“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
16 Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
17 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved — the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, “Lord, who will betray you?” 21 Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”
22 Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” 23 So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
24 This disciple is the one who testifies to these events and has recorded them here. And we know that his account of these things is accurate.
25 Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.
There is so much in this very last passage of our Red Letter Year, I could spend a week (or a month) unpacking it all. After serving his followers a meal, Jesus emphasizes the importance of eating and being fed for his community by telling Peter three times to “feed my sheep.” This is certainly meant to have a double meaning, which means both are important. Eating together, doing regular life together as a community is essential to the kingdom Jesus is building. Communion points to this, this meal on the beach points to this, we should not neglect the fundamental aspects of doing life together. I’m afraid in the U.S., we are prone to think of church as events, programs, services – things where a few do the work of serving and leading while the majority remain spectators. The thing about a meal is that as we eat we talk – not one person talking and everyone listening – we have real conversation. Eating together fosters unity, equality, and freedom too because we relax and are freed up to share about our actual lives. That is essential to being a community. My friend Steven Hamilton defined the church on his blog the other day: “We see and understand the Church to be a relationally interconnected network of people who are committed to and get their identity from the person of Jesus Christ.” (www.verveandverse.blogspot.com) Eating together is an important part of doing life together which is how those relational connections get formed and maintained.
Physical eating also leads naturally into the other meaning of “feed my sheep.” We tend to think of spiritual feeding as conveying and consuming information, but that is only ever one part of what spiritual nourishment involves. It is important to receive good teaching (you will never hear me argue against that), but good spiritual teaching directs the learner to spiritual practices. There is no such thing as spiritual knowledge that does not involve an impact on how we go about our everyday lives. If we only learn about the Bible and theology to win at some religious form of Trivial Pursuit then we have wasted our time. Other realms of knowledge can separate theory from practice, but we cannot do so in matters of faith without misunderstanding the theory itself.
Since spiritual nourishment is about more than hearing a good sermon, the spectator model doesn’t work on this level either. (I won’t take time here to differentiate a well-presented talk from a sermon full of good content. There is a growing trend in the U.S. to focus on honing the delivery and not worrying so much about the content. Some ‘successful’ pastors even farm the sermon writing out to third party companies, since what matters to them is how they say it more than what they say. This is an unfortunate development.) What we need are communities doing real life together, eating actual meals together, and then sharing spiritual knowledge and wisdom across the table in ways that encourage putting that understanding into practice. As we eat and talk, one person gets up the courage to share something in their life that is not going that well. Those around talk about it with this person, pray about it together, and then share their own wisdom and what they get from the Spirit. The person leaves with deeper insight and practical suggestions for dealing with the thing. Then the people who spoke into the situation are able to follow up at the next meal and see how it’s going. Life together. It’s not as flashy as some approaches, but it is the most effective way of spreading the kingdom. It’s what “feed my sheep” looks like.
The last thing I want to talk about is Peter. I love Peter. He speaks out first. He sometimes says more than he should. Puts his foot in his mouth. Has a hard time backing up what he says. Yeah, I know someone like that. We read last week (we’ve read a few times this year), how Peter swore he would die for Jesus, only to deny knowing him an hour later, scared of a young girl, and a few people huddled around a fire. He denied Jesus three times and was then crushed by his own failure. Here Jesus makes a point (a very pointed point) of restoring Peter, asking him three times if Peter loves him. I have talked before about agape versus philia love in the New Testament. What you need to know here is that the conversation goes like this:
Jesus: Do you agape (love selflessly and unconditionally) me?
Peter: Yes, I philei (love conditionally, reciprocally) you.
Jesus: Do you agape me?
Peter: Yes, I philei you.
Jesus: Do you philei me?
Peter: Yes, I philei you.
Before the denials, Peter thought he had an agape love for Jesus. Afterward, he no longer thought himself capable of that level of love. Which was a good realization because agape love is divine love and is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter rightly insists on acknowledging his dependence on Jesus, that his own love is conditional, contingent, and not altogether trustworthy. We should not think ill of Peter for this; we are certainly as limited as he was.
But that is not the end of Peter’s restoration. Jesus goes on to reveal to Peter that he is going to die by crucifixion as well. (Church tradition tells us he insisted on being crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to copy his Lord exactly. I’m telling you, I love Peter.) What Jesus is saying here is basically, “Peter, I know you meant what you said, even more than you knew it. I know in your heart you are willing to die for me and you will.” Peter’s denials, his failures, none of that invalidated the promises he made or the love he felt for Jesus.
And the same is true of us. Have you dreamed big dreams? Have you promised things to the Lord? Have you sensed a calling, a future that seems slow in coming? Do you think you have failed, gone off the track, and ruined all that? Not a chance. Jesus heard the rash promises you made from the depths of a devoted heart. He understood what you were saying better than you did. And nothing that he has called you to, nothing he has promised you, nothing the Spirit has led you to promise him will fail to come to pass. I am convinced that Peter carried around this knowledge like a talisman, like a fire inside for the rest of his life. He knew how it was going to end and the thing is – so do we. Since we know how this story ends, let’s enjoy getting there and let our stories continue piling up the infinite number of stories of Jesus and his great love.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.