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Peter and Failure

I find it quite easy to be a faithful follower of Jesus when life is easy and I’m feeling good. But when life becomes stressed and I feel pressed, that is when I am prone to lose my way.

Though we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ there are times we are not faithful to Christ. Sometimes that happens when we are under great pressure. Maybe we are deeply scared. Maybe we are being ridiculed by someone for our Christian convictions. Maybe we face losing something like a job, reputation, or relationship. Fear always has a way of getting at us.

Today’s sermon is about our failure, but also about our redemption. Because failure is never the last word.

This sermon series is about various people who have significant encounters with Jesus as he moves toward the cross. As we hear about the encounters between Jesus and these people, I hope it will help us think about the ways we encounter our Lord.

This morning we focus on Peter. We get a lot of Peter in the Bible. We get a great deal about Peter not only in the Gospels, but also in Acts and through the two letters he wrote which are the books 1 and 2 Peter. His life is a story of failure and redemption.

Peter’s life was one big encounter with Jesus. Peter was one of the first and most prominent disciples He is the first disciples Jesus calls. Peter was a fisherman with his brother Andrew. One day when they were fishing Jesus called them to follow him and they did. Peter is always listed first when the apostles are named.

One of Jesus’ first healing’s is of Peter’s mother-in-law.

Peter is rather bold, talks a lot, maybe a little ADD. When Jesus walks on the water Peter is crazy enough to ask to join him. And Peter walks on water for a bit before seeing what he is doing, starts to sink, and is caught by Jesus before he sinks. When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is Peter is the first to answer. He confesses to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says that he is blessed for saying this. Then he says that he will build his church upon Peter and the gates of death will not overcome it. But right after this, when Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer from the hands of the chief priests and teachers of the law Peter is the one who says this will never happen to Jesus. And Jesus rebukes him.

When Jesus goes up a mountain he takes Peter, James and John and is transfigured before them. Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. Peter is one of only three who witness this spiritually charged happening.

Another time, Jesus tells Peter that Satan wants to get Peter and sift him like wheat – put him through the ringer. But Jesus says he prayed for Peter that he would not fall.

When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet it is Peter who voices his problem with the Lord doing this and tries to correct Jesus.

Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive someone which prompts Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven. On a couple of occasions Jesus teaches and has a back and forth with Peter. We almost never get this with any of the other disciples. Peter probably said what the other disciples’ might have been thinking. Again, he was never shy to speak.

The interaction between Jesus and Peter fills the gospels.

It is at that first Communion when Jesus is in the upper room with his closest friends that Jesus makes a stunning prediction to his disciples, and once again, Peter makes it about himself. Jesus tells his disciples that in a matter of hours they will all fall away from him. After three years of living, walking, eating, serving, sacrificing, praying, loving, and ministering with him they will ditch him in fear for their lives. Turn tail. Hit the road. They will do this because the shepherd is going to be struck and the sheep are going to scatter.

But Peter - strong, self-confident, spiritually savvy - says even if the others fall away he will never desert Jesus. No way. Not me. By saying that he also implies that he is better than the rest. “They can’t be counted on, but I can.” Jesus says before the rooster crows – a sign of the sun rising – before morning comes, Peter will, in fact, deny him three times.

Peter believes he is fearless, tough, and totally dedicated, and says that even if he has to die with Jesus, he will never disown him.

Jesus leads the disciples to Gethsemane. He wants his disciples to pray with him. When he finds the disciples going to sleep he turns to Peter and in his frustration questions why he couldn’t watch with him one hour. Then he says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Those words were to Peter.

It’s in the garden at Gethsemane that Jesus is turned in by Judas and arrested. And, just as he said, all the disciples run for their lives. Yes, even Peter.

Jesus is tried before the religious leaders and abused. Many at that trial want to put Jesus to death. Things have gotten very serious.

We read that while all this was happening Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. I’ll give him this: he came back to where Jesus was. All the other disciples fled when Jesus was arrested, Peter included. But now he at least tries to get near, probably to hear and see what is happening with Jesus,

A servant girl says that she saw him with this Jesus. But Peter responds, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” That is the first denial.

