After [appearing to the disciples] Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin),Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.
– John 21:1-7 (ESV)
Take a snapshot in your mind of the man hovering in mid air. He is no longer in the boat. He is not yet in the water. He is suspended between two worlds. Can you see him?
This man who threw himself out of that boat—out of the life he knew—into the water so he could swim, fully clothed, to shore and collapse at the feet of his best friend, whom he had betrayed was a living contradiction. He was a paradox of faith and confusion, courage and fear, humility and arrogance.
I am like him. So are you. We are all like this.
Last week I announced I would be leaving this church I have served these past five years in order to yield my role as the pastor here to someone whose gifts better suit the needs I believe this church requires from her leader in the coming era. And I will be pursuing a ministry calling better suited to my own evolving personal sense of call to focus in on teaching, preaching, and writing—if that is what the Lord would have for me.
Since I made this announcement last week, well over a hundred of you have reached out to my family, and your responses have been very encouraging and amazingly similar. I want to tell you what I have heard from you, and use your words to me to structure some of my thoughts for this last sermon I will deliver as your pastor.
Your responses to my family have boiled down to two main statements: 1) You love me and will be sad to see me go. And 2) you admire the courage it must take to make a leap of faith like this and to trust the Lord in it.
Permit me speak to you from my heart about both of those sentiments as we look this morning at the life of Simon Peter. The reason I want to wrap up my time in this pulpit in this way is because I know something about your future. I know that at many points in your life, you will do what I am doing—or you will resist doing it, even though you know you should. We will all go through transitions. We will all endure change. And only a few of us will welcome it. You need to know I am not one who welcomes it. I don’t like change. And yet change has come for all of us, and the Lord is calling us to walk in it.
You Love Me
You have made this so clear. The love you all have shown me and my family is humbling. You love us—we know that. And we love you too. Very much. Thank you for all the ways you have expressed that to us. One of the unique benefits of being a pastor is that this is a job that centers around people loving each other. Pastors are paid to love people, and to work to help them love one another and to love God. It is glorious and messy work. How can I serve in this capacity and not develop a deep affection for you? I love you too.
You Admire My Courage
I don’t know if you will believe me when I say this, but the notion that what my family is doing is courageous never occurred to me until people started using that word. It felt honest. Even necessary. But I had to be told that it was courageous. I have been thinking a lot about this since this is what so many of you have said to me.
Here is what I would like to say about that: Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story.
The great writer George MacDonald said, “To try to be brave is to be brave.” I am trying to be brave. I am praying for the courage to walk in obedience. I am trying to listen to the voice of the Lord. I want to trust the wisdom of the Shepherd of my Soul. But my heart is a paradox. I am at the same time confident in the Lord and full of fear. I am at the same time driven to tell people about Jesus and madly in love with myself. I can move with a clarity of vision for what the Lord has for me and I can get lost in the weeds. The peace of Christ and anxiety over what I can’t control both wash over me like waves rolling in, one after the other—and sometimes I am tossed around.
I trust none of this comes as a surprise. I have been this way the entire time you have known me, and I hope that through my time with you over coffee and in this pulpit, I have done a faithful job of being honest with you about my own need for a Savior. And if there is one thing I have asked the Lord to give this congregation, it has been this: that we would all have an honest recognition of our need for Christ.
This takes courage. But George MacDonald gives us good news. Trying to be brave is being brave. What in your life calls for courage? What risks are you afraid to take? What progress have you made that you are scared to undo? What creature comforts can you not imagine leaving?
Trying to be brave is being brave. You don’t need to see the end of the road to begin walking it. You don’t need to fully understand the commands of the Lord to obey them. You don’t need to feel completely confident to take a step of faith.
Why? Because you don’t need to have it all together to be the object of Christ’s affection.
How do I know this? Because the man who leapt out of the boat and swam to Jesus was a living contradiction like me and like you. And he was deeply loved by his Lord.
A Living Contradiction
I have been drawn to Simon Peter since the first time I read the Gospels back when I was a teenager. The reason I like him so much is because 1) he is presented to us as Jesus’s friend and 2) he regularly fails at being a good friend, and 3) Jesus’s love for him never falters. That Jesus would love a man like Simon Peter bodes well for you and me.
Peter was one of Jesus’s closest disciples—along with James and John, who were brothers. One distinction these three men hold is that Jesus gave them each nicknames. Jesus called James and John “The Sons of Thunder,” (Mk 3:17) and he called Simon “Peter,” which means “Rock.” (Mt 16:18) If you have ever wondered if Jesus ever employed a sense of humor, he did so here. These nicknames spoke to a constant internal struggle between courage and hard-headedness that was common to all three of these men. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, fought over who would sit at Jesus’s right hand. (Mk 10:35-45) On one occasion, they suggested Jesus call down fire from heaven on a town that failed to show them hospitality. (Lk 9:51-56) They were fiery. But they also would go on to lead the early church and lay down their lives as martyrs for her. (Acts 12:2, Rev 1:9)
Peter was the one who, when asked by Jesus who the disciples believed he was, spoke up and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Mt 16:13-20) But he was also the one who, right after that, told Jesus that laying down his life was a terrible idea—a sentiment that echoed the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. (Mt 4:1-11) When Peter said this, Jesus looked at his friend and said, “Get behind me Satan.” (Mt 16:21-23) Peter had a temper. But Peter would go on to pastor the first Christians, and even though he remained hard-headed and sometimes self-absorbed, (Gal 2:11-14) he ended up laying down his own life for his friend Jesus. (Jn 21:18-19) And greater love has no man than this—that he lay down his life for his friends. (Jn 15:13)
The story of Peter jumping out of the boat comes on the heels of a pretty spectacular failure. Peter has returned to his home and his former trade—fishing. Only days earlier, in Jesus’s greatest hour of need, Peter denied knowing him. (Mk 14:66-72) Perhaps the most painful part was that he did it just as Jesus predicted—before the rooster crowed. When that rooster crowed, (Mt 26:34) something undeniably true came from the deepest recesses of this man. Peter realized he was tested and had failed. This collapse called into question the past three years he had invested as Jesus’s disciple. Of course it did.
