When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
On Easter Sunday Jesus appeared alive: the tomb where he was buried is empty, his friends are amazed, yet terrified, too, at this strange and wonderful thing. Yet, the story doesn’t move straight from the glory of the resurrection to Jesus’ ascension, and skip over to the wonder of Pentecost. The Gospels reflect this interesting period in-between that we don’t talk about quite as much, where Jesus walks and talks with his followers, but they don’t recognize him at first; they still express doubt and concern. In Luke’s Gospel, there are the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who don’t recognize Jesus walking and talking with them until he is in their home eating with them. There’s Thomas, who won’t believe it until he sees the scars in Jesus’ body. They witness Jesus alive, in the flesh, they are amazed, but they don’t quite know what to do with themselves.
It’s in this kind of a space that John shows us Peter: someone in need of restoration. So Jesus meets him where he first met him.
Think of where or when Jesus first captivated you. Was it about him that drew you? What made you want to follow him?
What captured Peter seems to be the Jesus called him to be something great. Jesus met him by the shore, doing his work as a fisherman, and tells him what? I’ll make you a fisher of men, and what else? He gives him a new name, Cephas in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, Peter, Rock: the one with the faith that the church will be built on. Perhaps it was that Jesus—who by now is known around Galilee, this great healer and teacher, who just might be the Messiah, looks Peter in the eye—Peter this ordinary kid from a fishing village, doing his father’s trade with his brother—and says I believe in you, come follow me, live my life. See how much fish you just caught, can do that catching people for God.
So here is Jesus, again on a shore in Galilee, and there’s Peter in a boat. And Jesus knows that Peter needs restoration, so he goes back to the start. Peter has already witnessed the risen Jesus; he stood amazed at the man in flesh and blood, scars on his hands and side. But I can imagine him still feeling shame and fear, knowing that he said that he would follow Jesus even to death, he reacted with violence when Jesus responded with peace, he lied and hid himself so that I wouldn’t be condemned with Jesus. Uncertainty follows Peter, within himself and within the group. Peter had fallen, but Jesus believes in him still.
On the night Jesus was arrested and tried, three times Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus, and three times Peter denied it. Now Jesus asks him three times, Do you love me? I don’t think Jesus is interrogating, or prodding, or testing, as much as giving him a second chance. Though Peter did not love Jesus in his actions, Jesus is inviting Peter into a space where he can experience love. If Jesus were a King like Caesar, Peter would have been considered treasonous. But Jesus is the King whose Kingdom is not of this world, whose gates are open, whose policy is grace. If Peter can be restored from shame and disloyalty, from cowardice and violence, then Jesus can restore any of us.
It’s easy for people in the church to pretend like everything’s all right. We like to come into worship with our shirts tucked in and smiles on our faces. We might say something that hints at our imperfection, but these can so easily serve as masks to hide behind, to save us from the vulnerability of true confession and reconciliation.
From this text, we also see Jesus restoring Peter to his mission. Peter’s “yes” means that he has something to do. Love is an action. Jesus invites Peter not into grandiose strategizing for evangelizing the world, but to simple care. Care for my sheep, feed my sheep.
It’s almost as if Jesus is telling Peter slow down, if you want to be a part of something great, then do small things with great love. We don’t earn God’s love through action, but God’s love, as we come to embrace it, drives us to love others.
But who are Jesus’ sheep? If you were to ask a Jewish person in Jesus’ day, who are God’s sheep, they would say, Israel. God’s people. And this would be true, consistent with the scriptures that use the shepherd sheep-analogy to talk about God’s relationship with Israel. But, is that what Jesus means here? Would it be fellow Christians—the church community? That would make sense, since Jesus is a shepherd, a leader of the church, who tends and cares for it, as he said in the same Gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the father . . .” But Jesus had more to say in the next verse, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Jesus was saying here that all are his sheep—not just those within Israel. Jesus wanted to widen the narrow circle that the Jewish people had drawn around who was saved and who was not. The gentiles were his also, and he was going to bring all people, all nations into one people.
So what does this mean? It means that there are many people outside the church that are also Jesus sheep, and are ours to tend to, to care for, to feed. All are God’s children. The Gospel of John is full of double meanings, even here in the end. This isn’t just a story about one person’s relationship with Jesus. It is a story about the church, the followers of Jesus being restored to fulfill it’s true mission: The broken, fragmented body reunified, reminded that it doesn’t exist for its own good, but for God’s restoration project for a broken world.
Do you love me? Jesus asks. Then you must also love all people. Not just those who look like you, talk like you, worship like you, eat like you. Do you love me? Then like me love even those who turned their backs on me. Do you love me? Then quit running the rat race, put down your guards, your insecurities, and join the flock of my care. Believe what Paul, said that nothing can separate you from my love. Not hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you love Jesus? Then free yourself from self-condemnation, from shame, from guilt. Do you love Jesus? Then free yourself to love. Jesus never pressures us, coerces us, guilt-trips us into loving him. He never says, Love me, or you’re going to hell. He just asks us, Do you love me? And offers us a part to play in the great story of redemption. Take care of one another, and don’t be afraid. Whatever you do don’t be afraid.