John 21: Peter – Following Failure with the Rocky Shepherd

In our first two messages on “Metamorphosis: Meeting the Risen Jesus”,
We met Mary Magdalene crying at Jesus’ grave (see here),
And Thomas struggling with doubt (see here).
They were both transformed when they met the risen Jesus.

Whoever is in Jesus becomes a new person.
The old life is gone, a new life has begun (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Today we will meet a third person whose life was changed at Easter:
One of Jesus’ best friends, Simon Peter.


Big Pete

Peter was a big man.
He was physically big – a strong fisherman.
He had a big heart – he loved Jesus and he was brave.
At times he also had a big head – he thought he was stronger than others.
And a big mouth – he spoke before he understood.[1]
As we say in English, he was a little too big for his boots.

Here’s when he first met Jesus.

Looking intently at Simon, Jesus said, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”).  (John 1:42)

In that world, names were significant.
The name Peter means “rock” – strong and steady and reliable.

Peter followed Jesus for three years.
He heard Jesus say,

“I am the Good Shepherd.
I know my sheep.  I call them by name and they follow me.”  (John 10)

Peter understood this.
Jesus even called Peter by a new name!
Then Jesus said,
“The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:15).
At the time, Peter didn’t understand that.[2]

On the night before he died, [3]
Jesus said he was going to leave them.

Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?”
And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”
“But why can’t I come now, Lord?” he asked. “I’m ready to die for you.”
Jesus answered, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.  (John 13:36-38)

Peter didn’t think so (Mark 14:29-31)
“Not me! Those guys might run away, but I’m big Peter.
You said it yourself Jesus – I’m the rock!”


Sandy Simon

Later that night, soldiers came and arrested Jesus.
The other disciples ran away, but Peter followed – he was brave.
A girl said to him, “You’re not one of that man’s friends are you?”
“Not me”, said Peter.
“I don’t know that guy.”
It was a cold night, so the guards had a charcoal fire.
Peter stood there to keep warm.

They asked him again, “Weren’t you with Jesus?”
“No, not me.”

Then someone said, “Hey.  Didn’t I see you in the garden with Jesus?”  (18:25-27)

I imagine a long silence.
If this was a movie, the camera would slowly zoom in.
Peter’s face fills the screen.
The night is cold, but drops of sweat appear.
Peter wants to hide,
But the burning charcoal lights his face.
Everyone is looking.
Does he follow Jesus?

Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed.  (John 18:27)

At that moment Jesus turned and looked at Peter.
Peter went out and cried. (Luke 22:61-62)
Mary wasn’t the only one weeping that weekend.
The rock was shattered like sand.
Big brave Pete was a little lost sheep.[4]

Do you sometimes wish you could press control-Z in life?
Click the undo or cancel button to take back something you’ve done or said?
Peter did.

There’s an old story that when he walked past,
People would make the sound of a rooster and laugh at him.
He could never forget his failure.
When he went to a barbecue, all he could smell was the charcoal burning like his shame.
Can you identify with Peter?
Let’s see what happened for him next.

1 Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee.  This is how it happened. 2 Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.
3 Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”
“We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.
4 At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. 5 He called out, ”Fellows, have you caught any fish?”
“No,” they replied.
6 Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.
7 Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. 8 The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. 9 When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread.
10 “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn.
12 “Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. 14 This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.
John 21:1-14


Fishing Failure

One week before Easter, they were so excited.
Then Jesus was killed – total despair.
Then he came back – wild happiness.
Up and down and up. They were exhausted. [5]

This passage always makes me smile.
I can hear Peter saying,
“Stuff this.
I’ve had enough miracles.
They wear me out.
Come on boys, let’s go fishing.”[6]

Out on the lake all night.
Throwing out their nets, pulling them in.
And what did they get?
Not a single sardine.

Peter failed as a disciple.
Now he couldn’t even fish.
It was a dark night.
Then they saw a light on the beach, a small flicker of flame.
Jesus had come.[7]

The rising sun.
The cool breeze over the water.
Waves lapping on the sand as the boat came to shore.

After the long night, that frying fish smelt so good.
Jesus knew they were tired, so he cooked breakfast.
No drama, he just quietly served the food.

Have you had times when smells brought back memories?
As his friends bit into the bread and fish,
The smell of burning charcoal brought back a memory for Peter. [8]

15 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
16 Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
17 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.
18 “I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”
John 21:15-19


Lost Love

A walk along the beach is a good time to think about your life.
Have a quiet talk with a friend or with God, like Jesus and Peter did.

What did Peter think Jesus would say?
“Peter, you failed me, you denied me three times.
You’re finished.  You’re fired. Goodbye.”

