February 8, 2015 – Resolving Fear of Disapproval

John 21:15-17

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. 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. 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.’”

The word of God for the people of God, praise be to God. Let us pray.

Loving God, we are thankful for you and the Holy Spirit surrounding us. Please open our hearts, ears and minds to the message that you have inspired in me, and may the meditations of our hearts be a joy to you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Before we go any further we need to backtrack for a moment to Mark 14, to the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, before the crucifixion, when Jesus and three of his disciples had come to “watch and pray.” Unfortunately, the disciples neither watched nor prayed, even though Jesus had asked them to do so three times. Consequently they were spiritually unprepared for the events to follow. Fear of arrest, and even death, caused them to flee from Jesus shortly thereafter.

At the moment, though, in verse 36, Jesus was entreating God in prayer, “…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

The cup Jesus speaks of is filled with despair caused by fear in the face of torture, impending isolation from the Father, and death by crucifixion. Yet Jesus held up this cup to God in sacrifice so that it would be returned to Jesus filled with God’s strength. Jesus knew that His human strength was not enough to endure what the cup held for Him. So its contents were replaced with God’s sufficiency. Jesus had “watched” and was therefore aware of the temptation to back out of His part in God’s plan. He was scared! But Jesus also prayed, because prayer kept Him focused on God’s sufficiency, and not on Jesus’ own human fear and weakness. His faith proved bigger than His fear.

What Peter didn’t realize at the time was that Jesus was setting an example for all of the disciples by watching, praying, and resting in God’s strength. Peter didn’t do any of those things. Consequently, he was later led to utter despair when He had to measure his assertion that he would NEVER desert Jesus against the reality of his three-time denial of Jesus.

Now fast forward to a short time after the crucifixion. Peter’s cup was overflowing with guilt, shame, despair, lack of purpose, and disappointment. He had denied his friend and Lord because he’d been too full of himself. He had proven untrustworthy and disloyal. Peter felt confused and angry and despondent because the last three years of his life had been spent following a man who professed to be Israel’s new king, but who now hung from a cross. Yet Peter couldn’t help but feel that his betrayal of Jesus was in part responsible for Jesus’ death.

Peter’s cup held much ugliness. His cup was filled with fear, weakness and insufficiency. His fear that the men who condemned Jesus might also condemn him had felled Peter like a tree cut from its roots. He realized that his own strength was insufficient if he truly was to be a follower of Jesus.

All was lost, and it was his fault, Peter felt. So he resumed his life as a catcher of fish instead of his role as a fisher of men. Undoubtedly his bitter cup went with him.

Scottish mathematician and theologian, Thomas Chalmers, wrote in the early 1800’s his now classic sermon titled “The Expulsive Desire of a New Affection.” (That rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?) In it he writes: “The most effectual way of withdrawing the mind from one object is not by turning it away…but by presenting to its regards another object still more alluring.” In English that means, ‘Don’t just distract the mind, leaving it to eventually return to whatever it was thinking; give it something more intriguing to think about so that the mind is now permanently fixated on a new thought or object.’

Peter needed some re-focused thinking. Fishing was probably a good distraction for him, but not a permanent solution to redirect his thinking. The cup of despair and shame and guilt so consumed his mind, that the possibility that he could be forgiven didn’t even occur to him. Peter needed Jesus to provide him with a better vision for his life than wallowing in despair.

After the resurrection, Jesus pursued Peter and some of the other disciples, finding them fishing in the Sea of Galilee. They were having no luck until Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. When they hauled in their burgeoning net of fish, they knew it was Jesus who had guided them to success. This is also a wonderful picture of the many souls that would be “caught” when the disciples netted men instead of fish.

After a breakfast of fish and bread, it was time for a heart-to-heart conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter’s cup needed to be emptied of his fears and self-centeredness. Jesus would now fill Peter’s cup with purpose, love and other-centeredness.

Jesus challenged Peter by asking him: “…do you love me more than these?” meaning, do you love me more than any other person? In essence, Jesus wanted Peter to decide whether man’s approval or Jesus’ approval was more important. Jesus’ goal was to replace the fear of man in Peter’s cup with Jesus’ approval and strength, just as God had replenished Jesus’ cup of suffering with God’s sufficiency in the garden at Gethsemane.

