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Loved By Jesus

The Redeemer

Rev. Philip Miller | August 8, 2021

Selected highlights from this sermon

How do you pick up the pieces when you’ve blown it? Take Peter: three times, he denied he knew Jesus. After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter surely had to have been wondering what Jesus thought of him. And haven’t we all wondered the same thing about ourselves?

For those of us who have failed and let down those we love, Pastor Miller shares three truths from John 21 with us: Jesus never gives up on us, repentance sets us free, and brokenness is a prerequisite for our usefulness to God.

He’d thought about that night a lot lately, the night that he went out and wept bitterly, the night that he had failed. He’d promised Jesus so faithfully. “I will lay down my life for you,” he said in John 13:37. “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). But when push came to shove, when the pressure mounted, when the fear took hold, that night when everything was on the line, he flinched, he faltered, he failed, and Peter denied Jesus three times, once in the courtyard, and twice by the charcoal fire. He denied Jesus to save his own skin. And then the rooster crowed, and he remembered that Jesus has told him this would happen, and he broke down and wept bitterly.

Peter could hardly live with himself, with his failure. How do you pick up the pieces of your life when you’ve blown it so very badly? Even though Jesus had risen from the dead and Peter had met with Him twice now, stood in the same room with Him, saw the nail scarred hands and side, there was an elephant in the room, wasn’t there? Peter felt the knot in his stomach, a lump in his throat, his eyes staring at his sandals. He thought, “What must He think of me now?” And for those of us who know what it is to fail, to fail those we most love, we can understand how he felt, how desperately Peter wanted to bring it up, but just couldn’t do it.

And so now we come to John, chapter 21. We’re going to look at a whole chapter today. This is on page 907 and 908 in the blue Bible there in the rack by your knees, 907 and 908. And John 21 forms a kind of epilogue at the end of the Gospel of John. The main story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has already been told. It comes to a grand crescendo in Thomas’ statement, “My Lord and my God!” We saw that last time, but there a few loose ends to tie off. And so John now gives us an epilogue. One of the major threads that needs to be resolved here is what will become of our friend, Peter, so in this chapter we’re going to see: The Danger of Relapse, The Grace of Repentance, and The Beauty of Redemption. The Danger of Relapse, The Grace of Repentance, The Beauty of Redemption. And friends, let me tell you for those of us in this room who have failed in life, we have let down people we love, we need this. We need this today.

Let’s bow our heads in prayer.

Heavenly Father, would you meet us now in the dirtiest, most messed up parts of who we are. You met Peter at his worst, and you do that with us too. Help us believe in your redeeming love and mercy today. For Jesus’ sake we pray, and ours, Amen.

First The Danger of Relapse here. John 21:1: “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” (chuckles)

So the scene is set back up north in Galilee. This is Jesus’ home country. The Sea of Tiberias is just another name for the Sea of Galilee. And so here they are, gathered back home, their home town. Peter decides he’s going to go fishing. At least six disciples, listed here, go with him.

You may recall that Peter’s former career, before Jesus called him to follow Him, was as a fisherman, and so Peter had left fishing at one point in his life to follow Jesus, and now he goes back to fishing. And this might seem at one level to just be a relaxing diversion. You know, he’s out, just “I want to go fishing.” But I would suggest that for Peter this is not just a relaxing moment. This is actually a relapsing moment. He is haunted by his failure, that fateful night when everything fell apart, and he can’t seem to find his way back. And so he goes back to fishing. He goes back to what he knows. He goes back to something he will not fail at. And the irony, of course, is he can’t even catch fish. All night, nothing. But there’s light on the horizon.

Verse 4: “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ (chuckles) They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them. ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.”

Don’t you just love this scene? All night, nothing, and Jesus says, “Hey, why don’t you try the right side of the boat?” And wham, the net is so full of fish that seven guys can’t haul it all in. And John immediately says (Right? John, the beloved disciple) says to Peter, “It’s the Lord. It’s got to be Him.”

Now, how did he figure that out? How did he know? He’s 300 feet away. He can’t tell who it is. I think it’s because he’s going through déjà vu. Do you remember Luke, chapter 5, when Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, an earlier scene at the Sea of Galilee, same location?

Luke, chapter 5. Let me read it. Verses 4 to 11: “And when [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered him, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.’ And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats [with it], so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John (There’s our author), sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He’s taking them back to the beginning, to the same sea, to another catch-less night, with a reprisal of a miraculous catch that triggers the realization of who Jesus is. And once again, He will call these men to leave fishing and follow Him.

