The story of Peter and Jesus breaks my heart and gives me hope. Peter, like a lot of church kids, was full of promise. Jesus spoke a prophetic word over him, proclaiming that he would become a fisher of men. Peter had several other spiritual high points. When asked who he thought Jesus was, he nailed it: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus then told Peter he was blessed because the Father had revealed this to him and that upon this confession, he would build His church.
Peter, along with James and John, were on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured into a glorious vision of the triumphant Christ. Peter saw Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. He knew what it was like to be in the inner circle and to be intimate with God.
These promises and blessings make Peter’s denial of Jesus all the more heartbreaking. He betrayed Jesus with eyes wide-open. He had seen the glory of Jesus, and the Father had blessed him with a revelation of Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied Jesus three times. Throughout Scripture saying something three times proves you really mean it and will stand by what you say. Peter’s denials were not a slip of the tongue.
As a church kid and preacher’s kid, I get this. When I chose to sin, it was deliberate—and in the face of God. And like Peter, I was without excuse. My mother and father were the real deal—not perfect, but genuine Christians who lived out the Word of God daily. In them, I found no hypocrisy or meanness to fuel my rebellion. Even worse, for my rebellion at least, I had often experienced the touch and presence of God—holy stuff I could not explain away. Like Peter, I was without excuse when I chose my sin over Jesus.
After he denied Christ the third time, Peter, we are told, went out and wept bitterly. No self-deception or rationalizations could protect Peter’s heart from what he had done. Peter had not only denied who Jesus was, he had denied who he was. To deny Jesus is to deny our true selves—the person God has created and called us to be.
The story of Peter doesn’t end here. In the last chapter of John, we have a story of the resurrected Christ appearing on the shore of Galilee. He once again directs Peter and the other disciples where to cast their nets. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing, but assuming this guy on the shore could see what they couldn’t, they cast their nets one more time. The catch is huge, and Peter knows it is Jesus.
I am sure that there is a danger in reading to much into the disciples fishing all night and getting nothing. But their empty nets speak of the emptiness of life apart from Christ and a life that forsakes God’s call upon our lives. They really were meant to be fishing for men. Only Jesus fills our nets.
When Peter realizes it is Jesus, he throws himself into the sea and makes his way to the shore. He left it to the other disciples to bring in the fish. For those who have denied Jesus and are filled with failure, regret, and shame, the only answer is to throw yourself at Jesus. Peter, once again, left his nets for Jesus. But he also left behind his shame and overwhelming sense of disqualification. The pride that made him boast that he would never deny Jesus was gone. So was the shame of having denied him. He also had left behind all concerns about what the other disciples thought of him—the one that had denied Christ so openly. Only Jesus mattered.
After fixing breakfast for the disciples, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three time, “Do you love me?” Three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus, Peter declares, “Yes Lord; you know I love you.” Peter was right. He stood before the Son of God who knew his heart. Perhaps Jesus asked the question partly so that Peter would recognize how deeply he loved Jesus.
I am certainly not saying our wild love of Jesus saves us. Our love is only a response to God’s. We are saved by the free gift of salvation. I do believe, however, that a wild throw-yourself-in-the-sea love for Jesus is the best way for the wayward church kid to find his way out of shame and empty nets.
After each of Peter’s declarations of love, Jesus tells Peter to feed or shepherd His sheep. This command was Jesus’ gentle way of restoring Peter to himself and his true calling. It was an invitation for Peter to come home and to be himself.
Almost 29 years ago, a nurse at the San Bernardino County Hospital put a little boy in my arms. He was the baby God had clearly led Teckla and I to adopt. When he opened his eyes, I said to my son, Peter, “Feed my sheep.”