Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?" What’s that about? Wouldn’t once have been enough? Was Jesus just being annoying or was there a point he was making?
If you’ve lived long enough, you have a past. And you probably have had the opportunity to royally mess up at least once in your life. Peter was such a person. He had a past. And he messed up. Royally.
He had been one of Jesus’ closest friends. And when it was all about to come down, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times. Of course, Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing. He would never betray Jesus like that. He couldn’t! But then, it happened just as Jesus said it would. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran. And when he was asked if he wasn’t one of Jesus followers, he denied even so much as knowing the man. Three times.
How could he ever forget what he had done? How could he ever face Jesus again or even so much as look at himself in the mirror? Would he ever be able to recover from this or would he forever be known as Jesus’ friend who stabbed him in the back him three times?
When Jesus meets Peter after the resurrection and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” it changes everything for Peter. Come to think of it, it changes everything for all of us who carry around a past that we wish we could do over.
I moved to North Carolina thirteen years ago because I had a past I wanted to leave in Ohio. My life there was so different than it is now that you probably wouldn’t have recognized me. I had a husband and children and I suspect that many people who knew me envied my life. I was married to a man I met in seminary and we spent 20 years together, doing ministry and raising our kids. I actually thought it was a pretty good life myself, until I learned that there was something very sick going on. Unbeknownst to me, through the years, my husband had been unfaithful to me with women in the church. Of course, there is a long, drawn out story, but to cut to the chase, he got caught and it led to his resignation from the clergy roster of the ELCA. Despite my resolve to stand by him, trust had been destroyed beyond repair and we divorced. The story goes downhill from there.
I didn’t do the work I needed to do to heal after my marriage ended. Instead, I continued to serve at the church my husband and I both had served together and I took care of everybody else in the aftermath of this crisis. On the outside, I was this amazing pastor who was handling a horrible situation like the Woman of Steel. But I was in complete denial and I was a disaster waiting to happen. Shortly before my divorce was final, a former high school boyfriend came back into my life and swept me off my feet. It was all terribly romantic and then I did something terribly terrible. And stupid. More red flags were waving than you'd see at a Soviet parade, but I ignored them all and I married him.
There was a huge problem with this "marriage." I came to learn that he was already married to someone else and he had a family in California. Yes, I married a bigamist. My so-called marriage lasted about a year and a half with a man who never really lived with me. And all this, with my congregation and the entire synod tuned in to my life like they were watching reality TV.
I decided I needed to start over and go someplace where no one knew me. So I moved to North Carolina. I also went back to my maiden name of Kraft and I started coloring my hair red. It was a whole new me. So I thought.
One of the first things I did after I moved to North Carolina was attend a spirituality retreat that the synod was sponsoring. When I arrived to register, I ran into a woman who had chaired the call committee at a church where I had interviewed in the synod. I knew she would be there because they sent out a list of participants in advance. Her name was Jane. When she saw me, she said, “Why, Nancy Z**, I didn’t know you were going to be here!” Z** was the name I took from my bigamist husband and I explained to her that this wasn’t my name anymore. I was divorced and my name was now Nancy Kraft. Well, she’s still standing there chatting with me when a pastor I knew in Ohio, who had moved south several years before I did, walked in the door. He took one look at me and said, “Nancy F**! I didn’t know you were going to be here!” This had been my last name when I was married to husband number 1. “Well,” I told him, “My name isn’t F** anymore, it’s Kraft.” At that, Jane turned to me and said, “Boy Nancy, you change names like other women change shoes.”
Oh my! Never had I ever imagined such a moment in my life. And I realized that a change of geography wasn’t going to change my past. I would be carrying it around with me for the rest of my days. It was a part of my story and that made it a part of me. But did it define me as a person?
The thing about life in God’s reality is that we’re never defined by what we have or haven’t done. Yes, that’s a part of who we are, but it doesn’t define us. We’re defined by what God has done. Our lives aren’t framed by judgment and shame for all the bad things we’ve done in our past. Our lives are framed by God’s grace.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Now, considering their history, Jesus could easily have come back with, “You love me? Well, you sure coulda fooled me.” But instead, Jesus left the past in the past and chose to give Peter a future.
Jesus’ repetition of “Do you love me?” wasn’t spoken in judgment of Peter, but as absolution, three times, in order to wipe away Peter’s three denials. So Peter could be restored: to himself, to his Lord, to his community. And then, Peter isn’t simply forgiven and restored; he’s also commissioned. There is a new purpose for his life.
Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. Now, John’s gospel is also the one where we hear Jesus, in chapter 10, describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. After the resurrection, Jesus commissions Peter to take on the shepherd role in his absence. He doesn’t tell Peter he must be a shepherd to his sheep to make amends for his past. He forgives him first, unconditionally, and then he helps Peter to re-frame his life by grace. Peter will not be defined by his past. No one can change the past. Not even Jesus’ forgiveness can change what Peter has done. What changes, though, by Jesus’ forgiveness, is Peter’s future.
Through the years, I’ve met a lot of folks who believe that all they ever will be has already been determined, because of something that happened in their past. The memory of their past failure seems to have a grip on their lives. They resign themselves to the identity their failure has imposed on them. Because of their past, they live as if their future has already been determined.
But here's the thing. While it’s true that we all carry our past around with us, we get to decide how we will frame that past. Will we use it to block us from living into the future? Or can our past be redeemed and used as a source of healing and wholeness for the world around us?
The early church used the memory of Peter’s greatest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem the past and renew our calling as followers of Christ. We are more than victims of the past. Even though we can’t change it, by God’s grace, our past doesn’t determine our future.