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, given them His Office of the Keys, and sent them in His Name as holy Apostles, even as God the Father has sent Him into the world.
And yet, it seems that Simon Peter remains at a loss as to what he should be doing with himself — which is already part of the problem, since it is the Lord who must “do something” with him!
For the time being, St. Peter decides to go fishing. He thus goes back to the life he knew 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 how he takes others with him into those pursuits, in much the way that parents and peers lead their children and their neighbors by way of 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. They are not able to do any good or to accomplish anything positive without Jesus. Nor 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 on what you’re doing. It is a hopeless endeavor.
But how on earth have Simon Peter and his fellow disciples drifted so far away from Jesus?
It’s actually 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 not suppose that he could so quickly or easily forget his denials of the Lord Jesus. In fact, given that all four of the Holy Gospels include the record of those events, it seems clear that he would never completely forget that dark night within his life on this earth.
As it is, in much the same way that Judas Iscariot is remembered for his betrayals, and St. Thomas is known for his initial doubts, so is St. Peter remembered 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 that 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 failings — assuming that you’ve moved beyond the stage of excuses and rationalizations.
On the one hand, you may despair of any and all hope, 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 seems to me that Simon Peter is doing a little of both. To begin with, he returns to fishing, perhaps because he has despaired of his worthiness to be a disciple and Apostle of Jesus. And to be sure, it is true that, of himself, he is not worthy to be either of those things.
But then, when Jesus appears on the scene, you’ve heard how strenuously Simon Peter works to prove himself worthy. He first of all 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 when the boat is close enough, he then 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 hand. He doesn’t know how to live with his failures, so he offers his accomplishments to make up for them. And maybe you have also attempted that bargain at times. But it doesn’t work, neither for Peter nor for you.
So, Jesus addresses and corrects the way that Simon Peter thinks and acts. That is to say, the Lord in His mercy calls 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 thrice denied the Lord Jesus in the midst of His Passion. 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 John, do you love Me?”
Oh, yes! Simon 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 desires to express and demonstrate that love, then his response will be directed toward the lambs and sheep of Christ Jesus; for Simon Peter is to be a shepherd, a pastor, of those sheep.
To begin with, though, he needs a Shepherd of his own, and he must allow himself to be tended as a sheep with the forgiveness of that great Good Shepherd of us all. Just as, once before, he had to let his Master wash his feet and love him, in order to 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.”
Ah, yes. His point is that Jesus already knows that poor Simon Peter loves Him. But at the same time, the Lord Jesus 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.
But here’s the deal: None of that stuff is the real issue!
Simon 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.
To extrapolate upon His Words: “When you were younger — before you became My disciple — you prepared yourself to go and do and be whatever you wanted. And it was precisely that sinful old Adam, that same prideful spirit of self-preservation, which turned you away from Me, away from My Cross and Passion, 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 divine 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 evening, 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 neighbors within your God-given callings and stations in life.
But it is far more important and significant, to begin with and forever, that this Jesus loves you. And whereas your love for Him often fails and falls short, His love for you is steadfast, certain, and secure. He will never let you down, nor will He let you go; He will never leave you or forsake you. For He has given Himself for you, to atone for all your sins, and in His Resurrection from the dead you are raised up in His righteousness, reconciled with Him and God the Father in the Holy Spirit, in the fellowship of His Body and Bride, the Holy Church, here in time and hereafter for eternity.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.