Summary: This sermon got rather long, but I tried to show what Peter’s cowardice did to him and how Jesus dealt with it in a wonderful way. If you’ve got some time give it a perusal.

March 2, 2005 Matthew 26:31-35, 69-67, John 21:15-19,

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Peter - From Confidence to Cowardice to a Cutting Love

I. The “confidence”

When I was in-between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I applied for a job with a corn de-tasseling company. The job brought me into the company of some of the slimiest characters of Watertown, Wisconsin. Yet I did have one friend - named Todd - from high school - who also worked there. Todd had a very outspoken personality, and even though he was short, he wanted to show everyone that he was afraid of noone. This led to some rather heart pumping situations, especially when I went to work. Todd ended up becoming enemies with some of the shady characters that we worked with. In associating with him, I found myself on the edge of several fights while on the way to work. As this continued to progress, I was finding it difficult to associate with Todd, and one day I didn’t even sit with him on the bus. I felt like a coward and a traitor for doing that. Yet his personality was getting both him and me in a kind of trouble that I wasn’t asking for or think was worth fighting for.

Right before Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fall away on account of Him. These words state the reason WHY they would fall away - BECAUSE of their association with Jesus. They would decide NOT to associate with Jesus. This is the most shameful thing that can be done to Jesus - to turn your back - to be too embarrassed or too afraid to associate with your Savior. It’s like saying, “I don’t think your cause and message are worth risking my life for.” Peter knew what a grave and terrible sin it would be to fall away on account of Jesus. He was determined not to do so. He said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. . . . Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

This is what each and every one of us has done at our confirmation. In our new Occasional Services, it is asked of the confirmand, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it?” The confirmand then answers, “I do, and I ask God to help me.” When we accept an adult into the congregation, we also ask, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in the true Christian faith, be diligent in the use of God’s Word and sacraments, and lead a godly life even to death?” The adult then answers, “I do, and I ask God to help me.” Nobody joins our church with the idea that remaining a Christian is some easy thing that requires NO sacrifice. With the disciples, we are clearly told in Revelation 2, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Therefore, we set our minds for a war. We are ready for a fight. We prepare for death. We also recognize that God asks for us to be willing to forsake ALL - even wife, husband, and children, for the sake of the Gospel.

In an earlier parable Jesus had warned what would happen because of this sacrifice. He talked about some seed that would fall on shallow soil. In the time of persecution, it would have no firm grounding. The sun would burn it out. It would die in persecution. Jesus also said that the road to destruction was WIDE - and MANY find it, whereas the path to salvation was NARROW - and few find it. Knowing this, Peter was determined NOT to be like that seed. I’m sure that he was in fact, appalled that Jesus would even dare to suggest such a thing. Notice what conviction he has in his response. Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. What Peter was saying, with these words, was that he was DIFFERENT from all others. He knew that he was STRONGER - that even IF all others would fall away because of what Jesus said or did or what would happen to Jesus - HE was convicted for life. There was no way he would be so weak as to fall away - he was not a part of the ALL who would fall away from him. Satan saw Peter’s arrogance, and wanted to sift him like wheat.

You and I can sit here and think and firmly believe that there’s no way we would ever fall away. By all rights, we shouldn’t. You’ve been confirmed. You’ve had proper Christian training. You listen to the Word regularly. You have Christian friends. You take the Lord’s Supper every month. You think that since you know God’s Word so well and that you read God’s Word so often that there is no way that any temptation of any sort could take you away. Do you feel that you are beyond falling because, unlike those other Christians in our congregation, you are not on a delinquent list? Do you think that since you are growing older and your lusts of your youth have come and gone, that you are now on a down hill slope - with an easy ride into heaven? That there are no more “major temptations” left in life? How foolish you are! You have no idea how strong your flesh is. You underestimate how tempting it can be to live in this world - or how hard the devil tries to get you to fall. It is an easy thing to say, “I will never fall away.” It is even an easy thing to believe. Yet there is a great difference between theory and practice. We will see that next.

II. The cowardice

No matter what PETER said, Jesus said in Matthew 26:31, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ”‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Not only were these the words of Jesus, our God and Savior, but they were also predicted in the Holy Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. There was no doubt in Jesus’ words or in Jesus’ mind about what WOULD happen. All the disciples would flee from the Shepherd. It didn’t matter how strong they THOUGHT they were. God knew how WEAK they were. No matter how hard they tried, they ALL would fall away. Where are all the humanists now? To those Christians who - like Peter - think their faith is somehow greater than the majority - that there is no way they could ever fall - Jesus has a special word for these arrogant swine. “I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” (Mt 26:34)

Peter - try as he may - could not escape his own cowardice. At first, Peter displayed a great confidence. Striking off the ear of Malchus, he declared that he was ready to die with Christ. He may have envisioned going down in a blaze of glory - a wonderful last stand to the death - recorded forever - how Peter died with Christ! Also, as Peter entered the courtyard of the high priest, he again showed more courage than any of the other eleven disciples. He was strong - for a time. As Matthew’s 26th chapter goes on, however, we get to see how deep Peter’s “inner strength” really was.

