Twenty-three minutes on the problem Peter had with his basic self-image ... the painful place it took him and how he got back from his brink.
What is your personal ‘self-assessment’?
How do you see yourself, identify yourself … define your identity?
I mean … who ARE you?
We’re looking today at how the Lord holds out hope for people committed to a path of self-destruction because they have a horribly twisted idea of their identity and ... intent on self-preservation and self-validation … are living a self-wrecking delusion.
And if you are sure that can’t be you … would you hold that thought for a minute?
I’m going to suggest there’s something you may not quite have realised before going on in John 21:15-19 … and facing up to that was the absolute liberation of Simon Peter.
Peter had loud and proud INSISTED on the night before Christ’s betrayal that while others might betray Jesus he was never going to do such a thing as that.
Not even if it meant prison and death for him (see John 13:37, Matthew 26:33-35).
But reading through the Gospels’ accounts of what happened next, we see that THREE times after the Lord’s arrest Peter had the chance to identify with Jesus, but when it really mattered Peter denied his Lord three times.
You could possibly excuse a momentary lapse, but there was not ONE momentary lapse.
There were a persistent three.
And the last time Peter seems to have called down curses upon himself to support his denial (Mark 14:71).
He was trying to prove he was NOT Christ’s disciple, to avoid being arrested and imprisoned alongside His Lord.
Please bear in mind that Peter lived in what we call a ‘shame culture’.
In such a culture patronage leads to loyalty EVERY TIME … and a failure in loyalty is an unforgivable social sin … it strikes at the foundations and bedrock of any such society.
The scale of Peter’s failure here is truly enormous.
Even in our society, abandoning someone to whom you owe everything to die just in order to save your own skin is a matter of unbearable shame.
Can there POSSIBLY be a way back from there for Peter?
Well there is and we’re coming to that.
But first we need to notice the way that Jesus wasn’t content to probe Peter’s outward actions on that terrible night.
Jesus is probing the flaw at the bottom of Peter’s character that led to all this stuff happening.
We know the Lord was sorting out a problem at the heart of Peter in these verses … but what WAS it that He was sorting out?
For decades I’ve heard it preached as if the issue was that Peter didn’t love Jesus enough.
Is ‘you don’t love me enough’ the sort of message we hear Jesus putting out to His disciples anywhere else in Scripture?
As if we’re to work harder at loving Jesus to have Him love us?
Do you REALY think that’s what the Bible is about?
‘Try harder to love Jesus’ as the way of salvation?
Jesus has just given His life on the Cross because the ‘try harder Gospel’ is a busted flush!
What’s going here is that Jesus is putting His finger on Peter’s problem, which is not that Peter isn’t trying hard enough to love Jesus, but that Peter is pre-occupied with the idea he’s better than the ‘others’ who don’t love Jesus enough.
And if I’m right about this, we may have been wrong about what’s going on here with Peter for quite a while.
What actually IS the soul trouble with Peter?
• The connection with Cain
If we are going grasp what Jesus doe as He three times challenges Peter about His love for his Lord, we really do have to confront not just the magnitude but the deep dye of the failure in Peter’s character.
It goes as deep as Peter’s understanding of his very self.
It looks as if Peter’s problem was what the theologian Miroslav Volf calls ‘a false identity’.
Volf take us back to the story of Cain and Abel to illustrate what he is saying.
Volf asks why Cain slew his younger brother Abel.
Volf says that Cain’s identity was constructed in relation or in comparison to Abel, and Cain seems to have got his self-worth from being better than his brother.
So why (asks Volf) did Cain want to kill his younger brother?
Cain (says Volf) got his sense of self-worth from being better than his brother.
So when Abel began to rise above him, Cain had to deny that reality because Cain’s self-worth was fully dependant on the certainty that he (Cain) was totally better than Abel!
Cain had to either radically re-adjust the view he had of who he was, or alternatively just annihilate Abel.
Volf is pretty clear that the murder of Abel by Cain was not born of a purely violent urge, but rather it was the result of the cold logic of “a perverted self in order to maintain its own false identity.”
Peter, then, in his turn is doing something simply as human as what Cain did.
Like Cain, Peter’s identity was BASED on the assumption of his superiority to his fellow disciples.
Peter told Jesus that while others fell away he (Peter) would not because he, Peter, was the most passionate and faithful of all.
So, Mark 14:27-30 says
““You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.””
