Did it ever seem to you as if the stories of your childhood were filled with threes? Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Three Blind Mice. Any number of stories featuring three wishes. Growing up in Italy, children learn the tales of the Three Oranges and the Three Fairies; in Norway, the Three Aunts and the Three Princesses of Whiteland; in Germany, the Three Dogs and the Three Little Birds.
And of course, when I posed the question to friends, what do you think this sermon on three will be about, I got everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. People wondered whether I would be preaching on Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or Peter, James and John, or Matthew, Mark and Luke, or on the Trinity. On the other hand, they wondered whether we would be reflecting together on the three Musketeers, or Olga, Masha, and Irina, the three sisters from the Chekhov play, or perhaps that other literary trinity, Larry, Moe and Curley. I even had the suggestion: A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…
The number three is just the right number. And scripture is filled with threes. In the Hebrew scriptures, there are three great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in Genesis chapter 18, three “men” appear to Abraham to inform him that Sarah will bear a son within the year… but as the story progresses, they are no longer referred to as “three men,” but rather, as “the Lord.” And flying in the face of the idea that the God of Hebrew scripture is a God of wrath and judgment, the three attributes most often ascribed to God there are graciousness, compassion, and loving-kindness. In the New Testament, the gospel of John tells us that the ministry of Jesus lasted three years. And then there are the three-day episodes: Jonah in the belly of the great fish; Jesus as a boy, lost/separated from his parents; Saul blinded, Jesus rising from the dead on the third day. The cardinal New Testament virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity (or love), though a Facebook friend did propose a sermon on Faith, Hope and Chocolate.
Instead of all these, we turn today to the late chapters of John’s gospel, and hear the story of the three-fold denial of Jesus by Simon Peter. As Jesus is being led through his arrest and trials, Simon and another unnamed disciple are trying to follow and at the same time keep a low profile. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind what the stakes are here. Jesus is likely to die. And if he dies, anyone who is associated with him is in danger of the same.
Peter is asked three times whether he knows Jesus. The first two times, he is asked whether he is a disciple, a follower of Jesus, a word that literally means, “learner.” The third time he is asked, simply, whether he was in the garden with Jesus at the time of his arrest. Each time Peter says no. And as he is saying his third denial, a cock crows—which tells Simon Peter something devastating. It reminds him that for all his love, for all his learning, for all his following Jesus, still, Jesus knew that this moment would come. At a moment of danger, Simon Peter would turn away.
I don’t know which is worse, letting down someone we love or letting ourselves down. Each comes with its own particular peril. Not too long ago I was reminded of an episode from my childhood by means of a diary from the year I was in eighth grade. In January of that year, after a series of falls, my mother was diagnosed with a progressive degenerative disease of the nerves in her legs. A doctor at a large Philadelphia research hospital told her she would be in a wheelchair within five years; she was 53 at the time.
She reached out to me, asked for help around the house. I can empathize, now, with how terrified she must have been, the thought of losing her mobility at such a young age. I must have seriously disappointed her, because I kept, tucked in this diary, a letter she wrote to me, filled with her frustration and anger and disappointment. Reading it almost forty years later was still a kick in the gut. I don’t think I was a particularly bad kid. But I know I must have been pretty self-involved. I let my mother down, and in so doing, I learned something about myself that was uncomfortable, even shameful, but it was the truth.
For Peter, I imagine the sound of that rooster signaling morning was a wakeup call of devastating proportions. He learned something about himself, about the depths or shallowness of his devotion, in that moment, to Jesus.
And then, we’re in chapter 21, and the world has turned upside down, and up right again. Jesus was killed. And then Jesus was raised from the dead. And in the aftermath, as a kind of epilogue, we have this scene on the beach that starts with disciples back in their fishing boats, back to the beginning, almost as if the “Jesus event” had never even occurred. You remember the story. Simon Peter announces, “I am going fishing,” and four others join him. They are out all night in the boat, but catch nothing. In the morning, Jesus gives them a suggestion about placement of the net, and they haul in 153 fish (a number scholars absolutely cannot agree about, symbolically or otherwise). Simon recognizes Jesus and jumps into the water to get to him as quickly as he can.
They have a barbecue on the beach, a fish fry. After their weary bodies have been fed, Jesus asks: Simon, so of John, do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you, Simon Peter answers. Feed my lambs, Jesus replies.
And this happens again. Simon, do you love me? Yes Lord, you know I do. Tend my sheep.
And again. Do you love me? And now—Simon is hurt. Maybe because someone asking something three times is an excruciating reminder. It is kick in the gut time. Again. And Simon Peter is just the tiniest bit defensive now. Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you. Feed my sheep.
In scripture, three is another of the perfect numbers—it is the number of divine perfection. And it represents everything that is real, solid, substantial, and complete.
So Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is real, solid, substantial, and complete.
Just as Simon Peter’s affirmation of loving Jesus is real, solid, substantial, and complete.
And here is the real, solid, substantial, and complete truth about human nature. We are broken. We fail. We let one another down. We hurt one another, we deny one another. We don’t show up. A pastor was at a Christian rock concert in Austin, Texas, talking to a man who was a self-described Jesus freak, “just living in the joy of the Lord, reading his Bible every day and praying to Jesus and… playing Christian rock on his stereo.” And this pastor asked the man whether he went to church or not, and he said that he’d had a hard time finding a congregation where he really felt at home and inspired, where he fit in. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s just so boring!”
The pastor asked him, “Do you love Jesus?”
“Yes, I do. I love him with all my heart.”
“Would you die for him?”
“Yes, I would.”
“You would die for him, but you won't be bored for him?”[i]
This is the real, solid, substantial and complete truth, about every single one of us. We are broken and partial and incomplete. We let one another down. We don’t make the bed or fold the laundry or side with the person who is being bullied or denied his rights or killed.
And this is the real, solid, substantial and complete truth about God: God sits us down at a table or on a beach and feeds our weary bodies and souls, and then offers us second chances and third chances and one hundred and thirty third chances, chances without limit. Beloved child, do you love me? Yes, you know I do.
And that is the place of pure joy. That is the place where we are invited, day by day, in this life of faith. We are invited to sit at the table where we will be fed with the very life of God. And that life includes looking around to see what we can do to make someone else’s life a little better, a little less lonely or filled with hurt or fear. Feed my sheep… an invitation that has about three trillion possible applications, the need is so great and the so-called sheep are so many.
And so we gather around this table, knowing the real, solid, substantial and complete truth about ourselves and about God. And the truth about God is so overwhelming, that it simply swallows up the truth about us, in a great sea of grace and blessing and joy. God will supply our need. We will be blessed. We will turn and bless God’s world. Thanks be to God. Amen.