Fifth Sunday After Trinity June 29, 1997
24, 421, 399, 401
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to God and His Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen. Today’s text comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 21, beginning with verse 15, as follows:
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. These are the Words.
In the Name of our Forgiving Savior, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Do you think you could lift an object that weighed 350 pounds? A huge barbell, for instance, or five sacks of grain at one time. Sound like too much? -It’s not, really. In fact, you do it all the time! When the adult human heart—one of the miracles of God’s creation—pumps blood, it does the equivalent work of lifting 350 pounds of dead weight every five minutes. Over the course of your lifetime, this amazing organ of yours will do the equivalent work of lifting a ten-ton load ten miles into the air! That’s the tremendous lifting power of the human heart.
You need lots of different kinds of lifting power in your life, don’t you? You need your heart to lift blood to the various parts of your body. You need an elevator to lift you to the top floor of a tall building. You need a car jack to lift up the car when you’ve got a flat tire. But what happens when it’s your soul that needs lifting? What happens when your sins and your past mistakes have got your down so low, you think there’s no power on earth that can lift you up again? Don’t despair! In our text for today, Simon Peter discovers that there’s one force that can help you even when you’re in that situation. That force is, in the words of our theme:
After hearing the text read, and then hearing the theme, you might think to yourself, “Well, the pastor got it wrong this week. This text is about Peter’s love, not Jesus’ love!” And you’d have a point. In our text, the Lord three times addresses Peter’s love for Him. He questions it. He puts Peter’s love under the microscope and examines it. And it comes up terribly lacking, as we’ll see. -But that’s not what this passage is really all about. We’re already too familiar with the shortcoming’s of Peter’s love, because we’ve got some of the same failings he had. We know about Peter’s love…what we want to know about is Jesus’ love! And the comforting message for us here is that Jesus’ love lifts us up in forgiveness, even when we haven’t loved Him.
The early morning is a special time for me; maybe you feel the same way. So often it’s wonderfully fresh and still just before dawn. Sometimes the eastern sky is streaked with beautiful colors in advance of the coming sun. This was the pre-dawn setting on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee when the risen Lord Jesus—nail marks in His hands, spear wound in His side—appeared to His disciples. He shared breakfast with them, gathered round a fire of coals in the early morning light.
Our text is a conversation that takes place immediately following that breakfast. Simon Peter has a burden on his heart. As he stares into the dying embers of the fire, he may well be remembering the last time he had gathered with others round a fire of coals. It had been in the courtyard of the High Priest, the same night when Jesus had been arrested and put on trial. Oh yes, Peter recalled that night vividly. That was the night when he had proudly bragged about his love for Jesus, and how he would stand by him through thick and through thin. In fact he had boasted that his love was greater than that of his fellow disciples. He had said, “Even if all are offended because of You, I will never be offended… Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!’”— Mat 26:34-35. And that had turned out to be the same night when, warming his hands at that fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter had denied with an oath that he even knew who Jesus was!
Now, on the beach, Peter is silent. Jesus knows that this is a difficult issue that has to be taken care of, and in public, and right now. So He turns to Peter. Only He doesn’t use the name “Peter,” which means “rock,” but rather a name that would remind him of his humanness, and his frailty. Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? Do you really love Me more than the other disciples do, as you once boasted so proudly? They both know what the answer is. The answer is no. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter forsook Jesus and ran away just like the other disciples did. So there is no pride in Peter’s voice now. He hangs his head in shame and murmurs, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. The implication is: no, Peter, you didn’t love Me. But I still love you, and I forgive you! And I have work for you to do.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Irregardless of these others, do YOU really love Me, Peter? If so, you certainly didn’t show it in the High Priest’s courtyard, when you used every filthy swear word you could think of to deny Me. Peter’s voice is reduced to a whisper as he says to Him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.” Peter, you failed in your love to Me. But I still love you, and I forgive you! And I have work for you to do.
Finally a third, agonizing question. Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? It’s interesting, by the way, that Jesus here switches to a much milder form of the word “love,” as if to say: do you care for Me at all? Even as a friend? So Peter was grieved…And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
At this point in the sermon I could draw a lot of comparisons about the ways in which you and I have denied our Lord Jesus, and failed to love Him as we should. But I’m going to skip that today…because I think you know. When you look back at your background and your past, you know how you have failed your Lord. You’ve failed Him with the secret sins, that nobody knows about but you, and with the public sins, that rather than glorifying Christ’s name, have instead splashed mud on it. If you’re like me, you know you haven’t come anywhere near loving your Savior as you should, and you know just how low and unworthy that sin makes you feel. Well, Godly sorrow over our sins is a good and necessary thing, as Paul says: “Godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted.”— 2 Cor 7:10.