After Peter made his denial, Jesus went on to die. This forced Peter to question what the rest of his life was going to look like. Who was he? What had he become? This was a fragile moment for Peter—just like it is for any of us who discover that the durability of our faith is not what we thought it was—when we come face to face with the truth that we are walking contradictions.
Here was Peter’s contradiction: He loved Jesus. He really did. And Jesus loved him. But Peter denied Jesus. But who among us, when we fail in big ways, doesn’t wonder how much is lost?
Think of the grief Peter must be fighting as he goes out to fish—not just over Jesus’s death, but also over his own inability to love Christ well in the middle of it. In his heart he had to have carried such disappointment—such a sense of failure. He was fragile to the point of breaking. If Peter was anything like many of us, the expectations he had for himself were so great that he was bound to fold under their weight at some point. And he did. Spectacularly.
These are the moments in life when we are tempted try to reinvent ourselves—to give ourselves a new name. These are the times when we leave our families, when we find that trophy wife and buy a red convertible, when we join a hippie commune, or go try to live off the grid in the Alaskan wilderness. Shame and pride drive us there, and many of us are only too glad to go down that road. We want control of the narrative.
What did Peter do? He went back to his trade. As the disciples fished, a man appeared on the shore and asked if they were catching anything. Nothing, they told him. Then the man said something that must have startled Peter: “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.”
Why would this have caught Peter’s attention? Because he had heard this before. His mind raced back to when Jesus first called Peter to follow him and be his disciple. It was a morning not unlike this one; Peter and his partners were fishing and not having much luck. On that day, a man on the shore called out to them, “Put out into the deep, and let down your nets.” (Lk. 5:1-11)
The fishermen politely explained that they had been at it all day and had caught nothing. But they decided it couldn’t hurt, so they followed Jesus’s suggestion and they caught more fish than they could pull in.
That was the day Jesus told Simon, “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” (Lk 5:10)
As if waking from a dream, Peter and John realized Jesus was recreating that moment. The decision to go back to fishing was Peter’s way of saying, “Please, call me Simon.” But Peter’s life didn’t belong to him anymore. He was not the one writing his story. Jesus Christ had given him a new name—Peter—and on that rock Christ would build his church. (Mt 16:18) Though Peter did not yet understand, Jesus’s resurrection guaranteed that Peter would never return just being Simon. Ever.
So Peter wrapped his cloak around himself, jumped out of the boat, and swam to the one he had betrayed. Imagine it.
Peter threw himself out of that boat—out of the life he knew, out of the penance he likely felt he deserved—and into the water so he could swim, fully clothed, to shore and collapse at the feet of his best friend, whom he had betrayed. If we come to Jesus at all, we come in this way: desperate at the feet of the one we deny.
But where else could Peter go? Christ had the words of eternal life and Peter, contradiction though he was, had come to believe that Jesus was the Holy One of God. (Jn 6:66-69)
What did Jesus do for the sad and sopping disciple? John tells us he made him breakfast. What wondrous love is this? Since the dawn of time, one man making breakfast over a campfire for another has been a universal way to say, “I like you. We’re friends.”
As Peter stood before his Lord, Jesus then asked the most revealing and volatile question he could: “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter swallowed hard and said, “Yes Lord. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”
Three times Jesus asked this. He never questioned Peter’s response, as if he doubted him. But each time Peter confessed his love, Jesus told him, “Take care of my flock.”
What is Jesus doing here? He is telling his friend, “Remember who you are. You are Peter, a fisher of men. This is what I called you to do, and my call on your life stands. You have not wrecked the story I am writing. I want you to feed my sheep—just like I said you would do when we first met. The love I have for you is the basis of my call on your life.”
Jesus repeated this question, “Do you love me?” so that Peter would have to hear himself confess the unvarnished truth: “Lord, you know that I love you. I love you and I’ve failed you. But I love you.” Here is the paradox for every disciple who has ever walked the face of the earth. We love Jesus, and we fail Jesus. Yet we love Jesus. Really, we do.
It is so important that we come to see ourselves like this. Jesus forces Peter to make this admission so that Peter can take hold of what’s true. Jesus is telling his disciple, and by extension all of his disciples, “Peter, I don’t need your righteousness. You need mine. And I have given it to you—even now. I am writing your life and using your existence for my glory. This is my story and you are my disciple.”
If a disciple as close to Jesus as Peter can fail as epically as he did and still find himself firmly in the grip of the love of Christ, then you and I, when we doubt or when we struggle or when we fear or even when we fail, will not be separated from his love either.
Many of you are in this church because you leapt out of whatever it was you knew and swam toward Jesus’s calling, uncertain of what you would find. Many of us will do this again.
May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands. And may his loving-kindness toward living contradictions like us cause us to trust him even when we are afraid, to obey him even when we don’t understand his commands, and to follow him even when we cannot see where he is taking us.
I love you. I thank God for our time together. And I trust him for what’s next for all of us.
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.