For 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers on several occasions and performed many miracles that proved he was alive. Peter and the rest of the disciples witnessed these events, but there was one particular incident that stood out for Peter because it was not only an opportunity to see Jesus but an opportunity to witness his forgiveness and love. The story takes place early in the morning along the Sea of Galilee, perhaps this very location.
|The shores along the Sea of Galilee|
The disciples had returned home to Galilee after their time in Jerusalem for the Passover and all that took place during Jesus death and resurrection and one night they decided to go fishing. When morning came and they still had not caught anything a man on the shore told them to put their nets out on the other side of the boat. When they did, they hauled in a huge catch of fish and Peter remembered that this happened once before and when it did the man who told them to put their nets out was Jesus so he realized that the man on the shore this time was again Jesus.
Peter jumped into the water and swam to shore where he found Jesus had prepared them breakfast. We pick up the story after they ate. John 21:15-17. Three times Jesus asked Peter, do you love me, which allowed Peter to affirm three times that he did love Jesus. These affirmations of faith and love correspond to the three times Peter had failed to love Jesus and failed to acknowledge and help Jesus the night Jesus was arrested.
If we look back to that night, as Jesus was led away, Peter followed in the shadows. Jesus was taken the home of the high priest where he was questioned and as Peter watched, cowering in the dark, a servant girl thought she recognized Peter as being one of Jesus followers and so she asked him. Peter denied it. Two more times she asked Peter and each time he denied it and even denied knowing who Jesus was. Three times Peter had failed Jesus and so here was Jesus giving Peter three times to redeem himself. Peter was not only a witness to the living Jesus (he not only saw him) but he was a witness to the forgiveness given to us by the living Jesus.
Those first witnesses of the risen Christ didn’t just see Jesus alive and share that message, they witnessed and received his forgiveness and the new life that comes with redemption. Today we not only need to be assured that Jesus rose from the dead but we need the assurance of his forgiveness. We need to be witnesses of this forgiveness in our lives and we then need offer this witness to others and this story of Jesus and Peter shows us how this works. The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not point out Peter’s failure or sin. Jesus doesn’t make Peter return to the past and remind him of his failure to stand up for him when he was arrested. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he is sorry for what he did; he doesn’t make him acknowledge his failure or confess his sin. In offering forgiveness, Jesus is not focused on Peter’s past sins but on his future living.
Redemption is needed certainly, but there is no shame involved. New life is needed but that doesn’t come by looking back but looking forward. While it’s important for us to be honest about who we are and where we have come from in life, Jesus does not ask us to spend time making a list of all our sins so we can confess them to him. Jesus doesn’t ask us to relive our failures in painful detail and he doesn’t take the time to shame us for the past; instead his focus is on the future – our future. Jesus did the same thing when a woman was brought to him who was accused of adultery. When the crowds wanted to point out her sin and condemn her, Jesus didn’t ask about her past – instead he pointed to her future. John 8:10-11.
Jesus didn’t condemn her. He didn’t point out her sin or make her repent and confess all her failures – he lifted her up and pointed to her future by said, Go and leave your life of sin. Too many times when we talk about forgiving ourselves or forgiving others our focus is on the sin. We look to the past. I have heard so many people say that they can’t forgive themselves and they say that because they can’t stop looking back, but Jesus doesn’t look back because the past is gone. The sin of our past is gone – that is what happened on the cross. Jesus took our sin to the cross and he paid the price for it so our sin is gone. The price has been paid, sin has been defeated, it has been buried and wiped away. Jesus doesn’t look at our past sin because it isn’t there and so with Peter there is no dredging up the denials of that night there is just an opportunity to love again.
Peter’s witness of Jesus in this moment teaches us that when God forgives us the focus is not on the past, but on the future. With Christ, we don’t wallow in our failure but profess our faith and love for God and move forward. We cannot be consumed by our sin but celebrate the mercy given to us through the risen Christ. Peter is given these three opportunities to say that he loves Jesus and with each one Jesus points Peter to the future. This is the witness of forgiveness – we don’t look back – we look forward.
Each one of us needs to witness the forgiveness that comes with Jesus and the way to receive this grace and mercy today isn’t to make a list of all we have done wrong but to simply say to God, yes, God, we love you – with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. If we stay focused on the love we have for God, we will witness God’s grace at work in us and we will move forward into a new life and part of that life is to now be a witness of God’s grace and mercy in our world.
Peter was not only a witness of God’s forgiveness and grace in his life but he gave witness to it as well. In Peter’s early sermons in the book of Acts he doesn’t call people to review their lives and dredge up their moral failures and confess their many sins, he simply says Repent and be baptized, everyone one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter is asking people to turn away from their sin because it is past and gone and embrace the new life that God has for them. But this was not always how Peter had seen forgiveness at work.
