epic fail

This week I was teaching a favorite and very familiar passage, the restoration of the apostle Peter in John 21 where the resurrected Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves Him.  Three times, just like Peter’s three denials in Caiaphas’ courtyard while Jesus was being tried and beaten.  Three times, as if Jesus is pushing Peter’s face into his failure and the shame of it.

Peter had a pretty bad night that Thursday night before Jesus’ death.  First, he initially rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet.  Then he fell asleep while Jesus was praying (after Jesus specifically asked him to stay awake), and later he cut off Malchus’ ear while Jesus was being arrested. But he had just promised to go with Jesus to prison or even to death!  He wasn’t supposed to be the failure. He wouldn’t be a disappointment.  He was “all in” for Jesus, even if the others were not.

Just before Peter makes his proclamation of his steadfast loyalty and commitment, Jesus makes this strange statement.  “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Stop there for a minute.  First of all, please note that Satan has asked for permission to “sift” Peter and all of the other disciples.  Satan is asking Jesus if he can go after Peter.  Now why didn’t Jesus just say “NO!  He is mine!  I’ve got your back, Peter!  I will not let Satan get to you!”  Instead of stopping Satan, Jesus prays for Peter and allows Satan the opportunity to “sift away”!

But I love His prayer: Jesus simply prays that Simon’s faith may not fail.  I sure want Jesus praying for me that my faith won’t fail!

So, what does “not fail” mean exactly?  To me, it’s obvious.  Jesus is praying that Simon won’t screw up, and that he would understand Jesus.  He would stay awake.  He would not deny knowing Jesus.  Certainly, all of those individual failures reflect the epic failure of his faith, right?

I mean, if Jesus prays that my faith may not fail, doesn’t that mean that I would be faithful?  That I would obey and be loyal?  That I would be there for Jesus when He needed me to be?  Doesn’t my faith keep me from sinning?  Doesn’t Jesus’ prayer keep me from failing?  There is something going on here that is not what I naturally assume to be true.  How could Peter fail if Jesus is praying that he would be faithful?

Jesus continues in verse 32: “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  So, Jesus already knew that Peter would fail.  And while Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith, it wasn’t in such a way that Peter would not fail.  Instead, I think failure was necessary for the faith to succeed.  In fact, Peter’s ability to tend the sheep, to care for the flock, would actually result from his epic failures that brutal evening.

Jesus’ words to Peter immediately follow His admonishment to the whole group, which argued about who among them was the greatest.  Jesus is getting ready to die and they are arguing about who is better than whom, who is on top.  Jesus says to them, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”  (Luke 22:26) In other words, Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom.  What qualifies the greatest is that they are like the youngest, that they are the servant. In other words, those we might consider lesser, or even a failure.

So, here’s my takeaway.  Jesus prays for your faith and mine not to fail, but that doesn’t mean we won’t.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It is in that very failure that we experience His love and the sufficiency of His grace in such a way that we want to serve Him rather than rule on our own, to be like children rather than be great.  Peter’s epic failure of an evening was the very thing that would qualify him to lead.

In his sermon on John 21:13-15, Tim Keller put it this way: “Jesus says, ‘you failed me,’ Peter says, ‘I know,’ and Jesus says, ‘Okay, now take charge.  You’re the leader.  Take over.’  There are seven disciples and Peter is the most broken.  He’s the one the most out of touch with who he was.  His failure was the greatest, yet Jesus says, ‘Of the seven of you, because your failure is the greatest, you’re the leader.’” Do you know what Jesus is saying?  Plunge your failure into my grace, and it’ll make you greater than you were before.  A greater failure plunged into my grace makes you a greater leader, a greater shepherd.

So, Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, but it was Peter’s failure that created an essential foundation for a faith that could not fail.  And Jesus knew that when He prayed for Peter.

I can’t quite get my head around that.  Can you?





Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.

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