(A sermon based on John 21:1-19 for the Third Sunday of Easter 2013)
You have likely heard the quote “Failure is not an option.” It’s a nice thought and it would be a good motivator in a time of crisis when all energies need to be focused on finding solutions that will help a person or group work toward a positive outcome.
If you really think about it, though, you have to admit that it doesn’t hold up. Failure is always an option; sometimes it comes despite our best efforts while sometimes it comes because we choose it by our failure to give our best effort.
I like this Chinese proverb better: “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.” Sometimes we will not succeed but we don’t truly fail unless we don’t get up and try again. I remember reading about a monk describing life in the monastery to a writer: “We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.”
When it comes to talking about who we are as it compares with who we can be, I find myself in a quandary. As a follower of Christ, as a pastor of the Church, and as a proclaimer of the gospel, I feel like idealism and realism are having a tug of war—and I’m the rope.
I must tell you that we who are growing up into Jesus Christ can be making a lot more progress toward who we are coming to be in Christ than we are willing to believe. I do us a disservice if I do not tell you that we need always to be moving upward; I do not tell you the truth unless I tell you that we all have a long way to go and we can go farther if we desire it. That’s the idealism—we can and should be becoming all that we are meant in Christ to be; we can and should be doing all that we are meant in Christ to do. We walk in newness of life and the Spirit of God is in us; therefore our expectations of ourselves should be high and we cannot excuse ourselves if they are not.
On the other hand, I must tell you that along the way, failure is an option. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. We do fail along the way even if we are doing our best, which we often are not. We will at times not be who we could have been; we will at times not do what we could have done.
Everybody fails. Some of us seem to have the ability to deny it or to justify it so that we don’t have to face up to our fallibility while others of us seem paralyzed by the possibility of failure.
Odd as it may see, though, there are times when our failures can work out for the best. That is some of the best of the good news.
And so we come to Simon Peter.
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, Simon Peter told Jesus that he would lay down his life for him to which Jesus replied, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13:38). While John does not record Peter’s response, both Mark and Matthew tell us that Peter insisted he would do no such thing—and I am sure that he meant it.
And in such sureness can lie the problem. Why? For one thing, if you are sure you won’t fail, you won’t be on your guard against failure. For another thing, if you are sure you won’t fail, you might not quite believe it when you do and try to blame everybody but you for your failure. For a third thing, if you are sure you won’t fail and you happen not to in a particular situation in which failure might have been expected, you just might find yourself tending toward the very non-Christian characteristic of arrogance.
And arrogance is a real problem in the life of a follower of Christ because it makes us real interested in how good we look doing good things; it causes us to become, to use Mark Twain’s memorable phrase, “good in the worst sense of the word.”
This is why I suggest the perhaps shocking possibility that Simon Peter’s failure was in the long run good for him and why our failures can in the long run be good for us. Peter needed to learn—and we need to learn—that despite and maybe even because of our failures we can become more effective servants of the Lord and more effective ministers to people.
So it came to pass that early that morning beside the Sea of Galilee, as Peter stood shivering in his wet clothes beside the fire, Jesus asked him, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Now, the “these” could have been his fishing implements or they could have been the other disciples. Regardless, the point is that Jesus was asking Peter, who had failed so miserably just a few days before, if he loved Jesus.
How the memory of his failure must have rushed back on Peter as he tried to answer the question without bursting into tears. As we listen in on their conversation, it is helpful to know that different words for “love” are used, namely, agape which means God’s love and philos which indicates a friend’s love [Here I agree with Scott Hoezee, “Third Sunday of Easter, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts—The Third Readings: the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 600-601]. Jesus initially asked Peter if he loved him with agape love; Peter replied that he loved Jesus with philos love. Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs. Then Jesus asked him a second time if he loved him with agape love and Peter answered again that he loved Jesus with philos love. And Jesus told him to tend his sheep. Finally, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him with philos love and Peter, while saddened that Jesus had asked him a third time (and perhaps that Jesus had moved from using agape to philos), said that Jesus knew he did.
Jesus challenged Peter with a most difficult and challenging question; Peter gave Jesus the best and most honest answer he could. Finally, Jesus met Peter where he was and told him, in effect to do the best he could. The time would come when his philos love would become agape love. Meanwhile, Peter was to serve.
You see, God uses failures, and God may be able to use failures better than God can use anybody else.
This is one of the best parts of the good news about the resurrection.
Yesterday I was listening to Neil Young’s song “Old Man” in which a (then) young man sang to an older man, “Old man, look at my life; I’m a lot like you were” and I realized that I now heard the song from the perspective of the older man. And that’s why the following story means more to me now than it once did.
Dr. Carlyle Marney was one of the great Baptist preachers of the last century. Once, after speaking to some college students, he was asked by one of them to say something about the resurrection of the dead. Marney replied, “I will not discuss the resurrection of the dead with people like you. Look at you all – - – in the prime of life. Never have you known honest-to-God failure, heartburn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls or mortality. . . . What can you know of a world that makes sense only if Christ is raised?”
Well, lots of us know. And the rest of us will know.
The world only makes sense if Christ is raised. We who have fallen head-first into failure and who have been picked up by Jesus and told to serve anyway know how important that great truth is …