Years earlier, Peter was the disciple who went to Jesus and asked him how many times we had to forgive people. Peter asked Jesus, do we have to forgive people up to 7 times? Peter is focused on the offense and counting up all the failures and keeping track of them, but even then Jesus was trying to tell Peter he had it all wrong. We don’t count up the sins but we just offer forgiveness. Jesus said we forgive 70 x 70 times which basically means we ALWAYS forgive and the reason we always forgive is because we don’t focus on the past we look to the future. Peter has now witnessed this principle of forgiveness in his own life and so is able to help others witness it in their lives. We turn away from our sin (which is what repent means) and we focus on the new life which comes through the Holy Spirit.
Again, today Jesus offers us this kind of forgiveness. We don’t need to count up our failures, we need to turn away from them and simply love God who in turn forgives us by pointing us in a new direction and giving us his spirit which brings new life. We need to witness this kind of forgiveness in our live and then we need to be a witness to this kind of forgiveness. We give witness to Jesus by forgiving others the way God forgives us and by lifting up the power of forgiveness and the new life of freedom that comes with being forgiven. The witness of forgiveness is powerful and it is needed.
Our society today loves to point out people’s mistakes, faults and failures. People love to be perpetually offended by every word, action and even thoughts that others have or we think they have. Because so much of our lives are being recorded by others or shared by ourselves through social media, our every thought, word and action can be seen and heard and therefore they can be evaluated and as we observe others we love to find fault with everyone and everything. We look for the failures in politicians, in community leaders, in teachers and coaches, in doctors and nurses. We look for the inconsistencies in our friends and neighbors and we are quick to point out all the problems we see. Our culture today is really good at looking at the sin and keeping a meticulous record of the mistakes and failures so think about what a powerful witness it would be for the followers of Jesus to turn away from all of that and simply point people to the future.
We give witness to the risen Jesus by forgiving others in ways that don’t call for them to be shamed but celebrates the future God has for them. We give witness to the forgiveness of God by not discussing the sins of others but considering them truly gone – the way Jesus did. When others want to point out sin can we point them to grace and new life? Every time we do, we are being a witness of the risen Jesus.
This kind of witness is powerful and when we see and share stories of forgiveness, it begins to change our lives and our world. Think about how powerful a witness of grace and love it was when the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston reached out in love to forgive the young man who killed many of their members at a prayer meeting. It was one of the few mass shootings that had racial overtones that was not followed by massive protests and unrest. The witness of God’s redemption and love made a difference.
The more we hear about forgiveness, the more our hearts can forgive and the more we can offer the witness of forgiveness to the world. I want to encourage you to check out an amazing organization called the forgiveness project. Maria Cantacuzino was a freelance journalist who shared people’s stories of overcoming some of life’s greatest challenges. In 2004 she founded the forgiveness project to tell the real stories of people whose response to being harmed was not a call for revenge but rather a quest for restoration and healing. She says, With the war in Iraq still a topic of fierce debate, and against a background of pay-back and retaliation, these narratives of hope seemed to tap into a deep public need for alternative and peaceful responses to violence. The stories reflect the complex, intriguing and deeply personal nature of forgiveness, occupying a space of inquiry and authenticity rather than dogma or the need to fix.
What the project has done is collect stores from around the world of people who have chosen to forgive those who have hurt them. There are stories of forgiveness in the face of physical and sexual assault, religious persecution, and all kinds of criminal activity and victimization. The more stories I read this week the more I could see the power of forgiveness as a force that could change our society. The more stories I read the more I wanted to forgive and be a witness of letting go of the past in order to fully embrace the freedom of God’s future. Just hearing the stories made a difference in me and so being a witness to forgiveness can make a difference in others.
I can imagine Peter writing up one of these stories about his own experience of being the one forgiven. When Jesus could have shamed him, crushed him and abandoned him – he didn’t, instead he chose to ask a simple question – do you love me? Jesus forgave and the witness of that forgiveness changed Peter and sharing that witness changed others and brought hope and life to the world.
Today we can witness the forgiveness of Jesus in our lives but we also have the opportunity and I would say the responsibility of being a witness to the forgiveness that comes with Jesus. Can we choose to forgive others and not highlight the past but look to the future? Can we read and share stories of forgiveness that can help turn our society around so that instead of being constantly offended we form a community that is constantly forgiving. It seems like a daunting task today, but it all starts with one witness of Jesus being willing to say, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you and then being willing to go out and love and forgive others.
Witnesses – Peter
1. We all need to be forgiven. Instead of looking to the past and identifying all your sins to confess to God, simply repent (turn) from them and say what Peter said. Yes, Lord, You know that I love you. Begin each day this week with this simple affirmation of faith and trust.
2. Who in your life do you need to forgive? Instead of making them acknowledge all the ways they have hurt you, or making a list of all the ways they have offended you, turn from the past and find one positive way you can move into the future God has for you.
3 Read and share stories of forgiveness, you can find many of these at theforgivenessproject.com. Take time this week to read a story of forgiveness from 2 different countries and that address 2 different topics. Use these stories as motivation to forgive others in your life.
4. Share your own story of being forgiven or forgiving someone else with a friend, small group or Sunday School class.
5. Invite others to read and share stories of forgiveness from the forgiveness project.