Following Peter

At a crucial moment in history, when the historic impact of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection hung in the balance, Jesus wasn’t a strong leader. In fact, just when his tiny band of followers needed a leader most, Jesus refused to fill the role. Instead, he followed. He trailed the Apostle Peter to Galilee. After Peter denied him and the rest of the disciples deserted him, Jesus came after them. 

Peter’s denials of Jesus and reinstatement by Jesus form possibly the most poignant and beautiful story couplet in all of scripture. If you have never read those passages (or it has been a while) they are worth a look. The first story, found in Luke 22:54-62, is about Peter’s fear overcoming his loyalty after Jesus is arrested. The second story, in John 21:1-19, is about Jesus forgiving Peter, restoring their relationship, and reinstating Peter as a leader of the church. 

I love this pair of stories. They carry very personal meaning for me, and they carry dramatic beauty to anyone who has ever been ashamed, which, if we’re honest, if all of us. Like a poet, Jesus seems very careful to create just the right themes and messages to convey his message exquisitely. Take a minute to read the passages and consider a few elements.

  • Miraculous Catch: The huge haul of fish in this story must have reminded the disciples of one of their first encounters with Jesus when he brought the same miracle. (Luke 5) It’s as if Jesus is saying to Peter, “I wanted you on my team then. I still do."
  • Charcoal Fire: It was around a fire that Peter betrayed Jesus, and it is to a fire that Jesus brings Peter for restoration. 
  • Jesus’ Look: Luke’s gospel says that Jesus looked at Peter after his third denial, when the rooster crowed. Now, siting on the beach, this may be the first time Jesus had looked Peter in the eyes since that moment. And it was morning again; might there have been a rooster crowing in the distance?
  • Sets of Three: Peter denied Jesus three times, and Jesus asks for a profession of his love three times, as if erasing all Peter’s failures.
  • Forgiveness and Commissioning: Peter probably expected to be chewed out and dismissed. Instead, he was made a leader of the church. Peter went on to serve as the first and primary spokesperson for the nascent religion, delivering the sermon on Pentecost Sunday when 3,000 people became disciples. He authored two letters that became part of the New Testament. And he was, true to the promise he made before his betrayal, faithful even unto death. Tradition holds that he was crucified upside down for his faith under Emperor Nero in AD 64. 

Jesus seems to go out of his way to give meaning to this scene. In fact, he went 100 miles out of his way. He followed Peter from his empty tomb in Jerusalem to this lakeside in Galilee. The Risen King of Glory followed after his betrayer, and used fire, fish, and words to restore him. 

Think of that. Jesus has just demonstrated to all the universe that he has power over humankind’s ultimate enemy. He has just conquered death and hell, just split time in half, just established himself as a bona fide world-changer. 

Here’s a leadership tip for the budding field of presidential contenders in 2016: if you want people to follow you, conquer death. People can get behind that. Jesus has just pulled off a resurrection; he doesn't need Peter. He could have his pick of any promising young leader in Israel. More than that, he could go back to Pilate or Herod or Caesar, demand their allegiance, and have it. 

So here’s the Almighty, the God-man, the death-victor, risen with the keys of death, hell and the grave in his hands … and he has to chase down his followers and try to get buy-in! That must have been a hard pill to swallow, and I think it shows tremendous humility on Jesus' part. He must have been tempted to think, “You know what? Forget Peter. I’ll build my church with someone who can take the heat. Peter has self-selected out of leadership. I’m driving this bus forward without him."

That’s probably what I would have done. That’s certainly what the leadership books and TED talks tell us to do. Leaders set the pace. Leaders push forward. Leaders can’t bend to the organizational albatross of a reluctant follower. But Jesus did. 

Jesus was a leader who served his servants, a shepherd who followed his sheep to distant shores to bring them home. Jesus was not so enamored with his own leadership that he couldn’t operate as a friend or, more importantly, a savior. Jesus was able to set aside crucially important organizational demands to address relational needs. He traveled more than 100 miles and orchestrated a private and poignant interview to restore a follower who betrayed him. 

This Easter, I think it would be appropriate for us to consider the leadership lesson this teaches us. Before a leader is a leader, he is a person. A relational being. A child of God. And so are his followers. Jesus didn’t use up people in service to his mission. He served people and released them. Jesus didn’t spend his relational capital to get things done. He invested in people so deeply that they were willing to spend themselves on his behalf. That is how Jesus inaugurated a new kind of leadership. And that is how the gospel of our risen Leader proclaims a new kind of humanity.