The apostle Peter had done the unimaginable. He had denied that he even knew Jesus. He did it not once, not twice, but three times on that dark night. We have no idea what he was thinking. Maybe he was scared that they would crucify him with Jesus. Maybe he simply did not want to align himself with a failed leader who was about to die. Maybe there was something darker in his soul that we will never know. No matter the reason, he denied knowing the man who he previously had said he would stay beside till the bitter end.
Fast forward several days. Jesus is resurrected. The apostles have seen it in person. They have touched the nailed scared hands and felt the power of life over death. I am sure Peter wanted to talk to Jesus and explain what had happened. He wanted Jesus to know his contrition over the previous events. Finally in John 21 we are told that Peter gets his chance to talk to Jesus. John 21:15-19 tells the story. Three times Jesus asks this deeply penetrating question, “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?” Scholars tell us that Peter and Jesus keep changes the Greek words for love and sheep/lambs that they are using. In fact, I have heard entire sermons based off of this changing of words and their meaning. On top of that, I have preached on the number of times that Jesus asks this question. Three times Peter denied and three times Jesus asks about love. A reaffirmation for every denial. Finally one day I looked at what Jesus told Peter after after Peter had responded that he loved Jesus. All three times Jesus says something about his followers. “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” Then I noticed something I had never seen before. After Peter had failed Jesus did not tell him to take some time to heal. He did not tell him to sit back and come to peace with what had happened. He didn’t even tell him to step away from ministry for a time and focus on his own soul. Jesus does the unthinkable. He tells Peter to get back up and start serving other people. Jesus words for Peter are that he needs to teach other people, care for other people and preach the gospel to others.
My fear is that when we fail we tend to turn the focus back onto ourselves. We use our difficult situation as a place to sit back and “be fed,” which is our way of saying “do nothing.” Maybe Jesus is pushing us another direction. Maybe the best answer to our failure is to reaffirm our love for Jesus and then start serving. Maybe we need to take the focus off of ourselves and put it onto others. Nothing helps people grow more than teaching. Maybe Jesus knows that we should not withdrawal from community when we fail, but rather embrace community as we work through forgiveness together. Maybe Jesus knows that our greatest failure can be our greatest point of service. Who better to speak to people who are struggling with doubt than Thomas and who better to speak to those who have failed Jesus than Peter.
Every time I fail I find myself back on the seashore with Peter ready to offer up my excuses. Jesus patiently listens and then tells me to feed his sheep. I look for an easier answer, but so far I have found none. Christian service is not about being perfect, it is about standing up and serving even when I have failed.