Sermon for 05-29-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 5: Simon Son of John”

May 31, 2011

Here is the fifth part of our sermon series on the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Today’s scripture, John 21:15-25, deals with Jesus’ gentle confrontation with Peter on the beach and his three-times-repeated question, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

More than anything, this sermon is about overcoming guilt—the destructive kind of guilt that lingers long after we’ve confessed our sin and repented. Or the guilt that relates to other failures and shortcomings.

Sermon Text: John 21:15-25 

The following is my original manuscript.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Craig Kimbrel has a difficult job. Kimbrel is the closer for the Atlanta Braves. This means that it’s his job to come into the game in the ninth inning when the Braves are winning—but not winning by too much—and get the last few outs without letting the other team score. Easier said than done, I’m sure. When the closer comes in to close out the game, it’s almost as if the starting pitcher and any other pitchers in the game are telling him, “For the past eight innings, we’ve done everything that we need to do to in order to win this game. The rest is up to you. Don’t blow it!” Literally… when the closer fails to close out the game, we say that he “blew the save.”

I don’t know how anyone can stand up to that kind of pressure! But that’s why he gets paid millions of dollars, I guess. Kimbrel is new to the job. He’s succeeding a legendary closer named Billy Wagner, one of the best ever, who retired last year. And Kimbrel’s off to a rocky start. Recently, he blew two saves in a row, and many Braves fans were wondering if manager Fredi Gonzalez was going to replace him, at least temporarily, with another relief pitcher. I heard former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone on the radio say that that would be a terrible idea; it would ruin Kimbrel; completely destroy his confidence. The best thing Gonzalez could do is to not give up on him. Put him right back into that high-pressure situation the next time the game was on the line—and be confident that he would succeed this time. And that exactly what Gonzalez did.

It’s easy to see how Jesus in John chapter 21 is a little like Fredi Gonzalez. After all, the last time Jesus put Peter “into the game” with so much at stake—in the courtyard of the high priest’s house on the night Jesus was arrested—Peter blew it. Despite Peter’s extravagant self-confidence expressed with such conviction earlier that night—“I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”—Peter denied even knowing Jesus, three times. And this future into which Jesus was commissioning these disciples to boldly go, held many more risky, high-stakes opportunities for Peter to blow it all over again.

Would Peter blow it, for example, when he, like Jesus, was arrested and put on trial and threatened with imprisonment, torture, and death? Jesus gave Peter his nickname. Peter literally translates into English as “Rocky.” Would Rocky live up to his name the next time, and be solid as a rock or once again become soft and squishy like Jell-O?

I took this photo on the beach on the Sea of Galilee near the traditional site at which Jesus had this conversation with Peter.

In today’s scripture, Jesus wants to remind Peter of his earlier failure. He asks him three times if he loves him, which corresponds to each of the three times Peter denied him. But not only that: Jesus has this conversation with Peter beside a charcoal fire. I joked last Sunday that the fact that Jesus is cooking fish on a charcoal fire proves that we all ought to grill with charcoal instead of propane gas. What would Jesus do, after all? Jesus would use charcoal! We should remember that as we grill on Memorial Day!

But seriously, the word “charcoal” appears in one other place in John’s gospel—back in John 18:18, when Peter was in the courtyard, warming himself beside a what? Charcoal fire. I’ve read that smell triggers memories better than any of our other senses. Peter smelled the charcoal and likely remembered that terrible night of shame.

Do you think Jesus is bringing up this painful memory to shame Peter—to make him feel guilty? I don’t. Peter already feels guilty. I think Jesus is bringing up this painful memory for the same reason you have to reopen a wound sometimes and clean it in order to heal it. Jesus wants to heal Peter.

So Jesus asks a painful question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He calls Peter “Simon son of John.” Jesus hasn’t called him that since he first met him, way back in John chapter 1. Before he gave him the nickname “Rocky.” Why is he calling Peter “Simon son of John” again?

Oh, oh, I know! It’s because Peter’s denial has proven to Jesus that Peter’s not really worthy of the name “Rocky.” He’s soft and squishy like Jell-O, remember? Now, if he wants to redeem himself and earn back that name, well… that’s fine. But he’s going to have to prove to Jesus that he’s capable of being a “rock” again. Isn’t that what Jesus means by calling him Simon?

No, that doesn’t make any sense. Jesus knew when he named him Rocky in the first place that Peter would fail to be a rock time and again. And he knew in advance that Peter would deny him three times. After all, he predicted it.

Maybe some of you are struggling with feelings of guilt—over your past, your failures, your sin. Stuff in your past that you can’t change. Some guilt is good, because it motivates us to confess our sins, repent, change. We learn from our mistakes, make amends, if possible, and move on. But there’s a bad kind of guilt that just lingers with us. Jesus wants to heal that kind of guilt—in the same way he wanted to heal Peter’s guilt.

