Do You Love Me, Peter?
John 21:1-17 Interesting… theoretically, Lord Jesus, You could have risen with a huge, glittering display that everyone could have witnessed – disciples, followers, regular Jewish people.. and yes, those Jewish leaders and Romans too!
But You didn’t. In fact, it seems You were very selective (only appearing to certain disciples at carefully chosen times and places… of Your choosing, for Your purposes) … like this time at the Sea of Galilee…
Now even though the disciples had seen You, knew You were alive, had received Your Spirit as You breathed it on them, had been sent out by You as You had been sent out by the Father… still there was something lacking. It was like they were in a kind of vacuum… no one quite knew what to do next… they’d been depending on You to be with them and kind of run the show for the past 3 years, but now things were different… for sure. You were different (apparently walking through walls? suddenly appearing? with them now and then, but mostly not with them)… You weren’t much around physically running the show (though You were clearly physical still… sort of… but surely not the same)… so… “What next?”
And good old, down to earth, “Let’s get busy and do something” Peter says, “Well, enough of this sitting around! I’m going to go back fishing! I always loved being out there on the water… and for sure it’s a living! And Jesus did say something about us becoming fishers of me, didn’t he? Well I’m not sure maybe exactly what He meant about that… but He keeps taking off and leaving us alone so we can’t ask Him… so I figure I might as well get busy and do the best I can to obey Him… and there’s one kind of fishing I know well… it’s as good a place as any to start… So any of you guys want to come with me?”
“Sure!” they reply, and so off they go fishing… doing what they know how to do, the best that they can do themselves (well, Jesus sure doesn’t seem to be around to advise them!)… and what is the result? They don’t catch a thing! Oh no, have they lost their touch? What should they do now? “If Jesus was here, we could ask Him…”
So dejectedly they row slowly back to shore, their empty nets forlornly hanging on the sides of the little boat… and suddenly a calling voice carries clearly across the water in the early morning stillness: “Say, you boys! Have you caught anything that would go well with bread for breakfast? … Hmm… looks like your nets are pretty empty… Well, listen, I have a suggestion! Pick up those nets and cast them into the water on the right side of the boat. I’m certain you’ll find a good catch there!”
The disciples look at each other. Who is this Stranger anyway? He sounds so confident about where the fish are… maybe he’s a fisherman, too? But if so, why isn’t He out in His boat scooping up the fish he seems so sure are there? … Oh well, we really didn’t catch a thing… But fishing so close to shore seems crazy… and why should one side of the boat be better than the other? What’s with this stranger?… Oh well, nothing attempted, nothing gained…. Can’t hurt to give it a try…
So they shrug their shoulders, and without much enthusiasm, gather up the drooping nets and plop them over the right side of the boat, into the clear, calm morning waters that appear absolutely devoid of fish… and then they slowly sit back into the boat to wait and see if anything will happen…
But before they can settle themselves, something unbelievable starts occurring. The boat is rocking violently, tipping towards the right… the disciples leap up and peer over the side of the boat in amazement! The water seems to be boiling, as a great mass of – what is it? fish? who has ever seen huge fish like this in Galilee’s sea? – a great, leaping, bouncing, splashing mass of fish – yes, fish! But so many! And so large and lively! The fish leap into the nets, filling them, stretching them, threatening to snap the weaker knots as they jostle each other, apparently eager to get caught! The disciples stand stock still, their eyes wide open, their mouths gaping, not speaking a word, so great is their shock and disbelief at what they are witnessing!
And then, a look of joyous recognition flashes over John’s face! After all, what – or more to the point, Who? – could be responsible for this impossible event except for One Person – the Man Whom they have already witnessed walking the waters of this sea, and calming its storm-tossed waves simply by the command of His voice? “It is the Lord!” he whispers in awe to Peter…
The moment of breathless stillness among the disciples is broken suddenly as Peter leaps to the prow of the boat, scooping up his tunic, and struggling into it, in such a rush that he gets tangled up for a few seconds… but then, it is on, and with a great leap, he bounds out of the boat, creating a huge splash as he volleys into the water… and then he is running, jumping, splashing, water flying in every direction, as he rushes toward the shore, toward His precious Lord and Master!
Back on the boat, two of the others grab the oars, and start straining at them, using every muscle to pull the heavily laden vessel to shore, as the rest hang on to the over-filled nets with all their strength, while trying to keep the boat from tipping and swamping. Finally, the welcome sound of wood hull scraping over gravel announces that they have reached the shore. Tossing the oars aside, the two oarsmen leap out of the boat, and drag its prow up onto the beach, then grab the nets and tie them securely to the boat. When their task is done, they all step out onto the shore and stop for a moment to catch their breath. Then they look up the beach in wonder.
