You have to appreciate Peter. He’s an all-or-nothing kind of guy who cannot hide his feelings or control what comes out of his mouth. He makes big claims and even bigger mistakes. And Jesus clearly loves that about him. In that love, Jesus also teaches, disciplines, and molds Peter into the apostle who leads the early Church. It’s Peter’s voice in Acts 2 that explains the Holy Spirit to a group of educated religious leaders. Peter had, what the Yiddish might call, chutzpah.
Peter’s chutzpah was the source of his greatest mistake and ultimately, his greatest redemption. Always first to speak (for good and ill), Peter was the one who proclaimed that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and then a minute later rebuked Jesus for teaching his own murder and resurrection (Matthew 16). But that event pales in comparison to Peter’s audacity to deny knowing Jesus as he warmed himself by a charcoal fire – just in time for the rooster to crow (John 18). It was another charcoal fire that set the scene for Peter’s shame to be redeemed in exchange for a mission.
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said. Peter had just launched himself from a boat dragging an unbroken net overflowing with 153 miraculous fish, but the meal was already prepared: fish and bread cooked over a charcoal fire. The Greek word for charcoal fire (ἀνθρακιά) only appears these two times in the Bible and the significance is not accidental. Peter ate with the others, but he was strangely quiet. Was he remembering that other charcoal fire? Was he feeling the shame of his denials? Was he recalling his proclamation of Jesus as Son of God and subsequent rebuke? There is no knowing, but John does record what happened next:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”John 21:15-19
Three times Peter denied Jesus by a charcoal fire. Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” by another. By the third question, Peter “was grieved.” Was it the sting of his shame that grieved him? Was it the fulness of his repentance? It was the closing of the circle, and the point at which Jesus completed Peter’s redemption story. Three times Jesus told Peter to care for the people of the yet unborn church. Three times Jesus passed the mantle of shepherd to this man whose audacity had caused so much grief. And then Jesus assured Peter that he would indeed fulfil the mission until the time at which he would die for his beloved Savior.
Pastor Matt Adair preached on this passage and had the congregation repeat these powerful words: I am not who shame says that I am. Peter’s shame was fully redeemed by Jesus. Our own sins, no matter how egregious, can likewise be redeemed by the Lord. He has a work for us to do, just as he did for Peter. He calls us to love him. He calls us to repent. Then he calls us to love others by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Friend, shame does not define you. Your shame will be redeemed by the Savior who provides everything you need to do the work he has called you to do. If shame and regret try to hold you back, say to the Father, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” Then let the Spirit refresh you and lead you into the fulness of redemption and mission.