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Words from Beyond the Grave

Thomas J Parlette

“Words from beyond the grave”

John 21: 1-19


Once upon a time, New York Yankees Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle played a game in which he struck out three times in a row. He says, “When I got back to the clubhouse, I just sat down on my stool and held my head in my hands, like I was going to cry or something. I heard somebody come up to me, and it was little Timmy Berra – Yogi Berra’s son, standing there next to me. He tapped me on the knee, nice and soft, and I figured he was going to say something nice to me – you know, like “Hang in there, don’t worry about it”, something like that. But all he did was look at me and say in his little kid voice, “You stink!”(1)

I wonder if something like was rattling around in Peter’s head after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. “Look at you, Peter – the leader of the disciples, the one that Jesus called The Rock. After all that brave talk about how “I’ll stay by you to the end, I would never deny you, I would rather die with you” – when it mattered the most, when push came to shove, what happened? You caved. You threw in the towel. You chickened out. You deserted. You struck out – three times in a row. Boy Peter – you stink!”

Maybe that was Peter’s interior monologue even as Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter evening and showed them his hands and side. Even as Jesus breathed Peace on them – Peter was still hearing that inner voice muttering, “You failed. You stink.”

And then when Jesus appeared to them behind locked doors a week later to answer the doubters, we don’t hear specifically about Peter – we only hear about Thomas. Was Peter sitting off in a dark corner by himself filled with doubt – not about Jesus having risen from the grave, but doubts about himself and what kind of disciple he really was? I think that just might be the case. And I would certainly understand.

Not long after those 2 post resurrection appearances, Jesus appeared to the disciples again, this time back in their home town territory. The disciples had left Jerusalem, feeling like “what are we going to do now? Jesus is alive, he left us Peace, but he’s not with us everyday. What are we going to do without him? So far we have failed miserably – what’s the plan now?”

So, not knowing what else to do, the disciples go back to what they know best. They go back home, back to the Sea of Galilee. Or the Sea of Tiberias as John calls it. They go back to fishing. Tired of hearing that inner voice whisper “You stink”, Peter says “I’m going fishing”, and the other disciples go with him.

But they don’t catch anything. That’s not too surprising, in the gospels, the disciples never catch anything with Jesus’ help. Then, in the early morning darkness, the disciples hear a voice calling out to them:

You haven’t caught anything, have you?


Try the other side of the boat.

And then their nets were suddenly full. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the first to figure it out – “It’s the Lord!” And Peter was so excited he jumped right out of the boat. They brought the fish ashore and saw that Jesus had made a charcoal fire and had breakfast ready – “Come, let’s eat.”

As they ate, sharing a meal as they had done in Jerusalem on the night of Jesus arrest, the smell of the fire brought memories back for Peter. Bad memories. You remember the last time we saw Peter sitting beside a fire like this was after Jesus had been arrested and Peter was about to deny Jesus for the third time. That little voice was back, whispering, “You stink – you’re a failure Peter.”

We’ve all felt that way at some time. That feeling of embarrassment, disgust or disappointment when we have said or done something we know we shouldn’t have. We know those times when we have disappointed those closest to us. We’ve all felt like failures. Sometimes we all stink.

But maybe that’s a necessary part of life. Failure is inevitable – right up there with death and taxes. But it’s what you do after a failure that really matters. Ask anybody who has ever accomplished anything significant where they learned their greatest lessons – and they will say from their failures.

There was an article in Fast Company magazine several years ago called “The thrill of defeat.” The article was about Pfizer pharmaceutical company, which spends 8 billion dollars a year researching and developing new drugs. The most amazing statistic about this company according to this article is that 96% of its efforts in the laboratory end in failure. Most researchers never work on a winning drug their entire career.

For example, Nancy Hutson spent 15 years in the Pfizer lab working on 35 different drugs. Not one of them ever made it to the shelf of a pharmacy. Hutson is now the director of the labs at Pfizer – she oversees the Research and Development Department. She says, “We have to help researchers understand that only a tiny minority of them – over their entire careers – will ever touch a winning drug. We need our employees to realize that being faithful and focused on our projects in the midst of seemingly insurmountable failure is as important as almost everything we do.”(2)

Faithful and focused – good point. And something must be working because Pfizer is now the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.

Remember, we all fail – but we will never be a failure until we give up. If we stay faithful and focused, we will eventually succeed.

In his book, Mastering the Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success, Andy Andrews tells a story about our first President, George Washington. In 1754, as a young major in the Virginia militia, Washington was ordered to lead 350 raw recruits through the wilderness to a fort where the city of Pittsburgh now stands. This fort was occupied by the French. Washington’s militia camped about 40 miles from the French fort and built a fort of their own called Fort Necessity. They tried to engage the French and their Indian allies, but they were driven back to Fort Necessity.

Unfortunately, the location of the fort made it almost impossible to defend. They had built it in a valley surrounded with hills with thick forests – perfect hiding places for the French and the Indians. In just nine hours, Washington’s troops were soundly defeated and Washington gave up his sword and signed a declaration of surrender.

George Washington, the father of our country, lost his first battle, his first fort and his first command in one fell swoop. But as he limped back to Virginia, he made no excuses. He didn’t give up. Instead, he learned from the experience how to wage war more suited to the terrain. Which came in handy when he led the American forces against the British years later. He learned from his mistakes. Nobody is a failure until they quit trying.(3)

Besides, failure is where we learn that God is with us. When we fail we learn that God is close by, waiting to catch us when we fall.

Pastor Lloyd Ogilvie once told about a friend of his who used to be a circus performer in his youth. This friend described his experience of learning to work as a trapeze artist. He claimed that, once you know the net below will catch you, you stop worrying about falling. You actually learn to fall successfully. What that means is you can concentrate on catching the trapeze and not on falling, because all the falls in the past have convinced you that the net is strong and reliable. The result of falling and being caught by the net allows for confidence and daring on the trapeze. You fall less, but each fall makes you able to risk more. By failing and finding that the net of God’s love is there to catch us, we discover that God’s grace is sufficient.(4)

All of these lessons are what Jesus is trying to teach Peter here on the beach. After breakfast, Jesus offers these words from beyond the grave, words meant to teach Peter, and all disciples, then and now, that we must learn from our failures, grow in our faith, stay focused on what Christ calls us to do and move on to our next role in God’s plan.

Simon – do you love me?

You know I do.

Then feed my lambs.

Jesus asks Peter this same question three times, allowing Peter the opportunity to undo all three of his denials.

Do you love me?

You know I do.

Then tend my sheep.

Do you love me?


Then feed my sheep.


And with each declaration of love, that little voice whispering “You stink” seems farther and farther away. By the time the fire goes out and the food is finished, Peter is ready to get back on the road of discipleship.

Our failures, our denials do not define us.

God’s grace is what defines us.

God’s love is what makes us who we are.

These words from beyond the grave, “Follow me” call to us still. Let those with ears to hear – listen.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, p8.

2.    Ibid… p9-10.

3.    Ibid… p10-11.

4.    Ibid…p 11.