© 2015 Lynn Abbott
Two sightseeing nuns on a warm Sicilian day, eyed the massive ruins of a Greek temple.
I know because I stood behind them. Armed with my Konica camera, I attempted to frame a prize-winning shot of the archeological wonder.
I smiled as, with Polaroids poised, they leaned as far as they could over the small wrought-iron rail that separated visitors from the temple. They evidently wanted a close-up.
The two devout ladies also took turns photographing one another. Yeah, those were the days before selfies.
Like me, they obviously wished to capture the perfect picture. They carefully surveyed the area.
Then, suddenly, to my great surprise and amusement, they lifted the skirts of their long black habits, and scrambled over the railing.
I had to stifle an irreverent laugh. The situation was comical at very least.
On that hot, late August afternoon, I thoroughly reveled in what seemed a perfect sketch for situation comedy.
One thing, however, perplexed me: a small black and white sign graced the fence. I couldn’t read Sicilian, and so I pulled out my pocket dictionary in an attempt to decipher it.
When I broke the code, I laughed until tears streamed. Translated, the sign warned, “Do NOT Enter!”
To this day, I don’t know whether those nuns climbed the fence in ignorance or in defiance. But I must say that I’m relieved to know that even those who commit their lives entirely to godliness sometimes jump the fence.
And having translated the sign, I was relieved that I didn’t blindly follow those two on that particular day.
Even so, I have frequently fouled up on other occasions.
Most of us stumble at some point or other…often, after our greatest victories.
We may live through many down and difficult circumstances.
We obey God when it is hard.
We see Abba work amazing miracles, and still…
We climb that fence.
It happens to the best of us.
Maybe, that’s why I especially thank God for grace. And why I love scripture’s account of Simon Peter.
At first glance, Peter certainly qualifies as a committed Christ follower. Most would say he was “all in.” The book of Matthew notes that Peter and his brother Andrew were the first called disciples.
In fact, Peter and Andrew immediately dropped their nets and joined Jesus.
Of course, we all remember Peter’s bold request to walk on water: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter called, “tell me to come to you on the water,” (Matthew 14:22-33).
And Peter climbed out of the boat.
Peter was literally “all in.”
He was the first to respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”
Peter blurted, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16).
He volunteered to build a tabernacle on the Mount of Transfiguration.
He reverenced his Savior to such a degree that he initially refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. But when told that the foot-washing was necessary in order to identify with Christ, Peter again jumped in …feet first, of course.
“‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!'” (John 13:9).
Who can forget the Peter who drew the sword in Gethsemane? In wild fervor, Peter cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Christ!
Truly. No one could doubt Peter’s love and loyalty. Peter followed Christ with all his heart and soul.
For this reason, it must have been a terrible shock when Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Christ three times.
Peter? Bold Peter? You’ve got to be kidding.
If I had been there that night in the upper room, I likely would have asked, “If Peter can’t do it, who can?”
After all, Peter had always been the first to demonstrate courageous faith.
But, in fact, we know the story well. Peter, although ready to fight in the garden, succumbed to fear in the temple courtyard.
Ironically, one of the men who challenged him saying, “Didn’t I see you with him (Christ) in the olive garden?” just happened to be a relative of the man who lost his ear to Peter’s sword.
Even with this reminder of recent boldness, however, Peter denied Christ. His courage crumbled.
When the world accuses, when pressure mounts, you and I are prone to waver. And if there were any doubt about that, Peter’s life undeniably demonstrates how difficult it is even for those who appear most committed.
The wind blows, and sometimes the reed snaps.
Luke tells us that when the rooster crowed, Jesus simply looked at Peter. In that moment, Peter recognized his faith’s failure.
It isn’t surprising, then, that Peter–the disciple who loved the Savior with all his heart–went outside and “wept bitterly,” (Luke 22:62).
Such was Peter’s heartbreak and remorse. I certainly relate to that. I have not denied Christ in the temple courtyard, but I have deeply disappointed my Savior in other ways, again and again.
Peter’s story, though, gives us hope. Peter floundered midstream and yet, he didn’t drown.
Yes, for three years, Peter sat under Jesus’ teaching. For three years, Peter watched Christ perform incredible miracles. For three years, with all that he had, Peter followed Jesus.
Then, Peter fell apart.
I don’t know where your spiritual journey has taken you; however, I can tell you about mine. And quite honestly, I have to admit that I haven’t always understood God’s grace.
When I was a young Christian, I thought that promises of forgiveness and future service after failure were primarily reserved for those who messed up before they knew Christ.
After all, many of those who testified to grace spoke of failings that occurred prior to conversion. For this reason, I mistakenly believed that if I fouled up after receiving Christ I would no longer be useful in God’s kingdom.
