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Back from Failure

After denying Christ three times, Peter had certainly failed. But Jesus restores Peter in a post-resurrection appearance, asking Peter three times if he loves Christ.

The cartoon was "Dennis the Menace. The scene is bedtime prayers. He's kneeling. He has his hands folded. He's looking heavenward. He has on his pajamas, cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and his is strapped to his side. The caption under the cartoon reads: "I'm here to turn myself in.

I wonder if somebody here feels like Dennis? I want to put a word in front of you this morning. It is a painfully powerful word. It is the word failure.

This is an academic place. Some of you, perhaps for the first time in your life, have faced a difficult class. We could talk about academic failure, couldn't we?

Maybe for you it's spiritual failure. You promised you'd pray for your brother, but you haven't. You vowed to your professor that you'd write in your journal, but you didn't. Spiritual failure.

Maybe others would have to put the label moral failure up front. Perhaps there's been no formal breaking of the rules, no intimacy yet, but you've crossed some lines you said you wouldn't cross.

Failure : It is a word that has the power to turn us red inside and outside. Howard Hendricks reminds us that this book is full of people who fail. That tells you two things about this book. Number one, God wrote it. If you or I had been writing it, we would have covered up all those failures, wouldn't we? Can you say, "Watergate ?

It also tells us that the God who wrote this book is a God of grace. That's not a license to sin. That's not presuming on the patience of God. It's just a blessed reality that he works with broken and wounded people.

Remember Luke 5, at the Sea of Gennesaret, the calling of Simon Peter. He says, "Depart from me, Lord. I'm a sinful man. The Living Bible says it this way: "I'm too much of a sinner for you to have around, Lord. I believe the Cotton Patch version says, "Don't waste your time on a bum like me.


Then, that fateful night when Peter said for the third time, "I'm telling you, I don't know this man, God used a barnyard animal to underline the failure.

Our text deals not with failure, but rather, with coming back from failure. The heading in my Bible reads: "Jesus reinstates Peter. The question before us today is, Can Peter be a rock again? Can you come back from failure? Maybe the end of the semester is a good time for us to talk about this.

To come back from failure, we have to love God.

You do remember the story. It is a Resurrection text. It is a Pentecost text. John says that out of all those resurrection appearances this is the third time he appeared to his disciples. We know it's later than a week. How much more might be up for grabs. The scene once again is the sea.

Seven of the disciples are there: Peter, James and John, two others unnamed. Nathanael is along, and Thomas the twin is there as well. They go out to fish at night, and they catch nothing. (I've fished with those guys.)

In the early morning hours, a person on the seashore calls out, "Children, have you any fish? I hate it when the answer has to be no. It just underlines one more failure.

"Well, throw your nets on the other side. You can imagine what the experienced fishermen thought. But they did it and caught 153 fish.

John, the apostle whom Jesus loved, says, "I think it'swhy, yes! It's the Lord! Peter, stripped for work, puts his clothes on and jumps in the water. (Does that seem a bit backward to you?) They bring the net. He drags it ashore from the boats. Jesus has a charcoal fire goingthat's pretty important.

J. K Jones reminded me that the only other place that the phrase "charcoal fire appears is when Peter denied him. Jesus has breakfast going alreadyfish and breadand they eat. It must have been a glorious meal because every meal with Jesus tastes like Communion.

Look at Luke 22:31: When they had finished eating, Jesus said, "Simon, Simon, Satan has demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I've prayed for you that your faith might not fail; and when you turn again (Jesus anticipates his return), strengthen your brothers.

Back to the breakfast on the beach. It's interesting what Jesus didn't say to Peter. He could have said, "I counted on you. Out of all the disciples, you said you'd stand by me. But all of that is gone.

Instead, Jesus said, "Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these? Boy, that's wide open. What's he talking about? More than these fishing boats, his business? More than the other disciples love Jesus?

I don't know the answer to that.

"Yes, Lord, Peter said, "you know truly that I [just] love you.

Jesus said, "Feed my lambs.

