Tom Watson, Jr. was the CEO of IBM between 1956 and 1971 and was a key figure in the information revolution.
A young executive who worked for the company made some bad decisions that cost the company two million dollars. The executive was summoned to Watson’s office, fully expecting to be dismissed. As he entered the office, the young executive said, “I suppose after that set of mistakes you will want to fire me.”
Watson was said to have replied, “I just spent two million dollars on your training. You’re too valuable to us now to fire.”
In John 21, Peter finds himself in a similar situation. If we go back just a few chapters to John 18, we find the account of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, and was being interrogated. Peter was in the courtyard, warming himself by a charcoal fire (put a pin in there because we are coming back to that). He is approached by a servant girl who came to him and said, “You were with Jesus”. Peter tells an outright lie and says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Peter continues to warm himself by the fire and another servant girl saw him and said, “You were with Jesus.” Peter becomes a little more animated and says, “I do not know the man!!”
Then others came to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them. Your accent gives you away.”
Matthew’ account says that Peter began to “call down curses”. Do you know what this means? It means that Peter cussed: “Blankety, blank, blank- I do not know the man!”
And after this denial the cock crowed just as Jesus said it would, and Peter went away in shame and wept bitterly.
The residue of Peter’s guilt and shame is still felt when we come to John 21. The text opens with Peter saying, “I’m going fishing.” Remember that prior to following Jesus, Peter had been a fisherman by trade. And even now-even after Jesus’ resurrection- Peter is so embroiled in the guilt and shame of his denials that he figures that God doesn’t want anything to do with him.
Peter is saying, “I’ve messed up. I’ve denied Him. My past is now so scarred and so bad that Jesus wouldn’t want to be around me anymore. I’m just going back to the old way.”
When we look back in our rearview mirrors, we all have “stuff” in our past. From the preacher in the pulpit to the person in the last pew of the balcony-and everyone in between-we all have “stuff”. And we can all become so overwhelmed by the stuff of our past that, in our own way, we can say, “I’m going fishing. I’m going back to the way it was because surely God wouldn’t want me now. I’m too dirty for God.”
We can so easily buy in to that lie.
So, Peter and the other disciples have been out fishing all night and have caught nothing. They’ve returned to the old way and have found that that’s not working either. And all of the sudden a man on the shore yells out from a distance, “Have you not caught anything yet? Try casting your nets on the other side.”
They did, and the disciples land the motherlode of all catches. One hundred and fifty-three fish, and the passage says that they struggled to get them in. And suddenly it clicked. John remembered that this is the way that they met Jesus in the first place. And he says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”
The always-impulsive Peter puts on his clothes, jumps in the sea and swims to the shore. And when he gets to the shore, Jesus is cooking a breakfast of fish and bread- over a charcoal fire.
There is a blessing in this. The term charcoal fire is only used twice in scripture. The first time is when Peter is warming himself over a charcoal fire as Jesus is being interrogated. And it is at that charcoal fire that Peter commits his most famous sin-denying Jesus three times.
And the first thing that Peter experiences as he walks up onto the shore of the Sea of Galilee is the scent of a charcoal fire. It’s important to note that Jesus could have used the driftwood that can be found around the Sea of Galilee. The driftwood would have made the fire easier to start.
Jesus used charcoal because this fire was just for Peter. God’s grace is never generalized; instead, it is intimate.
There is a strong correlation between our sense of smell and our memories. For example, every time I smell Old Spice aftershave I think of my grandfather because that is what he wore. He passed away when I was twelve years old, but to this day every time I smell Old Spice cologne, I think of him. There is a correlation between what we smell and our memories.
And as Peter smells the charcoal fire, he remembers the shame of his past. But as he remembers his failure, Jesus is offering him grace at the same time. Over breakfast, Jesus gives Peter grace.
Grace does not mean spiritual amnesia. We can’t act like our failures never happened, nor should we become obsessed by them and focus on them all the time. But getting an occasional whiff of our past failures and sin is what enhances and deepens the grace we have received.
Sometimes I will run into someone from high school or college that I haven’t seen in about 20 years and they will eventually ask, “So Tommy what are you doing now?”
When I say that I’m a minister, many will chuckle, look at me and say, “No really, what are you doing now?”
For me, that “whiff” of my past sin and failures helps me remember the depth of the grace that I have received. What keeps me humble is to remember the wretch I used to be. And when we are humble, we are in position to be used by God.
As Peter is smelling the charcoal fire, Jesus gives Peter three statements of forgiveness and grace: “Peter do you love me?” Yes, you know that I love you.
“Peter, do you love me?” Yes Jesus, you know that I love you.
“Peter, do you love me?” Yes Lord, you know that I love you.
It is no coincidence that Jesus offered three statements of grace to Peter. He did this because Peter had denied him three times.
God’s grace covers the exact amount of our sin. His grace is sufficient.
And I love this last part, and we will finish on this.
“Peter, do you love me…feed my sheep.”
“Peter, do you love me..feed my sheep.”
“Peter, do you love me..feed my sheep.”
Jesus is saying to this man who cussed him, who denied him, who turned his back on him in the time of his greatest need that “I forgive you and I still want to use you. I’m not finished with you yet.”
God specializes in not using the most qualified, but the least qualified- so that He, and not we, can get the glory. The Bible is full of stories about God using the less-qualified people to do his work in this world.
Check God’s resume. He used a liar like Abraham, a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, and a womanizer like Samson to bring about His will in this world.
The message of this passage is this: Failure is never final.
Other people may have given up on you, and we may have even given up on ourselves. The fact that you’re still living and breathing is God saying to you that He hasn’t given up on you, and that He still wants to use you in this world.
I wonder what Peter was thinking just a couple of weeks later, when he stood up and preached on the day of Pentecost. When this lying, cussing, betraying preacher stood up and preached and God used him to bring 3,000 people to Christ and to birth His church.
God still wants to use you. He doesn’t use the most qualified. He uses the most available.
In His grace, God takes us where we are and makes us more than we ever imagined. Amen.
Reflection Question: What failure in life do you need to revisit with a greater awareness of God’s grace?