A44 SAINT PETER
St. John 21.vv.15-22
~ 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, "Simon son of John, 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 round 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". Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?". When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?". Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me". ~
I once saw a poster depicting a little girl painting a picture which seemed to be a mass of undifferentiated colour. She had splotches of paint on her face and her pinafore, but the caption below read, "Please be patient. God hasn't finished with me yet".
This is the subject of our Bible passage. Already the Risen Christ had given proof of the Resurrection to Thomas - now he gives Peter the chance to reaffirm his love for his Master. Three times Peter had denied his Master shortly before the Crucifixion. We cannot fully imagine the awful harrowing sense of guilt that must have haunted poor Peter, but we may be certain that Jesus understood, and for those three occasions of denial, Peter is given the chance three times to declare his love, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?".
It has not escaped the notice of New Testament scholars that Jesus and Peter appear to be using different words for love. Peter using "philia" does not claim to have the "agape" that Jesus asks of him. There is little point in trying to bring out in translation the different senses of these two words, since the whole passage makes it abundantly plain that Peter knows his love for Jesus falls immeasurably short of that which Jesus bears him.
We all live with a sense of guilt, even though we may be assured that God puts our sins "behind his back". We may drag them out (poking behind God's back, as it were) making ourselves miserable with the memory of them. Guilt can be a morbid condition, but not if we deal with it positively, using it as a spur to fresh endeavour in the spiritual life. This is what Jesus enabled Peter to do. The past was past, the sins forgiven, now in the present Peter reaffirms his love, and for the future Jesus gives Peter a commission, "Feed my lambs, my sheep".
A simple commission? Yes, upon the face of it. A privilege? Yes, but what a terrifying responsibility! Already Peter had been designated the "rock" as his name implies, and entrusted with the "Keys of the Kingdom". No past failure on Peter's part had caused Jesus to lose faith in his Servant, for he knew what by God's grace Peter could become. The subsequent career of Peter, especially his courage and conviction at Pentecost showed what God could make of him. God had not finished with him!
Peter was called to loneliness and pain in his devotion to Christ. In the sequel to this passage in St. John's Gospel, Peter is bidden to concern himself not with other people and their careers but the call of "Follow me" at the beginning of Christ's ministry is re-echoed in the last words of Jesus, "You, you follow me!".
The details of the close of Peter's life are scant, but there is a rather lovely legend (unsubstantiated by Biblical evidence) that Peter at a time of persecution in Rome was prevailed upon by his companions to save his life by escaping from the city. As he travelled unwillingly out of the city Jesus met him; Peter asked, "Quo vadis, Domine?" ("Where are you going, Lord?") and received the answer, "To Rome, to die for you". When the vision vanished Peter returned to the city to be crucified, upside down unworthy of his Master.
Jesus still says to us, "Follow me" - as a Church, the Body of Christ. He still says to us individually, "You, you follow me".
We can all echo the words of the little girl, "Please be patient with me; God hasn't finished with me yet".