Thus, when I found myself in a scrape, the enemy condemned me. “God will never use your life for Him now…” came the fiery accusation. “You are done for,” Satan snickered.
“Had you messed up before you knew Christ, this might have served as a testimony for God’s redemption of your life,” the liar suggested. “But as it is, God won’t bless you now. You’re saved, but shelved.”
And I sobbed. I wished to follow Abba, and when I let my Savior down, I felt I destroyed any opportunity of serving Him.
Yes, Peter ran from the temple court and wept bitterly.
Fortunately for you and me, that’s not the end of Peter’s story.
On the first Easter Sunday, having heard Mary’s story, Peter and John raced to the empty tomb. And while John apparently was the faster runner, Peter was the bolder. He entered the tomb first.
Some days later, Peter, John and a few others spent the night fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Peter suggested it; the others followed. The night passed and still nothing to show for their efforts.
In the early morning, a man on the shore called to them and asked about their catch. When they reported their disappointment, he suggested they cast their nets on the other side of the boat.
I suppose they felt they had nothing to lose, and so they gave it one last try.
Of course, their nets filled with so many fish that they could not haul in the catch. They knew only one who worked such miracles.
John was the first to recognize Jesus. But Peter was first out of the boat. Predictably, he jumped into the water and swam to shore.
Obviously, Peter loved with all his heart and soul. Halfway didn’t even exist in his vocabulary. Peter’s courage had failed, but his love for Jesus remained.
The others followed in the boat. After breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter with a question: “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
Jesus, of course, knew Peter’s heart. He didn’t ask because He needed information. No, it wasn’t about Jesus’ need. It was all about Peter.
And through that conversation on the beach, you and I learn much about the heart of God…
Jesus didn’t chastise Peter about Peter’s denial. There were no words of recrimination. Instead, grace focused on loving restoration. Grace encouraged rather than discouraged.
Peter simply needed a reminder of his first love for his Savior. Jesus asked “Do you love me?” three times. And just as Peter had thrice denied his Savior, Peter also reaffirmed his love…three times.
Greek scholars tell us that the word for love used by Jesus was agape. In the Jewish faith, agape represented the highest form of love.
In other words, Jesus significantly asked whether Peter loved with all his heart and soul.
Peter answered hesitantly. His heart broke under the weight of his recent failure. His confidence shattered. He was no longer certain.
As a result, Peter answered Christ’s question substituting phileo for agape. He doubted the depth of his love for the Savior.
His honest repentance is evident in his words, “‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love (phileo) you.'”
Phileo actually refers to brotherly love or affection. Peter felt he could no longer boast agape for Jesus; Peter knew he had failed and thus, he claimed only phileo.
The Peter who once boasted that he would never deny Jesus now doubted himself.
I suspect the accuser had whispered repeatedly, “How can you say you love Christ now? Your life will never count for anything, Peter.”
Yet, with each question and with Peter’s every affirmation of love, Christ repeated, “Feed my sheep.”
Grace accepted Peter just where he was. In fact, when Jesus inquired the third and final time, He adopted Peter’s word, phileo.
He asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?”
In this way, Jesus seemingly said, “You don’t feel worthy? Never mind. You love me. You don’t feel your love is enough? No worries. I’ll meet you where you are.”
Although discouraged and disheartened, Peter found grace on a beach in Galilee. Peter’s midstream mire did not ultimately disqualify him from the race.
Jesus looked into Peter’s heart and saw a broken and repentant child who deeply loved his Savior. And love, not perfection, is apparently the primary prerequisite for serving Abba.
I, for one, am extremely grateful for that. After all, if perfection were required, few would dare to serve God.
Abba knows we aren’t perfect. He has watched us climb the fence, time and again. Yet, in spite of it all, Abba loves us.
That’s right; the father ran to the prodigal.
As a new believer, I missed the full significance of that. But I understand it now.
You see, Jesus notably identified the prodigal as a son. And the son’s return was not tolerated but rather celebrated.
Even more than that, the son received a place of honor in his father’s house.
From the beginning, Peter deeply loved Abba. And Abba’s grace covered all of Peter’s failures along the way. His denial was only a parenthetical middle.
Peter definitely experienced Abba’s grace firsthand, and this same Peter, who once denied Jesus, later wrote, “And the God of all grace…will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast,” (1 Peter 5:10).
Grace forgives and restores, (1 John 1:9; Romans 8:1). For this reason, when we willfully or unwittingly topple over fences, Abba picks us up and celebrates our return.
He never gives up on you and me.
We may falter, but Abba is certainly all in.
“It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy,” ~Romans 9:16