A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Third Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2004
Text: John 21:15-19
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God the Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we told the story of Thomas, the apostle with the bad rap. Thomas’ issue, as everyone knows, was that he had his doubts about the resurrection. He hadn’t been there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples – he hadn’t seen it, and it seemed just a bit out there, to be perfectly honest. But when the risen Lord appears to Thomas, his issue vanishes like a morning fog. For this one apostle, at least, suddenly everything is right in the world in the presence of Jesus.
That was Thomas. Peter is a different fellow altogether.
Peter had been there with the others both times when the Lord had appeared. He had worshiped with them, bowing down before Jesus that Sunday evening and knowing without a doubt that Jesus was the Son of God, risen from the dead. Peter had been there when Thomas arrived, full of grief and doubt. Peter had seen how gently Jesus ministered to Thomas the following week, doing everything the disciple needed to help him believe with his whole heart. Peter was a witness to all these things, and he couldn’t deny them – how the irony of that phrase must have stung him! No, Peter knew that Jesus had risen from the dead as sure as Peter knew the way to net a fish. Doubt was not an issue for him, not in the very least.
What held him back, then? Here he was fishing again, just like before Jesus had called him, heading off in his boat long before the breaking of the dawn. “I’m going fishing,” he had announced to his friends, and six of them immediately piped up: “We’ll come with you.” They were not worried about Peter’s boat sinking; it was his sinking heart that troubled them more than they could say. Their hearts had been filled with joy in the days since Jesus first appeared to them, but Peter’s face seemed to always be cloudy nowadays…and now he wanted to be just a fisherman again, knowing what he knew and having seen what he saw? What had happened to their Rocky, the man with the rock-solid heart?
It seems that Peter had a very hard time shaking off the awful events of Thursday and Friday – when soldiers came and Peter fled, when Peter denied and Christ was crucified. Peter’s words, the ones that came three times out of his own mouth, echoed through his days as a crushing refrain: “I don’t know him. I don’t know him. I don’t know him.” Peter’s heart had been less than rock-solid that dark morning, and his fear had gotten the better of him. He had looked right into his Lord’s eyes and sworn he would follow Jesus wherever he went, even if it meant dying for him; then, hours later, had turned coat. The worst thing? Jesus had known all along how it would go down. He knew that Peter was the kind of man who could deny his best friend, his teacher and his Lord. The fact that Jesus could see that in him hurt more than knowing it himself.
All that perhaps Peter could have borne if Jesus had stayed in the grave. That sounds odd, of course, but Peter would have eventually found a way to place his cowardice behind him and move on if the cross had really finished Jesus off. But now that Jesus was alive again – well, now Peter had to live every day remembering how he had denied Jesus, and suspecting that Jesus remembered it, too. Sure, Jesus hadn’t mentioned it yet, but Peter could feel it hanging there in the air, the unspoken accusation that dogged him every minute of the day. How could he ever move on? Better just to fish. Peter was not worthy to be Jesus’ follower after what he had done.
And right about here is where we perhaps want to argue with Peter, to tell him that it’s OK, that everyone screws up from time to time, that he’s still more than worthy to be a disciple if only he’d get up out of his funk. But we should resist the temptation to do that. The hard truth is that Peter was exactly right about himself: He wasn’t worthy to be Jesus’ apostle, or disciple, or even friend. Don’t let Peter off the hook just because you feel bad for him.
So that’s Peter’s issue: He believes Jesus is risen, but he knows beyond all doubt that he is unworthy of such a magnificent Lord anymore.
What I want you to know is that Jesus reached out to Peter just like he did to Thomas. Jesus came twice to Peter and the others, and when Peter ran away to the sea and his boat and nets, Jesus came to Peter there, too. Peter had turned away from Jesus three times; Jesus came to Peter three times.
And there on the beach, Jesus called Peter back to him, showing him love and forgiveness. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him – again, three times – and though it ripped him up inside to hear the question, Peter answered each time: “Yes! Of course I do, Lord. You know how much I do.” Peter had denied Jesus three times; now, with tears in his eyes, he told Jesus how much he loved him…three times.
Jesus, you see, didn’t care whether Peter was worthy or not. What Jesus cared about – the only thing that mattered to him – was that Peter loved him. Jesus would never turn away a heart that loves him, no matter how unworthy that person may be. Jesus lived and died and lives again just so that everyone who loves him can be set free from their unworthiness and can finally start to live – really live! – in the freedom of that love.
Perhaps you are more like Peter than like Thomas. Perhaps you don’t spend half as much time doubting the facts of your faith as you spend doubting that Jesus could possibly do all that for someone like you. Perhaps you spend your life hiding out in your boat like Peter, feeling unworthy.
Last week I promised that Jesus will come to every doubting Thomas among us, to help bring us to believe in his good news. A Jesus moment, I called it. Today I want to assure all of you unworthy Peters out there that there is a Jesus moment for you, too. No matter where you hide yourself away, Jesus will seek you out, and when he finds you, he will ask you just one question: “Do you love me?” When you look into his face, you’ll realize that he’s also saying to you, “Do you know how much I love you?”
Each of us experiences Easter a little differently; we all hear the good news that he is risen with hearts that are in different places. Each person here has his or her own fears and doubts, and we each also have our own hopes and needs.
Whether you are in the boat with Peter, standing alongside doubting Thomas, or somewhere else entirely, I promise you that Jesus will come to you with just the encouragement you need. Wait for him. Trust in him.
Thomas, despite his doubting, went on to share the good news with countless people, after the risen Jesus came to him. Peter, despite his unworthiness, turned out to be a solid rock after all, once Jesus came to him, too. Jesus will see to it that remarkable things happen in your life, too, when you have your “Jesus moment.”
May the Lord Jesus come to each of you, filling you with the comfort and joy of his love, and the sure and certain hope that he lives, and you will live with him. Amen.