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Checkmate! Game’s Over! We Win!

John 21:15-19

Should you ever visit the magnificent Louvre Museum in Paris, you will see many of the world’s greatest art treasures. Among them is a dramatic painting based on Goethe’s “Faust.” You will remember that Faust is the one who sold his soul to the devil. Well, in the painting, Faust is seated at a table engaged in a competitive game of chess. At first glance, it appears that Faust is losing. His opponent in the chess game is Mephistopheles, the devil of medieval legend. The devil sits there grinning smugly. He thinks he has the victory in hand. He is pointing at the chessboard with an evil leer and he is gloating with an air of triumph. As you look at the painting, you can almost hear the devil shouting: “Checkmate! Game’s Over! You lose!”

However, just a few years ago, an internationally-known chess master was admiring that painting. Suddenly, he lunged forward and exclaimed: “Wait a minute! Look! The game’s not over. Faust has another move he can make and that move will give him the victory. If he makes that move, he will have checkmated the devil and he will win.”

I regard that painting as a kind of parable for us as Christians. When we look at the cross on Good Friday, it looks, at first glance, like evil has won. It looks like righteousness has been defeated. It looks like goodness is dead and buried forever. It looks like Jesus Christ has been silenced and conquered once and for all. But then suddenly, Easter Sunday reveals the fact that God still had one more move to make. It was the greatest checkmate move of all time. Jesus Christ came out of the grave and into our lives with power and victory. Easter reminds us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no wickedness strong enough, and no evil diabolical enough to keep Jesus dead. God and His goodness will win. God and His truth will win. God and His love will win. God and His Son will win. And God in His amazing grace wants to share that victory with you and me. Therefore, because of Easter, we as Christians can look the evil of this world square in the eye and say: “Checkmate! Game’s over! We win!”

That’s the message of this very touching passage of Scripture in John 21. After Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, one of the things He did was to go looking for Simon Peter. You see, in the crunch of threatening circumstances, Simon Peter had failed. He had denied even knowing Jesus—not once, not twice, but three times! So Peter needed forgiveness. He needed reassurance. He needed a new start in life. That’s why after the resurrection, Jesus sought out Peter to give him the things he needed. Catch the significance of that for you and for me. Jesus Christ not only conquers evil and death, but He also resurrects us. He gives us what we need to live triumphant and victorious lives. That’s what John 21 teaches.

Let’s rewind the tape and replay the story. Some three years earlier, Simon had left his fishing nets to become a follower of Jesus. Jesus liked Simon. He included Simon in His closest circle of friends. He even changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “the Rock”, because Jesus felt that he was strong, stable, solid like a rock. But then things turned sour. Jesus was arrested and Peter the Rock got scared. Under pressure, he crumbled. He denied knowing his Lord. Then when the life of Jesus was snuffed out on the cross, that was too much—Peter was devastated, defeated, and brokenhearted.

Even Easter could not completely overcome those feelings. For while Peter was excited and gratified over Christ’s resurrection, he remained confused and perplexed about his future and ashamed of his past failure. He felt that he had lost the battle to evil and nothing, not even the resurrection, could salvage that defeat. He returned to Galilee, wrapped in a mantle of despair. There, with a great sense of frustration, he declared: “I am going fishing.” In other words, he was saying: “I can’t handle this any longer. I blew it. I lost the battle. The game’s over, so I’m going back to the only thing I knew how to do. I’m going back to the old life of being a fisherman.”‘

The others went along with him. They fished all night with no luck. Then just as the sun began to rise, someone standing on the shore called out to them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. They did and they hauled in a huge catch of fish. Suddenly there in the dawn’s early light, it dawned on them that the man on the shore was the Risen Christ. When they landed, they found the Christ cooking breakfast for them over a charcoal fire. After breakfast, Jesus took Simon Peter aside and three times asked him the same question: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answered: “Yes, Lord, I love you.” And three times Jesus said: “Then feed my sheep.” Quite obviously, Jesus was giving Peter the chance to make up for his earlier three-fold denial. And then the story ends exactly the way it began for Simon Peter. It ends with Jesus saying to Peter exactly what Jesus had said to Peter at the beginning. The first thing Jesus ever said to Peter was: “Follow me.” And now the last thing Jesus ever said to Simon Peter was that same simple command: “Follow me.”

Isn’t that a great story? It’s packed with powerful symbols, strong emotions, dramatic lessons. But the more I have tried to analyze that story, the more I have become convinced that the most dramatic lesson of all is that not only did the resurrected Christ defeat evil for Himself, but He also gives us what we need to defeat evil as well. Let me draw out that truth in a couple of ways.

First, in a world where despair seems to be winning the game, Jesus gives us a triumphant sense of encouragement.

If ever anybody needed encouragement, it was Simon Peter in that moment. He was down. He felt like a failure. He was defeated and ashamed. He felt that the devil had won in his life. Under intense pressure, Simon Peter caved in and denied his Lord. And being the bold personality he was, that failure crushed the life out of him. He was down for the count. And now, even though he had witnessed the reality of the resurrection, he couldn’t shake free from the anguish and the agony of his own failure. Peter, the Rock, had crumbled, now he felt like dirt! But then along came the Risen Christ to give him the encouragement he needed.

