When I was an associate in Anderson County, back in the 80s, one Saturday I had taken a group out in our church’s bus. We arrived back in the afternoon and I parked the bus in the lot across the road from the church. I parked, as always, as the back of the lot, which had a slightly downhill angle to it. I went on about my day, and later that evening, when I came home, there was an odd message our own answering machine. It was from the minister of the church and it seemed so strange that I couldn’t get it to register in my mind. The message said something about the church bus being in the garage of the house down the hill from the parking lot.
I drove out to the church to see what had happened, and pulled into the parking lot across the road from the church. We always parked the bus at the back end of the lot, but when I pulled into the lot the bus was not there. That’s a bad feeling, I can tell you. I parked my car and walked across the lot and when I got near the edge of the lot I could see the bus, and it was in the garage of the house down the hill, which was owned by a couple who were members of the church.
But the bus wasn’t really in the garage in the way a car is parked in the garage. Obviously, the garage wasn’t built to hold a full-size school bus. The bus had rolled down the hill and into the corner of the house. The front of the bus was partially in the garage and the rest of the bus had taken out the corner of the house.
As far as I could guess, I must have failed to set the parking brake on the bus, and might have left it out of gear as well. I don’t know for sure, but that was the best guess I could make. I stood there at the edge of the parking lot for a bit just staring at that bus in the side of the house, and I knew I had to walk down to the house and talk to the people who lived there. It was only about a hundred yards, but I it took me two hours and forty-seven minutes to walk that distance. When I walked up to the front door I stood there for about an hour before summoning the courage to ring the doorbell. In a moment I could see through the window in the door that someone was coming to answer the door. I was younger and in pretty good shape at that time, so I wondered about turning and running and not stopping. But the door opened and I was invited in.
Failure is really difficult. What happens when we fail one another? What happens when husbands and wives fail each other? When parents fail their children? When children fail their parents? When employers and employees? When friends fail each other? When ministers fail their congregations?
Today we begin a three-week series titled Failure Isn’t Fatal! We will look at failure through the lives of three Biblical characters – Peter, David, and Moses, learning some lessons from the failures of each of these three individuals. I chose those three because they had some whoppers when it comes to failures. They experienced failures that, unfortunately for them, have lived on for millennia. Next time you fail, offer a prayer of thanks that yours aren’t written down and remembered for all time.
Peter has the misfortune to be remembered for several failures. The first one that comes to mind, certainly, is when he denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27) which all four gospels record. There is also the time that Jesus invited Peter to step out of the boat and onto the sea (Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-56; John 6:16-24). For a few steps Peter remained above the water, but then doubt crept in and he sunk into the water. There is the time in the book of Acts when God gives Peter the vision of the animals in the sheet and tells him everything is clean, but Peter struggles to accept it (Acts 10:9-16). That failure foreshadows the struggle Peter has to accept the Gentiles who begin to come into the church in large numbers, and his failure to accept them causes Paul to rebuke him publicly (Galatians 2:11).
The failure of which we will read this morning comes from the end of John’s gospel, after the resurrection. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a failure, but a closer look reveals that it is an interesting combination of a failure on the part of Peter and a very interesting response on the part of Jesus –
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
The title of this series uses the word failures – plural. It’s not just one failure that is recorded for these characters; it is multiple ones.
Failure is difficult enough, but when it becomes public, it is especially difficult. Some people have suffered such epic public failure that when their names are mentioned the first thing that comes into our minds is their failure. In terms of failure, Peter’s were both epic and public. How would you like to be remembered for all time as the person who denied Jesus? And not just once, but three times! And not just denying him, but doing so while he is listening, as Luke adds this interesting bit of information in his telling of Peter’s denials – The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter (Luke 22:61). Were you aware of that verse? Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, upon his third denial, to witness Jesus turning to look at him and knowing he heard every harsh word of his denials.
But it’s not just Peter. We could also talk about Thomas’ failure of belief (John 20:24-29) or any number of other passages in the Bible that tell us of the failures of people. One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is that it gives us a “warts and all” view of its characters. Scripture does not hide the fact that its characters were deeply flawed, nor does it hide their failures.
There are some things that are common to humanity, and one of them is failure. Everyone fails. Everyone. If you are here this morning, and feeling like a failure for some reason, guess what? You’re human! Give yourself a break! Over the years of ministry I have listened to so many people who cannot move beyond their failures. They replay their failure over and over in their minds and cannot let it go. Give yourself a break, because you are not the only person to fail.
