Mistakes and what they teach us about God's grace. 4) Peter being Peter
St. Andrew's Stars Episode
Hespeler, 6 March, 2016 © Scott McAndless Lent 4, Communion
John 18:15-18, 25-27, John 21:15-19, Psalm 85
ave you ever made one of those mistakes that just kind of haunts you, the kind of mistake that lurks there in your memory waiting to pounce on you? You can just go along with your life and engage in ordinary activities and, when you get absorbed in what you are doing, you can even forget about that one big mistake that you made for a while. But then you come to a moment when the activity stops and you are alone with your thoughts and the memory is just waiting there for you. You wince, you may physically shudder and think to yourself, “I just cannot believe that I did that thing. How could I have been so dumb?”
I’m sure that just abou
t every single one of us has a few mistakes like that in our personal
histories. We’ve all made them and, like it or not we carry them around with
us. In one sense, it is probably good that we remember them and even feel bad
about them because, of course, remembering your mistakes is one way of making
sure that you don’t repeat them. But in another sense, the mere fact that we carry
these things around with us can be very destructive to us. As we brood upon
them, they can begin to define us and to limit us and what we think we can do
I am certain that that was exactly how Simon Peter felt about the matter. For days he had been unable to think of anything else. He just kept replaying the scenarios in his head. When his Lord had been arrested, Peter had wanted to run and to hide like the others, but as he saw them taking Jesus away, he had found a small reserve of courage in himself and he had followed, staying at what seemed to be a safe distance.
When Jesus was taken into the high priest’s house, where the Sanhedrin often met, for an initial questioning before taking him before the Procurator, Peter found himself unable to follow – stopped by the slave who tended the door. He dared not seek admittance for fear that someone might ask him to identify himself, and so he just lurked by the door. Eventually one of the other disciples, who had some connections in the household, came over to try and get him in. All was going well until the woman on the door held out her hand to stop him. “You look familiar,” she said as Simon Peter felt himself break out in a cold sweat. “Weren’t you one of those who came down from Galilee with this man they have put on trial?”
And, in the moment, it had just seemed so easy to justify what he said. Surely Jesus would not have wanted him to just throw away his life like that. Surely Jesus would understand just how terrified he felt in the moment. So when he said, “Sorry, you must be thinking about somebody else,” it had just seemed like the right thing to say.
It got easier. The next time he was challenged it almost slipped out without him having to even think about it. The third time, to deny even knowing Jesus seemed like an obvious thing to say – it almost felt true. But then the cock had crowed and everything that Jesus had said at the supper came flooding back to him. Jesus had told him that he would do this even while Peter had protested and said never, not in a thousand years. And now, just a few hours later, it had happened just as Jesus had promised.
And the words had been said. There was no taking them back. Maybe the actual sound of them would dissipate and fade away, but Peter had the sense that the words themselves would echo on throughout eternity. It certainly felt like they would echo in his own skull for at least that long. There is no coming back from something like this.
And surely that was why, after he was crucified and after the reports came out of people seeing him alive again, Peter found that he had no desire to see Jesus again. He still loved him, still believed in everything he’d stood for. But if he really was back – and how could he believe that he could be back? – then it was better that Peter stay far away. The mistake stood between them. Never again could there be any kind of positive relationship between the two of them. And so he went away – went back to the old, simple life of a fisherman he had once known. He tried to act like the last three years with Jesus had never even happened.
I know that we’ve all been there. We have all made mistakes that made us feel that embarrassed. And you’ve probably all known at least one person who has made that kind of mortifying mistake that they feel that there is no coming back from. All of us can feel sympathetic to Simon Peter. But my question today is this: how would you help him? What do you think would be most helpful for someone in that kind of situation to help them get through it and move on with their lives?
I know what my first impulse would be, and that would be to seek to comfort him by minimizing the mistake. “That’s okay, Peter, it was just a momentary lapse. You didn’t mean it. And it’s not like Jesus probably even knows that you said it. I mean, he was kind of distracted with other things. Your denial was hardly the worst thing that happened to him that day, after all. I’m sure it will be fine – just go up to him and act like nothing ever happened he probably won’t even mention it.
At least that’s how I’d be tempted to react after a serious mistake like that. And I don’t think I’m alone. Most of us don’t like conflict. We don’t like that awkward feeling that you have disappointed someone. Our most common reaction is just to wish the whole thing forgotten as soon as possible. But, though that is a common impulse, it often only has the effect of making things worse.
