Failure Is Expected – Learning to Get Back Up, John 21:15-17
God IS Near! Growing A Relationship with Our Creator
First Baptist Church Laurens
October 7, 2018
The vast majority of us know more about Simon Peter than we do about any of the others among Jesus’ twelve disciples. This is true for a number of reasons. For one, Peter plays one of the most prominent roles of any figure in both the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. In fact, two of the later New Testament works, I & II Peter, bear his name. Likewise, Peter wasn’t simply one of the twelve, he was a leader of the twelve. In every list offered of the twelve, Peter’s name comes first. This is not by happenstance but rather an indication of his significance among the group. Finally, I think we know the most about Peter because his story is the most compelling, memorable and in many ways easiest to relate to on a number of levels. We know his story because in honesty the story of Peter is a hard one to forget.
To refresh your memory, we are told that Peter and his brother Andrew, who was also a disciple, were both fisherman when Jesus called them to abandon their work on the water that they might become fishers of men. They are eventually joined by ten others who come from all walks of life. For the better part of three years, they followed Jesus in the midst of what we call his public ministry. As we have already said, over time, Peter emerges as the leader of the twelve. Likewise, Peter, along with James and John form a sort of inner circle or leadership council with Jesus. At moments, they are present with Jesus when the others are not.
When Jesus asks the group a question, it is often Peter who answers for everyone such as when Jesus asks who the disciples understood him to be and Peter responded by saying he was the Messiah. Sometimes Peter’s responses gain him affirmation from Jesus such as in the moment I just mentioned. At other times, his responses gain him criticism as in the moment when Jesus tries to help the disciples understand his coming crucifixion and death. Again, Peter is the first to speak. Again, he seems to speak on behalf of the others. Yet this time, he refutes what Jesus is saying and claims that these things will never happen to Jesus. This time, rather than affirm Peter, Jesus likens Peter to Satan and tells him to get out of the way lest he try to stand in the way of the plans and ways of God.
You will also likely remember that not only Peter’s words but Peter’s actions are also a mixed bag. Again, he is often the first to act just as he was often the first to speak. When Jesus walks on water Peter wants to do the same. And, when Jesus is taken away on the night he was arrested it is Peter who has the willingness and courage to at least follow and see what is going to happen. Yet, as you know, both of these moments again have their shadow side. In both instances, Peter’s courage to act first ultimately leads to a tragic ending. When he tries to walk on water, his faith ultimately wavers and he sinks. When he follows Jesus at a distance, he is ultimately encountered by servants of the High Priest who want to know if he is one of Jesus’ followers which leads to Peter denying that he even knows Jesus.
It is this moment, in many ways, that is the occasion for which Peter is most remembered. On the night that Jesus is arrested, Peter at first follows in the shadows along with another disciple. But eventually recognized and asked about his connection to Jesus, he does what he says that he will never do – he denies even knowing Jesus at all.
Ultimately, Peter’s life can’t be characterized as having a trajectory that is a steady climb in which he consistently ascends ever upward and always in the right direction. Instead, Peter’s life is better understood as having been like a wave or a roller coaster. At times it was on a upswing and at times it had a downward motion. Sometimes Peter was at the top of the mountain, but it didn’t take long for him to be back in the valley.
Yet, whether Peter was on the top of the world or in the pit of despair, he remained in a relationship with Jesus. At times, I believe he made Jesus smile. At other times, I have little doubt that he frustrated his Lord. But, Peter learned that this never changed how Jesus’ felt about him and over time, I think, Peter likely learned that his failures should never change how he himself felt about his relationship with the Lord or his usefulness to God’s work.
Today’s text, which occurs after Peter’s three denials of knowing Jesus is the ultimate example of Jesus’ continued willingness to allow Peter to fail and get back up. These verses come after Jesus’ death and in the midst of his resurrection appearances to his followers. One of those appearance is this one to Peter and some of the other disciples. Peter is back fishing and the sense we get is that Peter has given up on the work of the disciples and that he has liken given up on himself. But, Jesus has not given up. He asks Peter three times if he loves him to mirror Peter’s three denials. Three times he sends Peter back to work. The point is clear, unmistakable and without question – Jesus still loves Peter, still has work for him to do, still finds value in him. In truth, it is this moment in which Jesus once more picks Peter up and dusts him off that completely changes Peter forever. One can say that Jesus’ willingness to allow Peter to fail and yet to still love him is what made Peter the person he became.