Peter moves to an area called the gateway and another girl says to others that he was with Jesus, pointing the finger at Peter. This time Peter denies knowing Jesus with an oath. “Cross my heart and hope to die.” “I will swear on a stack of Bibles.” “I promise you.” That is to speak an oath. Which, by the way, Jesus said to never do. Denial number two.

Then a group of people say they are certain Peter is one of them because of his accent. Apparently he had an accent that suggested he was from Galilee. I don’t know what that was like but Galilee was in the north so maybe a New Jersey accent?

This third time it says Peter began to call down curses. The language suggests that he wasn’t cursing himself – he was cursing Jesus. “I don’t know the so and so.” This was Peter’s third denial of Jesus and as sure as it happened immediately a rooster crowed. And it says, “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.”[1]

We would expect the disciples to be the shining heroes of the Bible. Not so. Peter especially. He folded under the pressure.

One of the reasons I believe in the truth of these stories is the fact that no one would create such an embarrassing story about such a prominent disciple.[2] They weren’t trying to create a lovely image. They were telling the truth.

I have wondered if I would hold to Jesus if I was being threatened. I have read about martyrs, people who have died for their faith. I have heard of people who have been put in prison for being Christians. I have made three trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, and have met Christians who have been jailed for their faith. I admire their faith and courage. If I knew it would end my life or put me in prison would I admit that I was a Christian?

If someone at work or at a party asked us if we were a follower of Jesus what would we say? If someone in our family who we know is critical of religion asked us about our faith would we stick to our convictions? If we were threatened for our faith would we compromise?

In Romans 1 Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” [3] And again in 2 Timothy 1, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord…but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God…”[4]

I don’t want to be ashamed of my Lord or back away when my faith is called into account.

It says Peter broke down and wept. He didn’t go have a stiff drink. He didn’t medicate himself. He didn’t distract his heart with video games, golf, or something else. He felt his pain all the way into the core of his soul.

In Psalm 51 it says “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”[5] He doesn’t want excuses. God will not reject someone who is truly sorry for their unfaithfulness. Peter was brokenhearted. And the Lord did not reject Peter.

Peter broke down and wept, but as it says in the Psalms, “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[6] When we are brought to our knees the Lord is ready to help us get up. When we think we have gone over the line the Lord is ready to welcome us with open arms.

Lent is about coming to terms with ourselves. It is a season of self-examination. Sometimes in looking at our spiritual selves in the mirror we don’t necessarily break down and weep. Sometimes we are just disgusted, or angry, or frustrated. But those feelings can be a grace. They are wake up calls to stop, turn around, and get things right with God.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to carve out some time, take out a piece of paper or your journal, look back over the past year of your life and just write things that you desire to get right with the Lord. Maybe it is certain attitudes. Maybe it is actions toward a certain person. Maybe it is just being complacent in your worship and prayer life, not bothering to come to church or speak to Jesus in your daily life. Maybe there are memories of things you did that come to light, or things you should have done that you regret not fulfilling. It’s healthy for our faith to take stock of where we need to get right with Jesus.

As I said, failure is never the last word. After Jesus is risen, he appears to the disciples. I wonder what Peter was thinking. How did Jesus view him now knowing that Peter denied him?

At the end of John’s Gospel we get the story of Jesus restoring Peter.[7] I don’t know if Peter would have ever come to Jesus and faced up to his denial of Jesus, but Jesus certainly brings it up.

The disciples are sitting around a fire sharing breakfast with the risen Jesus, and three times Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. He calls him by his full name, Simon Peter.

The first time he asks, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” What exactly the “these” to which Jesus was referring is open to debate. What is deeply clear is Jesus wants to know about Peter’s love for him. Peter replies not just with “yes”, but “yes, you know that I love you.” You know everything, Lord. Why do you even have to ask?

Maybe it wasn’t that Jesus had to ask as much as Peter needed to speak his “yes.”