But don’t stop there…for the Lord never meant for you to stay in the depths of sorrow. Remember the tremendous lifting power of Jesus’ love! Three times—one for every time Peter denied him in the courtyard—Jesus gently lifted His fallen disciple. Three times He impressed on him that, no matter how terrible his denial was, no matter how miserable his failure, Jesus still loved him with an unfailing love. There by that fire on the beach, with the sun just rising, Jesus was reminding Peter of the central truth of Christianity: Jesus’ blood covers all our sins. There is no sinner too guilty to be forgiven! There is no sinner who has fallen so low that Jesus’ love cannot lift him up and restore him to God’s grace.
Peter could see the proof of that right before his eyes in the body of Jesus—the marks of the nails and spear. They were part of the limitless suffering Jesus endured on the cross. Jesus’ whole mission on earth was to lift up sinners like us from the degradations of our sin to the glories of His salvation. And you know, that’s why He allowed Himself to be lifted up…on the cross. Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”— John 3:14-15. Christian, look to the cross! Behold the lengths to which Jesus’ love for you drove Him! Behold the rich rewards that His suffering, death and resurrection have reaped for you! In Him you have full and free forgiveness of sins, life and eternal salvation. To you also our Savior says today, Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.— Mt 9:2. Surely that’s got to be the most uplifting Good News there could possibly be in your life!
In love, Jesus lifted Peter up by showing him that his past sins were pardoned. But Jesus had another reason for lifting Peter up—He had work for Peter to do! And that’s another remarkable thing about the lifting power of Jesus’ love: it lifts us from serving ourselves to serving our Savior.
Jesus not only restored Peter to grace, He gave him back his job as an apostle. Jesus issued him this threefold commission: “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” And Peter carried out that commission, serving as shepherd of the flock in Jerusalem and elsewhere. In the last part of our text, Jesus predicts that Peter would not only with his life, but also with his death serve his Lord: Jesus told Peter, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And if tradition is correct, Peter fulfilled that prophesy to the letter. Tradition says that he died a martyr’s death in Rome, under the wicked emperor Nero. The historian Eusebius says that Peter, like Jesus, was crucified, but that he asked to be crucified head-downward, to witness how unworthy his death was, as compared with the all-atoning death of his Savior’s!
You’ve heard the expression, “saved to serve.” Did you know that, in ancient China, there was a custom which stated that if somebody saved your life, you were bound by law to serve that person for the rest of your days? It makes sense, doesn’t it? If it weren’t for that person you’d have no life at all, so it seems logical that what life you do have should be dedicated to the service of the person who saved you. The same holds true in our lives as Christians. Jesus has lifted us up from the pit of hell. With His redemptive work on the cross He has literally “saved our lives”…eternally! By merit of His blood and righteousness, you and I are headed for the eternal joys of heaven. The only question left is, what can we do to serve Him in the meantime? Because we’ve got to do something! Paul says, “The love of Christ constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”— 2 Cor 5:14-15.
Commenting on our text for today, one Christian writer remarked, “Not at the end of every Christian’s course stands the martyr’s cross; but no Christian can finish his course without being led from Peter’s youth to Peter’s age, and being exercised in cross-bearing.” (Besser). It’s not likely that you or I will be called upon to sacrifice our lives for our faith. But when you, in gratitude and love, turn to your Savior and ask, “Isn’t there something now, that I can do for You?” -I guarantee you that He won’t turn you away. He will lift you up, and provide you, too, with work to do in the kingdom of God! Our congregation here needs more than a pastor—it needs volunteers, faithful church council members, willing Sunday school teachers,
people to spread the word about our mission, people to encourage, admonish, visit and support their fellow Christians. You may be able to support the work with increased gifts from the financial bounty the Lord has given you. …And this is really just the start of the list. In His love for you, Jesus’ has lifted you from sin. Now, if you are searching for a way to say thank-you for that, you can be sure that He will lift you up to a life of service, as well. Whatever your talents are, however humble you feel your abilities to be, Jesus turns no one away. That’s the tremendous lifting power of Jesus’ love!
I’d like to leave you with the same words Jesus left Peter with, there on the beach at the Sea of Galilee. After that difficult discussion, after patiently restoring Peter and giving him a sobering glance into the future, Jesus said to Peter, simply, “Follow Me.” That comforting exhortation is for you and me, as well. The sins of our past are covered in Jesus’ blood. The service and sacrifice that our future holds is hidden from our eyes. But it’s not hidden from our Savior’s. And He says to us, “Follow Me.” Let us do so, with the confidence that His love will lift us above any obstacle, AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.