How Far His Love Goes (John 21:15-17)
Breakfast on the beach is over. Fellowship has been restored and a sense of relief is beginning. But there is some unfinished business that needs to be dealt with more completely. The Gospel is that Jesus loves us with such a deep love that He meets us right where we are and also that He loves us too much to leave us right where He found us. He who has begun a good work in us will continue that good work until He completes it. Jesus has cleared the impediments on Peter’s pathway back, He has laid stepping stones, yet there is still one major obstacle. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, Peter’s denials could not be ignored or glossed over. There is no “don’t go there” with the Good Shepherd who is filled with truth and grace. He draws Peter aside for a walk on the beach to shepherd his heart. There is no public flogging or humiliation. They go away from the others, just the two of them in order for the healing to be complete. Peter probably knew in the back of his mind what was coming and dreaded it. But If this was not dealt with it would ruin Peter’s life, cripple his ministry and hamstring him in his discipleship. The unfinished business at hand is not a matter of Peter’s skills or effectiveness at tasks but a matter of fellowship, partnership and relationship. The relational element is key whether it is in the church, marriage, work or family. If this is off-kilter, all is off-kilter. In His pastoring, Jesus does not write Peter off as a failure and a coward but He also does not let him off with a slap on the wrist as if it doesn’t matter. He addresses the wound with perfect grace. In many ways, Peter is recalibrated, i.e. reset to the standard of the humanity of Christ. There are three parts to the process of recalibration and each is vital.
First, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love Me?” Imagine if you have sinned in a major, technicolor way, how would your fellow Christians, elders and pastor treat you? They might say things like, “Peter, what on earth made you say that? What were you thinking?” Jesus doesn’t come off as an adversary or accuser. Peter has already been wounded by the look in the courtyard. Jesus doesn’t say “Will you try harder next time to keep it together?” He doesn’t convene a trial for church discipline. In some of our churches Peter would have been told to buck up, try harder, do better. That advice would be like standing over a bird with a broken wing telling it that if it would just flap harder it could fly. Jesus doesn’t do that nor does He make him squirm. He doesn’t ask him if he sees the exceeding sinfulness of his sin and heinousness of his denial. He doesn’t even say, “Peter, you will only be okay if I hear a good, theologically correct confession and repentance from you.” Sometimes we think, with a residual sense of pride, that if we can repent well enough with the right tone of voice and depth of sincerity we will be heard. This would be a legal repentance, a work of our religious flesh, i.e. salvation by good-enough repentance. Often, those with a tender conscience and an easily troubled soul will be plagued with the thoughts of whether they have repented well enough. Forget about the right amount of sorrow and sadness or hating your sin enough or having impure motives. That kind of repentance is a repentance to be repented of and can lead to an infinite regress of grief. We have to be turned around by His grace, not our works—we need evangelical (Gospel) repentance, not penance. Christ’s repentance in our place at His baptism covers our inadequacy. We could never get it right, never see it fully and never be sorry enough. We never have any grounds for boasting in our repentance. He took on our humanity, repented perfectly for us and gave us His repentance, and then took our flawed repentance to the cross and atoned for it. He delivers us from despair. We will never get it right; this is why we need a Savior.
So why does Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love Me?” The root of the denial in the courtyard, the sin underneath that caused him to cave in was a failure of love. We are again reminded that at the heart of a relationship with God is not our performance but a relationship of love. God doesn’t need an extra pair of hands, or bright ideas or collective strength. What He wants and desires for us it to love Him and to receive love from Him. This love will motivate costly service and good works. Love is what God commands from us. It sounds strange to us because we can’t command the love of others. We are commanded to love Him because He first loved us. Love isn’t just what God wants; it is also what He gives. St. Augustine said, “Command what You will and give what You command.” It has to be this way. Our love is so disordered by sin that we cannot give what God commands. God must give us the power to obey. With the command comes the ability. We are by nature at enmity with God, in love with ourselves and with sin and yet God righteously commands that we love Him and then gives what He commands. Jesus goes to the heart of the matter which is the state of Peter’s heart. He questions Peter’s love for Him, not because He doubts it is there, rather He is looking for the love He has given to emerge. This is the first part of Peter’s recalibration.
The second part is Peter’s, “Yes, Lord, I do.” Peter needed to hear himself say it. The acid burns of his denial, need to be healed by saying, “Yes, I love You.” We can do a pretty good job of writing ourselves off or kicking ourselves when we are down. We need to be reminded by the physician of our souls that when we have fallen, the love He has placed in us is not eradicated by our sin. Where sin abounds, grace super-abounds. Peter is discovering a deep love for God is still there. It can be an immense relief to learn that though we sin grace abounds, however far we fall. God has done a work that goes deeper than the bottom of the slimiest pit of sin. Our Lord has already been there, taken our sin and shame upon Himself, redeemed us, given us His righteousness, including a love for God and our neighbor. What we find at our bottom is Jesus, the proper Man.
The third element of recalibration is Peter’s recommissioning, feed My lambs, feed My sheep. Jesus affirms Peter’s usefulness and genuine partnership in His work. Jesus affirms him and his ministry by saying after you come back you will strengthen your brothers. Everything about Peter is by divine design. All his traits and experiences, even his denials are useful to a sovereign and wise God. We, like Peter, have no guarantee of an easy, pain-free life, where one success follows another in an unbroken chain. The dark times are His chisel, anvil and hammer to shape us into useful instruments. For Peter, failure was the back door to effective ministry. His failure was the way to begin building on the foundation of faith in Christ rather than self reliance. It was for Peter a door of hope. Peter was forgiven and restored. What does forgiveness and restoration mean? It is the wonder of being trusted again by God in the place where I disgraced Him (cf. Acts 2). This is how far His love goes.
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