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Peter was so strong when he was in the presence of Jesus and the disciples. Yet when the rubber hit the road - when he found himself standing side by side with the very enemies of Christ, his courage and strength melted away, like butter under a hot knife.

There’s a progression in Peter’s fall - both in the accusations and the denials. At first, the servant girl accused Peter - face to face - of being with Jesus of Galilee. The accusation progresses as another girl says to THE PEOPLE there - “this fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” On the final accusation, the evidence grows and the witnesses grow, as Peter’s accent and face clearly associate him with the Nazarene. Therefore, multiple people made the accusation at the same time. Notice, then, how Peter’s cowardice grew in his denials. At first, he just claimed ignorance, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Peter was saying, “I just happened to be here warming myself by the fire in the middle of the night. I don’t know what’s going on here.” Yet notice how it then had to progress. He couldn’t just claim ignorance. He then had to say, “I don’t know the man.” Notice what Peter called Jesus - “the man.” He doesn’t even acknowledge to know Jesus’ name. This was coming from someone who once boldly said to Jesus, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” With the third denial, he even went so far as to call down curses on himself, asking God to damn him if he were lying. When it came time to perform - Peter proved that he was no stronger than any of the disciples - in fact he was even worse. He personally disowned Jesus three times. When the rubber hit the road, he was a coward.

When I personally contemplate what happens to Peter, it is a scary thing. Here he was so strong, and he ended up denying Christ just because a couple servant girls and a few people in courtyard were threatening him! It sometimes happens that those we expect to be the most strong - that seem to stand above and beyond the rest - the farthest from falling - are the very ones who end up falling prey to Satan. What is even more scary to me, is how often I show myself to be a greater coward than Peter in much less threatening situations. For instance, it is easy for me to preach the truth to you, my congregation, because I know that you have been taught God’s Word and have agreed to believe God’s Word as we - the WELS - teach. But when I find myself outside of this realm - outside of this cocoon - it scares me - because I know that when I get outside of this fellowship - people will question what I teach and what God’s Word says. If that is MY feelings, I can’t help but think it is probably YOURS as well. Think about how you respond to “religious discussions” with unbelievers, atheists, or liberals. Are you afraid of getting in those discussions, because you don’t know what you’ll say? Are you afraid of saying anything to your unbelieving teacher, because you don’t want a bad grade? Standing out, being ridiculed for what we believe, it is a scary thing. Think about how terrifying it is to think about just putting flyers on doors. We can get our kids to do it - they show NO fear. The older we get, the more cowards we become. We like to say we’ll stay faithful to death. The truth is, we’re worse than Peter. We’re not that strong. We can talk about remaining faithful unto death. In reality, it’s just talk. We are have a terrible cowardice within.

III. The Cutting Love

Peter’s garbage - his cowardice within - is evident for us to see every year during Lent. What good can come from it? The good is seen once again in the response of Jesus. In the face of Peter’s cowardice, Jesus showed strength. As Jesus saw the “faith” of his “most faithful” disciple, He could have very easily decided that these disciples were not worth dying for - much less claiming as His own. Indeed, none of us are. Yet when the high priest commanded Jesus - under oath of the Holy God - to confess whether he was the Christ - he did NOT disown Himself. Even though Jesus knew that this would cause His death, He boldly said, “yes, it is as you say.” These very words caused Jesus not only a painful death - but the punishment of hell. With these words, Jesus was signing His death warrant as the substitute of men. Instead of cowering from the cross, Jesus confessed who He was - and went to the cross. In spite of Peter’s denial of who Jesus was, He did not disown Himself. As true God - He could not. As Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

With these words to Pilate, Jesus wasn’t done speaking. As the disciples were cowering in fear of the very people who crucified Him, Jesus boldly appeared in the upper room. At this point, Peter and the disciples were afraid. It doesn’t say why they were afraid. I’m sure the appearance of the resurrected and holy God in the midst of sinners would cause fear in all of us. Yet specifically the disciples would have had the fear of knowing that when Jesus was in the worst of his humility, those who were expected to remain faithful, had run away. In the midst of these words, Jesus words were not that of condemnation. Instead, Jesus simply said, “peace be with you.” His hands and His side - instead of proclaiming judgment - proclaimed forgiveness - justification. As the disciples looked and listened to Jesus - they were assured that this Jesus whom they had denied, had died for their sins. God had accepted that sacrifice. Instead of condemning them and remembering their sins, Jesus told them they could be at peace, because they were forgiven.

