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A reflection on John 21:15-19
15 When they had finished breakfast, 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.” 16 A second time he said to him, “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.” 17 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. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Is the resurrected Lord being hard on Peter? Does he doubt the intensity of Peter’s love for him? “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This is the question asked of the disciple who was still wet from swimming to Jesus. The others in the boat were more restrained. They brought the boat in with the catch. Not Peter. He jumped in the water when he realized it was the resurrected Jesus standing on the shore. And now Jesus is asking Peter “do you love me more than these.” Perhaps Jesus is thinking that Peter must speak the words out in a loud declaration for his own good. Especially after he loudly denied our Lord three times. Peter affirms: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Now it is time for Jesus to give Peter directions. Jesus is preparing for his Ascension and he appears to give Peter singular responsibility. Jesus asks Peter to “Feed my lambs.” Peter must feed Jesus’ flock. Jesus is not finished. “Do you love me?” Didn’t Peter just answer this? Doesn’t this seem to be a “really?” from Jesus? Or is he simply pushing Peter for a deeper meditation on what it means to love Jesus? So Peter again affirms “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus asks him to “Tend my sheep.” Is there a difference between tending the sheep and feeding them? Does it mean to guard them as well as teach them? Jesus does not explain.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” Wouldn’t we be grieved if our beloved Jesus asked this three times? After all, we don’t want to consider that he may doubt our love. And yet, let us think of our own lives for a moment. Have there been times when we turned away from Jesus? In our sinfulness have we denied Jesus our whole hearts? Have we placed worldly things ahead of him? Have we at times focused our lives on sex, power or money instead of our relationship with God? Are we always deeply aware of, and bold in our gratitude for, all that God has done for us? No? Then perhaps Jesus may be moved to ask us more than once “do you love me?” Maybe he is asking us this every time we turn away from him. Hundreds or thousands of times in our lives. How many times has he had to ask me “do you love me?” Perhaps, as with Peter, our Lord wishes us to replace every denial, every sin, with a statement of love for him. “And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus asks Peter to answer the question. But Jesus clearly asks Peter not just for words, but also for action. Feed my lambs (little ones?), tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Love is fulfilled by action. Love without action is dead.
Lord we pray that with your grace we may say “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Help us to turn away from sin and turn to you in love. A love which is whole, complete, full and abiding. A love which always says Yes to you. Yes in words. Yes in our hearts. Yes in Action. Yes, Yes, a thousand times Yes. Lord, I Love YOU. Amen.
This reflection first appeared here in June, 2011.