I recently heard a Vox podcast about regret. The interviewee, Daniel Pink, wrote a book on the subject, reflecting on regret’s transformative power. Regret is an emotion that—if we face it honestly—has the potency to turn us around, to make us go another way. We’ve all been there. When I look back to times I’ve done wrong, it isn’t the stereotypical slip-ups that stand out to me—the sex, lies, or other excesses held up as “the bad sins” in our society. What hurts to this day, so much that I will never forget them, are times I betrayed a friend. I deeply regret these experiences—times I put my needs or wants above the well-being of someone I loved, hurting them and our relationship irreparably. If we’re honest, we all remember doing this at least once. I carry with me the regret of those betrayals. It actually energizes my desire to do better, to treat the people I love with greater care and intentionality. Have you hurt a loved one, then wanted intensely to make it up to them? That’s what I’m talking about. Sometimes we’re given a second chance, but often we are not. That loss of a second chance, the regret, can be excruciating—a life-long pain. And it can also be animating.
So it’s no accident that John 21:1-19 [lectionary during week this essay was originally published] has Jesus ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter had famously denied Jesus three times. By the time of John’s gospel, likely finalized at the end of the first century, everyone in the Christian world knew the story of Peter’s denial. It was famous. Peter was famous—considered the cornerstone and primary leader of the church (eventually deemed the first ‘primate,’ or pope). So no one would miss the parallel between the well-known story of Peter three times denying Jesus, and in this story, Peter’s opportunity to three times make it up to him, to reaffirm his love for Jesus again and again and again. Honestly, we can relate to Peter all too well. As he sat at a firepit outside the house of authorities questioning Jesus before his crucifixion, someone asked Peter if he knew Jesus. Peter—in fear for his life, a fear we can all relate to if we tell ourselves the truth—refused to acknowledge his close friend. In response to the question, Peter said: I have no idea who you’re talking about. He repeated this denial three times—as Jesus had predicted he would.
When we have betrayed or wronged a close loved one, we are sometimes denied a second chance. But in this telling of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after his crucifixion, Peter is restored to a kind of wholeness. Peter, likely crippled with regret from Jesus’ last days, recognizes his friend on the shore. He dives into the water and swims to him. Such elation and relief!
The beauty of these biblical stories, stories we read over and over, is how we’re invited to enter into them. We get to imagine ourselves in the scenes and characters portrayed. Part of what this story is saying then, is that we are all Peter. Every one of us will fail. And every one of us can be restored. The image Jesus shows us of God, especially in stories or parables he tells, paints God as a force of love, a caregiver. Parables like the story of the prodigal son, where the father goes to great lengths to receive his son who has wronged him and to give him another chance; or as in the parable of the shepherd who tenaciously looks for the one lost sheep, seemingly unconcerned with why the sheep wandered off, and given to returning the sheep to safety.
In this season after Easter, we focus on the risen-life appearances of Jesus, and each writer relays different accounts, different stories. In Mark, the disciples are eating together when Jesus appears among them. In Luke, Jesus uses scripture to illumine what they are seeing. In our passage in John, the disciples are at work on the shore when he shows up. Yet four appearances actually occur in John, and this one is the fourth. The first is to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, where she’s sent by Jesus to inform the others, thus becoming to first apostle (meaning “sent one”). Jesus then appears to the disciples as they hive away in fear. A week later, he returns (the third appearance)—the lot of them still seemingly afraid. These appearance narratives are examples of the second, third, fourth… chances given by Jesus to his closest associates who have, really, failed him. Despite the fact that Jesus’ friends/followers have locked themselves away, he continues to reach out to them with so much understanding, gentleness, and love. I am sure his friends felt regret. But perhaps that regret motivated them to go and do remarkable things. Indeed, to go and change the world. May we experience such life-transforming grace.