But we also need to remember this – while we need to give ourselves a break, we need to give others a break as well. One of the painful parts of failure is that someone, somewhere, is keeping a scorecard of our failures. There is always someone who wants to remind us of our failures, they want to hold them over our heads, and they want to hold us down because of those failures. They will not only remind you of your failures; they will pin them to you like a scarlet letter.
But here’s one of the really interesting elements of the ministry of Jesus – he doesn’t allow that to happen. When you read the passages where Jesus grants forgiveness there is an implied message that we need to hear – Jesus is the one who releases us from our failures, which means that someone else can’t hold us to them. When Jesus grants forgiveness, someone was probably protesting, saying, I’m the one who was wronged! I’m the one who should have the say in whether or not a person is forgiven! But that’s not how it works with Jesus. He releases us from our failures, which means that no one else has the right or the claim to hold that over us any longer. Jesus released Peter from his denials.
Do not allow someone to lord your failures over you.
Not Every Failure Is a Failure.
Some failures may be perceived as failures, but they aren’t failures as much as disappointed expectations. You can’t live up to everyone’s expectations, and I’m not sure you should. You can take that advice from me. I’ve disappointed my share of people over the years. Some people hold us to unrealistic expectations and those expectations are ways in which they seek to control us.
But failure is also a tool by which God brings about our growth and improvement. C. S. Lewis wrote that Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.
In spite of Peter’s failures we could also say there was an element of success in some of them. Although Peter’s faith wavered when he got out of the boat and he began to sink into the sea, he did get out of the boat. None of the other disciples did. And even when Peter denied Jesus, we can point out that Peter was the only one of the disciples – the only one – who followed after him when he was arrested. He went further than any of the others.
Through his failures, God shaped Peter in new ways and each of those failures – though they were certainly painful and had implications for him and for others – was a learning experience and a step toward becoming the person God wanted Peter to be.
What have you learned from your failures? Something, I imagine. Could you really have become the person you are without the lessons learned from failure? Probably not.
Grace Overcomes Failure.
One lesson we learn about Jesus from the gospels is that he always accepted people where they were. Unfortunately, we don’t. Sometimes, especially in churches, we expect people to get to a certain point before we deem them acceptable. Jesus never did that. Grace was always a part of the way that Jesus dealt with the failures of people.
Our Scripture passage for this morning is one that is very interesting, and often misinterpreted. Most people believe that Jesus asked Peter do you love me as a way of restoring Peter after his denials, but that is not what was going on. I really don’t think Jesus would have made Peter answer for each of those three denials. To me, it just doesn’t seem to be in the character of Jesus to humiliate Peter in such a public way because of his denials.
What is really going on is a challenge issued to Peter, his failure to rise to that challenge, and the grace that Jesus extends. When we read this passage in English, it is impossible to see what was really going on, but a quick overview of the Greek will help us to see this. You have probably heard that the Greek language has four different words for love. By using different words, the Greek language is able to communicate specifically the kind of love being discussed. The first word is eros, which is a romantic love, and from which we get our word erotic. The second word is philos, which is the type of love between friends. This is the word from which we derive the name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. The third word is storge, which is the love that exists between the members of a family. The final word, and the one we have heard of most often in a worship setting, is agape. Agape is the deepest, most faithful kind of love imaginable. It is best summed up by understanding it as a divine love, represented in the love of God.
The first time that Jesus asked Peter do you love me, John (John, the writer of the gospel, was present at this exchange) uses the word philos – Peter do you love me like a friend? To which Peter replies with the same word – Jesus, you know I love you like a friend. The second time that Jesus asks Peter do you love me, the word agape is used – Peter, do you love me more than a friend? Do you love me with the kind of committed and sacrificial love that is expressed by God? When Peter responds, he once again uses the word philos – Lord, you know I love you like a friend. The third time Jesus questions Peter he returns to the word philos, as if to say, Peter, will you not go further than the love that is shared between friends? Will you not go to agape love?
Peter, at this moment, is reserved in his love; it is a failure to embrace Jesus with agape love. But lest we be too hard on Peter, it is safe to say we are not always at the point of agape love either. In spite of the hesitation of Peter, Jesus offers him grace, and a task. Each time Peter responds, Jesus tells him to take care of my sheep. Jesus does not wait until Peter is perfect in his life or his love before offering him a task and a calling. The grace of God always overcomes failure. Always.
When I finally managed to get to the house where the church bus had its collision, it was really difficult to ring the doorbell. The couple invited me in and they were incredibly gracious to me. Never once did they say anything in anger, never once did they bring it up to me at a later time, never once did they allow anyone else to criticize me over it. That’s grace, and grace always triumphs over failure.
Never allow failure to define your life or who you are!