Jesus simply asks, “Do you love me more than these?”
More than what?
Maybe Jesus is pointing at the fishing boats and nets.
Do you love me more than your old job, your life here on the lake?
Will you leave it all behind to follow me?
Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

If Jesus asked you, “Do you love me more than these?”
What would he be pointing at?
Is there something you love more than Jesus?
Is there something you need to leave behind?

Jesus asks a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
It’s Peter’s old name.
He remembers Jesus said, “You will be called a rock”
Peter hangs his head and looks at the sand,
Blown around by the wind and waves – that’s what he’s like.
He’s no rock.
Thomas doubted the resurrection;
Peter doesn’t believe in himself.

And yet, despite his failure and his shame,
When Peter looks to the bottom of his heart,
He can still say, “Yes, it’s true, Lord.  You know I love you.”

My dad’s name was John, so in my times of fear and failure
I’ve imagined Jesus asking, “David, son of John, do you love me?”
In the end, it’s the only question that matters.
Is Jesus asking you, “Do you love me” today?

A third time, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
Peter watches a wave roll into the shore.
And a wave of sadness wells up inside him.

“Lord, you know everything.”
The Good Shepherd knows his sheep.
Jesus knows his failure.
He also knows his future.[9]

Big Peter has hit rock bottom.
But when human hope is dead,
It’s time for resurrection!
When everything seems finished,
The metamorphosis can begin.

Jesus says to Peter, “Yes, you are a rock.
You will be a leader of my church.
A shepherd of my flock.
Care for my people.
Look after my sheep.”[10]


Strong Shepherd

A few weeks later, in the book of Acts,
Peter stands in Jerusalem and tells crowds,

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.”  (Acts 2:32)

He is arrested, he is beaten, but he has no fear.
He will never deny again.

Whoever is in Jesus becomes a new person.
The weak old Simon, shifting like sand, has gone.
The new Peter, strong as a rock, has come.
It’s a resurrection metamorphosis.
A new creation transformation!  [11]

Peter wrote two letters in the Bible.
That makes him a bestselling author!
He never dreamed of that when he was fishing.
When you meet the risen Jesus, who knows what you’ll become?

Peter starts his first letter,

“We have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3)

In other words, we have experienced a resurrection metamorphosis!
And I’m sure Peter remembered his own life when he wrote this:

Once you were like sheep who wandered away.
But now you have turned to your Shepherd,
the Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:25)

We saw that Thomas likely went to India.
Peter ended up in Rome. [12]

Jesus said the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
At the time, that didn’t make sense to Peter.
Now he understood.

When he went to the cross, Jesus said to Peter,
“You can’t follow me now, but you will follow later.”  (John 13:36)
Now at last, he did.

The Roman Emperor Nero killed a lot of Christians.[13]
One of them was Peter.
The story goes that Peter felt unworthy to die like Jesus did.
So he asked to be crucified upside down.

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio (1601)

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio (1601)

Metamorphic Meetings

This weekend, we have thought about Mary and Thomas and Peter.
Some time in our lives, we may experience what they did.
Like Mary, we will lose people we love and be full of sorrow.
Like Thomas, we will have questions and start to doubt.
Like Peter, we will fail and feel ashamed.

We’ve seen that all three were transformed.
Weeping Mary was filled with joy.
Doubting Thomas found certain faith.
Denying Peter became a strong shepherd.

What made the difference?
What changed them?

They met the risen Jesus.
The power of his resurrection touched their lives,
And they became a new creation.[14]

In their pain and confusion, they felt alone and without hope.
But the Good Shepherd did not leave his sheep to struggle on their own.

The Gardener was with Mary as she wept,
Although at first she didn’t recognise him.
Jesus heard every word that Thomas said,
In the room where he could not believe.
The stranger watched his disciples from the shore,
Long before they realised who he was.

When you and I suffer sorrow and uncertainty and shame,
We may not see or feel the Shepherd, but he is always with us.

When the eyes of Mary and Thomas and Peter
Were opened to recognise the risen Jesus,
They experienced a metamorphosis.

We’ve seen that metamorphosis means “a complete change”.
There’s also another dictionary definition:
Metamorphic rock “has undergone transformation by heat or pressure.”

How does God change weakness into strength?
What turns unstable sand into reliable rock?
What turned a man of failure and shame into a strong shepherd?
Simon into Peter?
Charcoal into diamond?

Heat and pressure.[15]

To be transformed by Jesus’ resurrection;
To experience a metamorphosis;
To find new joy and life and hope;
First we have to share in Jesus’ death.[16]

The great Christian sign of sharing Jesus’ death and resurrection is baptism.[17]
Seven of our friends have been lowered under the water this morning.
That’s a sign of dying with Christ.
As when Peter swam through the sea, as when Mary and Thomas met the risen Jesus,
Their sorrow and shame, fear and failure, were all washed away.

