[Listen to the sermon here, from April 17, 2016]
Shame. Guilt. Grief.
I know those feelings. I’ve been overwhelmed by them at times. They have felt like a ton of bricks on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe.
I’m feeling them now. Sitting with Jesus on the beach, eating the fish he grilled and the bread he baked, I keep staring at the charcoal fire. Its burning my eyes and scorching my heart.
When Jesus was arrested, I followed him. John had connections in the household of the High Priest, by which we were able to gain entrance to its courtyard. I will never forget that courtyard. Even as I entered it, the servant girl recognized me and said, “You are one of them, aren’t you? You are one of Jesus’s friends.” And I said, “No, I don’t know him.” John looked at me, and I looked at the ground. What came over me? Why would I deny Jesus? It sort of just happened, and the words came out of my mouth before I could grab hold of them and stuff them back in. I never thought I would do that, but I did.
I moved over to the fire to keep warm but also to get closer to what was going on. I thought I might be able to see or hear something about Jesus. Gathered around the charcoal fire, they recognized me. Someone said, “You are one of his disciples. You are one of his friends!” “No,” I answered, “I am not!” I don’t think they believed me, and I didn’t even believe myself. Why am I denying I know Jesus? What is happening to me? Where is this coming from?
Then a relative of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest, whose ear I had severed in the Garden, recognized me. “Yes, you are one of his disciples! You were in the Garden; you tried to kill Malchus.” “No,” I yelled, “that was not me. I was not in the Garden! I don’t even know this Jesus.”
And then the rooster crowed, and I hit the wall. I came to myself and recognized what I had done. I left the courtyard and cried my eyes dry. I hated myself; I hated what I did. How could I ever forgive myself? How could Jesus ever forgive me?
The charcoal fire on the beach flooded my soul with those horrible, horrendous memories. I wish I could make them go away. I want a “do-over,” but that don’t exist. It is hanging out there in the air, at least that is how I feel. It is the elephant in the room at our breakfast table. And no one is saying anything about it, not even John.
Then Jesus looked at me. I though to myself, “Oh, no, here it comes! I don’t know what to expect. What will he say?”
The first words out of his mouth crushed me! “Simon, son of John,” he said. He did not say “Peter” but “Simon, son of John.” When we first met on these same shores several years ago, he called my name, “Simon, son of John.” But then he renamed me, “Cephas” (“Peter” in Greek), which means “Rock.” He called me a “Rock,” but not today.
This not-so-subtle address forced me to face myself. I thought of myself of a “Rock” among the disciples. I had a heroic self-image laced with arrogance and impetuousness. I thought my role to play the hero, but several nights ago I learned I was no hero. It was a façade, an illusion. I’m no hero; I have feet of clay.
I was so startled by the address that I almost did not hear the question. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these other disciples?” I looked around the fire at my fellow disciples and friends, including John. There was no way I could say I love Jesus more than them. I knew myself well enough to know that. At least the arrogance was gone…at least for the moment.
Several weeks earlier I would have anointed myself the greatest. I boasted I would follow Jesus whenever he went. I told him in front of all the disciples that I would die for him. I thought I loved him more than the others. But no longer. I will not overstep this time.
In fact, I realized the question is confrontational. Jesus knows the contrast. He knows what I did. He forced me to face myself, to look at myself in the moment, and to take inventory. Who I am? Whom do I love?
I responded, “Yes, Lord, I love (philo) you,” but I dropped the comparsion. And I made one other adjustment to Jesus’s question. While Jesus asked, “Do you love (agapas) me?” I responded, “I love (philo) you.” I did not mean I loved Jesus less as if agapao is a greater or more devout love than phileo. “Yes,” I said, “I agapao you but I also phileo you.” In effect, I said, “I dearly love you,” or “I love you as a friend.”
Why did I change the verb? I wanted to stress to Jesus how deep my love was. I wanted to assure him that now I would die for him.
Several weeks ago, when we were sitting at the table with Jesus, he called us his “friends” (philous) rather than his servants. He told us there is no “greater love (agapen) than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (philous). Jesus asked me if if Ioved him, and I told him I would die for him.
Then Jesus startled me. “Feed my lambs,” he said. What? I couldn’t imagine feeding lambs; I couldn’t imagine participating in your flock. I was so ashamed and so grieved; I only wanted to sit in the back unobserved and unnoticed. I feel so unworthy to feed Jesus’s lambs. And I remembered how several months ago Jesus told us a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The invitation stung me.
