Peter’s denial of Jesus was a turning point in his spiritual experience. Hours before he had insisted he was willing to die with Jesus. Pointing to the other disciples gathered around them in the darkened garden Peter had declared that even though all of them should desert Jesus he would never do it. Then in the span of a few minutes, he did the very thing he swore he would never do.
Heartbroken and ashamed Peter fled the scene of his greatest failure. Of all the disciples he was the most outspoken, the most impulsive, the most passionate. He was not like the quiet but quick-tempered John or the scheming and grasping Judas. Peter had a healthy sense of self-esteem but a single rash act stripped him of all the delusions he harbored about himself. He saw himself for what he was; fickle, false, and desperate for human approbation.
When Peter left the courtyard outside Caiaphas’ home he had two choices. He could, like Judas, wallow in the misery of what he had done, deeply sorry for the consequences but not truly repenting of the choices that led him there. Or he could choose to acknowledge his sin, repent of it and plead with God for forgiveness.
Peter chose the latter. Weeping and broken he fell on the mercy of God as David had done centuries before confessing his sins and pleading for forgiveness. Peter’s sin didn’t destroy him, it merely broke him so that he could be made whole by the grace of God.
After Jesus had risen he made sure that Peter understood that he was forgiven. When the women came to the tomb and found the angels sitting inside, one of them said “But go your way and tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you” This simple message, where Peter was mentioned by name, would have given Peter the assurance he needed that Jesus had not cast him away.
But Jesus still had unfinished business to conduct with Peter. Though the message of the angels was meant to offer reassurance, Jesus knew that Peter needed restoration, especially in light of the special calling before him.
Before his ascension Jesus appeared to Peter and a handful of others at the Sea of Galilee. On a whim Peter decided to go fishing and a group of disciples, including Thomas, Nathanael, James and John decided to go with him. They toiled all night but came up empty. Disappointed and probably thinking of another fishing trip that had ended similarly once upon a time, they made their way towards shore just as dawn pearled the horizon.
As they approached land they saw a man standing on the beach. Hailing them he asked “have ye any meat?” to which they replied “no.” Without hesitation he said to them “Cast the net on the right side of the ship and ye shall find” The disciples obeyed and drew in a massive haul of fish.
It was then that John realised who had spoken to them. Turning to Peter he said “it is the Lord”. Impulsively Peter jumped into the water and swam ashore, leaving the others to struggle with getting the catch back to the beach without sinking the ship.
Jesus had kindled a little fire and he asked them to bring some of the fish. They managed to produce some bread and together with the fish they had breakfast on the beach, all provided for by the hand of their crucified and risen saviour.
Once they were done Jesus beckoned to Peter and then went for a walk. As they walked Jesus asked Peter the same question three times “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” and each time Peter answered the same way “yes Lord; thou knowest that I love thee”
Each time Jesus asked him the question, Peter’s heart broke a little more until the third time his grief spilled over. However painful the experience Jesus had a purpose for repeatedly asking Peter that question. First, it’s important to understand one key piece of information that the English translation of the text doesn’t readily reveal.
In Greek, the word Jesus used for love when he posed his question to Peter was agape which translated, means self-sacrificing love or Divine love; a force that is pure, unconditional, and undefiled by selfishness. Peter responded that the love he had for Jesus was philaeo or human affection, relating to brotherly love.
By making that distinction Peter was acknowledging something important. He was telling Jesus that his love was a broken, human version of the infinite love of God. The Peter who faced Jesus on the beach was a humbler version of the one who had sworn unfailing fealty that terrible night in the garden.
Peter understood his weaknesses. He understood his sin. And perhaps more importantly he understood his need for a savior. By posing the same question three times, Jesus probed the motives and intentions of Peter’s heart until Peter was fully converted. Fully surrendered to the working of God’s spirit.
It was at this point; when Peter was contrite and converted that Jesus called him to his life’s work of pastoral ministry, caring for and nurturing the flock of God.
Jesus also highlighted for Peter the costs associated with choosing to accept that call. He would find himself facing a martyr's death in much the same way that Jesus himself had died. After revealing all of this Jesus once more issued the command that he had issued to Peter in the same place three and a half years ago; follow me.
The story of Peter’s restoration offers so many important lessons. First, it took Peter a while to be prepared to face his true calling in life. Though Jesus had called him three and a half years ago and sent him out on numerous missionary journeys, it was now, when he was preparing to ascend to heaven and pour out his spirit in preparation for the establishment of his church that he told Peter exactly what he was meant to do. Everything that had come before was simply meant to train him for this moment. What qualified Peter for the task ahead? Humility and total dependence on God. Nothing more and nothing less.
Second Peter needed to be thoroughly converted before he could take up his life’s work. He needed to see himself for what he was, a sinner in need of a savior, in order to be an effective worker for Jesus.
Jesus can equip us with the talents, abilities, and skills we need to do the work He has called us to do but what he cares about most is the condition of our hearts. He can work with us if we are humble and willing to surrender but He can’t use us if we are filled with self-confidence and pride.
Finally a small note about Jesus preparing a simple breakfast for his disciples on a beach at dawn. The disciples were back to shore empty-handed on empty stomachs. In their own strength they had caught nothing. They couldn’t provide breakfast for themselves. But Jesus provided a simple meal almost out of thin air and all they needed to do was obey his word and follow instructions.
Often in life we twist ourselves into knots trying to accomplish some great feat when all we need to do is look to Jesus, waiting for His guidance. Jesus can provide something out of nothing. In a barren landscape where nothing seems available Jesus can open up a whole range of possibilities. Jesus needed his disciples to learn this as they faced the task before them. They were being called to take the good news of God’s kingdom to a hostile and hardened world. It was a seemingly impossible task. If they relied on themselves. But if they looked to Jesus for strength and guidance it was a task they could accomplish.
The call to discipleship comes to each of us who claim to be a Christian. Accepting that call and fulfilling its requirements depends on our willingness to lean completely on Jesus every step of the way.
Peter’s struggle was primarily between choosing to lean on himself or choosing to lean on Jesus. It is a struggle we all face moment by moment. Who are you choosing to lean on today?