Dramatic scenes set just days on either side of Easter provide the settings for our two Scripture lessons this morning. They unfold a couple chapters apart in John’s Gospel, yet the passages are tied intimately.
The Lord Jesus and the apostle Simon Peter take lead roles in both episodes, and with good reason the relationship between the two is prickly at best. The first reading explains why the ties that bind are so stretched and strained, and the second reveals what Jesus does to ease the tension and cultivate reconciliation.
In this Lenten season of humility and repentance, I’m inviting all of us to take an honest look at our relationships. That means allowing the Holy Spirit to name the elephant in the room. As the pachyderm was for Jesus and Peter, so also for too many of us: Our relationships are torn and in tatters. Human sin and brokenness are to blame, and the Lord asks better of us.
What the Lord asks is at once simple and complex: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly (Micah 6:8). Simple and complex: All God asks for is your heart.
In praise and thanksgiving for the endless grace and countless blessing that flow like currents of a mighty river from the throne of Heaven, all God asks for is your heart. That was one of the takeaways from the message we heard last Sunday from my friend and colleague, Pastor Loren Shellabarger.
In return for all that God has done for you, is doing for you, and will do for you – not the least of which is your undeserved salvation, all the Lord asks for is your heart – that his heart be yours and your heart be his.
In a cardiac fusion of cosmic proportion, all Father, Son, and Spirit ask for is your heart: That it become as caring, as hospitable, as healing, as tolerant, as forgiving – as loving! – as theirs is.
Toward that end, let us enter the story of God with us in the hours just after the Lord’s Last Supper and just hours before his crucifixion. Place yourself in the story, huddled in the warmth of a ragtag charcoal fire. Listen for the Word of the Lord and the crow of the cock.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus.
Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”
Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed. (John 18:15-27)
To riff on the poet, ask not for whom the cock crows. It crows for thee.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is more direct: “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7 NLT)
Before any of us, in righteous judgment, gets up in Peter’s face to render a guilty verdict upon his faithless denial, please take a moment. Before your finger of accusation pokes deep into Peter’s chest, please dial it down a notch or two and recall your own moments of denying Jesus.
You deny Jesus.
I deny Jesus.
All God’s children, at one time or another, deny Jesus – sometimes without even so much as giving a second thought to the blatant denial on full display.
Our willful denial comes into view in decision and action – as much or more as our willful denial comes into sight in both indecision and indifference.
Our willful denial exists in the sour words we choose and the cowardly actions we take.
Our willful denial emerges in the grudges we bear and the revenge we seek.
Our willful denial shows up in friendships gone awry, in lines crossed, in boundaries breached, in once-solemn agreements and treaties broken and scattered to the four winds.
Our willful denial materializes in the relentless pursuit of profit regardless of its toll on God’s Creation.
Our willful denial erupts in the lies we allow and the corruption we ignore. At least Mussolini got the trains to run on time, right?
And perhaps worst of all, from the people the Lord calls his own, our willful denial reflects lack of trust in the God whose gracious blessings all intend to establish none else than trust.
But undoubtedly best of all, to the people the Lord calls his own, the Lord is always the first to reach out a gentle, healing hand of renewal, reconciliation, and revival. Which is precisely what happens in our second lesson. Jesus has recently risen from the dead, and he invites his followers to Easter brunch. Jesus summons his disciples to a quiet beach for a nourishing breakfast of fish and bread.
Once again, listen for the Word of the Lord.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. 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 wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)
After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:15-21)
What an awkward moment it must have been:
Jesus and the apostles, just after the Resurrection – their denial and betrayal, doubt and cowardice, throughout the eventful course of the previous few days still fresh in everyone’s memory.
Starting with Peter, Jesus in a roundabout way names the elephant in the room. Their relationship is stretched to the breaking point, and Jesus intends to repair the damage and return Peter to the good graces of heaven.
In this case Peter is the offender, and Jesus is the offendee. By all rights, Peter should take the lead and be the one who first seeks forgiveness. But no, Jesus is the one who makes the first move – well, a couple moves actually. Jesus in his repeated question “Do you love me?” provides Peter several chances to make amends, but the Lord’s subtle approach is lost on Peter.
Jesus knows Peter will respond affirmatively about his love for the Lord. And Jesus hopes Peter will keep going: “Yes, I love you, and I’m sorry I denied your love.” But no, Peter misses the boat. Yet Jesus hauls Peter back aboard. “Follow me,” Jesus invites. “Follow me, Peter, all is forgiven. You’re still part of the community. So, come, follow me.”
Sometimes, the person offended needs to be the one who initiates reconciliation.
As a man of a certain age, I’m becoming inclined to yell at squirrels – particularly the bushy-tailed beasts who raid our birdfeeder. I’m more than happy to feed the sparrows, juncos, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, and redpoles who daily feast on birdseed just outside our kitchen window. But squirrels, not so much!
Thus I again was incensed when I looked out one morning last week and saw a squirrel in our birdfeeder. The hungry critter was thrashing its head back and forth, rummaging for the best seeds while the rejects fell to the ground in all directions. The needle on my anger meter was moving quickly toward the red zone.
Then, I looked down under the feeder to see maybe two dozen or more birds feasting on the birdseed that the dastardly squirrel was knocking to the ground. It’s “raining” seed. Halleluiah, it’s raining seed.
And no one was going hungry. So, I forgave the squirrel – let go of my anger and made peace. No more yelling at squirrels. But woe to the first rabbit I see nibbling away at Julie’s garden!
It’s a silly example, I know. But it surely goes straight to the heart of the Gospel’s call: Sometimes, the person offended needs to be the one who initiates reconciliation.
And because Jesus, the offended, opens the door to forgiveness and restoration, Peter becomes a different man. He enjoys newfound humility and learns not to rely on his own strength of will. Never again does Peter deny Jesus. If he does, the Bible is silent.
But what Scripture does hold is the sound of Peter raising his voice in testimony to his faith. And as a result, thousands come to faith in Christ (Acts 2:14-36). As Jesus asked, Peter feeds the Lord’s flock. For the rest of his life, Peter teaches, leads, and cares for Jesus’s lambs!
Despite Peter’s past failure in his threefold denial, Jesus finds him a place in the Kingdom where Peter does great things. Upon Peter’s repentance, Jesus puts him to work on an important task: Proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed.
Thanks be to God, no one’s story is ever over when you stumble and fall or mess things up royally. God is Lord of second chances. Trust that Jesus will restore you – in body, mind, and spirit – and send you forth to do great things. For great things happen when God mixes graciously with us – and when we mix graciously with friend, neighbor, and stranger.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, March 12, 2023, the third Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the second of his Lenten series, “Called to Repentance: Working on Our Relationships.”