Yet Peter - his sin had gone beyond the sin of the other disciples. Three times he had personally denied Christ three times - just as Christ predicted. The one who thought he was the strongest, ended up as the weakest. Jesus had never specifically addressed this sin of Peter. Even though he knew he was forgiven, he no doubt had doubts come in his mind - that he really deserved to be a disciple - especially after realizing how weak he really was. How did Jesus respond to this Peter? Here we see the wonderful beauty of Christ especially shine on Peter in the Gospel of John. Where sin INCREASED, GRACE increased all the MORE!

John 21:15-19 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Once again I see a progression in this questioning. First of all, notice that Jesus addresses Peter - not as Peter - meaning rock - but Simon - his original name. Notice Jesus’ first question. “Do you truly love me MORE THAN THESE?” It seems that Jesus is asking, “Peter, are you really stronger than all these other disciples?” Peter, having been humbled, simply acknowledges that he does love Jesus - not daring to compare himself to others. So Jesus then simplifies the question to - “do you TRULY love me?” Jesus seems to be asking, “is yours a genuine love - a real love - not a hypocritical love?” Again, this question seems to leave Peter the idea that his love is more genuine than those who only have a “superficial” love. Peter again answers simply, “Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus then simplifies it to an even more simple formula, “do you love me?” This third question really cuts at Peter. Jesus was questioning Peter’s love of him. Peter KNEW he loved Jesus. He knew that Jesus knew he loved him. It hurt him to hear Jesus question his love of him.

Why was Jesus questioning Peter’s love of him, if he was already forgiven? Why did Jesus put Peter through this? I believe that with these questions, Jesus was trying to chop off Peter’s hands. What I mean by that, is that formerly Peter found his confidence in His love. He showed an arrogance in his faith - thinking he could never fall. With these questions, Jesus was again reminding Peter that his love was not what he should trust in. Instead, every time Jesus questioned Peter’s love - what did he then do? He said, “feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.” With these words, Jesus was assuring Peter that He still forgave Peter - still loved Peter - and that He was still entrusting him with the care of his sheep. He even went on to tell Peter that he would allow him to DIE with him - as a martyr of the Gospel. What wonderful words these were to Peter. Jesus was attempting to point Peter to God’s unconditional love and calling for his confidence.

This is where God uses one man’s trash for our treasure. It shows us where our confidence is to be found. The Christian church today is full of people rededicating their lives to God. We’ve had Promise Keepers making all kinds of promises to God and family that they’ll remain faithful. Time and again we see the Christian community answering altar calls and getting rebaptized so that this time they’ll REALLY love God. Yet time and again, they are more and more disappointed because they find themselves to be COWARDS. No matter how many resolutions YOU make - you’ll find yourself like Peter - to go out weeping in disappointment. Instead, look at what Jesus did with Peter. Go back to the call of God. HE called YOU through the GOSPEL, he promises you that HE loves YOU by the cross. He promises you that HE forgives you THROUGH your baptism. This is God’s irrevocable promise. This is God’s call. He remains faithful. This is where God wants you to find your confidence. Let your confidence be found in HIS love and HIS call.

When Jamie Foxx won an Emmy for best actor, he gave a flowery speech about how his dead grandma talks to him in his dreams. He then started crying, and talked about how he would talk to his grandma that night. I absolutely cannot stand watching that stuff. It was like pulling teeth to listen to that drivel. I don’t like it when grown men cry, or anyone cries for that matter. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

Peter cried tonight. It wasn’t some drivel over what his dead grandma told him. It was over the fact that he had denied the Lord - that he was so weak - that he wasn’t as strong as he thought he was. It isn’t pretty to see anyone cry. I don’t like to see it - but I need to see it - and so do you. Sin needs to make us cry. We have no choice but to cry. How can’t we cry when we see our own garbage and cowardice?

What brings greater tears, however, is in the response of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t disgusted with these tears. Jesus used these tears as an opportunity to give Peter a proper strength - based on God’s forgiveness, love, and faithfulness. Jesus used this weakness to fortify Peter into a true faith - not in Peter’s love - but in JESUS’ love and call. When we see this Gospel poured out on Peter - and on us, we see God turn our garbage into good - so that instead of trusting in ourselves - we trust in our Lord. Amen.