15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” [John 21:9-15, NRSV]
1. Church of Primacy of St Peter, exterior. 2. Sea-of-Galilee-Shore. 3. Church interior, showing the stone where traditionally the Resurrected Christ is believed to have prepared breakfast for his disciples.
It was during one of those days when after lunch we were just resting on the tour bus that was carrying us to the next site, that we saw a double rainbow in the sky to the west. It was like a gentle reminder of the sheer abundance of grace in our lives, an undeserved grace upon grace. When we visited Tabgha again, this time to check out the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we were reminded of the double rainbow and Christ’s unlimited love and grace for Peter.
The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter is a Franciscan-run church located in Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It commemorates Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter as the first among equals in the Twelve Apostles.
Prominent inside the church is a projection of limestone rock right in front of the altar. Traditionally accepted as the spot where Jesus is said to have laid out a breakfast of bread and fish for the Apostles, this rock is venerated as a “Mensa Christi” (Latin for table of Christ).
And so the church also stands at the spot where Jesus had that conversation which seemed so painful to Peter. There Jesus thrice asked Peter whether Peter loved him, and after each answer Jesus told Peter to either “Feed my lambs” or “Feed my sheep”.
This, then, is where Jesus appeared to the disciples the third time after his resurrection. There he stood at the shore and directed Peter’s group of fishermen, who caught nothing the whole night, to cast the net to the right side of the boat. They were shocked to have a miraculous catch which they were unable to haul in (John 21:1-24).
For some members in our group, who already are used to doing their own reflections on the Gospel stories, the Bible again came alive right here. They imagined that right here, the crucified and resurrected Lord had returned from his suffering and death, to meet his disciples who had denied and abandoned him in his hours of difficulties. They fled when he was arrested and tortured to death by the religious and Roman authorities. But the Risen Lord forgave them all. He still accepted them as his disciples. In fact, he came back to lead them some more. Upon these realities, a lady sobbed as she shared her sentiments through her unstoppable stream of tears, right where we stood, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The New International Version, unlike other versions, gives the heading “Jesus reinstates Peter” to John 21:9-15. In so doing, the editors have not only produced a translation of the original Greek text, but have in fact already offered a particular line of interpreting this scripture. They are suggesting that Peter, in his triple denials of Jesus at the courtyard of Caiphas’ house, had forfeited his apostleship and that Jesus, in these triple “do you love me” questions, have reinstated Peter to his appointed role. Despite Peter’s colossal failures, the Lord forgives and continues to call and commission him.
What has just happened at the seashore?
1. First, Jesus understands Peter is psychologically wounded and needs help
Jesus is the human face of God. He knows that Peter is wounded and he wants to help Peter heal.
Peter’s wound is deeply psychological.
On that fateful night, after Jesus and his disciples had sung a hymn at the Last Supper, they proceeded to the Mount of Olives. Along the way, Jesus predicted that they would all fall away because of him that night. Thereupon, Peter, filled with emotional love, swore total fidelity to Jesus – “Even though they all fall away, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Peter had to eat his words, and he did not know how. So he reverted to what he was familiar doing – he went “fishing” (John 21:3). After all, having abandoned the Lord in his hour of suffering, he could not but now have to abandon the mission to be fisher of men instead of fish.
It was vivid in Peter’s memory that, after Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane, he followed closely and saw for himself the inhuman torture that the religious and political authorities, working hand in glove, did to his Lord and Master. Worse yet, even as he suffered through the sight of all that torture, there was nothing he could do about it. And worse still, he was so fearful for himself that when questioned, he thrice denied even knowing Jesus. Upon the cockcrow, he realized his silent complicity. His guilt drove him to weep bitterly. He is at this point psychologically handicapped by guilt. He remains internally wounded to this time. Jesus knows it. He wants to make Peter whole again to continue the kingdom-mission.
How does Jesus do it?
2. Second, Jesus makes Peter whole again with God’s abundant love and grace
Jesus wants to help Peter erase the memory of his boastful declaration of fidelity and threefold denial during the trial that led to his death. Notice how Jesus uses positive psychology.