Verse 16: "Again Jesus said, 'Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?'

He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep. These words keep switching around.

Verse 17: A third time. That's Peter's favorite number. Remember the three denials. The third time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me? Peter was hurt, because Jesus asked him a third time, "Do you love me?

He said, "Lord, you know all things and you intimately know that I love you.

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth. When you were younger, you dressed yourself, went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands.

Josephus said that's what people did that were going to be crucified. They stretched out their hands and were tied to the cross beam, then had to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. "[Y]ou will stretch out your hands, and someone will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

Verse 19 is an editorial comment written by John after the fact: "Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he said to him, 'Follow me.'

This is the eighteenth vignette, the eighteenth cameo, the eighteenth Kodak moment between our Lord and Simon Peter. I think it's all about coming back from failure.

Can he? Can you? The blessed answer to this text is yes. If you come back from failure, you have to love God, feed people, and die well.

In verses 1517, Jesus engages the conversation this way: "Simon, son of John, do you truly love me? You'll notice Simon answers, "I love you. Of course, all the words are different. Scholars love to kick this around. Well, Jesus said, "Do you agapao me?

Simon says, "I phileo you. How's that?

"Do you agapao me? he says a second time.

"I phileo you.

Then Jesus changed his words. Now how much of a big deal are we to make out of that? Since they're in the same passage, there's a slight nuance. To read some commentators, it goes this way: "Well, agape is the best kind of love, and Jesus couldn't elevate Peter to his, so he came down to Peter's level.

I don't think that's it. To be honest with you, there are a whole series of words floating around here that look synonymous to me. I don't think the point is in the different Greek words. The point is that Jesus asked three times.

The question after you failed is, Can you rekindle your love for God? The Greek verb agapao appears 38 times in the Gospel of John; 31 of those 38 are found in chapters 1321.

You think it was something he wanted to teach his disciples? The way our Lord defines this idea of love is in terms of obedience: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

We equate love for God as having strong feelings toward God or feeling strongly about God. Jesus defines love in terms of obedience. Jesus asked Peter three times, one for every time Peter denied him.

I asked a counselor once, "How long does it take somebody to get over a problem? His answer: "About as long as they take to get in. Three times Peter failed, three times Jesus asks, "Do you love me? If you come back from failure, you'll have to your love for God.

Feeding folks is part of what it means to come back from failure.

Jesus responds to him each time, "Feed my sheep, "Tend my lambs, "Take care of my people. Feeding folks is part of what it means to come back from failure.

Sin is always communal. Sin is never an isolated thing. Failure is never an isolated thing. Why, even with Adam and Eve, just the two of them, it had ramifications for community.

If sin and failure are communal, guess what? Restoration from failure is also communal. I don't find it odd that Jesus would say to him, "If you really love me and if you can come back from this failure, then you'll have to do something with other people.

David said, in Psalm 51:13, "Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways. I don't know a better way to show that we've come back from failure than to teach somebody else the Word of God.

"Do you love me? If you love me, then feed people. Make your life a display of God's grace and forgiveness, then show somebody else. My preacher, Randy Garrison, often dismisses us each Sunday with words like this: "Take good care of each other this week. I think it's a mark of restoration.

If we come back from failure, we can die well.

Here's the good news: If we come back from failure, we'll love God, we'll feed people, and we'll get so well (verses 18 and 19), we can die well. Verse 18 is the prophecy about Peter's death. You know the tradition: Peter requested (according to sources) to be crucified upside downa mark of humility.

Verse 19 is the editorial insertion "Jesus said this to indicate. ... That's often translated signs or miracles. A form of this word is in the purpose statement of this Gospel: "These signs are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.

Simon Peter's death would be of such substance and significance, it could rate with the miracles of Jesus. It goes on to say, "By this kind of death he would glorify God.

What did Jesus do when he died on the cross? He brought glory to God. The Gospel of John is clear about that. He brought glory to God by his death on the cross. Peter, who fails (unlike his Savior and Master), comes back from failure and gets so well that in his death he too will bring glory to God!

