Jesus and Peter had many encounters involving water, boats, and questions.
“Will you follow me?” Mark 1:17
“Do you trust me?” Matthew 14:29
“Do you love me” John 21:17
Three questions. Three encounters. Three defining moments in Peter’s life.
The first question came when Jesus stepped into Peter’s life for the first time. It was an invitation. An invitation to come and follow. An invitation to leave fishing behind. An invitation to a new life, a life he never imagined.
The second came in the middle. After long roads walked, numerous campfires shared, countless miracles witnessed, and new truths spoken. The second question was a question of faith. “Will you follow?” had already been answered, “will you go where it doesn’t make sense?” was the question on the table as Peter’s leg swung over the side of the wind tossed boat.
The third question came at the end. Actually, after the end. After death. After the dream crumbled. After Peter denied, after the rooster crowed. After grief had wrapped itself around Peter’s broken heart and left him hopeless and afraid. After all of this, Jesus appears. Where? Where he knew Peter would be; on the shore, near the water, right where He and Peter had met so many times before. Jesus didn’t wait for Peter to come looking for Him, instead He came to Peter. He came and He waited.
I was thinking about the questions I would have had for Peter if I were Jesus. I wondered what I would have asked Him. “What were you thinking?” “Why did you deny me?” “Have I not proven myself to you?” “Why are you back here fishing?” “What happened to ‘even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you?'” or “Did you not mean it when you said ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you, both to prison and to death?'”
But Jesus doesn’t ask any of those questions of Peter. The fact that Peter straight-up denied Him three times isn’t even mentioned. Jesus doesn’t demand repentance, He doesn’t ask for an explanation, He doesn’t mention it at all. Why? Because this encounter, this moment with Peter is one of the first encounters after the resurrection. After the law was fulfilled. After sin and death is defeated. This resurrected Jesus comes to Peter not with condemnation but with grace. And we see in Jesus’ question to Peter what the New Testament God looks like. He looks like mercy. He looks like love. He looks like forgiveness.
The Good News of the New Testament God is that in our fear, in our grief, in our disappointment we (like Peter) can be fully restored even after we’ve fully denied. The Good News of the resurrected Jesus is that the question He asks of us isn’t “did you respond to that correctly” but “do you love Me”?
Peter, blinded by fear and grief, denied Jesus. He did the very thing he promised he never would do. And Jesus never mentions it. Why? Maybe because Jesus knew the state of Peter’s heart at the time of denial. Maybe because Jesus loved Peter enough to give him room to grieve the arrest and death of his best friend. Maybe because Jesus knew that human faith sometimes buckles in the face of overwhelming fear. Maybe because the resurrected Jesus is gracious and compassionate and gentle and kind.
Did Peter respond to Jesus’ arrest and crucification the way that Jesus wanted him to? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus never held his response against him. Jesus never expressed anger or disappointment in Peter. The only thing Jesus did was fully restore Peter to relationship with Himself and remind him of who he was, a dearly loved fisher of men.
I’ve been studying a lot lately on the topic of grief. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there is no “right way” to grieve. We all approach loss differently. And that’s okay. Some of us, like John, press in and cling to Jesus, never turning away from the pain of it, offering support to those around them, facing every hard moment until the end. Some of us, like Peter, turn away from the pain, lash out in anger, run from the reality of the situation. Neither expression is right or wrong. Neither was applauded or condemned by Jesus.
Jesus allowed Peter to grieve. He allowed him to walk away. He allowed him to deny. And, He allowed him to come back without shame, without holding it over his head, without making him feel like a failure.
Peter gives me hope. Because I’m a lot like him. I turn from pain. I duck out when things get hard. I promise to never pull away from Jesus, and then go back on my word. I hide when I should press in. And then I come back, and I’m welcomed to sit around the fire with Jesus and I’m welcomed back into fellowship. Because He gets me. He knows my heart, and He loves me anyway.
After all the times I’ve failed Him, He gently asks one thing “Do you love me?”
Yes, Lord, you know I do.
This is what grace looks like.