For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter. Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.
During the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks stood at a crossroads every morning.
Whenever a new monk entered the common life of the monastery, he would exchange the clothes he used to wear for extremely simple garb – robes fashioned from an unimpressive bolt of fabric. The newcomer would hang his old garments in the monastery closet. That’s where they would stay, year after year.
Every monk, no matter how long he had been part of the monastic community, knew he could go to the closet at any time. He could put on his old clothes and go back to his former life. Every morning he needed to make a fresh decision to stay the spiritual course – to decide whether he loved Jesus and this new way of life more than anything he had left behind.
Our daily crossroads aren’t likely to be quite as dramatic. But they are definitely just as important.
In his book When God Interrupts, Princeton seminary president Craig Barnes suggests that God is in the interruption business.
On the road to Plan A (the destination of our choice), we are suddenly compelled to go in a new direction – perhaps by a drunk driver, a financial advisor’s mistake, a scary MRI, a strategic plan that was flawed from the start, or a shifting market that renders our entire industry irrelevant.
But God is faithful in such unwelcome and uninvited moments. Now we have a choice. Are we longing for some version of Plan A that we can never have again, or are we allowing the interruptions in our lives to open our eyes to what God is offering us in Plan B? Most of us wouldn’t be nearly as open to trusting God – or even remotely as certain that we needed a Savior – unless our own plans and security systems had been blown up.
And that’s a very good thing.
God may break into our lives through circumstances that bring us pain. Or that knock us flat. Or that force us onto an alternative path. At such moments we may be tempted to picture ourselves as victims. But becoming a victim is a choice – a choice to waste our suffering and the opportunity to start life over.
Losing a dream can feel like dying. But such deaths are often the means by which God heals and rescues us. Which means that our “failures” may be his successes. Our “setbacks” may prove to be turning points. Our “disasters” may turn out to be God’s biggest breakthroughs.
Every morning, just like those medieval monks, we have a choice: We can either turn our hearts toward what we have lost (or are still in the process of losing), or we can open our hearts wider to what has always been our one true hope, which is Jesus.
That’s the background to John 21, the closing chapter of the fourth Gospel, which describes a particularly memorable event during the days that followed the first Easter. We can forgive the disciples for feeling a bit whiplashed at this point. Their “Plan A” – in which Jesus the Messiah would immediately usher in the fullness of the kingdom of God – has disintegrated. Jesus died. But not so fast – he’s alive again. What in the world might happen tomorrow?
When in doubt, Peter defaults to his old way of life. “Guys, I’m going fishing,” he says to his friends. The other disciples answer, “Save me a place in the boat.”
After a night of fishing futility, a stranger on the shore encourages them to drop their nets over the side one more time. The result is a spectacular haul. It suddenly dawns on Peter, having experienced this scenario before, that he knows who that stranger is. “It’s the Lord!” he shouts. Whereupon he plunges into the water and heads for shore.
What follows is breakfast over a charcoal fire and a conversation that is both uncomfortable and restorative.
In the presence of the others, Jesus looks his number one disciple in the eye and says, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”
These what? The Bible doesn’t say. Maybe it’s, “Peter, do you love me more than these nets of yours, or these fish, or these friends who are sitting alongside us right now?” Here we can each fill in our own “these.” Do I love Jesus more than my job or my health or my addiction or my kids or my picture of what the future simply has to look like?
Whenever our lives are interrupted – as soon as we grasp that we have been jolted into some version of Plan B – we have an important question to answer. Jesus wants to know: Do you love me more than anything else? Do you love me more than the dearest thing you have ever left behind?
“Yes, Lord,” Peter answers. “You know that I love you.” Jesus asks the same question a second time. “Do you truly love me?” “You know I do,” says Peter. In John 21:17 Jesus pushes the same issue a third time. “Peter, do you love me?” At this juncture the Bible tells us that the fisherman’s feelings are hurt.
Why would Jesus ask the same question three times? Maybe it’s because the last time Peter was asked a question three times, he didn’t do so well.
“Do the know the man named Jesus of Nazareth?” “Never heard of him.” “Are you sure you weren’t with him?” “You’ve got the wrong guy.” “Aren’t you one of his friends?” “I swear to you – he’s nobody to me!”
Of all the disciples, Peter had seemed to have the brightest future, the most spectacular Plan A. “On this rock I will build my church,” Jesus had said about Peter, or at least about his faith. Where was that faith now? But here’s the good news about Plan B. However how we end up there – whether it’s because we have denied Jesus three times, or somebody we were counting on has denied us three times – we can still go forward.
Each time Peter answers “Yes,” Jesus recommissions him: “Then feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Go take care of the people I love.”
Every new day, the same question lies before us: Do you love me more than the life you used to have, the dreams you used to dream, and the other paths you still might pursue?
If we’re willing to leave our old wardrobe hanging in the closet, even when we’re tempted to go back to our old life, God is able to turn our mistakes into his victories.
Don’t let your track record keep you from welcoming Jesus’ restoration.
As the author Anne Lamott reminds us, “It’s OK to see yourself as crazy and damaged, because all the best people are.”