Jesus did not let up. He asked another question. This time he dropped the comparison, and the question became more pointed and more direct. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me at all?” It is almost as if he was asking me if I have ever loved him, and I understood why he asked. I failed him in the most crucial moment of my life and his. In the crucible I showed myself faithless. Do I even love Jesus at all much less love him more than the other disciples?
Jesus was probing me. He was performing a kind of heart surgery on me. Do I know myself as Jesus knows me? When I denied Jesus, I loved myself, and maybe that is still true.
But I responded, “Yes, most certainly, Lord; you know I love (philo) you. I love you dearly, as a friend, and I will die for you, Lord.”
Again, once again, Jesus invited me into his community; he invited to participate. He said, “Tend my sheep.” I can’t even go there now. That seems so distant to me; I feel so unworthy of such a charge.
Then, for a third time—yes, a third time, Jesus asked another question, a different question. Every question has been different. This time he changed the verb. He shifted from agapas to phileis. He asked the same question but this time used my language. “Simon, son of John, do you love me dearly? Do you love me as a friend for whom you would die?”
The question cut me to the heart. It grieved me. The question hurt but not because it was a bad question. It hurt because I knew my own actions had occasioned the inquiry. My heart rate tripled, burdened with anxiety and grief. I wish I could change the past. I wish I had a “do-over.”
“Lord,” I responded, “you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you. You know I will die for you.” I know Jesus knows. He knew my heart several weeks ago, and he knows my heart now.
In all these questions, Jesus’s voice was strong and stern. I knew Jesus was confronting me with my sin, but I also knew he was inviting me into his community again. Again, he welcomed me to “feed his sheep,” to live as a shepherd among his flock. Again, I recoiled.
But then it dawned on me what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not torturing me or rubbing it in. The three questions paralleled my three denials. Jesus gave me the opportunity to reverse my denials as a way of repairing my past. He gave me a “do-over.” He walked me through a kind of repair therapy, moral repair. I re-enacted my denial. Jesus helped me repair my past.
With each question, I looked my past in the eye and acknowledged what I had done. With each question, Jesus embraced me in the present. With each question, Jesus offered me a new future.
Jesus walked me through a process of moral repair, a kind of spiritual therapy where I looked in the mirror and faced myself. Through that confrontation, I confessed my failure, recognized my woundedness, and Jesus reoriented my life toward healing.
Jesus did not say to me, “Its okay; it didn’t matter. No worries.” Just the opposite. I had to face what I had done, and I had to see myself for truly who I was. Even as I professed my love for Jesus, I tasted the bitter fruit of the denial. I recognized my false self, my heroic self-image, and I reached out for my authentic self in professing my love for Jesus.
This did not erase my past. It really happened; it’s not going away. But the grace Jesus offered in this moment—as painful as it was to hear it and embrace it—reframed my past. It is like it rewired my experience. I still acknowledge the past, but I now see it through the lens of grace and how Jesus calls me into a new future. The past is no longer debilitating; the shame is no longer incapacitating. I have a future with Jesus.
Jesus confronted me in order to embrace me, and he embraced me to offer a new future, a future without shame, guilt, and grief over my past.
And Jesus really does know me. He knows I will face my next crucible without wavering. When I am old, someone will bind my hands and take me where I do not want to go. Jesus knows when that day comes I will die for him.
Jesus knows my sin, and he knows my love for him. He welcomed me with the invitation I longed to hear, “Follow me.”
My name is John Mark Hicks, a disciple of Jesus. I am Peter….and so are you.
John 21:15-19: An Amplified Reading
When Jesus and his disciples had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter (intentionally avoiding calling him the “rock,” which he wasn’t): “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these other disciples?” Peter, recognizing his allusion to his previous insistence on dying with Jesus and his subsequent denial, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs; care for my little ones as a good shepherd.”
Then again, a second time Jesus looked at Peter and asked (again without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me at all?” Peter, feeling the hurt of his recent failure to go to the cross with Jesus, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Tend my sheep; protect my people with your life as a good shepherd.”
Then Jesus asked a third time (without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?” Peter, deeply grieved by Jesus’s persistent questioning for the third time, responded, “Lord, you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you dearly. You know I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my sheep; care for my people as a good shepherd.”
Jesus continued, “You can be certain of this, when you were younger, you fastened your own belt and went wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.”
[Note: Jesus said this because he knew Peter would, one day, die for him as a martyr. Jesus knew Peter loved him.]
After he said this, Jesus said to Peter: “Follow me—follow me even to a cross. I know you love me dearly and I know you will lay down your life for my sheep.”