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Third Times the Charm

John 21:1-19



I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John, chapter 21, and follow along as I read verses 1-19.  Hear what the Spirit says to us.


1  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

2  Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

3  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.

4  Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

5  Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No."

6  He said to them, "Cast the net to 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 there were so many fish.

7  That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

8  But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9  When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.

10  Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught."

11  So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

12  Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord.

13  Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

14  This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."

16  A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."

17  He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt 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.

18  Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."

19  (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

Amen.  The word of God.  Thanks be to God.




Third Times the Charm

On a cold rainy morning, when we run out and jump in the car, we turn the ignition key, and nothing happens.  We try again, still nothing.  Under our breath we mutter, "Third time's the charm," and try one more time.  Or, having watched a child learning to ride a bike fall twice, we say, by way of comfort, "Third time's the charm."   Again, every batter who has two strikes against them always says, "Third time's the charm."

It is a strange fact of life that sometimes good and bad things happen in threes.  Often, it really does take three times for us to get going, or for something to sink in and make an impact.

Anyone working or living with children (and in some cases by children I mean everyone between the ages of birth and 85) knows that messages, directions, orders, must be repeated multiple times before anything seems to register.  Has anyone ever taken out the garbage after being asked only once?  My wife will tell you that I don’t.  How many of your children clean their rooms after one invitation?  At our house, we cannot even get each other to the dinner table with one invitation.

But instructions are not the only things we need to hear more than once in order to take them to heart. All of us who have ever loved or been loved know that the words "I love you" can never be spoken too often.  For some of us who have weathered the hurts of broken relationships, saying, "I love you," for the first time again is one of the most frightening things we will ever do.

And saying "I love you" once is never enough. It is just the beginning. We must say "I love you" over and over; We must hear "I love you" over and over, before we can trust the reality of those words.


Peter’s Betrayal.

In today's gospel text, Jesus asks Peter three separate times, "Do you love me?"  Jesus is helping Peter work through his guilt.  .You may remember the story of Peter’s betrayal.  On Thursday night, at the Lord’s Supper, when Jesus said that one of his own disciples would betray him, Peter, with his usual impulsiveness said, “No matter what the others may do and no matter what happens, I will never betray you.”  To which Jesus replied, before the cock crows, that is before morning, you will betray me three times.  After the supper, Jesus went over to the Garden of Gethsemane and there he was arrested by the temple guards.  Jesus was taken to the house of the High Priest, and Peter followed and stood outside by the gate,

A woman who was the gatekeeper said, "Aren’t you one of his disciples?"  Peter said, No, not me.

He left the gate to get away from the woman, and went over to warm himself by a fire.  There was a crowd around the fire, perhaps he intended to hide in the crowd.  But someone in the crowd asked him “Aren’t you one of his disciples?"  Again, Peter denied it.  Finally, one of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked him, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?"  A third time Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.


Peter’s Guilt

We can imagine the shame that filled Peter when he understands that in his weakness he has betrayed the Lord whom he so boastfully promised to support.

Peter saw several resurrection appearances of Christ after Easter.  Every time he saw the Lord, his guilt rose up in his mind like a huge wave.  He could not rejoice in the Easter message of eternal life because he had failed Christ.  He could not look upon Jesus without thinking, I betrayed him.  It would all come back to him, he relived every moment.  He remembered the woman at the gate and the crowd and the slave all saying: “Aren’t you one of his disciples?"  And he remembered his cowardice, his failure to stand by Jesus, and he failed not once but three times.  This memory haunted Peter; it was destroying him.  Jesus gives him effective forgiveness.

Our text today covers an appearance of the Risen Lord by the Sea of Tiberias (which is another name for the sea of Galilee).  Simon Peter and Thomas and Nathanael and James and John and a couple of other disciples had decided to go fishing.  They fished all night and caught not a minnow.  Just after daybreak, they saw this mysterious stranger standing on the beach.  The stranger knew their immediate problem.  He said, “You do not have any fish, do you?”  They admitted as much.  The stranger said, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some."  They figure what have we got to lose, so they cast in the net, and they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish in it.

They realize then that this stranger is the Lord.  V7 is sort of odd.  Peter hastily pulls on some clothing, and springs into the water to swim to Jesus.  We ask why would anyone put on clothes to jump in the water.  I suppose that Peter's attempt to clothe himself properly is an effort to demonstrate his respect for Jesus.  Peter was always one who acted before he thought.  His surprising leap into the water perfectly depicts his impetuous nature.

All the disciples came to shore, following Peter, and Jesus fixed breakfast for them.  After breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter.  Jesus intends to salvage Peter.  He will save Peter from the psychological and spiritual destruction that Peter has wrought upon himself.  He says, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?"  We wonder who Jesus refers to by “these.”  It seems likely that this is a gentle reminder to Peter that he had professed to love Christ more than the other disciples, and had failed him at the crucial hour.  To deal with Peter’s guilt, Jesus must remind him of what happened, so we can imagine Jesus saying this as gently as possible, “do you love me more than these?”