Yes, there is big, burly Peter jumping around, laughing, shouting with joy, rivulets of water running down from his hair, beard, robe, splattering everything around him. What is he up to? He rushes down to the boat and starts to grab the large fish from the net, tossing them in a heap on the gravelly shore, exultantly counting each one aloud, “One, two, three… ten, twenty, thirty… one hundred… one hundred fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three!” And then he lifts the empty net, shakes it out – and wonder of wonders, there isn’t a single tear or snapped knot!
And then an even greater wonder meets their eyes. For there squats the Stranger, stirring up the coals of a well-constructed fire, on which lie delicious-smelling freshly baked fish, and mingling with the aroma of the fish is the mouth-watering scent of fresh-baked bread. This Stranger is clearly no fisherman by trade, though he obviously can catch fish… but as he turns he head toward them, and the newly risen sun fills in the shadows and brings out the details of his face, the disciples gasp… all except John, whose smiling face reflects the joy on Peter’s face. “Surely,” they think, “this can’t be Jesus? Of course we know He’s alive… but we haven’t seen anything of Him for days… and what are the chances of Him turning up here, now, in this way… when we were beginning to wonder if He’d left us for good… or even if we were maybe somehow mistaken when He appeared to us before… It sure looks like Him, though… and yes, this is one of those amazing, unbelievable things that are just like Him to do…”
Slowly, half afraid, they start to walk up the beach toward the Stranger, wanting to ask Him, “ Is it really You?” but half afraid of being wrong, of looking foolish… And yet, deep inside each of them, a sure certainty and joy is rising up, swelling, filling their hearts with longing to rush up to Him – to Jesus – yes! It is Him! – and throw their arms around Him. But still, they linger, holding back.
And now the stranger stands up, spreads welcoming arms, and says, “Come and have breakfast! And while you’re at it, bring along some of those fish you’ve just caught! Let’s make it a potluck, shall we?” As Jesus stoops down, picks up some bread and fish from the coals, and walks toward them, hands outstretched, the disciples seem to snap out of their reverie, all doubt gone! That voice, those open, welcoming arms, the kind sharing of the small, prepared meal – and the amazing provision of so much more, more than they can possibly eat… this is surely, truly, their Lord and Master, their Jesus!
Accepting the food from His hands, laying more fresh fish on the coals, slapping Jesus across the shoulder in welcome, laughing, chatting, the disciples sit down once again on the ground and break bread with their Lord, just as He had promised they again would, when He last ate a meal with them around that upper-room table on the ill-fated night that had changed everything, had destroyed their hopes and dreams… and now… now their hopes were alive again, their grief gone, their joy complete!
Everyone has stuffed themselves, and now they are sitting or laying stretched out on grassy patches, soaking up the pleasant warmth of the morning sun. Some are engaged in comfortable small talk; others lay back with their eyes closed and rest contentedly.
Peter, however, at some point seems to have withdrawn from the group, and now is sitting alone at a little distance from the others, his head hunched over his drawn-up knees, with a troubled look in his eyes. Quietly, gently, Jesus stands up and wanders over to Simon Peter, and sits down beside him. He puts a hand on Peter’s shoulder, but Peter drops his head and turns his eyes away, and the expression on his face clearly shows he is battling emotions of shame and uncertainty, emotions that also go back to that last terrible night together… that night when he had denied his Lord and Master, not just once, but repeatedly, three times. Even yet, that memory of Jesus looking at him, eyes filled with sorrow in that moment after the cock crowed, continue to sear his soul, waking him from troubled dreams at night, and flashing unexpectedly across his mind, repeatedly, in the midst of daily activities. How can he even face Jesus?
And yet… and yet… even in that sorrowful glance of Jesus, Peter had seen something else, at least he hopes he had seen it… a look of love, a love that was boundless, deep, totally forgiving… Oh, if only it were true… Could it be? Might it still be there in Jesus eyes? Slowly, painfully, Peter turns his downcast head toward Jesus, and hesitantly looks up into the Master’s eyes. And yes, oh joy! That look of love is still there!… and the sorrow has been replaced by a look of invitation, a look that says clearly, “Come back, Peter, come back to Me. Come back into my love.” For an instant, Peter’s hopes rise, and joy starts swelling… but then, just as quickly, he drops his head… “No,” he thinks, “No, I am not worthy.”
“Simon.” The voice is gentle, inviting, loving, just as are the eyes. “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love Me? Do you love me…,” and the word He uses for love is one that expresses love toward Father God, a love that envelops reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion toward the One who is its object.* “Do you love Me more than these – more than you love these fish, which for many years have been your source of income and the central activity of your life? Do you love Me more than these friends of yours whom you have grown up with, played with, worked with, have had years of wonderful fellowship and relationship with? Do you even love Me more than they do?”