Verse 9: “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.” Don’t you just love it? Jesus got His own fish. Where did He get them, huh? It’s amazing. 

Verse 10: “Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’  So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

Now, I want you to notice two more things about how Jesus has masterfully set up this moment. The first one is in verse 9. Notice it says He had a charcoal fire going, a charcoal fire. Not just any fire, a charcoal fire. This word for charcoal fire is only used twice in the whole Bible. Here and guess where else? Chapter 18. What happened in chapter 18? Do you remember?

John 18:18: “Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.” This is the very same kind of charcoal fire that was lit in Caiaphas’ courtyard where Peter warmed himself when he denied Jesus. This is not coincidental.

Secondly, notice verse 13. Look at this phrase: “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.” Jesus came, took the bread, gave it to them, and so with the fish. What does that remind you of? What does it remind you of? Can you think of another scene near the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias) involving bread and fish and Jesus? Remember it?

Chapter 6, the feeding of the five thousand. John 6:11, “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

Do you see the parallels? Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and so also the fish, both times. Greek has two different words for bread and three different words for fish. The only times John uses this particular word for fish is in chapter 21 and chapter 6. And the only times John uses this particular word for bread are in chapter 21 and chapter 6, with one exception, which is chapter 13, which is the Last Supper when He says, “The one who dips the bread in the bowl is the one who will betray me.”

So John is deliberately using these words, tying the connection to John, chapter 6. He wants us to see the scene. Now why? Why? Well, you’ll remember in John, chapter 6, there was a major watershed moment in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus had made incredibly strong claims that He was the bread come out of heaven, and people had to eat His bread, His body, and everyone freaked out and they left. They left Him in droves. The disciples started abandoning Jesus, and Jesus looked at His disciples.

John 6:66 and 69: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter (Here’s our guy, Simon Peter) answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You [alone] have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”

So here’s the point. Jesus has set this scene masterfully. It’s like the movies, right? When you kind of go back to the origin story, and they’re back in the same house, in the same place with the same people, and all of a sudden he’s going to change, right? There’s a big moment and you can feel it coming. Jesus is doing this. He brings Peter back to the beginning, back to the place where He called him from fishing to follow Him. He’s built a charcoal fire to bring Peter back to the very night and smells of the moment when he betrayed Jesus and went off the tracks. He’s once again bringing out bread and fish, reminding Peter of the watershed choice that he had to make, whether to walk away, or whether to double-down and be faithful to Jesus as his only hope.

And don’t you see? This is all for Peter. It’s all for Peter. Friends, Peter may have given up on himself, but Jesus never gave up on Peter. Amen? Peter may have given up on himself, but Jesus never gave up on Peter. And that, friends, is good news because Jesus never gives up on failures like us. Jesus never gives up on failures like us. There’s always more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us. And friends, Jesus never gives up on failures like us. He never gave up on Peter, and He will never give up on you.

It’s The Danger of Relapse.

Secondly, The Grace of Repentance. The Grace of Repentance.

This is now the third time that Peter has been in the presence of Jesus, and on each occasion, Peter has not brought up the issue. (chuckles) It just never came up, okay? But now Jesus brings it up. He tenderly, but firmly, presses in to the very subject Peter has been avoiding. Jesus will make him face his sin and shame head on.

Now we might wonder why. “Why Jesus? Why do you have to do that? Why do you have to bring it up? Why do you have to rub his nose in it? Why do you have to do this? Wouldn’t it be more loving to just simply let bygones be bygones, and just sort of sweep it under the rug, and not deal with it, and just pretend it never happened? You know, wouldn’t that?— Just move on!”

Well, not in the long run because Peter’s shame, friends, is like an infection in his soul. And Peter has not dealt with it. He’s formed a kind of cyst around it, if you will, and he’s contained the infection by forming a hard shell around it so he didn’t have to feel the pain of it any more. But the infection is still in it. And someday that cyst will rupture and infection will spread, and it’s going to be way worse and toxic the second time. And so Jesus does soul-surgery here. He’s going to lance the cyst. He’s going to clean out the infection so that Peter can actually heal.

Verse 15: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’”

Notice the oddity of Jesus’ question. This is odd, isn’t it? “Do you love me more than these, these disciples, these other disciples? Do you love me more than these guys?” (chuckles) What an odd question, almost an inappropriate question, right? Could you imagine telling your kids, “Do you love me more than your brother does?” It’s awkward, right?

