He’d met Jesus, so his brother had to meet him too. That’s how it all began. Andrew brings Peter to meet Jesus. Peter the hot headed fisherman from Bethsaida meets Jesus. This is the gospel of John Chapter 1. This is the start.
Peter is a fisherman. He would have come from a long line of fishermen. He would have most likely left school before his 10th birthday, like all Jewish boys, having memorised the Torah, the first five books of the bible. But that was as much education as he would get. Others who showed promise would be educated until they were 14. But the best of the best, those destined to be rabbis or teachers of the law would stay until they were 15 and above. And then if they were good enough – and worth noting that at this point it wasn’t to do with memorisation of scripture, it was to do with understanding and engagement with scripture – if they were good enough a rabbi would say, “follow me.” And that was it. The apprenticeship had begun.
That’s the words Jesus said to Peter. And we are astounded by Peter’s obedience. He leaves his nets. He follows. And we have completely missed the point! This isn’t Peter’s obedience. It is the grace of Rabbi Jesus who has chosen not the clever, not the best of the best, he has chosen Peter. We are chosen not because of our gifts or abilities, not because of our talents or intelligence, but simply because of the grace of the God who says, “Follow me.”
It’s a good start. It gets better.
John 6 sees Jesus walk on water. We have to look at other gospels to see Peter’s part. But it’s there to be found. The disciples are afraid. Jesus is walking on water. And Peter says, “If that’s you Jesus call me to come.” And Jesus does. So many sermons preached on Peter’s wrong attitude in asking and his lack of faith when he does. But again, missing the point. He actually walked on water. This fisherman from Bethsaida walks on water. There’ll always be those who criticise our motivation and call us arrogant, but the key is to do it anyway. And it’s always worth it for the story … “I showed great humility” said Peter, “and I watched Jesus.” Or, “they called me names, but I walked on water.” And what’s the worse thing that can happen when it goes wrong. He ends up in the hands of Jesus. Jesus takes him by the hand and walks him back to the boat. In our worst possible scenario we end up walking hand in hand with Jesus! Definitely worth leaving the boat I think.
But Peter is not finished with John chapter 6 yet. Now disciples are deserting Jesus. It all looks a little tough. “Are you going to leave me too?” Jesus asks. And the wonderful, hot headed, impetuous Peter says, “Where would we go, you have the words of eternal life.” When he gets it right, he really gets it right. But he spends a lot of time not getting it right!!!
John 13. Jesus is ready to wash the disciple’s feet. Peter says “no”. Jesus says, “this is necessary Peter.” So Peter in an attempt to recover says, “Then wash all of me!” It really is as ridiculous as it sounds. Oh Peter! And then a discussion in the same chapter about betrayal and denial. But Peter says, “I’ll never deny you.” And Jesus makes it clear, “before the cockerel crows three times, you will deny me three times.”
And now the gospel rushes forward. John 17. Gethsemane. Jesus wants his three favourite disciples with him. Praying. But instead they fall asleep. He wakes them. He really wants them involved. They go to sleep again.
And then it’s chapter 18 and Jesus is betrayed and Peter, yes, of course it’s Peter, pulls out a sword and cuts off the servant’s ear in an attempt to rescue Jesus. Oh Peter! An then Denial. The cockerel crows and Peter sees the Jesus he has denied three times. The beaten, blood stained, bruised, face of Jesus. Those eyes. But again, don’t miss it. Peter is the only disciple denying Jesus because he is the only disciple there. The others are all hiding away somewhere with a chair against the door!
Chapter 19 and Jesus is crucified and Peter reaches an all-time low. It’s been such a rollercoaster. He saw people healed, he walked on water, he saw the dead raised. And now it is all over. And he did what you and I do. When it all goes wrong. He returns to the old, the familiar. He sits on his fishing boat and thinks of what could have been.
And then Chapter 20 and resurrection. And Jesus sends this message, “tell the disciples I am alive and tell Peter.” I wonder how Peter would hear that message. Does he feel special because he has been singled out? Of course not. He hears that he is no longer a disciple. “Tell the disciples and tell Peter.” When we are that low, even words from Jesus can seem negative.”
But the resurrection has happened and Jesus is alive and John’s gospel wants to end. It is the most beautifully constructed gospel. The themes of Belief and Life start the gospel in Chapter 1 and then at the end of Chapter 20 it returns to those same themes, “these things were written that you may believe and in believing have life.” And it has a focal point on which it all balances perfectly in Chapter 11, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me even though they die, yet will they live.” It is wonderful. A marvel of literature. And this is what I wanted you to see. The addition of Chapter 21. There is unfinished business and Jesus needs a conversation with Peter and so another chapter will need to be added and throw out the balance of the whole thing. Peter has even managed to mess up the structure of the gospel of John! Oh Peter!!
Don’t miss this because it is gorgeous. This says, Jesus will mess up your structure and your organisation, he will ruin your carefully constructed vision documents and 10 year plans and he will do it every time for the sake of … One! The solitary individual. Jesus will rearrange your programme for a single person. How amazing is that. That’s why Peter will soon stop at the Gate Beautiful in the early part of Acts for the individual who has been there since birth and has become accustomed to being ignored. Because Peter learnt from the master. You drop everything for the opportunity to minister to the one.
And so to John 21 we go and onto a beach. And we should all go there. It’s where ministry stands or falls.
Jesus is on the beach cooking fish. The disciples see him and begin to row to shore. But not Peter. He leaps over the side and swims. And they eat. And then the conversation has to take place. The restoration of Peter and the foundation of all Christian ministry worth anything at all.
A simple question. Repeated three times. “Peter, do you love me?” And I know there are subtle nuances indicated in here by different Greek words. I know. But that’s not the key. The key is that all ministry flows from our response to that question. “Do you love me?” Not theological understanding, not whether we’ve completely messed up, or whether we’ve got everything right. Do you love Him? And before Peter gets to answer a third time, Jesus adds some words that describe how Peter will die. Church history tells us that Peter was crucified upside down. Martyred. He didn’t feel worthy to die like Jesus. So they crucified him upside down. And before Peter can answer the third time, Jesus gives him that insight.
It doesn’t always end well you know. Not here anyway. Heaven sorts it all out of course, but it doesn’t always go well for us on planet earth. And knowing that it may not end well. Jesus asks a third time,
“Do you love me?”
And that’s it really. That’s what it is all about. Not too many years later Paul will write the words, “The love of God compels me.” It is the motivation. Compelled by love.
Yes Jesus. I love you.