I’ve often said that chapter 21 of John’s gospel contains one of my favorite stories. People have heard me enthuse over “breakfast on the beach” more than once each year – the latest, just 9 days ago in fact! It has so many elements to recommend it: Peter’s impetuosity (jumping out of the boat to get to Jesus sooner), the miraculous catch, the image of Jesus as cook and servant to others and the love that was so palpable among the men gathered on the beach.
I don’t often spoil the mood created by all those elements by talking about the second part of the text which is really the heart of the message. It’s too hard to leave the serene message of love at the beginning in order to hear the words of Jesus about the last test that Peter will endure for the sake of Christ at the end of his life. Jesus would not be around much longer in his physical body so Peter would have to remember the entire conversation on the beach if he was to take love all the way to the end.
A question, three times asked, a response and then a command the full impact of which Peter could not have foreseen at that moment comprise perhaps the mission of a lifetime for this greatest, most human apostle.
Do you love me? Yes, Lord. Feed my sheep.
Why repeat the question two more times? (Peter wondered that too, sounding more frustrated each time Jesus posed it.) It’s doubtful that he didn’t believe Peter’s answer. After all, Peter did jump out of the boat and swim to him rather than waiting the few minutes it took to row to shore. Some would say it was a way for Jesus to bring to Peter’s mind the time that he betrayed Jesus, disavowing any knowledge of him – to blame him of his failure to love. I doubt that. It doesn’t seem like a tactic Jesus would use and Jesus certainly knew Peter’s heart.
Most likely Jesus was trying to fortify Peter for the cost of discipleship. Feeding the lambs and sheep of the Christian flock in the face of the persecution leveled against the them was not going to be easy. Remembering the words of Jesus and coming to understand the significance of the charge would need to grow within Peter, deepening the love that would be the anchor of the rest of his life and the courage to endure his painful death.
I sit this morning not knowing what the future will bring to my life. I would do well to open my hands and heart to the question of Jesus and hear his challenge. May we all answer as Peter did the third time the question was put to him: Yes, Lord. You know all things. You know that I love you. And may it be the answer on our lips until our last breath.