Why would Jesus phrase that that way? Well, think about it. Peter was always the guy trying to come out on top, wasn’t he? He was always one of the ones bickering over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He was the one who said “Even if all of these guys fall away, I will never fail you. I’ll lay down my life for you!” See, Peter always considered himself a cut above, sort of uniquely loyal and special, you know? And so even just a few weeks ago the Peter of yesterday probably would have answered this question, “Yes Lord. You know I love you more than these guys. Of course I do.” But do you see what Jesus is doing? He’s going after Peter’s signature sin, his boastful pride, his self-confidence. And Peter knows himself better now. He knows his weakness. He knows his brokenness. He’s been humbled. And so when he says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” he makes the statement in response just about his own love, not in comparison to anyone else. Do you see that? There’s a shift. He doesn’t answer the question the way Jesus asked it.

But there’s something I want you to notice. You can’t see this in the English but there’s a shift in the verbs that He used for love. The verb for love in Jesus’ question is agapao, which is committed, loyal, faithful love that you have with a spouse, but the verb in Peter’s reply is phileo, which is like friendship love. Agapao is a much stronger word. Phileo is a much more soft word. They are both important words. So to paraphrase what Jesus is saying here, Jesus says: “Peter, do love me with covenant loyalty and faithfulness?” And Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I really like you a lot.”

Now, do you realize how humbly honest that is for Peter? This is the guy who boasted all the time. He affirms his love for Jesus while recognizing that his love is far less than what Jesus deserves. This statement here is full of self-awareness and humility. He is owning his failure. Do you see that? And what that failure reveals about his real love and his real heart. But Jesus presses further.

Verse 16: “He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’”

Now in this second question notice Jesus drops the comparison. There’s no more, “Do you love me more than these?” No, He’s just asking now about the quality of Peter’s love. “Peter, do you agapao love me?” And Peter again replies, “You know I phileo love you.”

Verse 17: “He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

Now in this third question, this third round, Jesus shifts the verb. Instead of agapao, He uses phileo. “Peter, do you phileo love me?” This is the word Peter had offered, and Jesus is no longer asking about Peter’s covenant love and faithfulness. He’s asking about his friendship. “Do you phileo love me?” And Peter is grieved because Jesus presses Peter to consider whether his own declared minute diminished love is true. “Do you even phileo love me?” And Peter said, “Lord, you know everything.” What’s in the everything? His love and his failure. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I phileo love you.”

Do you see what Jesus has done here? He has disclosed the root of Peter’s failure. Peter always found his identity in coming out on top. He always felt like he had to be better than his peers. He was self-confident and self-reliant, but not anymore. Jesus presses Peter to admit to his own weakness. He helps him here own his brokenness. He makes him come to terms with the inadequacy of his own love for Jesus. Do you see this?

Peter had denied Jesus three times, and now three times Jesus presses in asking Peter these penetrating questions, pressing deeper, exposing the deadliness of his self-confidence, helping him confess out loud and name how very inadequate he is. And as Peter admits to the inadequacy of his own love for Christ, don’t you see he is set free from his egotistical self-reliance? Do you see that? Because repentance, friends, is the tough grace that sets us free. Repentance is the tough grace that sets us free.

It is a tough grace here that presses our hearts into repentance, isn’t it? We instinctively resist repentance. We hate it. We don’t want to confess. We don’t want to say we’re sorry. It costs us so much, but friends, repentance is the only way to be free. Repentance is the only way to heal. And can’t you see the healing here at the end of Peter’s statement, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, I know my love is inadequate, but however small it may be, however tainted it is with failure, it’s there and it’s real. You know that. You know my heart. You know what I’m saying is true.” And Peter, listen, Peter, who used to think he had to prove himself to be worth anything, discovers the only thing that matters in the end is to be loved by Jesus, loved by Jesus.

The Grace of Repentance.

And now finally, The Beauty of Redemption. The Beauty of Redemption.

Did you catch at the end, kind of interlaced in these replies, Jesus’ three commissioning statements? “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” This, of course, is shepherding language. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is now commissioning Peter as His under-shepherd. Peter will become one of the main leaders of the early Christian movement. He will be entrusted with the responsibilities of feeding and caring for the sheep who ultimately belong to Jesus. Peter is to lead. He is to guide. He is to protect. He is to provide. He is to sacrifice. He is to serve. And as the Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep, Peter’s assignment will be costly.

Verse 18: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Follow me.

Somewhat enigmatically here, Jesus conveys to Peter what it will cost to follow Him. He too will face a hostile death like his Master. His hands will be stretched out. He’ll be dressed by another. He’ll be carried off against his will. In fact, this is what it will mean for Peter to follow Jesus. He must be willing to die for Jesus.

