John 21 15 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.”16 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.”17 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. 18 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.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Who are the “these” whom Jesus has in mind when he asks Simon, “Do you love me more than these?” Are “these” the fish, all 153 of them that they have just caught? Or are “these” the other fishermen standing around on the beach, eating the fresh, roasted fish?
The best commentaries and commentators on this passage say that we can’t be sure, from either the language or the grammar of the text, which of these “these” Jesus wants Simon Peter to love second to himself: the fish, or the people who caught them. But when you stop and think about either option, they each have something powerful to say.
If by “these” Jesus means the fish, some of us may be wondering, How in the world could anybody love…..fish so much? Those cold, wet, slippery, slimy, scaly, sticky, stinky things with the eyes that never blink, but which look like they are perpetually open in surprise?
If such love for fish and fishing strikes you as unbelievable or inconceivable, you have yet to go fishing with me or with some of the other people here. True blue die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool fishermen would hear Jesus’ question, “Do you love me more than these?” and ask, “Well, what kind of fish are they? How big are they? Where did you catch them? How did you catch them, and what did you use for bait?” If you think that amounts to some form of brain damage, well, perhaps I have bitten down on a few too many lead sinkers, the split shot kind that you clip onto the line.
So, I can understand why an accomplished fisherman like Simon would think, “Three years ago, on this very beach, Jesus, you said, ‘Follow me and I shall make you fishers of people.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah; I can get into that! I know fishing.’ But now you’re saying, ‘Follow me, and I shall make you…. a shepherd?’ What kind of bait-and-switch trick did you just pull on me, Jesus?”
Even if the question, “Do you love me more than these?” applies to fish, that’s not just a question for fishermen. It goes to the heart of everyone’s sense of purpose and identity. What or who is first in our lives? Who or what do we love most? Our jobs, our titles, our professions, our possessions, our pleasures, our politics, our incomes, our social class, our education, our family, and ethnicity? Our desires and our drives? Whatever it is we love so supremely that we define ourselves by it, and there fix our identity and our destiny, our meaning and our value, Jesus is asking all of us as well, “Do you love me more than these?”
The answer that Jesus is looking for, of course, is, “Yes.”
So, this story is not just about how Simon Peter got his calling, from fisher of souls to shepherd of souls. It is about how each and every disciple of Jesus learns and embraces their true calling and identity in Christ: by pondering and answering this very question of Jesus, “Do you love me more than these?” whatever our “these” might be.
Jesus does not always ask us to give these “these” up. But his question confronts us with the need to put them in order of priority, with himself at the top, if we claim to follow him. Otherwise, we love the gifts more than the giver. Otherwise we dishonor him and withdraw from him. Otherwise, we make gods out of things that only reflect something of God.
Those of us in ministry must ask this of ourselves as well. Have we so wrapped up our identities and self-worth in our positions and our denominations and traditions and titles and our theologies and our ideologies, and the size of our congregations that they are taking first place ahead of Jesus, and our love for him? Or can we love him first, regardless of how these other things are going?
I say that because of the other possibility, that when Jesus asks, “Do you love me more than these,” by “these” he means the other fisher folk on that beach, the other disciples, other people, in effect, the church.
Jesus is probably asking Peter, “Do you love me more than…” even these beloved fellow disciples for whom I have demonstrated supremely self-sacrificial love, and for whom I am asking you to demonstrate supremely self-sacrificial love as well?” And can you do so even in martyrdom, when “you are old, [and] you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go,” namely, on a cross like the one Jesus bore, but upside-down, says church tradition.
If Jesus is who Peter confessed him to be—“the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” then Jesus has every right to ask such love of us. And he alone. That’s not any different from the supreme commandments in the Bible, and the order in which Jesus listed them: first: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and secondly: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By putting them in that order, our love for God is to direct our love for others, and not vice versa.
Jesus also has the right to seek first place in the order of Peter’s loves, because of the supreme, sacrificial nature of his love for Peter, by dying for the forgiveness of sins, even sins as terrible as Peter’s denial of Jesus. By making Peter answer three times the question, “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus is giving Peter a chance to un-say and undo his three-fold denial that he had ever known Jesus, and so start anew.
That tells us two things about the love with which Jesus wants Peter to “feed his sheep:” The love that we need most to give each other, and to receive from each other, is a love that is, yes, sacrificial and self-giving, but also merciful, and it is second. Second, that is, compared to our love for God. I repeat: If Peter is to do a good job of feeding Jesus’ flock, and caring for his sheep, his must be a love that shows mercy, because it knows mercy; and he must love them second. Second, that is, to Jesus, the Supreme Shepherd of the flock. And so must we.
I’m not talking about love as the world defines it, which is more about wanting and feeling, attraction and affection. Wanting and feeling, attraction and affection, are great experiences. But they don’t tell us much about following Jesus. By “loving Jesus first,” and “more than these,” I don’t mean the kind of wanting and feeling, nor the attraction and the affection, that the missionary expressed to his wife in the 1960’s movie, “Hawaii,” when she bore their first child. Her missionary husband spoiled the beautiful moment of joyful wonder with their new-born baby when he got all agitated and ashamed and said to her, “But now I love you more than God!”
I so wanted to grab him by the collar and say, “Just enjoy the moment! Your wife, your newborn daughter, and your delighted, joyful feelings and affection are all gifts of God. If you want to show your love for God, then tell your wife how much you love her, give her a kiss, make her lunch or do whatever else she and the baby need right now.”
