In John 21:1–19, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter is singled out not because Peter is more noteworthy than the others. Peter functions in a kind of representative role. He is the one who tends to talk the most and shout the loudest.
The three times that Jesus addresses Peter corresponds to Peter’s three denials (18:17, 25–27). All the disciples betrayed Jesus and fled in fear, but Peter was the most adamant in his claim to loyalty. He had insisted that he would never desert Jesus.
It was painful for Peter to have to respond to Jesus three times, each time remembering his betrayals. Jesus holds no grudge; there is no retribution. We need not fear condemnation, but we all, like Peter, must be led through a process whereby we face the pain our betrayals and denials and failures have caused those we have hurt. Without such a process we cannot enter into the new covenant of forgiveness.
It’s not that God withholds forgiveness, it’s simply that we will be unable to realize it, experience it, know it on a spiritual, emotional, and social level. We cannot experience forgiveness relationally unless we enter into the relationship anew through confession. And what is true in our relationship with God is just as true in our relationship within the community. For we should know full well that our relationships with others are inseparably tied to our relationship with God.
This Gospel tells us that on the night that Peter denied that he knew Jesus, he was warming himself by a charcoal fire (18:18). In John 21, as he joins Jesus on the shore of the lake for breakfast he is standing beside a charcoal fire. The place of denial and betrayal becomes a place of forgiveness, a place of reconciliation. The place of failure becomes a place of restoration and a new beginning.
There is an interesting detail given in 21:7: “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” Do you find that strange? You would think it would be just the opposite—that he would have his clothes on in the boat and then take them off to jump into the water.
I don’t know if the writer and the community that gave us this Gospel intended anything by that little detail, but I see some rich symbolism in it. Part of the human condition is that we are always putting on certain kinds of clothes. We are concerned about appearances aren’t we? We are afraid people won’t love us or accept us if we just stand before them without pretenses or masks.
When we stand before the Lord we stand naked. There is no need for any disguises, no need to conceal who we really are or what we have done, what we are actually feeling or thinking. The Spirit within us knows us better than we consciously know ourselves and loves us with an eternal love.
The Spirit that draws us into relationship with God is always trying to get us to strip ourselves of all appearances, disguises, illusions and the defense mechanisms that we use to protect our fragile egos.
The depth and quality of the forgiveness we experience will depend on the depth and quality of our confession. Our readiness and willingness to name our demons, to confront the darkness within us, will determine our capacity to see our faults, insecurities, fears, and all the life diminishing attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that hold us in bondage. We are all attached to destructive patterns and habits that we have difficulty facing and admitting.
In the movie, The Flight, the pilot Whip Whitaker performs an amazing maneuver to land a plane. Four passengers and two flight attendants are killed, and others injured, but his ability to rotate the plane saved the rest of the passengers. The irony is that he did this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated.
He is an alcoholic and a drug user, but refuses to admit he has a problem. It has destroyed his marriage and he has no relationship with his son. Though he was intoxicated the day of the crash, by all appearances his professional legal council will be able to get him off. He has found some loopholes. All Whip has to do is tell one more lie.
At the hearing it is pointed out that two empty alcohol bottles were found in the trash on the plane. Whip knows they are his. His interrogators know that one of the flight attendants was intoxicated. Whip had slept and drank with this woman the night before the flight. All he has to do to get out of this whole mess without any liability is deny that the empty bottles are his, though it will probably cost the flight attendant her job.
He hesitates. He takes a sip of water. He whispers, “God help me.” He can’t do it. He finally comes to a place where he can’t lie anymore. He confesses that they are his bottles and that he was flying intoxicated and that he is even intoxicated now at the hearing.
Next, we see Whip in prison, sitting down in a group with some other prisoners. He is telling his story. He has been in prison for over 13 months. He says:
“That was it. I was finished. I was done. It was as if I had reached my life long limit of lies. I could not tell one more lie. And maybe I’m a sucker because If I had told one more lie I could have walked away from all that mess—kept my wings, kept my false sense of pride. And more importantly, I could have avoided being locked up with all you folks for the last 13 months. But I am here and I will be here for the next four or five years and that’s fair. I betrayed the public trust—that’s how the judge explained it to me. I betrayed the public trust. FAA took my away my pilot’s license. And that’s fair.
My chances of ever flying again are slim to none, and I accept that. I have a lot of time to think about all of it—doing some writing. I wrote letters to each of the families that lost loved ones. Some of them were able to hear my apology, some of them never will. I also apologized to the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen. People like my wife—my ex-wife, my son and again, like I said, some will never forgive me, but at least I’m sober. I thank God for that. I’m grateful for that. And this is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.”
Our freedom to love is tied to our willingness to be honest with ourselves, admit our addictions, face our entrapments, and trust a greater power, a greater love, a greater forgiveness and grace. When we know who we are, with all that is broken and beautiful about us, when we can authentically face our compulsions and negative patterns and experience forgiveness and love, then we are free to give ourselves more totally and freely to others.