In today’s scripture, Peter likely hasn’t had time yet to process the meaning of the cross. But we have. The cross means that Jesus has removed all our guilt, all our sin, all our shame. We haven’t committed any sin that the cross of Christ hasn’t taken care of. Not a one! We haven’t committed a single sin that God didn’t know before the creation of the world that we would commit. We haven’t surprised God with our sinfulness. God doesn’t say, “I loved and forgave and saved you on Tuesday, but that was before I knew what he was going to do on Wednesday!” No! God knew when he loved us on Tuesday how we would fail on Wednesday. Jesus doesn’t have to die on the cross for us a second time. He took care of all of it the first time. As Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished.”

I believe that Jesus calls Peter “Simon son of John” not because he’s disappointed that “Rocky” failed to live up to his name but because it’s time to start over. It’s time to begin again. It’s time for a second chance or maybe even a 202nd chance! What’s in the past is in the past. Jesus doesn’t say, “Simon son of John do you love me? Well, then why did you deny me and disappoint me and fail me so badly?” That’s probably what Peter’s own conscience was asking him… Not Jesus! Rather, Jesus said, “Simon son of John do you love me? O.K., here’s what I need you to do for me in the future, going forward. Feed my sheep.” I like that! We can’t change the past, but the future isn’t written yet. That’s something we have some control over.

Speaking of nicknames, I had one when I played Pop Warner football as a 12-year-old. I was named “Mad Dog.” I played center, and the offensive line coach gave that nickname to me. All the players on the team started calling me that. We would end every scrimmage in practice with a fun but technically illegal play called a “center sneak.” I would pretend to hike the ball to the quarterback but secretly keep it and run it for a touchdown. Toward the end of every practice, the defense would yell “center sneak, center sneak”—expecting us to run the play—but I scored every time! And they cheered, “Mad Dog!” I know it sounds silly now, but in the context of this football team, Mad Dog meant toughness, strength, tenacity, leadership. I was proud of the name Mad Dog… Until the first day of eighth grade, that is… For those of us who grew up in DeKalb County, eighth grade used to be the first year of high school. We were “sub-freshman.” Were any of you “subbies” at one time in your life?

Henderson High School sat high on top of a steep hill. We subbies were warned that if we accidentally crossed paths with a senior at the end of the day on Friday, they would likely throw us down the hill! So imagine me… on the first day of high school, having just made the transition from from an elementary school of 400 students to a high school of 2,000, moving from the top of the totem pole to the very bottom of the totem pole, being in the awkward throes of puberty, trying desperately to just blend in, to avoid eye contact with any seniors, to keep my head down and not do anything to embarrass myself… Imagine how I felt when Jonathan Pearson, who was a benchwarmer on my football team the previous year, let it be known to the entire eighth grade class that my nickname in football was Mad Dog!

And, I promise you—for what seemed like months of my eighth grade year—nearly everywhere I went—in addition to worrying about everything else that I had to worry about—I had to hear taunts of “Mad Dog, Mad Dog, Mad Dog.” In the cafeteria: Mad Dog. In the gym: Mad Dog. In the library: Mad Dog. In the hallway: Mad Dog. It was painful. Because believe me, I didn’t feel like a Mad Dog anymore. I didn’t feel tough and strong and tenacious. I didn’t feel like a leader. I felt like something just below pond scum. This name in which I used to take great pride, I no longer felt proud of. It was humiliating! I wanted never to be called Mad Dog again!

Do you think maybe Simon son of John never wanted to be called Rocky again?

But maybe it’s not quite true that I didn’t want to be called Mad Dog anymore… Because, looking back on it, what seems so clear in retrospect, what I really wanted more than anything else on that first day of high school, was to run away and find my old coach—that adult I looked up to who believed in me, who was proud of me, who saw something in me that none of these cruel high school kids saw—which, truth be told, I was having a hard time seeing in myself—and ask him, “Am I still Mad Dog? Because I don’t feel like I am!” I bet he would have hugged me and told me I was still Mad Dog to him, and that it would be O.K. I could have used that reassurance.

I bet Simon son of John was still “Rocky” to Jesus. Maybe at that moment Peter didn’t exactly feel like a rock, but he would be a rock one day. He would grow into his name. He’d get there! I think Jesus is saying to Peter, “Don’t give up on yourself! I haven’t! You don’t feel like Rocky right now, and it’s frustrating… but I know who you are—you’re so much more than just your sins, your failures, your mistakes, your shortcomings. I see this tiny seed of something beautiful and amazing. I know what you are created to be. I know your potential. I know that one day—and maybe you can’t imagine this now—but one day you are going to follow me so faithfully that you’ll find the toughness, the strength, the tenacity, and the leadership to go to your own cross… out of love for me! You’re going to be that rock! Just wait!”

I wonder what Jesus sees in us? I wonder what nickname he would give to us? What nickname would represent the person we can become if we just keep following him?

I mentioned Braves closer Craig Kimbrel earlier. Despite his setbacks this year, he has a powerful ally in his corner who believes in him: his predecessor, future Hall of Famer Billy Wagner. Wagner thinks that Kimbrel is going to be just fine. As if to prove it, he told the AJC, he has Kimbrel on his fantasy baseball team.

Jesus believes in you and me. Guilt may prevent you from believing that you have much to offer this world, but listen to me: If you have answered Jesus’ call, placed your faith in him as savior and Lord, and said “yes” to Christ’s offer of eternal life, here’s some good news: you’re on his fantasy team!

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