ourselves to God. But that’s not how God relates with us. God sees you – all of you, the good, the bad, the ugly, and God loves you. There is nothing to prove. We are here just to improve ourselves, to grow in the likeness of Christ as we grow in our loving union with God.
When our deeper motivation for doing the things we do is wanting to prove ourselves, we will often end up hurting others and ourselves, and ultimately fail. That’s what happened to Peter.
But when our motivation is love, it pushes us to go beyond our own self-interest and our narrow hearts to give of ourselves and grow to become the people God made us to be. But this is not all fluff.
Sometimes, this call to love may involve a cost to ourselves, perhaps even the cost of our lives. Historically, we know this was true of Peter and of most of Jesus’ disciples. Following the third and final question and response, Jesus proceeds to describe for Peter the type of life he will live in his old age. The picture Jesus paints is not all rosy and happy; instead, it is bleak, he will be taken where he doesn’t want to go and it ends in death, presumably by being put to death for the sake of the gospel. Even so, Jesus says, “Follow me.”
The Power of Love
This reminds me of a true story that I read recently. Maximilian Kolbe (1894–1941) was a Polish Franciscan priest known for his leadership and his skill as a writer. While he was a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp, he chose to save the life of another inmate by offering his own. And this was what happened:
A prisoner had escaped and because this escapee was not found, the camp commander decided to choose ten prisoners and ordered that they die by starvation as punishment. The commander chose ten prisoners, and among them was a man named Francis Gajowniczek (Ga-yo-ni-czek). When this man learned what was to happen to him, he began to cry with pain and despair that he had a wife and children, that he wanted to see them again, and that he was going to die.
At that point, Father Maximilian Kolbe stepped out of line, lifted his cap, and declared to the commander, pointing to Francis, that he wanted to sacrifice himself for that prisoner, as he had no wife and children. The commander asked him his profession. He replied: “I am a Catholic priest.” There followed a moment while the SS showed a certain surprise. Then the commander ordered Francis to get back in line and Father Kolbe took his place among those condemned. Francis Gajowniczek survived the war and was reunited with his wife, and he lived to the ripe old age of 93. While he was alive, he said that “as long as he has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.”
In a world that thinks domination is power, Jesus shows us that real power is not the power of domination but rather the power of love. That’s why he asks us this probing question, “Do you love me?” Because love has to be the underlying motivation for all we do and all that we are. When we are able to look at life from the vantage point of love, we see that our being and our joy increase to the same extent that we give it away. We see that the real significance of our lives grows the more we are willing to move beyond our own self-interest and give away some of our own life to help take care of others.
Question 4 (Word Cloud)
What are some ways you can help take care of others?
In the end, this story in John 21 is not just about Simon Peter. And it’s not just about us. Most importantly, it’s about the flock whose care has been given into our hands.
Rob Bell said that the church is at its best when it gives itself away.
“It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display.”
Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. That is the call to every one of us: that the blessing of God should flow through us to a world that is hungry – for bread and for love.
This next question may seem random but I assure you there is a point.
Question 5 (Multiple Choice)
How many fish did Peter and the disciples catch after Jesus told them to throw their net off to the right side of their boat?
Why so specific? And why was it so important to tell us the specific number of fish that were caught?
Rachel Held Evans, in her book Inspired, posited the theory that the number 153 in rabbinic numerology signifies “completion” and perhaps corresponds to a specific prophecy in Ezekiel that describes a great river full of all kinds of fish flowing out of the restored temple. John emphasized that the net was full but not torn, which means the net might symbolize the church, holding a great diversity of fish together in unity. Early Christian art depicts Peter and John holding a net on either side of a stream flowing from a temple, suggesting they made that connection too.
That’s our call. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Not just the sheep that is in your fold but a great diversity of sheep coming together in unity. And the underlying motivation for all this to happen has to be love.
If I could summarize from these two recent sermons what growth and living a resurrected life means, it would be:
- Showing up (especially when it’s difficult)
- Learning to let go of people and things when it’s time
- Knowing you’re here to improve (and you have nothing to prove)
- Knowing we will fail and disappoint God, others and ourselves at times but having the grace, courage and compassion to get up, realign ourselves with God and continue the journey
- Growth is motivated by love
Last week, I ended the sermon by asking you, “How will you allow God to love you this week?” Today, I leave you with this question that Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
That’s all God wants to know. Is what you do and all that you are motivated by love?
This is a mutual two-way relationship that needs to be cultivated day by day. It doesn’t just happen overnight and like any relationship, it takes time and intentionality. So as you reflect on how you’d like to cultivate this relationship with God, I want to leave you with this thought from Henri Nouwen.
Jesus said, “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” (John 15)
“Speaking of himself as the vine and of his disciples as the branches, Jesus says: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you” (John 15:4). This is an invitation to intimacy.
Then he adds: “Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5) This is a call to fruitfulness.
Finally, when he says: “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11), he promises ecstasy. These 3 themes are the golden threads woven through the whole of John’s gospel.”
“When Jesus says: “Make your home in me as I make mine in you” (John 15:4), he offers us an intimate place that we can truly call “home”. Home is that place or space where we do not have to be afraid but can let go of our defenses and be free, free from worries, free from tensions, free from pressures. Home is where we can rest and be healed.”
Henri J. Nouwen
Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity & Ecstacy in Christian Perspective
When Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” he is actually saying, “Please make your home in me as I make mine in you.” And from this safe space, you can learn from your mistakes, heal from your failings and let God’s love flow through you to a world in need. Amen.
[ Download sermon discussion questions for self-study or group discussion click here ]