But how do you talk to someone on the other side of a television screen? The missionary was right to remember that he should love God first, and others second. But he’s wrong in thinking that his wonderful, rapturous feelings of gratitude and joy and, yes, love for his wife and newborn baby, mean that he loves God any the less.
Feelings come and go; they have lives of their own. Checking our emotional temperatures will not tell us how much we love Jesus. But our choices will. And our calendars, and our character. And our checkbooks. And the way we treat others.
Like the way that Jesus gave Peter to show his love for him, when he said, “feed my flock,” by loving his people. If we love each other second, after Jesus, for Jesus’ sake, then I believe that we’ll actually love each other better than if we loved ourselves or anyone else first. We will then love others not just to please them, nor for them to please us, but in order to please God. And we will know ourselves accountable to God for the ways in which we love others. Such second-place love loves people in God, through God, by God’s power and love, for God’s sake, for God’s honor, for God’s will, and not for anyone else’s approval, not for our own needs, our own security, our own ego or our own sense of rightness and righteousness. For how easily our own subtle and selfish motives can creep in and make our love for others something clingy and controlling, possessive or permissive, servile, rather than serving, entangling rather than empowering.
That’s what struck me when I once heard a love song entitled, “You are my religion,” by the group Firehouse. The refrain says,“You are my religion; you took me in and saved my soul…believe in me as I believe in you….”
What a terrible burden to put on anyone else in the name of love! And may God spare us from having any such hopes, fears and expectations of divine powers laid on us in the name of love. With second place love we love each other for the real human beings that we are, rather than for the idols, the heroes and the saviors that we want them to be for us. A hero and a savior we already have in Jesus. So, again, the love that Jesus wants us to show, by feeding his sheep, is love that loves others second to himself.
A second thing about this love that Jesus asks of Peter is that it shows mercy, because it knows mercy, personally. That Peter needs such mercy is not surprising, not after he denied knowing Jesus three times on the morning after Jesus’ arrest. What is surprising is that Jesus is still, and again, calling Peter to follow him, and to feed his flock, to serve, to lead and to love his church, even after Peter’s terrible failure and cowardice. But in this very beach-side encounter, while Jesus is making him say, three times, “Yes, of course I love you,” Peter himself is receiving great mercy. The very words of Jesus, “Feed my sheep,” come not as a command, but as an offer, an offer of mercy, of a second chance.
This is 180 degrees opposite to what we usually get in the stories and memories of how countries and communities start. Don’t we usually hear about the sterling, spotless virtues and the stunning breakthroughs of wisdom, courage and victory, the amazing achievements and accomplishments of heroic, visionary founders and pioneers on the ground floor of a movement? Like George Washington, who could not tell a lie; Honest Abe Lincoln, who walked miles to borrow and return books or to return correct change, and who could split rails the fastest, and….Moses? who regularly lost his temper and even murdered someone? Jeremiah?, the prophet, who so often got discouraged and complained to God, wishing to die, rather than continue his ministry? Paul? who persecuted the church, at first? But as God told the Apostle Paul: “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore,” Paul added, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
As Martin Luther said: “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.”
The first time Jesus called Peter to come follow him, beside that very same lake three years before, Peter was a confident, successful fisherman and an observant, respectable Jew. He soon emerged as a leader among the twelve disciples. At this second lakeside calling to come follow Jesus, Peter is a broken man with deep and painful regrets. He’s at the same place as the penitent but grateful woman who had once anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears. About her, Jesus said, “…because her many sins have been forgiven, she has loved much. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Peter, too, will go on to lead and to serve Jesus’ flock with love like that shown by the woman at Jesus’ feet: the love of those who show great mercy, because they know great mercy.
You would think that such mercy would be a no-brainer for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that what we’re about? But in today’s anxious and polarized political and cultural wars, there is less and less room for mercy. In its place are driven, dueling ideologies. Psychologists and sociologists are again using a word that a Swiss psychologist coined in the 1930’s as he watched his German neighbors falling for Hitler and Nazi ideology: “ideological possession.” Possession by ideology and ideologues in a frenzy as great as that which Jesus so often encountered and expelled, again, with mercy.
In the ideological possession of the church, Jesus came only to give us the perfect politics and the perfect policies. The kingdom of God is only a movement of progressive reform, or of conservative restoration, a system of -isms, ideas and techniques on either side of today’s culture wars, but in God’s name, which smart, earnest, effective and virtuous people can grasp and impose on others who must certainly be less smart, earnest, effective and virtuous, and doing so through the ballot box, with social media, or even with a gun. And if others don’t see things our way, then either they’re immature, or they’re infidels.
Actually, we’re just sinners in need of mercy. And that’s good news, because the Risen Jesus is today the same friend of sinners that he was before his resurrection. In his post-resurrection ministry, Jesus is not reforming society nor restoring it; he is advancing God’s kingdom by giving each of us second, third and however-many-more chances we need, until the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. His kingdom is going forward not with the right ideology and technology, not by the power of the sword, the media, nor the ballot box, but by mercy, one forgiven sinner at a time.
Knowing such mercy, we have eyes that can see beyond the outward differences of class or conduct or color or confession, and see instead the commonality of our need, because we know how needy we ourselves are. With such mercy, we speak not as crusaders out to conquer other people and demolish their ideologies, but simply as beggars telling other beggars where we found bread.
Ponder and Marvel with me then that unreliable and broken Peter is the first person whom the Risen Jesus calls and commissions to be a shepherd his beloved flock, and a witness by his death. All that Peter can be, as long as he loves Christ first, “more than these,” and because Peter knows mercy, and can therefore show mercy.