Like Cain, it therefore appears, Peter’s identity was based on the assumption of his superiority to his fellow disciples.
Peter explicitly tells Jesus that he was the keenest and most committed of ALL the disciples.
Can you see this: Peter is NOT basing his identity on Jesus’s love for Peter, but on Peter’s love for Jesus.
• The consequences of connecting with Cain
Like Cain, Peter seems to have based his own identity on his superiority to his fellow disciples.
Peter told Jesus that HE was the most faithful, passionate disciple of them all.
Let’s be clear what’s going on here:
Peter was NOT basing his identity … his idea of himself … on Jesus’s great love for him.
Peter was basing his identity on his (Peter’s) own great love for Jesus.
Keller (p. 100) has this great quote:
“That meant that while Jesus was Peter’s teacher, Peter was being his own Saviour.”
Keller goes on to point out that any identity based on our superior performance over others will lead to at least these two results: fragility and hostility.
Peter is connecting with Cain and the first thing that makes him is FRAGILE …
How does THAT figure out?
Keller puts the situation in pretty stark terms:
“While Jesus was Peter’s teacher, Peter was being his own saviour”.
Peter has no sense of his danger … in spite of being warned of this in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
He just screens it out … because if you base your whole idea of your self on some characteristic and then it is convincingly challenged, then all you’ve based yourself on is GONE and there’s none of you left!
I don’t know if this puzzle you quite the way it puzzles me but I do find it odd that when they feel their faith is being questioned or even opposed from one quarter or another they get angry.
Why is that?
Jesus doesn’t do that!
I don’t know why any particular individual responds like that, but I do know this:
If you get your identity from being the most devoted follower of Jesus … unlike all these other half-hearted, lukewarm or wicked other people … you are going to feel bound to become angry or even violent when someone opposes your Lord.
Your self-conscious commitment and keenness commands it!
You know, when the Lord was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, only Peter amongst the disciples did anything violent about it … and Jesus stepped in to put Peter back in his box pretty smartly.
You see, there was Peter claiming to be the most devoted, committed or whatever follower of Jesus, and holding so firmly to that idea of his own identity drove Peter to do the very opposite of what it was Jesus wanted and was determinedly doing … grabbing a sword and cutting off someone’s ear is a stark contrast with the Lord’s “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”!
Cain and Peter both … in their individual ways … experience the shaking of their dearly held but actually false identity.
Rather than change it and give their identity a different foundation, they lashed out at the people who were endangering it.
As He restores Peter, what the Lord does is to re-focus and re-direct Peter’s identity.
• Jesus came to Peter
Jesus came to Peter, not Peter to Jesus … at first.
It was because of Jesus that Jesus came to the one who had denied Him in His hour of greatest personal crisis.
It was NOT because of anything exceptional in Peter.
In fact, it wasn’t because of anything in Peter, exceptional or not.
It was because JESUS chose to that Jesus appeared a third time to the disciples here, and addressed the needs not of Jesus but of Peter
Jesus came and brought Peter to a fire (John 21:9).
It was around a fire that Peter three times denied his Lord (Luke 22:54-62).
Then Jesus asked Peter THREE TIMES whether Peter loved Him.
The same number of times Peter had the chance to show loyalty to Jesus at the High Priest’s house on that infamous night.
The same number as the number of Peter’s previous denials of Jesus.
How does Peter respond to the question asked about the roots of Peter’s pride: (basically) ‘tell me Peter do you love me?’
• But Jesus made Peter painfully retrace his steps
Peter had built his self-worth on being more committed and faithful to Jesus than all the others, so Jesus asks Peter ‘do you love me more than these to probe the roots of Peter’s pride in the light of the three denials Peter had uttered leading up to cock-crow on the day of the crucifixion.
Three times Jesus asked, and three times Peter had to walk back through the failure to show commitment to Christ at the point when the chips were REALLY down.
Three times “do you love me more than these?”
And ALL with the other disciples walking along kicking up the sand on the very same beach.
The key issue is going to be how Peter responds.
• Peter’s responses
The thing that says most is the responses that would have been open to Peter in this situation that Peter choses NOT to make in this challenging situation.
• No excuses
Firstly, Peter shows no hint of defensiveness or blame-shifting.
There is not a hint of ‘well yes I failed you, but you have to understand I was … (fill in the blanks)’
None of that at all.
• No ‘balancing’ pleas in mitigation
There’s no hint here either of Peter reciting other occasions when he HAD been exceptionally committed and faithful to Jesus.