It’s important to remember that the word “encourage” literally means “to put the heart in”, while the word “discourage” means “to tear the heart out.” In this powerful scene in John 21, we see Jesus graciously and intentionally putting the heart back into Simon Peter. No stern lectures here. No “I told you so’s.” No fanning the flames of guilt. No blame-placing or finger-pointing. Just words of encouragement. The Risen Christ was saying to Simon Peter: “I still love you. I still believe in you. I still trust you. I want you to take up the torch of my ministry. I want you to feed my sheep. I have defeated the power of evil for you. The victory is yours.” Those words from Jesus were just the “wake-up call” Simon Peter needed. He then went on to become one of the courageous leaders and martyrs of the early church.

Now the Risen Christ has those same words of encouragement for you and for me today. And if we would hear those words and respond to them in faith the way Peter did, we could turn this world upside down. It’s like Richard Cardinal Cushing said—and I love this!—he said: “If all the sleeping folks will wake up, and all the lukewarm folks will fire up, and all the disgruntled folks will sweeten up, and all the discouraged folks will cheer up, and all the depressed folks will look up, and all the estranged folks will make up, and all the gossiping folks will shut up, and all the dry bones will shake up, and all the true soldiers will stand up, and all the church members will pray up, and if the Saviour of all will be lifted up, then we can have the greatest renewal this world has ever known!”

The Risen Christ came to Simon Peter on the seashore that morning with words of encouragement. And when we need encouragement, He will be there for us as well.

Then in a world where meaninglessness seems to be winning, Jesus gives us a triumphant sense of direction.

Simon Peter and the other disciples had been waiting around and wondering “What next? What are we supposed to do now?” Then the Risen Christ came to them and gave a new sense of direction. He said: “If you love me, then feed my sheep.” What He meant was: “Carry the light of the Gospel into the world. Be the church for this needy world.” You see, the world is starving to death for Jesus Christ and we have Him. Our task is to feed His sheep, to share Him with others, to live for Him in every day and in every way!

Imagine what those words must have meant to Simon Peter. The events surrounding the crucifixion seemed to have brought everything to an end, full stop, nothing following. Tie on to that a load of guilt for the wrongs he had done, and Peter must have felt that the darkness of evil had swallowed him up. But it wasn’t over. There was still one more move God could make. He came to Peter in the Risen Christ and sent him marching off in a new direction in life.

And it’s not over for you, or for me, no matter what we may have done. You see, Jesus is much less interested in where people are coming from and in what they have done, than in where they are going and in what they might become. Say it again, Sam! Jesus is much less interested in where people are coming from and in which they have done, than in where they are going and in what they might become. For Jesus, the issue is not position—it’s direction. As Dr. Fosdick used to say: “While we ought not to be the way we are, we do not need to stay the way we are.” Or as that bumper sticker had it: “Live so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral!” Therefore, in the name of the Risen Christ, I call you to change the direction of your life. I call you to live for Jesus Christ in every day and in every way. Both you and the world will be better for it.

The year 1899 marked the deaths of two well-known men—Dwight L. Moody, the acclaimed evangelist, and Robert Ingersoll the famous lawyer and politician. The two men had much in common. Both were raised in Christian homes. Both were skilled orators. Both were widely respected. Both drew huge crowds of loyal followers. But there was one striking difference between them—their view of God. Ingersoll was an atheist who stressed the importance of living only in the here and now. He called the Bible “a fable, an obscenity, a shame and a lie.” He attacked the Christian faith every chance he got. Moody, on the other hand, dedicated his life to presenting a resurrected Christ to a dying people. He embraced the Bible as our only hope and the cross as the turning point of history. Two men. Both powerful speakers and influential leaders. One rejected God; the other lived for God. And interestingly enough, the impact of their decisions is seen not only in the way they lived, but most clearly in the way they died.

Ingersoll died suddenly. His family was plunged into unrelieved grief. His body was kept at home for several days because his wife was reluctant to part with it. Eventually it had to be removed for the sake of the family’s health. The public response to his passing was dismal. Only a handful of people showed up for his funeral. The printed funeral program had this solemn instruction: “There will be no singing.” He left behind a legacy of hopelessness and despair.

Moody’s legacy was different. On December 22, 1899, his life began to ebb slowly away. His family gathered around. He said to them: “God is calling me and I must go. Don’t call me back.” Moments later he died, leaving behind a legacy of powerful words, changed lives, strong churches and institutions of education. His funeral was attended by multiple thousands. There was no despair. There were songs of praise. The service ended with the reading of words Moody had spoken earlier that year in New York City: “Someday you will read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now!”

You tell me: which man was better off and which man left the world better off? My friends, live your life for the Risen Christ in every day and in every way. If you do then you will learn what Peter learned, that because of Jesus Christ, in the game of life you cannot lose…

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