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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
This powerful story of forgiveness comes as one of the last stories in the book of John. It is critical to understand the context of this scripture, especially the nature of Peter’s relationship with Jesus in this scene in order for fully appreciate the deeper lessons here. Prior to the assigned text, Jesus makes his third appearance post Crucifixion at the Sea of Galilee, suggesting to the fishermen how to catch fish more effectively because their efforts up until that point had produced none. John recognizes Jesus and tells Peter (who is also in the boat) that it is Jesus on the shore. Peter is guilt-ridden and probably desperate to see Jesus because the last time he was with Jesus, Peter betrayed him, not once, not twice, but three times. So he jumps in the water and swims ashore to meet Jesus. Note, Jesus has come near but Peter must make the effort to enter fully in Jesus’ presence. But instead of immediately having a conversation about Peter’s betrayal of him, Jesus first feeds breakfast to the fishermen who have rowed ashore. Jesus’ first priority is to ensure they (his sheep) are all fed and nourished.
Verse 15 is where Jesus addresses Peter and Peter’s denial of him. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me…?” and three times Peter answers “yes, Lord: you know I love you” (which honestly seems a little presumptuous given Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and may say something about how human Peter was, even in the midst of being forgiven). Jesus then responds all three times to Peter’s answers with instructions to feed and tend Jesus’ ”sheep” (people).
Jesus’ three questions align with Peter’s three times of betrayal. But also, Peter’s guilt runs so deep and Jesus knew asking the question, “do you love me” one time would not go deep enough to excise all of Peter’s remorse. Jesus does not respond to Peter by forgiving him outright either. Jesus also knew simply telling Peter he is forgiven would not fully heal Peter’s self-inflicted wound. So Jesus instructs Peter to care for Jesus’ sheep (people). Did Peter know he was forgiven? Possibly – probably, but even if Peter accepted that forgiveness, it was not enough. Peter had to learn accepting God’s forgiveness should elicit a response or even a yearning to show God’s love to others.
When I was little we sang a song in the church choir, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, overall a vigil keep. In my name, lead them forth, gently as a shepherd.” I remember thinking about taking care of animals by being kind to them as I sang the song. It was a simple lesson for a young person but as an adult and in this season of Lent, this story from the book of John has a much deeper meaning that requires more from me (and us). Because we are loved and forgiven, we should respond by loving, forgiving and caring for all God’s people (everyone).
Bible scholar, N.T. Wright wrote “Somewhere, deep down inside, there is a love for Jesus, and though you’ve let him down enough times, he wants to find that love, to give you a chance to express it, to heal the hurts and failures of the past, and give you new work to do” . We are going to disappoint God (and others). Accepting forgiveness so that we “feel it in our bones” is challenging. But God loves us so much and God’s forgiveness runs deep so that once we fully embrace forgiveness, we are ready to go and be God’s witness to that love and forgiveness in the community and the world. Thanks be to God for the gift of grace and for our abilities to go love, tend and forgive others!
Dear God, help me to remember that I am loved and forgiven, and to respond by forgiving and caring for all of God’s creation. Amen.
About the Author
Allison Cochran is the Coordinator for Member Engagement at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church.