And then Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” He gives Peter a job, a charge, a trust. You know, you let Jesus know you love him and he’ll get you a job. Yes he will.

Jesus asks a second time, “Simon, do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus says to Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” It says Peter felt hurt that the Lord asked him this again. He responds, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

T hree times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. He is restoring Peter. Our Lord does this not by shaming him or chastising him. Jesus restores Peter by refocusing his love. “Simon, do you love me?” The Lord wants to know and confirm where Peter’s heart is. He doesn’t want to know how much he likes him, or if he respects him, or admires him. He wants to know if he loves him.

Isn’t that the question to all of us? Do you love Jesus? Isn’t that what it is to be a Christian? Don’t we have to settle that in our hearts before anything else?

“Do you love me?” is the question of ultimate allegiance and worship for our lives. Whatever or whoever we love will get our attention, our energy and our devotion. We stand up for our children, our family, our friends, our country and other allegiances because we love them.

If we can settle our love for Jesus then a lot of what we hope for in our lives is going to fall into place. Faith, prayerfulness, justice, forgiveness, trust all grow out of the soil of our love for God in Christ.

Jesus helps Peter refocus his love. Peter’s failure and Peter’s subsequent transformation is a heart matter. So for us, love of Jesus is at the core of our faith and service to the Lord.

Giving Peter the charge of feeding and tending his flock tells Peter he is trusted. The Lord is not done with Peter. Remember Judas also failed Jesus. But his story ended differently because “he took his remorse to the place of death and not to the place of life.”[8]

Peter is going to become the main leader and the primary voice of the church. That is what we find in the book of Acts. Jesus uses failures like Peter. It just takes getting our hearts refocused. Never disqualify yourself from following Jesus. We may fall but God is not through with us. God can and will use us.

The very reason Jesus gave his life was because of our sin and weakness. The good shepherd came and gave his life for his lost sheep in order to bring us back.

It wasn’t that Peter wasn’t sincere. It wasn’t that he didn’t try. He was pretty convinced that he would never fail Jesus and he said so. He had a lot of trust in himself. He saw himself as invincible. The thing about his failure is that it was the end of confidence in himself and the beginning of confidence in the Lord. I think Peter discovered that he couldn’t follow Jesus on will power. He needed grace. And grace is what Jesus extends to all of us.

The late Christian writer, former Catholic priest, recovering-alcoholic, and disciple of Jesus, Brennan Manning, once wrote that it is a myth to think that once we are converted our lives will be freed from contradictions and perplexities. He said, “The curse of perfectionism triggers episodes of depression and anxiety.” And it is Jesus who will deliver us from the bondage of perfectionism and failure. Christ reminds us that despair and disillusionment are not terminal but signs of impending resurrection.[9]

What Jesus does for Peter after Jesus is resurrected is like a resurrection for Peter. Peter was dead as a disciple. Dead in his failure. But the Lord brought him back, gave him life.

The New Testament is full of people who started out on the road of faith and faltered along the way. The account of Peter’s denial of Jesus is one of the few Gospel incidents recorded in all four Gospels. The story is both a warning and a consolation. It’s a warning that we need to beware of the possibility of our failure in following Christ. It’s a consolation in that should we fall we can be restored. Peter became a faithful leader of the church.

It’s also to remind us that though we may stand in a time of pressure, someone else may not. And, in compassion and love, we need to help them back to our gracious Lord. Because we all live by his mercy and grace.

Prayer: Jesus, look with mercy on all those in this room who have failed.

Jesus, restore every heart that has denied you.

Jesus, accept every heart that is broken in its unfaithfulness to you.

Jesus, refocus our hearts so that we love you.

And keep leading us as we encounter you. Amen.

[1] 26:75 [2] Hare, Interpretation Commentary on Matthew,. [3] 1:16 [4] 1:8 [5] Psalm 51:17, NLT [6] Psalm 30:5 [7] John 21 [8] Tom Long. Quoted in last Sunday’s sermon [9] The Signature of Jesus, p.207

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