John 21:15-19 is possibly the most profound story in the whole Bible. It shows the simply, well ‘extravagant’ is too small a word for it, grace of God to sinners like you and me. Jesus deliberately singles out Peter and purposefully asks him three times if he loves him. This is not a sign of neurotic insecurity from Jesus, having to ask three times if one of his best friends loves him. It is a declaration of forgiveness of the highest order.
It follows directly Peter’s denial of Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ greatest need. On the darkest night of Jesus’ life, a night so dark that no one before or since has had to endure anything like it, Peter deserted him. Ever the outspoken one, always quick to declare his undying loyalty to Jesus during their three years together, Peter fails when the true test of his loyalty faces him.
The extravagant forgiveness of Jesus as a new day dawns by the Sea of Galilee – a new day in a truer sense than even the disciples probably then realised – is simply mind boggling. The interesting thing is how Jesus forgives Peter. He does not simply tell Peter that it’s ok, don’t worry about it. Many translations put a heading above this story called ‘Jesus reinstates Peter.’ I don’t think this goes even far enough. Jesus actually gets Peter to step up to the plate. He forgives him by commanding him to be a leader in spreading the Good News that he is now receiving, and to look after the new movement that is about to change the world forever.
When a person in a leadership in a church confesses something terrible they have done, the usual step is to get them to step down from their position for at least a time. This occurs even if the person is fully repentant. You see it over and over. But as we see in this incredible passage, it is not the way of Jesus. Instead of getting Peter to step down, Jesus gets him to step up. He affirms Peter, telling him that he will be one of the main leaders in the fledgling movement.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever stood down from a position in leadership because of a moral failure? Even if you had shown that you had changed your ways and were steadfast in turning your life around? If so, how have you been treated by the other leaders in your church community? Have they treated you like Jesus treated Peter, or have they treated you like you are a failure and not to be trusted? I mean if you have been truly repentant. If you haven’t turned your life around then I think it is incumbent on the other leadership in the church to get you to step down, for the sake of the community and also for yours.
Grace is extraordinary. C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying this about it in terms of the uniqueness of Christian faith:
“During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world were discussing whether any one belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time, until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. In his forthright manner, Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.””
Grace is mercy for the undeserving. It is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. It is counter to every human instinct; it swims against the tide of the ‘survival of the fittest’ instinct that characterises much of our world. As Bono says, it travels outside karma. And it is personified in the life of the Son of God. Time after time in the gospels we see grace exemplified in the life of Jesus.
But it doesn’t stop there. It is extremely personified in the death of Jesus, taking on the burden that belongs to all of us. Despite our sin, our guilt is expunged. We are not only reinstated, we are given more than we had before. When we accept the gift of grace we find ourselves transformed into the person we have always wanted to be; we become what we were born for; that is, to live a life of love that transforms our world. It is a life that becomes beauty out of ashes, diamonds out of the rough. And as Richard Rohr says, transformed people transform people.
We are not given grace just for the sake of it. We are given it so that we can give it away. True love is never kept; it is always given away. That’s why it is a gift. We are saved ‘so that…’ That’s why the point of being a Christian is not to spend eternity in heaven. It is all about grace. John Smith said once that we have nothing in life that we have not been given. Grace is the greatest of these gifts. God gives it to us so that we can in turn give it to the world.
Grace is always paid forward. To get just a grasp of it, soak yourself in the gospels. Ask God to reveal grace to you as you read about the life of Jesus. You will see it over and over, and particularly so over breakfast on the shore of Lake Galilee. Out of the ugliness of Peter’s denial comes Jesus redeeming it, turning it into beauty. As U2 sing in one of their most beautiful songs below, grace does indeed make beauty out of ugly things.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Zk26KXSH3g&feature=related ]