John 21 is about another time that Peter jumped into the water, this time not in the middle of a storm, but in the middle of an unknown, which is almost scarier sometimes. I do really well with planning ahead. It freaks me out on a semiregular basis right now that my planner is a clean slate past June. The latest date that’s set in stone in my life is my 22nd birthday. After that, who knows? And that’s a little scary.
When Peter jumps into the lake, all he knows is that it’s Jesus on the shore. Not how Jesus got there or why. Peter doesn’t stop to ask questions – he just jumps in and starts swimming. This is the same guy who started to sink in the middle of the storm, with Jesus strolling right towards him on the waves. You can almost HEAR John rolling his eyes as he writes “For they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.” That Peter!
There are a lot of thoughts I have about this passage and the ways in which Jesus meets the disciples, and us, right where we’re all at. But I keep coming back to Peter. I like that the first time Peter encounters Jesus, Jesus renames him from Simon to “Rock.” Actually, before he even renames him, Jesus first names him. “You are Simon, son of John.” He identifies the name he’s known by, and who his family is: two of the primary things that defined an individual in Jewish society, and in our world today. Jesus always tells us who we are first. Sometimes that’s hard to hear, because the names the world call us come with expectations and labels and responsibilities to live up to. Sometimes the names the world identify us by bring out the sin and stresses, the fears and failures that sting and smart in old wounds. In this case, it was just Peter’s name and his dad, but we don’t know what that brought to mind for him. Jesus wants us to know who we are and where we started before He tells us who and how He’s making us to be, which is why he proceeds to name Simon, “Rock” with little explanation as to why.
I like the care with which John traces Peter’s transformation from Simon to Rock throughout his gospel. It’s never the focus, but it’s consistent, a little side narrative. It’s even the note John’s gospel ends on in chapter 21. I appreciate that because I think John knew a lot of us would see ourselves in Peter. When I was little, if my family could have renamed me, I’m pretty confident it would have been “bossy.” Somehow as I grew up that lent itself to skills like teaching and babysitting and having sixteen cousins, and I slowly but surely learned to temper that spirit when it came to what came out of my mouth. I grew to see these traits as “independent,” but if I were to identify those same traits for you today, I would call myself stubborn.
I’m a huge fan of discussion and disagreement and debate when it comes to the issues of life we differ on, so long as it’s positive. And you can probably sway my opinion of anyone or anything with enough time and a solid argument. But my interpretation of truth and my expectations for myself are two things you will not touch.
One of these is positive. I took a survey last semester that told me one of my top spiritual gifts was wisdom. I don’t really understand spiritual gifts yet so in the humblest of ways – because what I do understand is that it’s much more a gift to me from God and not something I intend on showering on the world without solicitation – I think that’s true. I think that God makes certain pieces of truth very clear to me at particular times and other times He brings me back to the Word and the counsel of others. But either way, I am very stubborn in keeping my interpretations of truth and my conversations with the Lord my own, because I believe that is absolutely what defines the relationship between Him and me as a relationship – something living and active – instead of a code or a creed that I follow. Because life in Christ is a bit of both, but one is more important than the other. The relationship is the context in which the rest unfolds.
Every now and then, or maybe every other day, I forget that while my interpretations of truth are my own and God’s, they are only His to order. I love control, friends. Like a lot. We’ve already discussed this with the planner issue. The point is, I become very stubborn in my own head when I encounter some truths, or maybe most of them, that it is my responsibility to live up to them. Wisdom falls somewhere to the wayside in these moments, I’m afraid, and I take it upon myself to paint truth across my skies. The nice way to say this is that I am solutions-oriented; the honest way to say this is that I’m stubborn.
Let’s take teaching for example. Some things about student teaching are just true. There’s an established order for the classrooms I find myself in and there are certain requirements and expectations I’m obligated to meet. There’s nothing wrong with these statements. It’s when I start taking them as an ultimatum that I create a twisted truth and live by it. And then I do the same thing in my relationships, and in my faith. What’s more, these ultimatums start to cost something that’s worth more than the expectation, and I willingly sacrifice it. I give up being genuine for the sake of appearing strong. I give up who I am for a version of what’s expected of me. Eventually, I give up what I need for the sake of what I should be. A part of me knows that there is more to that truth than what I’m letting myself believe, but figuring it out feels hard and finishing the job feels easier.
The only way to not do this is to stop trying to paint my own skies with truth and start looking for the truth He’s already painted. The only way to not do this is to weigh truth in my heart and not my head. The only way to not do this is to speak the word “grace” over myself until I start to see it all around me. Because when I feel like a failure from all the weighty expectations and obligations I’ve willingly tied myself to, it comes from this: I want so badly to believe truth that I being to work for it.
In this way I see a lot of myself in Peter, or maybe a lot of Peter in me. He doesn’t crop up again by name in the book of John until 6:68, when he is the first disciple to call Jesus who He is. The Holy One of God with the words of eternal life. That’s truth. That’s reaching out and claiming it, calling it true and speaking it out loud before God and others.
But goodness, is God funny! We keep reading along and lo and behold, at the last supper, what does Peter do? He pitches a fit when Jesus goes to wash his feet. Yep, he’s up on this Holy One of God thing alright – that must be why he thinks he knows better than Jesus what’s good for him. (Is the sarcasm coming through here? *taps mic* Is this thing on?) I can hear him now because I’ve thought it myself before. He watches Jesus wash the feet of a few of the disciples, and thinks “No way. I can do this one on my own. Jesus is going to be so proud of how dedicated I am to Him, that I won’t even let Him near this mess of mine.” It’s literally contradictory as I write it, and still I have said it before.
To his surprise as well as mine, Jesus tells him, straightforward but not unkind: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Translation: unless you are steeped in grace, the work you work so hard to do is not mine for you, because I am not in it with you. The more you try to take care of your mess on your own, the more messy you will feel, apart from me.
Peter’s response is wholehearted, and mine is, too. “Wash my hands and my head as well!” Fix it all at once, Lord! Make me whole. Quicken the process. My cry is always focused on the immediate solution, never the ways the process solves the problem in a far deeper way.
Jesus’ response is a little weird, but reassuring. Just your feet, he says, you’ve already had a bath.
Then why do I still feel like a wreck, smudged and spotted, head to toe? I can feel Jesus want to laugh and console me at the same time, moved by my magnificent misunderstanding. Remember Peter’s earlier recognition of truth, when he calls Jesus the Holy One of God? You know the truth, Christ responds, and I have named you as my own, and you are clean. But this is still a road we’re walking, you and I, and you have to learn to let me wash your feet. You must be firmly steeped in grace for you to see yourself the way I have made you. And that looks like letting Jesus in, in the most simple, mundane, and grimy of ways. Like my roughed-up, ragged feet that have wandered down all the wrong paths.
The storms and the simple: it’s where he finds us best, or maybe where we find Him. But what’s the why?
“Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.”
In John 13:31-38, Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. But before that, he clarifies something for the good of the group. All of this, this pain, this suffering – it’s for God to be glorified.
All for the glory of God. We get to be vehicles of God’s glory, even when we’re more stubborn than the dumbest rock, like I am some days (most days?). We get to be where the world sees Him act. Steeped in grace. Stepping out in storms. That’s what gets me out of the boat, following Jesus to the shore.