The wonderful thing is that in the Gospel of John we have an example, from Jesus himself, of a much better way of dealing with it when you have a big mistake ruining your life. Jesus, first of all, doesn’t let Peter get away with running from his mistake. When Peter runs back to his old life of fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus follows him – chooses that his next appearance will not be in Jerusalem where he has been previously seen but in Galilee where Peter has fled. What that tells me, first of all, is that running and hiding from your mistakes is not going to work – not in the long run anyways. You may succeed, for a time, in putting it out of your mind, it might seem like it has been forgotten, but a wise person learns that that you can’t just hide from your mistakes. So long as they are not, in some helpful way, dealt with, they will follow you wherever you go.
So Jesus shows up by the shores of the lake where Peter has fled. And it is there that he helps Peter to deal with his mistake. What Jesus does for Peter there is clearly connected to his mistake – his denial. Three times Peter has denied even knowing Jesus and three times Jesus asks him the same question. It is obvious to everybody that this is no coincidence.
And none of this is particularly comfortable – in fact it’s downright awkward. By the third time that Jesus asks the question, we are told that Peter is feeling hurt and his response is clearly one of exasperation: “Lord, you know everything,” – in other words, why are you torturing me with this uncomfortable line of questioning? But Jesus continues on because he knows that there are things that are more important than avoiding awkwardness – his friend, and helping his friend to get over his remorse for his mistake is more important than avoiding awkwardness.
And then there’s the question that Jesus focuses on. You know what we tend to do when somebody makes a mistake or when somebody gets something wrong: we tend to focus on the mechanics of the thing. We focus on procedure. In fact, we do that an awful lot, particularly in the church. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it in a congregation or a meeting of a presbytery or some other church court. You see some people get into a disagreement over something – for example, say that you have one group of people over here who want to bring in a refugee family and another group over there who have a problem with that. You know, there is a substantial difference of opinion that is, at the very least, well worth discussing. But I’ve noticed that, in the church, we don’t discuss the difference of opinion.
What we tend to do instead is argue over procedure – the opponents to welcoming refugees might complain, for example, that the people who want to bring them in failed to seek the proper approvals or something like that. And we spend all of our time arguing over that rather than about the substantial, and I would say very important, issues about welcoming refugees. I don’t know if you realize this, but we do that kind of thing all the time.
Did you notice the Jesus doesn’t do that with Peter? In fact, he doesn’t even bring up the specific action that Peter got wrong. Jesus doesn’t ask him, “Peter, um, have you ever met me? Do you know me?” That is what we would likely focus on. But Jesus knows that that is not the issue and goes directly to the heart of the issue. We could learn a lot from Jesus at this point. Deal with the real issues rather than getting hung up over procedure.
The real issue, apparently as far as Jesus is concerned, is love: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t care about the particular things that you’ve gotten wrong or the particular mistakes that you have made near as much as he cares about where your heart is. That is always where he will direct the question and that is always where the healing that he wants to perform in your life will begin.
So, basically, Jesus communicates to Peter that he understands what Peter has done, that he cares and that he’s not going to beat Peter up over what he got wrong – that he cares more about what Peter’s underlying motives are than he does about the particular things he got wrong.
But then, Jesus does something truly amazing. He gives Peter an assignment: “feed my sheep.” It is at this point that God’s grace shines through for Peter. For Jesus, with eyes wide open and knowing completely what Peter has done wrong and why, is calling Peter to be a leader. And he is not calling Peter to be a leader in spite of his mistake. He seems to be calling Peter to be a leader because of his mistake.
This is how God operates. He knows that you’ve made mistakes. He knows that you’ve gotten things wrong. But he also knows if you love him and if you desire to serve him. Jesus chooses not to hold your mistakes against you and he chooses to entrust you with leadership in his church. And here is the secret: there is no leader anywhere in the church for whom that is not true. It was true right from the very beginning – right from Peter. It was true for some of those giant figures of church history. They all got things wrong. They all fell short in one way or another. They were no different from you and Jesus would love to use you too.
Mistakes mess us up. They hurt our relationships, make us feel bad about ourselves and make us feel like we are disqualified from doing anything that really matters. Basically, what Jesus told Simon Peter by the side of the lake that day was that he had come back to tell him and all of us that that is no longer true. Jesus rose from the dead to set us free from the tyranny of our mistakes. All you need to do is claim the freedom that Jesus’ resurrection gives you.