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!’
John 21:15-19 NIVUK
In this section we find the disciples back where Jesus first met them – fishing. After all that had happened in the weeks before – Jesus’ death, his empty tomb, his apparent resurrection, his appearing to them several times – they had returned to something familiar, something safe. So it’s on the shore of their very humanity than Jesus encounters them again this one last time. And he’s there for a specific reason: he wants to restore Simon Peter.
Peter is an…interesting character, to say the least. Brash, arrogant, big mouthed, self-important, temperamental, blundering. And fallen. The last time we saw Peter, he denied knowing Jesus while looking Jesus right in the face. It’s in light of this that this curious account in John 21:15-19 takes place. There are three things I want to highlight.
First of all, Jesus doesn’t call Peter Peter, or Cephas – meaning “Rock” – he calls him Simon. Simon son of John, Peter’s given name. They were on the shore with a haul of fish on the beach. Back at the beginning. I think Jesus wanted to let Peter know that they were starting afresh. That this rock the church was supposed to be built on, the one that cracked under pressure, was getting another chance – only this time, Jesus would be the rock.
Secondly, Jesus asks Peter three times, Simon, do you love me? This echoes Peter’s three denials (Mark 14:66-72). But unlike the Peter who assured Jesus before that he would never, ever betray him – this Peter is honest. Something interesting is lost in the English translation of this section. In the original Greek different words are used for what is usually translated simply as “love” in English. Jesus asks Peter if he Agape him. Agape is “the highest form of love”, a self-sacrificial kind of love, the kind Jesus displays. The word is echoed in verses like John 3:16. But when Peter replies, the word for love he uses is Phileo – a friendship kind of love. When Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, do you love me in a self-sacrificial way?” Peter replies, honestly, “You know I love you in a friendship kind of way.” You know – because you saw what I did, or, more accurately, what I couldn’t do.
Tellingly, the third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus uses the word Phileo. He acknowledges what Peter never could acknowledge to himself before – that Peter’s love is imperfect. More than that, Jesus meets him there. That is the nature of his sacrifice: he will always be the one who Agape us, even if we can only offer Phileo in return.
Thirdly, after this exchange Jesus repeats his invitation to Peter – fallen, foolish Peter – a second time: Follow me. This Peter who wasn’t a rock, this Peter who abandoned his teacher, his friend, his Lord, his calling, his faith – to this man Jesus says, Follow me. To this man Jesus says, it isn’t over. You’re getting a second chance to glorify me.
I’m grateful that Peter’s restoration is recorded in John’s gospel, because we have all been, at one time or another, Peter. We have all denied Jesus. We have all abandoned him at the Cross. But here Jesus tells us that the rooster hasn’t crowed on our faith. We get second chances. We get to follow him still, again. Even if we can only muster Phileo – his love for us remains Agape. It’s what brought him to the Cross; it’s what resurrected him from the dead; it’s what brings us to life in and through him.
O God of the Last Supper
God of the Cross
And God of the Empty Tomb
Holy Week has passed.
But how we long to live by the marvelous story we have heard.
Let us remain ever beside you at the table of the Last Supper.
Show us who is hungry.
And give us the courage to offer them bread from your table.
Show us who is thirsty.
And give us the strength to lift up the cup of your love.
Most of all, show us how to linger at the table, serving others—
Doing ALL that we do
In remembrance of You,
And the way You were when You walked this earth.
We lift these simple, limited words
Up to you, O God.
(Adapted from here.)