Jesus didn’t let Peter off the hook with easy answers. When Jesus asks Peter the first time if Peter loves Him, Peter replies, “Yes, Lord…you know I love you.” Jesus then responds, “Then feed my lambs.” In other words, if you love me, show me by being obedient and taking care of my people. When we think of a “lamb,” we think “baby,” “immature,” “naïve,” “helpless.” Lambs require TLC. Peter, a self-centered, rough-around-the-edges fisherman, will need a crash course in the gentle guiding of others.

Jesus persists a second time, asking Peter if he loves Him again. Yes, Peter replies, he does love Jesus. Jesus tells Peter, then, to “take care of {His} sheep.” Jesus re-asks this question because He doesn’t want quick, easy answers, which Peter is prone to give. He wants Peter to really think about what Jesus is calling him to do. He’s asking Peter to go beyond himself and his needs to tend to the needs and well-being of others. In essence, he’s asking Peter to replace the fear of others that comes so easily to him with love for others.

Fear drains us, while love empowers us. We are not to have a spirit of timidity, Paul told us. Loving people and fearing them is counterproductive. Jesus is telling Peter, then, to love and care for mankind, which will empower him. As Thomas Chalmers said, give the mind something better to think about, so that old thoughts can be displaced.

The third time Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Him, Peter is a bit frustrated. He answers like a child would answer: “Yes, I TOLD you I do! C’mon!” Three times Peter had denied Jesus; now he avows three times that he loves Jesus. But Jesus knows who he’s dealing with, Peter the hard-head. So Jesus gently and patiently persists, “Then feed my sheep.” Jesus challenges Peter by implying: “Prove it, Peter. Do what I say.” If Peter is to be successful in carrying out Jesus’ commission, then Peter must place his love, faith and obedience in the One who will give him whatever he needs to do it. Love must trump fear.

Today Jesus’ question for Peter is His question for all of us: Is your love for Jesus greater than your fears? In other words, is Jesus’ love alluring enough to displace the fear of man in your life?

We cannot prevent others from disapproving of us or intimidating us. But our faith can prevent us from caving in to fear, just as Jesus’ faith in God at Gethsemane kept him from giving in to fear. Long story short, we can replace our fear of others with faith in Him. This does not mean we won’t find ourselves in some scary situations: we will. But our faith in Jesus can overcome that fear if we do as He did in the garden: He watched and prayed.

Peter will have to put his faith to the test, Jesus warns him, because Peter will die by crucifixion, too. It’s not a pretty outcome for Peter, who will work on God’s behalf for the rest of his life. As he heals, preaches, teaches, and “tends the sheep,” he’ll also be spat upon, arrested, shunned, cursed, beaten and belittled. When all is said and done, he’ll die upside down on the cross, not feeling worthy to die as Jesus did. For a man who once betrayed Jesus, this is a real 1-80. Peter showed true courage in the face of death, ultimately choosing the approval and glorification of God, over the approval of man.

When we give our fear of man to the Lord and choose to stand in God’s sufficiency, we are glorifying Him. People may disapprove of our walk with Christ, and they may try to intimidate us for standing by our biblical principles. We, too, might face physical, vocational, or financial harm—even death—at the hands of other people; but we are still called to glorify God. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” God’s love must so permeate our motives that all we do will be for His glory.

If Peter were alive today, he’d probably make a great motivational speaker. He had the energy, the enthusiasm and the moxie to engage his audience. His story is inspirational and uplifting. He betrayed the Son of God, a sin of epic proportions. Yet he accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, spending the rest of his life in service to his Forgiver. Look at the U-turn his life took when he stopped worrying about what his fellow humans might think of him or do to him, and began serving them instead. He made Jesus No.1, went to work tenaciously for Him, and glorified the Lord in the process.

Peter’s is a rags-to-riches story, but not the kind we usually think of. His story has nothing to do with earthly wealth or poverty. His story describes how we can give up the rags of sin created by fear in exchange for the richness of God’s kingdom. But as Thomas Chalmers would caution: we can’t “just say no” to fear; we must replace it with the sufficiency of Jesus.

Will you let Him fill your cup?