The risen Lord Jesus has already appeared and shown Himself to the disciples twice before this. He has breathed His Holy Spirit upon them with His Word, and given them His Office of the Keys, and sent them to be His Holy Apostles, even as the Father sent Him to save the world.
And yet, it seems that Simon Peter remains at a loss as to what he should be doing with himself. Which is, of course, already the problem, since it is the Lord who must “do something” with him!
For the time being, though, St. Peter decides to go fishing. He goes back to the life he had before the Lord called him to discipleship — back to his own works and efforts, to his own occupations and self-chosen activities. And you have heard that he takes others with him in those pursuits, in much the way that parents and peers lead their children and their neighbors by their example.
But, as always when you rely upon yourself, chasing your own priorities, goals, and ambitions, those restless disciples labor all night in vain. They catch nothing. They wind up empty-handed. For they cannot do any good nor accomplish anything positive without Jesus. Neither can you.
Indeed, under such circumstances, even when Jesus is right there on the shore in front of them, the disciples are not able to recognize Him. They do not know Him anymore, not even this third time. Just as you also fail to know or recognize Jesus when you strive to make it on your own, and as often as you become so focused on yourself and what you’re doing. It is a hopeless endeavor.
But how is it that Simon Peter and his fellow disciples have drifted so far away from Jesus?
Actually, it’s not so hard to figure out, if you think back to Good Friday, and if you put yourself in Peter’s sandals for awhile. Do you imagine that he could so quickly or easily forget his denials of the Lord Jesus? Do you really think that he would ever forget that dark night? Or, how and why do you suppose that those events were written down for posterity in all of the Holy Gospels?
No, if Judas Iscariot is remembered for his betrayals, and St. Thomas for his doubts, then St. Peter is remembered just as well for his three-fold denial of the Lord.
Consider those times in your own life when you have really blown it. When you have let someone down, or failed them so miserably, or hurt them in a fit of anger. When you have committed some sin or another which you can’t possibly take back, undo, or ever hope to live down. What do you do with that? How do you handle your baggage? How do you go about trying to cope with it?
In your fallen flesh, there are basically two different ways that you attempt to deal with your sins and failures, assuming that you’ve moved passed the stage of excuses and rationalizations.
On the one hand, you may despair of any and all hope, and so give up completely and resign yourself to grief and shame. Or, on the other hand, you may redouble all your efforts and work twice as hard, vainly trying with all your own might to atone for your sins and redeem yourself.
In the Gospel at hand, it appears that Simon Peter may be doing a little of both. To begin with, he has gone back to fishing, perhaps because he has despaired of his worthiness to be a disciple and Apostle of Jesus. And of course it is true that, of himself, he is not worthy to be either of those!
But then, when Jesus appears, you have also heard how desperately Simon Peter tries so hard to prove himself worthy. How he throws himself into the sea in order to swim ahead to Jesus on the shore, not content to come in the boat with the others. And how, when the boat is close enough, he manhandles that big net full of fish all by himself and drags it onto the shore.
Peter’s thinking is all wrong at that point. He keeps starting with himself — with his own guilt and shame, on the one hand; with his own strength and hard work, on the other. He doesn’t know how to live with his failures, so he offers his accomplishments to make up for them. Maybe you have also known and tried that bargain. But it doesn’t work. Not for him. Not for you. Not ever.
Jesus will have to change the way that Simon Peter thinks and acts. Which is to say that the Lord in His mercy will call that poor fallen man to repentance and to faith in the forgiveness of his sins.
To that end, there is a replay of sorts, recalling that earlier scene when Simon Peter denied the Lord Jesus. There is first of all a small “charcoal fire,” just like the one at which he warmed himself on that night, when he was so intimidated and frightened by the questions of a servant girl that he denied even knowing the Man from Nazareth.
Here is such a fire once again, the only other time it appears in the Gospels. But this time it is the Lord Jesus Himself who is asking the questions of Peter: Three new questions, one for each denial.
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”
Oh, yes! St. Peter is quick to affirm his love each time. He loves Jesus more than anyone! He would do anything for Jesus. And even if everyone else fell away, he never would. Or, so he had promised — before his denials! Now, more than ever, he is eager to affirm his love and prove it.
His thinking is still backwards. He is still beginning with himself and with his love for Jesus. But if he wishes to express and demonstrate that love, then his response must be directed toward the lambs and sheep of Christ; for he is to be a shepherd, a Pastor, of those sheep.
In the first place, though, St. Peter must have a Shepherd of his own, and he must allow himself to be tended as a sheep with the forgiveness of the Lamb who was slain. Just as, once before, he had to let his Master wash his feet and love him, that he should live and learn to love his neighbor.
Therefore, in his answer to the Lord’s third time asking, “Simon, do you love Me,” Peter undoes himself when he affirms, “O Lord, You know all things.”
What he means to say, is that Jesus already knows that poor Simon Peter loves Him. But at the same time, He also knows all that other stuff, too: That Peter has denied Him. That he is a poor, miserable sinner, who deserves only punishment. That he is pitiful, weak, pathetic, and unworthy.
Yet, none of that is the issue!
St. Peter is indeed unworthy, as are you and all of us poor sinners. But Jesus, the Lamb who was slain — He is worthy! It is the Lord Jesus, therefore, and not Peter, who does all the doing.
“When you were younger — before you became My disciple — you prepared yourself to go and do and be whatever you wished for yourself. And it was that sinful old Adam, that prideful spirit of self-preservation, which turned you away from Me and from My Cross and caused you to deny Me with your words and by your actions.
“But I have called you to follow Me as My disciple — to share My Cross, and to glorify God by your life and by your death in the fellowship of My Body. So it is that, as you grow and mature in your faith, My Word and Spirit are preparing you to go where I have chosen, to do what I have given you to do, to be the new man I have recreated you to be, and to suffer for My Name’s sake.”
Do you hear in all of this how Jesus is the One who cares for you? Who forgives you? Who does all things for you? Not because you love Him, but for the sake of His own deep Love for you.
Where all of your efforts to provide for yourself have failed, His Word provides you with all that you need and abundantly more. Just as He is the One who is here on the shore again this morning, having prepared a Meal for you. He takes the bread and gives it to you: His Body, sacrificed upon the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins, given to you here and now for life and salvation in Him. And He pours out His Cup, the New Testament in His Blood, for you and for the many to drink.
It truly is meet, right, and salutary that you should love Him; that you should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things — with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And in your love for Him, you ought to love and serve your neighbor within your God-given station, whatever it might be.
But it is far more important and significant, to begin with and forever, that this Jesus loves you.
It’s right there in the way that St. John has described himself, throughout his Holy Gospel, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He thereby provides a “fill-in-the-blank,” so to speak, in which you are invited to hear your own name. Because you also are the disciple whom Jesus loves.
And whereas your love for Him may and often does fail, His love for you is steadfast, certain, and secure. He will never let you down, nor ever let you go. He will never leave you nor forsake you.
Not because of any merit or worthiness in you. Not because of who you are, nor anything that you have done. But solely because of who He is and what He has done.
The Lamb of God, who has taken upon Himself and taken away the sins of the world — He is worthy, because He was slain, once for all, as the perfect Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world. By His holy, precious Blood, He has redeemed poor, miserable sinners from all nations, yourself and Simon Peter included, along with skeptical Nathanael, doubting Thomas, and Paul the persecutor; so that all together we might share the blessed privilege of being gathered around His throne, in the company of angels and archangels, and with all the host of heaven, receiving His gifts, breaking our fast at His Feast, and living with Him in His Kingdom forever and ever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.