Pastoral Study Project: Owning our Whole Story

* I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for graciously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant.  

Owning Our Whole Story

John 21:17

How hard is it to own the truth?  How hard is it to own -

  • The truth of the gap between who you think you are and what you actually do
  • The space between the best version of yourself and who you are when fear drives your actions
  • The tension between your ego and your wounded inner self

Peter could, I imagine, speak clearly about this.  He had a story to reckon with; the story of declaring his loyalty and unfettered devotion to Jesus and then the crashing crushing consequences of decisions made in utter fear to save himself.  

Peter did go on to tell the story - the story of Jesus redeeming, saving love but before he could tell that story - before he could be the rock of faith that Jesus would build his church upon, before speaking boldly before the Sanhedrin and saying, “. . . We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Act 4:20),  before those bold words said to the very people who set the crucifixion and thus Peter’s denial into motion, there had to be a reckoning with his story; with his actions. 

There had to be the integration of all parts of what he was and is.  Peter, like all of us, had a version of himself that he perhaps found easiest to love, easiest to walk through the world as. . . when we integrate all parts of ourselves we welcome all the parts of our stories - 

  • the parts that we are proud of
  • the parts we are ashamed of
  • the parts we learned about ourselves that scare us to our very core
  • the parts of us that can be interpreted in the worst possible way
  • the parts of us we will never wrap in love because we will never own those moments

You have these moments.  I have them too.  Maybe it was the 

  • the moment you overheard your mom tell your 4th grade teacher that you just weren’t that smart
  • the moment your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you . . . through a text
  • the moment your best friend betrayed you and told your deepest hardest secret
  • the moment you fumbled the football on the last down in the 4th quarter . . . and the worst part was the look on your dad’s face 
  • the moment you went to your high school class reunion . . . and you sensed you weren’t as connected to these people as you thought 
  • the moment who you thought you were was shattered for you

And this is the moment Peter needs to reckon with.  It seems Peter, like lots of us, avoids and denies the gap of pain.  He returns to fishing after the crucifixion and after the Risen Lord has appeared to the disciples.  He returns to what is known and comfortable - to the thing that ordered the rhythm of his life before Jesus called him to leave his nets.  Now he takes them up again.

The connection that Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus asks Peter thrice if he loves Jesus is not easy to miss with a close reading of the passion story and the post resurrection texts.  And while this seems neat and tidy, it can leave the whole emotional landscape this conversation took place in out of one’s field of view.  

Why did Jesus ask him three times?  To give theologians 2000 years later some fun mind candy?  Was he grilling Peter?  Making him squirm?  Holding his feet to the fire?  Making sure he was really repentant?  Without stage directions, adverbs, and adjectives there are so many ways one can understand the tone, the intend of Jesus third asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  (John 21:17) and the response this third asking draws out of Peter - we don’t know how Jesus said it but we know that Peter felt hurt.

I feel hurt when 

  • someone intentionally wounds me 
  • someone speaks harshly to me
  • someone snaps at me
  • someone interprets my actions or words in a twisted way

When I emotionally connect with Peter with the above understanding than it seems plausible Jesus didn’t need to grill Peter; it reminds me too much of being grilled for coming home late from a date in high school just on a much much more significant level.  I remember feeling shame for being late up the driveway . . . so if I felt shame when I was grilled why won’t I understand Peter to also be feeling ashamed when Jesus asked the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  

But knowing from the research that shame never leads to positive outcomes and it makes us want to hide, there is something else going on here that I believe has much more to do with Peter integrating - healing - the denial than having a neat three for three trifecta.  

Peter couldn’t deny the denial if he was to be the leader Jesus called him to be.

I know I feel hurt when someone speaks a truth about me I’d rather not acknowledge; like when I sit across from my spouse and he tells me where I’m missing the mark with our family but when it is spoken with love, walking through the pain is where the new life begins.  When he is telling me to make our lives better together, it is still painful to hear the truth but I know because our past together, that this moment will lead to greater connection, greater honesty, greater life.  This truth-telling and truth-hearing will be hard but denying it and living like ‘it’ didn’t happen only leads to exhaustion, desperation, and a sense of ‘is this all there is to life?’

Peter couldn’t deny the worst part of his life to be a whole person; walking into this pain with his community of faith was the work - the hard work that Jesus was making sure Peter did.  Following Jesus meant being honest and if Thomas could doubt and receive what he needed, Peter could deny and be made a whole, forgiven, resurrected saint and sinner.  

So, instead of Jesus grilling Peter with a stern disapproving look, now I believe, Jesus would have hung in there with Peter over and over and over until Peter DID feel the hurt.  I believe Jesus would have asked Peter 27 times, 50 times, 95 times - as many times as it took - over and over the question that would break any shell of denial, pretending, or avoidance so that the pain could be walked through and integrated.  Jesus already knew that Peter loved him; but could Peter trust himself to believe he did?

The pain must have it’s day.  The denial couldn’t be a thing between Peter and Jesus.  Between Peter and the other disciples.  Between Peter and . . . himself.  The denial couldn’t be the unspoken hijacker of every good next step Peter might take.  The pain must have it’s day.  And this time, it came with breakfast on the beach.

Jesus wasn’t hurting Peter, Jesus was healing Peter.  

Jesus wasn’t testing Peter, Jesus was loving him into new life.

Jesus wasn’t grilling Peter, Jesus was attending to Peter’s pain. 

Jesus wasn’t looking at him with disapproval, instead it is like Jesus cupped his face, put his hands on Peter’s cheeks, drew him in close and let him cry, heave, and fall apart.  Peter had worked so hard to hold it all together.  Now.  He.  Gets.  To.  Fall.  Apart. Maybe he got to crumble into the arms of Jesus.  The Bible doesn’t give us these stage directions but isn’t that just the type of thing the man who stopped and listened to those who were blind, crippled, and held in bondage to shame would do?