Peter’s heart rises, love for His Lord threatening to burst out and spill over, and he longs to cry out, “Oh, You know I love You more than anyone or anything. You know that I want to serve You totally all my life… You know that You are the One and only Object of my spiritual devotion – You are my Lord and King and God! You are the Son of God, sent by the Father and One with Him! You know I believe in You with all my being!”
But Peter cannot bring himself to say this aloud, not here, not now, anyway. What would be the point? He has already proven himself to be a traitor, disloyal, unfaithful. If he claimed that level of love for Jesus now, would not Jesus – or at least the others, so close by, probably listening in – see him as a hypocrite? Yes, he knows Jesus still loves him – but he is so unworthy. How could he ever hope to have that ultimate love relationship with Jesus now? What if he failed again? So, knowing that he is loved by Jesus, but not daring, not trusting himself to love wholly, completely, faithfully in return, Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” And the word for love which Peter uses is a term that indicates a deep, instinctive, personal affection, as for a close friend.* And still Peter wonders if he can live up to even that, and if perhaps he might seem hypocritical even claiming that level of love for His Lord.
But instead of responding, as Peter perhaps expects, “Are you sure? What if you fail again? And what’s with this watered-down love you are offering me?” the gentle voice of Jesus simply replies, “Feed my lambs.” Peter sits up a little straighter, a look of surprise, even disbelief on his face. What had Jesus just said? “Feed my lambs?” Here he had totally failed his Lord and Master – and yet He, the great Good Shepherd, is offering Peter a place in His fold – a place of love and faithfulness, caring for the younger ones of the flock, nourishing them, helping them to grow and flourish! Can he have heard right? How can Jesus still trust him that much?
“Simon, Son of John, do you love me… with deep spiritual devotion as one loves the Father?” Again the voice of Jesus speak to him. Again the question is asked. Peter wonders, “Could it be that He really does love me and forgive me enough that He will give me a place of faithfulness in His kingdom?” And hope rises up once again in his heart… “But even if He does, I still don’t trust myself. I don’t think that I can be counted on. I couldn’t face such shame again. How can I commit myself to the relationship He is asking of me? Doesn’t He see what I am really like?” And so, once more, Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You. You know that You are my best friend.”
There is silence for a moment, and then the gentle, loving voice of Jesus says, “Shepherd my sheep.” Again, Peter jerks up a little higher, his eyes filled with wonder and perhaps some fear, too. “Shepherd My sheep?” Jesus is asking even greater things of Peter! Not just feeding the little lambs, though that is surely a great position of faithfulness itself. But now he is asking Peter to “shepherd” – to feed, protect, guide, teach, bind up wounds, find the best pastures – for Jesus’ sheep – the grown-up ones too… to be a leader over the flock, not just a helper with a small position. “How could Jesus ever trust me to do that kind of work? Haven’t I already proven I don’t have what it takes? What would happen if a wolf attacks? Wouldn’t I just turn and run again? Even if I did fight back, my sword strikes are obviously hopeless!” Peter’s shoulders droop, and he hunches down again.
And still once more, Jesus’ gentle, inviting voice reaches out to Peter through all of his self-doubt and shame. Yet this time, He simply uses Peter’s own words. “Simon, son of John, do you love Me, with a deep, instinctive personal affection for Me, as for a close friend?” Peter wonders, “Does He perhaps understand that for now, this level of love is all I dare offer? Is it even possible that one day, with His loving help, I might reach the point where I can joyfully and freely love my Lord Jesus as one loves the Father? But maybe that’s not it at all? Maybe He has just given up on me ever loving Him that way? Am I maybe failing Him all over again?” For a moment, Peter is stung. He not only hears and recognizes the change in the question, but he is grieved that Jesus should have even asked the question a third time. Can’t Jesus see his shame and self-doubt? Can’t Jesus see that Peter does love him, but can’t go all the way to commit to that level of love just now? What if Jesus is changing the question because He is beginning to have a lower opinion of Peter? What if He is even starting to love Peter less, right now?
So Peter bursts out, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You – that I have a deep, personal affection for You, as for a close friend!” And as he speaks the words, his heart cries out, “Isn’t that enough? It’s all I have to give! I’m so ashamed! I have nothing more! Do You still really love me? Can You still love me?” He holds his breath, trembling in fear that the answer will be in the negative. Slowly, he looks up at Jesus out of the corner of his eye, scarcely daring to see the Truth in the eyes of Jesus…
And there, what does he see? Great, overflowing, deep, perfect, eternal love, the love of the Father flowing out to Peter through Jesus, the Son… and once more, words of assurance and invitation, of acceptance and forgiveness and trust from his Lord and Master: “Feed My sheep.”
Date July 2 2008