Now do you see the beauty of this, the beauty of this moment? Jesus is giving Peter a second chance to be the guy he so desperately wanted to be. Remember, in his pride and self-confidence Peter promised Jesus something. What was it? Peter promised Jesus, “I will lay down by life for you.” Peter wanted to be that guy. He wanted, in love and loyalty to Jesus, to lay down his life, but when it came to the moment, he failed. And now Jesus gives him another chance, and this time he will not fail. This time he will follow through, not because of his ego, not because of his self-confidence, but because of the transforming power of the blood of Jesus Christ. And that power of Christ prevailed.

History tells us that Peter died in A.D. 64, crucified in Rome by the Emperor Nero. Tradition tells us that Peter chose to be crucified upside down because he didn’t feel like he deserved to die in the same manner as his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

And so, you see, Jesus says, “Follow me. Follow me, Peter. Follow me as the shepherd of the sheep. Follow me to the cross and sacrifice. Follow me to glory and the kingdom beyond.” And Peter is squirming a little under the gaze of Jesus’ hyper-focused attention and decides he wants to divert things a bit.

Look at verse 20: “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’ So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

And the book comes to the end. It’s kind of funny here. You can tell that John is correcting rumors that have spread abroad here in these verses. Apparently a legend had cropped up that John would never die, at least until Jesus returned. And John goes out of his way to disavow that and put those rumors to rest.

But the material point and focus of the passage is still on Peter. It is his task to follow Jesus, to be faithful to his calling without reference to anyone else’s assignment. Each of the disciples will have their own unique stories, their own unique story arc. Their lives will take on individual shape, and they are not to sit around, wishing they had somebody else’s life, someone else’s calling, someone else’s path. What good would that do? No, they were to faithfully follow Jesus on the path that they were given, and for Peter that path was one of shepherding, and ultimately suffering.

Peter would become one of the great leaders in the early church, and he will stand up and preach on the day of Pentecost to three thousand people, and three thousand people will respond to his message. God will use Peter in great ways, but it starts here in brokenness. Because, friends, brokenness is a prerequisite for usefulness. Brokenness is a prerequisite for usefulness. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that when Peter felt strongest, he was actually least useful? And when Peter felt weakest, God was ready to use him greatly.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Until he was broken he was not ready to lead. Until he was wounded, he was not ready to heal. Until he knew he was inadequate, he was not qualified to serve.

As Paul will say many years later in 2 Corinthians 12, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” “For [his] power is made perfect in my weakness.” Or as Alan Redpath, who was our senior pastor here from 1953 to 1962, said, “When God wants to do an impossible task He takes an impossible man and crushes him.” (laughs)

You want to be used by God? Congratulations! It’s actually worth it. All you lose is your pride, and that wasn’t really helping you anyway. A.W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”

Friends, our greatest ministry is often rooted in our deepest wounds. God takes our misery and turns it into our ministry. He’s the Great Redeemer, you see.

Friends, the story of the Bible is that Jesus takes each one of us exactly as we are, undeserving, inadequate, broken, and sinful, and in His mercy, and grace, and forgiveness and love redeems us, and transforms us, and empowers us to be useful for His eternal glory, and our everlasting joy. So in the grace of God, we need not hide from our brokenness, you see, for in His wisdom it becomes a prerequisite for usefulness.

This is the Beauty of Redemption and the takeaway for us is simple. In the love of Jesus there is an abundant hope for our stories. In the love of Jesus there is abundant hope for our stories. Friends, listen to me. Some of you have checked out. Look up here. (laughter)

Listen, listen, no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve become, no matter what’s been done to you, Jesus never gives up on failures like us. (applause) There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us. And maybe you’re sitting there and you’re like, “I want to believe that, but I’m scared to come clean. I’m scared to say it out loud. What must He think of me?”

Friends, repentance is the tough grace that sets us free. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all (all) unrighteousness.” Won’t you give yourself to the Great Redeemer? He can take your misery and turn it into your greatest ministry because brokenness is a prerequisite for usefulness. And even now, right now, this moment, in the love of Jesus there is abundant hope for your story.

So Jesus says, “You follow me. Follow me.”

Let’s pray.

Father, we thank you that what you did for Peter is what you do for us, that when we give up on ourselves, and we think surely we’ve burned the bridge, surely we’ve gone too far this time, surely there’s no possible way back home, you are waiting, arms open, running toward us, pursuing us. We can always come home because your mercy is more, your love is greater, your forgiveness is deeper, your loving kindness is richer. You are enough. Your mercy will run after us. So help us to trust that is true, to open up, to get real, to come home, to surrender, and to allow you to change the trajectory of our stories. Help us, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

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