Then, like Peter, they rose out of the waves.
A sign of resurrection metamorphosis.
Set free from the past, they stood on the beach.
A transformed new creation,
Risen with Jesus’ new life to new hope, new faith, and a new future.

As we leave camp now and go into a new week,
Have you met the risen Jesus?
Have you begun to be transformed?
Have you heard Good Shepherd call you by name?


This was one of three talks on “Metamorphosis: Meeting the Risen Jesus”,
for the 2014 Global group of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle.
You might also like the other two messages:

John 20: Mary – Rejoicing Tears at the tomb of life
John 20: Thomas – Believing Scars and faith in the night


[1] Peter was quick to step out on the water in love and faith, then quick to feel doubt and fear and sink (Matthew 14:28-31).

[2] The first time Jesus told the disciples about his death, Peter told him off (Mark 8:31-33).

[3] Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet (13:6-9). Peter said, “Lord, you can’t wash my feet”.  Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you don’t belong to me”.  So Peter said, “Then wash my head and hands too!”  Jesus said, “It’s okay Peter, you will understand later on”.  The other disciples didn’t speak, but there’s big Peter.  Maybe a bit big and bossy, but also a big heart – “wash all of me Jesus; I want to belong to you.”

[4] Of course, Peter only failed Jesus more dramatically because he followed Jesus more closely.  The others had already denied with their feet.

[5] Through the gospel resurrection stories, the disciples experienced many emotions.  They were overjoyed, disbelieving, wondering, perplexed, terrified, amazed, sad, excited, startled, frightened, rejoicing, worshipping, doubting, believing, alarmed, afraid.

[6] This could fulfill Jesus’ prediction that the sheep would be scattered (John 16:32).  But the disciples were told to go to Galilee and meet Jesus (Matthew 28:7) so maybe the fishing trip was filling in time while they waited in obedience.

[7] Faith in the Fog: Believing in What You Cannot See by Jeff Lucas (2014) is a beautiful meditation on John 21 and the author’s own disillusionment and depression.  Read a sample here.

[8] The amazing catch of fish would have brought back an earlier memory of fishing all night, catching nothing, and nets full to breaking point once Jesus came on board, after which he called Peter to follow him and fish for people (Luke 5:1-11).  If you like number puzzles, there’s a riot of speculation about the 153 fish!

[9] The disciples had a roller-coaster of emotions and experience that Easter week, and our life can be the same.  Starting to follow Jesus can be like Palm Sunday, with happiness and excitement, praise and celebration, as we make Jesus our king.  But we may find, as the disciples did, that God’s plans are very different from ours.   Having Jesus as King does not mean we won’t suffer, but means taking up our cross.  Like the disciples, we may be disappointed.  But if we hang on through that long Easter Saturday of sorrow and emptiness, when God may seem to be silent, we will start to find a new and deeper hope and joy as the risen Jesus births in us new life.

[10] See Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely parable, “The Shepherd’s Flute”.

[11] Peter had learnt the truth of what Jesus had told them, “Remain in me, and you will produce fruit.  Without me, you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5).

[12] He likely thought of Jesus’ last words to him in John in his second letter: “Our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that I must soon leave this earthly life.” (2 Peter 1:13)

[13] Resurrection is not just a spiritual and pastoral doctrine, but it has political power.  Resurrection destroys the tyrant’s ultimate weapon: the fear of death.

[14] John’s resurrection encounters feature both a deeper personal intimacy with Christ and a new mission of service to others.  Mary calls Jesus “Rabbouni” or my rabbi; Jesus calls the disciples “my brothers” and calls God their Father, as he is Jesus’ Father; Thomas addresses Jesus as “my Lord and my God”; and Peter tells Jesus three times “I love you”.  And Jesus sends Mary to tell the disciples of his resurrection; he sends the disciples to take forgiveness into the world as the Father sent him; Peter is commissioned to care for the church.

[15] Would Mary have found such joy, if she had not suffered such sorrow?  Would Thomas have come to such faith, if he had not wrestled with doubt?  Would Peter have become a great leader, if he had never failed?

[16] Paul said he felt “utterly unbearably crushed”, so that they would “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9), experiencing the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus could also be seen in them. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).  Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (2011) by Richard Rohr talks about a spirituality of brokenness, the need for loss and failure before we can grow, the way of Christ as the way of the wound.

[17] Barbara Brown Taylor gives a baptismal blessing in Bread of Angels (page 72).

Walk into the river of death with him, and while you are down there, let the current carry away everything that stands between you and him. Then, when all your breath is gone, let him give you some of his. Take his breath inside of you. Let it save your life, and when he rises, rise with him, understanding that your life is no longer your own. You died down there. You are borrowing his life now.

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