There is a great story told of Phillips Brooks who was a pastor long ago in Boston. A woman came to see Dr. Brooks one day in the midst of a public discussion related to on ongoing heated argument in their town. Regarding the issue at hand, she supposedly said, “Oh Dr. Brooks, I hope what they are saying isn’t true. But if it is true, I sure hope nobody finds out.”
This quote gets right at the heart of it all – we don’t want to admit, live with or be honest about our failures or those of each other. And for goodness sake, even if we do know how badly we have messed up, we don’t want to let it get out. Instead, we want to parade around like we have it all together and like we would never do what others have done. Further, when other’s faults come to the surface, we want to allow that one event to define them. We use it to label them as evil or the enemy. We have no trouble casting them to the side like damaged goods. The problem is, there is no Gospel support for this way of behaving toward ourselves or anyone else.
Instead, the whole gospel message is built on the idea that sin and failure are inevitable and that grace and mercy are indispensable.
This moment in Peter’s life and his whole story hammer home at this point while reminding us of a couple of critical things. Let me remind us of them.
First, Peter reminds us that faith and failure go hand in hand. We are humans. We mess up. We get it right and we get it wrong. We are here because we recognize this about ourselves and about each other. This is the very reason we need God in our lives. And further, even when we become people of faith, our highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses continue. God expects this and the gospel expects it. Our human struggles never change God’s desire to love us or have a relationship with us. We must never forget this and equally important we must help one another remember this too.
Second, Peter reminds us that one failure or even a host of sins never defines who we are in the sight of God. This is the thing about Peter’s story that we need to hear and not forget. We so want to define others based on one moment. And, sometimes, we want to define ourselves based on one moment in our own lives too. Luckily Jesus never did that in Peter’s case. He kept seeing what Peter could be, not what he currently was. He kept remembering Peter’s strong qualities in the midst of his struggles. Jesus never seemed to forget that some of Peter’s biggest failures had also had elements of courage mixed in with them. Jesus saw the whole story and the whole person not just a moment or a snap shot.
If you think about, the difference between Peter and his fellow disciple Judas Iscariot is razor thin as it relates to the end of their lives and their dual betrayals. Yes, money was involved in Judas’ betrayal and his actions toward Jesus feel more premeditated than spur of the moment. Yet, the bottom line is that both washed their hands of Jesus and dismissed their relationships with him when Jesus needed them most.
In the end, what really separates the two is how they handled their failure. Judas allowed the moment to become the absolute definition of who he was. It did define him and he could not get beyond it. His only way out, from his perspective was to commit suicide.
Peter, a fellow failure, somehow found the capacity to see beyond his moment of shame. He allowed Jesus to speak forgiveness into his life. He believed that though horrific, he could live beyond his denial. It did not have to be the final verse of his song, the final note of his symphony. He could, even in spite of his failure, sing a new song.
My favorite professor became my favorite professor after I made one of the worst grades of my entire college career in his class. It was a class in Philosophy and I was horrified when I got that first test back and saw my grade. Eventually and reluctantly I went to see him in his office to discuss my poor performance and to figure out what I could do to improve. To this day, I remember what he said. Oh, I don’t remember exactly what he said but I remember the two points of what he said. First, he said he wasn’t surprised. “Studying Philosophy is different and it is hard. Failure and struggles are just a part of it at first,” he admitted. Second, he said he was sure I would do better. “Don’t beat yourself up to much,” he continued. “You will grow from this and you will be fine. I know what kind of student you can be,” he offered with assurance. He was right, I did just fine in that class and I did exceedingly well in others with him. Still to this day, in my office, I have a prize for making the highest grade in a class later in my college career where he was also the teacher. Nevertheless, I am convinced that my success in his classes was a direct result of how he handled my failure on that day.
God knows how to handle our failures too. God isn’t surprised by our humanity and God doesn’t allow those moments to define us any more than they defined Peter. God wants us to continue in our relationship with him as we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again. God wants to be as near to us in our struggles as He is in our triumphs.
God knows how to handle our failures. And as it relates to our lives with others, God teaches us how to handle failure in those relationships too. Amen.