God is more interested in where you're going than where you've been. You can come back from failure and become so well that you bring glory to God even by how you die!

On Highway 62 just outside Prairie Grove, Arkansas, I noticed two prominent tombstones sticking out close to the highway in a cemetery. What's odd about these tombstones is neither one of the people has died yet. They bought them early. I guess that's good planning.

Underneath their name in big letters each stone reads: ATHEIST. Mrs. Strickland's also includes this statement: "I have loved and cared for many animals. Mr. Strickland's reads, "I am a very busy man, and I don't have time for this.

That's no way to die! You won't bring glory to God like that. Compare those two epitaphs with another one I read about several years ago: "Herein lies the body of Martin Johnson, who cobbled shoes in this village to the glory of God for forty years.

I don't care what you've done. I know that you can get so restored that you can die well and in the process bring glory to God, just like Simon Peter.

Failure is a painfully powerful word. But could I put a more powerful word in front of you? It is the word forgiveness. Leslie Weatherhead, in the book Psychology, Religion and Healing, says this: "The most therapeutic idea in the world is the forgiveness of sins.

There's a story that goes with this old, blue notebook. I bought it in the fall of 1972, my sophomore year here. The dorms were overcrowded, so some of us lived in trailers. I stayed with three of the grossest people in the worldall good brothers.

One of our professors had us make a harmony of the Gospels. We bought two little, cheap New Testaments. We chopped them up and pasted them in nice columns, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I wanted mine to really look slick. I had it done about two or three days before it was due because I sleep better that way. Some of you obviously don't have that problem. But I put it on the table in the part of the trailer where we lived and studied. I came in later, and it was gone. I turned that trailer upside down. I asked every one of those guys, "What did you do with my notebook?

"I didn't touch your notebook.

I went to the professor and told him my story. He said he'd watch for it. He graded the notebooks and handed them back.

"I didn't find yours.

"I'll do anything you want me to do. If you want me to take the F. I'm at your mercy. I'll do some extra credit or something if you want.

He said, "Let me think about it.

Two days later I walked into the trailer; my notebook was on the table. There wasn't a mark on it anywhere. I ran to the professor's home. He graded it and gave it back to me. That was fall of 1972.

In the summer of 1989, I was speaking at a conference at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. One of the guys who lived with me in the trailer asked to see me. I walked out into the beautiful, wood hallways with my friend. When he turned around, he had been crying. I said, "What's wrong? He said, "I took your notebook.

This was seventeen years later. I thought he meant my notes from the sermon I'd just preached.

He said, "Mark, don't make this harder than it is. Our sophomore year, I took your notebook and turned it in for mine. I just put the pages in a different binder.

A flood of memories came back.

"I asked God for forgiveness a long time ago, but I've never squared it with you. Do you know what it was like to see you up front teaching and think back to that? I've had lessons for my youth group on honesty and integrity. Always, there was a skeleton in my closet.

"What do you want from me? I asked.

As the tears were running down his cheeks, he said, "I want you to forgive me.

I said to him, "Please know without any reservation you are totally and forever forgiven. Please, please, don't carry this 17 burden one more minute. Be free. He embraced me. When he pulled away from a holy hug, he couldn't even speak. He just mouthed the words, "Thank you.

I've not seen him to this day. He walked away, and I stood there by myself in the hallway of Susquehanna University.

It was a warm summer morning. But somehow it all of a sudden seemed to feel like Christmas. Off in the distance, I thought I heard a baby's cry from a Bethlehem stable and a voice more noble than mine seemed to say, "Come back. Come back, and be free.

Mark R. Scott is professor of New Testament and preaching at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. He also serves as assistant academic dean.

(c) Mark R. Scott

Preaching Today Tape #163


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


God is full of grace, because he works with broken and wounded people.

I. To come back from failure, we have to love God.

II. Feeding folks is part of what it means to come back from failure.

III. If we come back from failure, we can die well.


Failure is a powerful word, but forgiveness is even more powerful.