(Inspired by a sermon at DTS by Chuck Swindoll)

What is authenticity? We say genuine, the real McCoy, the real thing, honest-to-goodness, trustworthy, the genuine article, sincere, real inside and out! So much of our daily lives relies upon authenticity. We expect things and people to be genuine and authentic, and we punish those who are not, by withdrawing our trade or interaction. A manufacturer whose products do not live up to their claims is punished in the market place by a refusal to purchase more of his products. He’ll go out of business very quickly if he is not authentic. People who are insincere and not honest will soon find themselves without friends, because we depend upon authenticity, and trust is a big part, if not the biggest part of any relationship.

Funnily enough, usually authentic people are most likely to be duplicitous and dishonest with themselves more than with anyone else. We deceive ourselves more than we deceive others. Otherwise honest people, often cannot be real with themselves about their lives, their feelings, their failures, their habits, their need to conquer dangerous or destructive attitudes. We either dismiss them or excuse these things by saying, “I can’t help the way I am!” the truth is people change all the time. and we can too if we are willing. The problem is we are both unwilling to change, and more importantly unwilling to admit that we need to change or that we have made serious mistakes in our lives. The last refuge of the inauthentic and ungenuine person is, “I can’t help the way I am.”

Failure to admit you problems, or being inauthentic, pretending that everything is alright, when it is not, can lead to monumental personal failure and disappointment. Who of us in a quiet moment has not looked at our own lives and felt disappointed, frustrated and desperate about how lost and broken things have become? The highways of life are littered with the wreckage of people’s lives who would not own up to their shortcomings, who lived in denial of the serious issues that need to be addressed in their lives.

The story of Peter meeting Jesus on the shores of Galilee, after Jesus’ resurrection is a story about authenticity and restoration. The difference between failure and a lack of authenticity is that failure can be corrected by God, and people who fail can be restored and forgiven. But those who are unwilling to be genuine or authentic, can never experience the freedom of grace and pardon, as long as they will not admit that a problem exists, and as long as they are unwilling to bring it to God in honest confession and submission to his power and will. There is only one thing really that will prevent a person from the freedom God offers in Christ, that is being real enough with God to confess our issues. The whole of salvation from sin, on the personal level, requires confession, an honest admission of our guilt or needs to God.

The features of the story are quite remarkable in light of some of Peter recent past history. For example why did Jesus ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Why was Peter so particularly distressed by the third time? What is the significance of Jesus telling Peter to “Feed my sheep”? What is the significance of Jesus calling to the disciples and telling them to put their nets over the other side of the boat? Why did Jesus ask them to retrieve some of their fish when he had already cooked fish on the fire?

What is at the heart of Jesus’ questions to Peter? Obviously it was Peter’s recent denial. While Jesus was on trial, three times Peter denied he knew Christ when asked if he was one of his disciples. Three times he denied his association, and when the cock crowed as Jesus had predicted Peter fled the scene in bitter anguish and distress over his failure. We cannot imagine how Peter felt. It had devastated him. The earlier announcement, “I am going fishing,” has an air of restless frustration about it, as Peter grapples with his thoughts and feelings at meeting with Christ in Galilee. He was there at Jesus invitation and commanded. Would things be different? Would Jesus attitude be the same toward him? Had the relationship been irrevocably damaged or changed by his denial and failure? The eagerness with which Peter leapt from the boat when John said, “It is the Lord,” only heightens our sense of the intensity of Peter’s feelings. He is already on the edge and at a high water mark, when in the middle of breakfast Jesus calls his name, Cephas, son of John, “…do you love me more than these?” The question must have struck home like an arrow, fallen on him like a blow from a club.

The drama of the question is heightened even further by Peter’s deft use of synonyms in answering Jesus question (or John records the nuances behind the inflections in the conversation). Asking Peter “…do you love me,” John used the Greek verb represented by ἀγάπη. In effect Jesus was asking Peter, “do you really love me, love me supremely.” The word ‎ἀγάπη, is often called the God-love, because in the New Testament it is the highest form of love, expressing total devotion to the good of its object, without self-interest or selfishness. Peter’s ultimate reply is revealing. He says, to Jesus, “Lord you know all-things, you know that I love you.” This simple reply is actually quite nuanced. Peter uses two different word for know and two different words for love. His answer is in essence, “Lord you know everything, everything about me, you know that I am very devoted/fond to you.” Peter does not reply using Jesus word for love, or claim supremely selfless love, but that he is very fond or devoted to Jesus. Peter acknowledges that his love is not up to the level Jesus has set by his question. In spite of Peter’s admission, Jesus tells him to take responsibility for the sheep.

Jesus asked Peter the second time, “Peter, do you really, really love me selflessly?” It isn’t hard to imagine Peter’s face and embarrassment. He replies again, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Then for the third time, Jesus asks the question, Peter do you love me?” John notes how hurt and crestfallen Peter is after the third time around. Indeed Peter is particularly disheartened by Jesus’ third question. The reason is that Jesus changed his question to incorporate the word for love Peter’s had opted for. Peter replied, “Yes Lord, I love you that much!” Peter’s reply is further intensified by his use of two different words for know. His reply is literally, Jesus you know all things, you have absolute knowledge of me, I cannot hide my heart, nor my failure from you, you know from experience that I do not love you as much as you are asking! Peter felt that he had proved by his action the insufficiency of his love.

What is this all about? When Jesus had spoken of his impending death, and he told his disciples that they would be scattered, Peter had made a big deal of protesting that he was prepared to die with Jesus if necessary. And yet that same night he denied him three times; count them, three times. So Jesus questions mirror Peter’s denial and strike at the heart of his brag. Notice the question, “Peter, do you really love me more than these?” These what? Peter had protested that even if every one of the disciples deserted Jesus, he would be prepared to die with him (Matt. 26:33-35). But he didn’t. After it became clear that Jesus was not prepared to fight – remember he ordered Peter to put up his sword after he cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear – Peter fled with the rest and denied him in the courtyard a few feet from where Jesus was on trial for his life (cf. Matt. 26:51, 69-74; Mark 14:47, 64-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:10, 25-27). All of this was so painful for Peter, that he was not prepared to make the same mistake. Even though it was true he did genuinely love Jesus, he was careful not to claim more that he could be sure of. Peter was authentic.

Peter’s authenticity was the starting place for Jesus to recommission Peter to lead the disciples and serve him in his Kingdom, “Feed my sheep!” The authentic Peter could be restored and used by God. The bragging Peter failed, but the authentic Peter would experience restoration, a Pentecost and become fearless in his proclamation of the gospel, even to the point of being able to sleep in jail the night before his planned execution (Acts 12:6)!

God is looking for authenticity. Without it we will find ourselves constantly falling short, stumbling over our own failings and shortcomings, out of the will of God and unable to genuinely serve him. The confession did not make Peter perfect. He had other issues to deal with later on, and ended up in a dispute with the Apostle Paul over his behavior at Antioch. Nevertheless, Peter found his place as a leader after that important breakfast beside Galilee. More importantly, Jesus was willing to trust an authentic Peter with the role of leader, even if Peter was not able to confess that he had the “highest” level of love for Jesus. It was Peter’s authenticity that Christ responded positively to.

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