Seeing Through Eyes Washed by Tears

Every time I read this portion of the gospel story I find myself stopping to ponder Peter’s denial. I don’t know why, but for some reason I feel like I am there with him. I can feel the coolness of the night, smell the charcoal fire and see Peter as he tries not to make eye contact with those standing around him. One at a time, two servant girls and then a bystander approach Peter. Unlike those Jesus was about to face, these people had no rank or authority. Their clothes and demeanor did not speak of their societal importance or personal power. And yet, when they asked Peter if he was a follower of Jesus, Peter denied it.


We all know the story. After the third denial, the sound of a crowing rooster reminded Peter of the boastful promise he made just a few hours earlier that night. When Jesus was sharing the horrors that awaited Him, Peter confidently stated that while all the other disciples might fall away, he never would. And the sound also reminded him of Jesus’ words, “I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (26:34). Despite his best intentions and grand protests (26:35), the sound of the rooster brought all this back to his mind and so Peter went out and wept bitterly.


In my imagination, I can see this part too. A once strong and confident man now alone in the shadows, hunched over on his knees, clinging to a rock or a wall. I watch his shoulders shake as he wails uncontrollably. No one can console this kind of grief. No one can bring comfort to this level of suffering. He is alone, facing the fact that he has nothing to offer, nothing to give, nothing of value anymore. Inside of his own life and heart there is no more hope. If he can’t trust himself, who can he trust? His life and dreams and even his own identity lay shattered on the ground all around him, never to be repaired again.


There have been seasons in my own life where utter hopelessness seemed to overwhelm me. I failed. I could not do what I thought I would do. I let down my Lord, my wife, my child, my congregation….myself. I was not strong enough, smart enough, fast enough or sensitive enough and I really blew it. Now, all that remains is to join Peter in the darkness and weep….bitterly.


Thankfully, this is not the end of the story.


When you read Mark, you will notice how the women at the tomb were instructed to tell the disciples and Peter that the resurrected Jesus would meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:7). Only hours after his denial, Peter was singled out to make sure he knew he was still included in the group of disciples. And it was good that Jesus did so because Peter wasn’t so sure he still belonged.


In John 21, Peter declared his intention to go fishing. I think this was more than a just a recreational endeavor. Had he given up on being a disciple and decided to return to his old occupation? Imagine what he felt after fishing all night and catching nothing! Could he not even do this well? This fishing “failure” was not by accident. As the sun began to rise, Jesus appeared on the shore and reenacted the moment of Peter’s original call to discipleship (see Luke 5:1-11).


When John identified the lone figure to be Jesus, Peter jumped into the lake so that he could be the first to join Jesus on the shore. Wet and chilled by the cool morning air, he was confronted with the smell of another charcoal fire. What memories would that smell bring to mind? It was deja vu all over again. What was Peter expecting? Was this the moment when Jesus would lay into him and let him know how disappointed He was in Peter’s failure to follow through on the commitment he had promised? No. This was the moment when Jesus reinstated Peter, giving him the same call three times. “Feed my sheep. Take care of my lambs.” Decades later we see Peter’s faithfulness in the way he was training church elders to do the very same thing (1 Peter 5:1-7).


It seems to me that Peter’s epic, public failure became a spiritually forming moment for him. His life now stood at a fork in the road and he had to make a choice between two options. With hope lost and identity shattered, he could have returned to fishing, slipping from the pages of history as one who failed the Lord. That is the path I am most often tempted to take and it seems like the one he was ready to walk down (John 21:3). The other option was to believe the gospel, to believe that God is a gracious and compassionate God who is ready to forgive and to restore. Believing in the gospel requires us to embrace our new identity as beloved children of God and to act on the gospel, to step out and do what a forgiven and restored person would do even when it seems hard.


Believing the gospel requires eyes to see the fullness of this gift and sometimes the only eyes that can see the true beauty of the gospel are the ones that have been washed by tears.


I have shed many tears over the decades; you have too. These tears can lead us down one of two paths. If we focus on our own strength and dreams we will see our own inability to achieve what is needed. Losing hope, we will slip off into the shadows of history as sad, broken and angry people. However, if we focus on the love of God and the promises He has given, then a new path begins to emerge. This path takes us into a world of radical reversals where true Wisdom is found by fools, where only children can become fully mature, where true prosperity is found in poverty, where life is found by dying and where happiness is found in tears (“blessed are those who weep”). Only when we get to the point of bitter weeping do we discover in the hopelessness of tears that our last hope is actually our only hope.


Is it possible that the full truth and beauty of the gospel can only be seen through eyes that have been washed by bitter tears? These floodgates can be opened by many things. They are opened by failure, various kinds of loss or personal suffering, sorrow over injustice and concern for the suffering of others, just to name a few. As we journey together, let’s be open to sharing our own epic failures, grief and pain with one another, knowing that the gospel can bring about a restoration that we never, ever thought was possible.


God’s goodness and patience leaves me speechless.


Walking with you,