Peter does not say that he has a greater love than the other disciples.  He no longer makes such grand claims.   He says, "You know that I love you."  But what he said in the depths of his soul was: You know that I betrayed you.”  Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."  In other words, Jesus says, I know you love me, whether you know it or not, and I want you to express your love.  Take care of my people.

But Jesus knows that Peter has not heard him, and so in v16, he asks him again, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"  Again Peter says, "Lord; you know that I love you."  Yes, Peter loves him, but there is still that three-fold betrayal.  The problem here is not that Jesus does not forgive Peter.  Of course, Jesus forgave him.  The problem is that Peter has not forgiven himself.  He loves Jesus; he betrayed the one he loves.  How can he possibly live with the knowledge that he failed the one he loves most of all.  Jesus helps him.  Jesus saves Peter.  He saves him by helping him to save himself, by enabling him to confront his failure and accept forgiveness for that failure.

That is why Jesus said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"  The Scripture says that Peter was hurt by this third question.  He knows that Jesus knows how he has been wrestling with his cowardice and failure.  We can hear Peter’s frustration and anger when he says, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

Notice though that all three of Peter’s responses are unusually humble.  Before the crucifixion he boasted of his loyalty to Jesus, even to the point of his own death (John 13:37).  Peter now calls on Jesus himself to verify the love that he feels -- "you know that I love you."  There is a hesitance about Peter that shows the effect the betrayal has had on him.  Jesus repeats his question to Peter three times, not because he doubts Peter's love, but to give Peter a chance to realize for himself how deep and genuine his love for Jesus is.

Jesus demands that Peter express his love saying, "Feed my sheep.”  Jesus says I am giving you a way out.  I am giving you a redemption of love that requires love.  Three times Jesus says to Peter if you love me tend my sheep, feed my lambs, take care of my people.  This is what love is.  Love is not just saying words.  Love is something that is worked out in our everyday lives. 

Three little boys were debating whose mom was the most loving. The first little boy said: "My mommy loves me because I gave her a quarter, but she gave it back, saying 'Go and buy a piece of candy.' "  The second little boy argued that his mother loved him more because "If I give her a quarter, she gives me back two quarters for two pieces of candy."  The third little boy, seeing the direction of the debate, scratched his head and said, "Well, my mom loves me more because she would keep the quarter and then tell me how much that quarter will help her pay the bills."  The third boy has realized what love does.  Love pays the bills.

A mother may have moments when she confesses love to her newborn child.  She says, I love you to that child.  She has a lot of other not so lovely moments changing smelly diapers, and cleaning up messes in which she expresses love for that child.  In a marriage, loving a spouse may be planning a romantic candlelight dinner for two and going to the ballet when you would rather sit home and read a book.  Being a friend is not only saying to that person I am your friend, it is being there for them at 2 a.m. when you are needed.  Love is not just something we confess in words.  Love requires action, and sometimes it is messy, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.

Now Peter received Christ’s remedy.  The remedy was that he would accept Christ’s forgiveness and that acceptance would re-pattern his life.  It would change Peter so much that he would spend the rest of his life in service to his love.  That is what he did.  He died tending the sheep.


The Two R’s

Here is the major point.  We are Peter.  Who is it who stands in need of forgiveness because they have failed Jesus?  As the song says, It is me, O Lord.  We are the ones who confess that we love Jesus more than anything or anyone, and we fail to express that confession.  We betray Jesus.  But there is a remedy, and the remedy is not just by saying more words, the remedy is a life that expresses our confession.  Or as Jesus said, Tend the sheep. 

Christ calls us to lives of forgiveness and love.  To help us live that kind of life, a sheep-tending life, we need two things.  We need the "two R's": Repetition and Reinforcement.

First, Repetition: The third time’s the charm.  Jesus repeated his question to Peter three times, not because Peter doubted Jesus, not because Peter was especially dense, but in order to strengthen the power of his words.  With each "Do you love me," the meaning, the implications of the question seeps more deeply into Peter's heart.  Now I know that in the field of education, repetition as a way of learning is often put down.  Some educators say repetition is just "rote memorization," as if that were bad, but if you look at the tests they give, the tests require “rote memorization.”

There is another phrase that describes learning through repetition, we say that we "learn by heart."  All those prayers, those actions, those responses to life that we "learn by heart" through constant repetition become a part of our heart.  "I love you," "God loves you" "God forgives you"  All these phrases represent repeated expressions of love and faith in our lives, and they are no less powerful for having been repeated so often and so well that they are learned by “rote memorization.”

Secondly, Reinforcement: We need positive reinforcement to keep the habit of our faith refreshed.  The best reinforcement comes from living.  As we live for Christ, we create our own reinforcement.  Sometimes people ask how am I going to live my faith?  Part of the answer is to start now.  You do not need further education.  You do not need to work out your own problems.  Tend the sheep now.  And as you begin to live a life of love, you find that you are working out your problems.

I say again Christ saves us by enabling us to save ourselves, by enabling to receive his love and forgiveness and to express what we receive in our lives.  I am Peter.  I know that.  What does Christ say to me?  Tend the sheep.  Tend the sheep.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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