Human beings do have a tendency to do that sort of thing when they’re found wanting.
There’s NONE of that in this case with Peter.
That would have been a simple return to the old false identity!
• No wallowing in wretchedness
But thirdly there’s no wallowing in wretchedness, banging on about how unworthy he is, as if by doing so he could earn some sort of atonement for his failures.
None of these three things, excuses, balancing pleas in mitigation come out of Peter in response to Jesus taking Peter back to walk through his failure.
It’s all, ‘Lord, I DO love you’ stuff, to put not too fine a point on it.
Peter KNOWS he denied the Lord three times when the chips were really down.
But Peter still insists he wants to love his Lord and to be committed to that loving relationship with his Lord, Jesus.
What Jesus is forging out of the hot material of Peter’s soul is what you can only describe as hearty, true repentance.
• True repentance
No pleas in mitigation.
No wallowing in wretchedness as if to atone for his faults by extreme expressions of contrition.
Just turning back to where he needs to be: ‘Lord, I DO love you.’
Peter is showing here what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
“… you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret …”
Worldly sorrow, by way of contrast, is a form of self-pity … sorrow at being caught out, sorrow for the consequences.
It’s about damage you’ve sustained to your self-image and is not based on being justified by grace through faith alone but on being justified by your own morality and supposed good works.
Godly sorrow - and true repentance - is sorry for the sin itself and how it has wronged and grieved the One Who is your Creator and your Redeemer.
In self-centred sorrow you never come to hate the sin itself but only the consequences … so when the consequences fade the sin come steaming back!
Again, Keller writes: “True repentance is fuelled by grief for hurting the One we love, and that intensified love of Christ make the sin appear hateful, and so it begins to lose its power over you.”
Peter repents and returns to where he ought to be in his heart.
And the response Jesus makes is to re-direct Peter’s identity, and with it his privilege.
Peter has seen himself as being the ‘super-disciple’.
Paul spaces elsewhere, correctively, about those who claimed to be ‘super apostle’ … do you remember?
But now each time Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Jesus, the Lord responds to Peter’s correct answer with the commission to ‘feed my sheep’.
Now, a lot of ink gets spilt about the way this commission is expressed … feed ‘my lambs’, then ‘my sheep’ and again ‘my sheep’.
Well, OK, maybe.
But the point all along has been about Peter’s identity, Peter’s conception of what that identity IS, his self-image.
Jesus is NOT giving Peter a horse and a commission in the cavalry.
He’s giving Peter a bucket and telling him to go and feed the sheep.
Keller says this means Peter is being called to leadership.
I’d say not.
He is being called to feed the sheep.
I am highly suspicious of all this talk of aspiring to be a leader.
As Christians in ministry we serve another Who leads, and don’t going pointing to ourselves or make a huge deal of asking and aspiring to be people the ordinary folks down in the ranks should look up to and follow.
That’s the OPPOSITE of what we’ve been learning from Jesus dealing with Peter to address that man’s self-image!
Where Keller doe undoubtedly get it right is when he goes on to say:
A Christian identity is based ultimately on a realisation of the magnitude of God’s unchanging love for us.”
It is odd, given the fragility and changeability of human life, and given human impotence and inability to change the things which matter to us that the default mode of the human spirit seems wedded to the idea that it is strength that connects you to God.
The Gospel says, on the other hand, that it is weakness.
The contemporary psychology of overreacting explains that people overreact to protect themselves against threats
It is an ‘over-strong response’ that arises from a sense of weakness or being threatened.
It’s an interesting piece of psychology in our current context.
I’ve certainly found in pastoral practice that what people who come flying at you often need the most a first is reassurance!
Peter is learning here that being the big strong tough committed man is really not a place to plant your own self-image.
Loving Jesus means re-orientating your view of yourself to be a servant and feeder (not a great big ‘leader’) of your Saviour’s sheep.
And there’s hope in Easter, Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, for the person who maybe WANTS to be a big shot, but who learns what’s needed is to trust in Jesus and become a servant feeding His sheep.
It’s only to the extent we see ourselves as weak, that He makes us big and strong.
And our self-image, our fundamental assessment of ourselves, MUST be established on that foundation.
But let’s be clear on this, the God of Cross and Resurrection, speaks hope to people like Peter who have so far in love got this wrong … and brings us back by the self-same gracious way that He visited the beach that day and brought back the future great sheep-feeder we know as Peter.