Peter was boastful; now he must realize his weakness, become wiser, and turn humble. The energy of Peter’s bitter memory must be transformed into humility. While remorse can be a destructive and corrosive emotion, repentance yields positive energy that heals and makes one whole again.
Notice how Jesus deftly heals Peter.
- Three times Jesus asks Peter whether he loves his Lord. That compels Peter to face his earlier failures, and affirm his faith again and again. It may be humiliating, but it has to be done so as to enable Peter to move on.
- Each time, Jesus gives him a commandment to “feed his sheep” or “feed his lambs”. What Jesus does each time is to emphasize that it is Peter, despite all his flaws (but now with humility because of his flaws!), whom Jesus specifically wants to be shepherd of his flock. Notice how crucial that is: three times, covering completely all three of Peter’s denials, Jesus declares his trust of Peter. This is forgiving love. This is affirmation and reassurance. It warms heart and grows faith. It is grace upon grace. It powerfully heals.
- But Jesus does not leave it there. Here is the time to strengthen Peter’s resolve to do well by Christ. Jesus leaves Peter with a prophecy about martyrdom. Peter, Jesus is saying, must now be prepared to face reality with his eyes open. In reinstating Peter to his apostolic role, what Jesus is offering is not glory, not lordship, but the cross of a slow and painful death. But it will be for the glory of God! And grace will see him through.
3. Third, Jesus accommodates Peter’s standard of love according to Peter’s journey in life
All the above having been said, we can appreciate this event of Peter’s reinstatement at a still deeper level. In reinstating Peter, the Lord asks for no more than what Peter can humanly give at given stages of Peter’s faith journey. In this, Scriptures always point to God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Take, for example, the scene on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias when the Resurrected Christ commissioned Peter to take care of His sheep and lambs. Saint John provides us with the details, but because English translations do not render the exact play of words and so miss the different layers of meaning embedded in the original Greek text, we now insert the actual Greek words for love:
- 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you αγαπας (agapas) me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I φιλο (philo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you αγαπας (agapas) me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I φιλο (philo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you φιλεις (phileis) me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you φιλεις (phileis) me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I φιλο (philo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
What the original Greek text reveals is that Jesus in his first two questions sought from Peter the agape-love and only settled for the word phileo the third time, while Peter used the word phileo all three times. Agape -love is intense, complete, devoted, and sacrificial love. Nobody should boast of it too lightly. Phileo-love, on the other hand, refers only to friendly love. So Peter, who knows that he has been boastful but fell miserably short, humbly suggests that he is only capable of the lesser degree of love, admitting that he s able only of treating Jesus as a friend. In adopting the same friendly love in his third question, Jesus shows that he is willing to accept Peter where he is and as he is.
There are three important life-lessons to be learned right there:
- First, Peter’s story suggests that anyone may have messed up somewhere, sometime. That’s no big deal and is no reason for giving up on the Lord or to hide from him. The big deal is to get right with God, which is to return to Him, in humility, with our hat in our hands and beg for forgiveness and guidance. Scriptures assure us in Jeremiah 3:22, “Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness.” Herein lies the Christian journey of sin, repentance and return to the Lord. So long as we return repentant, we are certain to be welcomed with open arms by a forgiving and reconciling God who heaps love and grace upon us.
- Second, it is not good to boast of any incredible level of love we have for Jesus, lest we fall, and fall miserably. If we have to boast, let us boast of the undeserved sacrificial love that Jesus has for us. Herein lies the essential element of humility crucial for Christian life and ministry.
- Finally, notice that every time Peter answers with humility, Jesus commissions him as shepherd for Jesus’ flock – “feed my sheep”, “feed my lambs”. Herein lies Christ’s crucial teaching on the servant Church. Power in the Church is legitimately exercised only as what Sr. Wendy Beckett calls “a grievous responsibility, a crushing burden that the chosen shepherd is called to bear for the sake of the kingdom” of God and not personal kingdoms. Knowing that the desire for power is deep in human nature, Jesus of the Gospels has repeatedly taught by words and example that he came to serve and not to be served. The need to purify the human desire for power lies deep in the Christian calling as an urgent imperative at all times. The morning conversation by the shore of the Sea of Galilee draws from Peter that purified promise of love which we are all called as Christians to emulate.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, July 2019. All rights reserved.
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