Do you believe you can fly? Buzz did. Right up until he learned that he was “not a flying toy.”
I’m talking, of course, about the iconic intergalactic space hero Buzz Lightyear from the hit Pixar movie Toy Story. Buzz was the ultimate hero: supremely self-confident, mission-minded, and committed to his calling. He was on a laser-focused quest to defeat the evil Emperor Zurg until, one day, reality caught up with him.
Once he realized that he was, in fact, not an Academy-trained deputized Space Ranger but merely a child’s plaything, everything changed. His confidence evaporated, his mission melted, and he was left to question the very reason for his existence. His “mission in uncharted space” became a wandering in the empty space of his heart and mind. But such experiences aren’t limited to space heroes; they’re common to us as well, even those of us we would normally regard as bona fide heroes, like the apostle Peter.
As one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Peter had a bit of a heroic mentality about him. He was usually the first one to speak up, the first one to act out (walk on water, jump out of a boat, cut off an enemy’s ear), and the first to assert his commitment to Christ. Peter had the self-assured determination that we all admire in our heroes. But Peter’s self-confidence had a faulty foundation: himself. In his mind, his commitment to Jesus was all that mattered. Because of that commitment, he could boldly proclaim to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33) He had the best of intentions, but lacked the follow-through. For only a short time later…
Then they seized [Jesus] and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
— Luke 22:54–62
When faced with an opportunity to make good on his promise, Peter bailed. Was it a moment of weakness, or was Peter himself weak? Had he perhaps deceived himself that his commitment was stronger than it actually was? One thing is for sure: Peter’s bitter tears reveal just how devastating his failure was to him.
Fast forward a few days (after Jesus’ resurrection), and we find Peter doing what Peter always did: fishing. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. (John 21:2–3)
Once again, he is fishing, and once again, he is failing. Did his failure on the sea remind him of his failure before his Lord? Were those memories still haunting him as he tried to cast them into the sea? His attempts to get rid of them must have come back as empty as his fishless nets. But his story wasn’t over; Jesus wasn’t done with him yet.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.”
** — John 21:4–7**
This was not the first time Jesus had appeared to the disciples after his resurrection (it was actually the third time – John 21:14), but this appearance had a very specific goal in mind: Peter’s restoration. To restore Peter, Jesus needed to encounter him in a very real, personal, and intimate way. He did so by re-enacting the circumstances of Peter’s initial calling: the empty nets after a night of fishing, the recasting of those nets for an over-abundant catch, and the revelation of Jesus’ lordship. All of this happened again as Jesus set the stage for a do-over in Peter’s life.
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
— John 21:15–17
Although this reset was painful, it was necessary. In order to move past his failure, Peter had to relive that bitter memory so that Jesus could redeem it. Peter’s calling to care for Christ’s people was not a prerequisite for this redemption but a response to it. Jesus was telling Peter that his past was not fatal and his present was not futile. He still loved him and had a purpose for his life. It was a purpose that Peter would embrace and live out the rest of his earthly existence.
In light of this encounter, we must ask ourselves an important question: Is our worthiness before God based on our performance for Him or His love for us? If it’s our performance, we are all in trouble. None of us qualify to stand before God, much less have a relationship with him or a purpose in His kingdom. But if it’s not about us but about His love for us, that changes everything. Our erratic performance is replaced by the unending, never-changing, always-present, unconditional love of our God and Savior.
Peter’s encounter with Christ on the beach changed his focus from his own failure to Jesus’ boundless love. His mission of caring for people would thereafter be grace-based rather than performance-driven. The grace that Jesus extended to Peter would be the same grace that Peter extended to those who so desperately needed it like he did. And this is the essence of the gospel, the place where you and I must begin (and end). Performance-driven faith is tempting because it is all about us, but it is also crushing when we don’t live up to its demanding standards. Grace-based faith, on the other hand, takes our eyes off of ourselves and focuses them on the one who gave His life to redeem our poor performance.
Peter was effective in his calling not because of his performance but because of his focus. May his focus be ours as well. Because in the end, we’re not performing at all. We’re relating — to the one who related to us by becoming like us, that we might become like him.
So to all the Buzz Lightyears out there, take heart. We may not be able to fly, but we have an incredible Savior who has flown from heaven and back to make us much more than children’s playthings. We are children of God. Let that identity replace any superhero fantasies we might have about ourselves and ground us in a grace that is unimaginable and yet absolutely true. And once we’re grounded in that, we’ll truly be able to fly.