Now we have seen Peter twice after the Resurrection. Once where he runs ahead of the others to the empty tomb. The next is when he literally casts himself from the fishing boat into the water when he sees Jesus on the shore of Tiberias. In both instances Peter hurries ahead of the others, unafraid to get to get to Jesus and see him up close. Perhaps his joy and eagerness to see Jesus is because there is something he sorely needs to say to Jesus.
The last thing Jesus did with his disciples was share a meal with them. The first thing he does after the Resurrection is also to share a meal with them. A meal of fish and bread. Echoes of the loaves and fishes. A sacred symmetry meant to evoke their memories. A chance to talk, to catch up, or simply to be in his startling presence. To remember what he had said to them and suddenly realize the significance of all he did and all he said. The significance of his life. And now the significance of their lives, especially Peter’s.
After the meal Jesus takes Peter aside. He wants to ask him a question. He has a job for Peter to do. Commentaries and sermons on this scene often focus on the three questions ‘do you love me?’ as the way in which Peter redeems himself from the thrice denial of knowing Jesus during the trial. What I find wonderfully consistent with who Jesus was before and now, is that he doesn’t chide Peter, he doesn’t even bring the denials up. He doesn’t condemn Peter as a sinner. He doesn’t go right for the sin. He goes right for the very heart of Peter. He goes to the man he knows Peter to be, in all his exuberance; impetuous, skeptical, self-protective and, yes, a man scared of death. He knows what that feeling felt like.
Why does Jesus ask Peter if he loves him, if, as Peter insists, Jesus already knows Peter loves him? And Jesus knows he does. Perhaps because Peter needs to hear himself say the words. Perhaps because Jesus also knows the doubt that may still be lingering with him, especially his own self-doubt and self-condemnation. For no one is more aware of Peter’s sorrow and shame than Peter. In repeating that he loves Jesus, Jesus gives Peter a chance to not only forgive himself, but also to focus on what is really important to Him.
With each affirmation of his love for Jesus, Jesus tells Peter to feed my lambs. Look after my sheep. Feed my sheep. Jesus is asking this fisherman to become a shepherd. The catch is in. A shepherd to those lambs-innocent followers of his who are going to be in need of protection from the wolves still prowling about waiting to snatch them away from the greener pastures of Jesus’ fellowship. His sheep-the inner circle of those more seasoned in following Jesus, his disciples. Look after them. Clearly Jesus is concerned for them. Wants them to be taken care of. Wants them to safe. And yet….
Jesus is evoking the image of past shepherds of Israel, like Joseph, who saved his family and all of Egypt from starving to death when the famine came. Who led them to safer pastures. (At least for a few hundred years.) Of the lowly shepherd boy who slay the Goliath waiting to devour his people and led them to a kingdom where he would be their first king. The old kingdom was gone. The new kingdom would need another kind of shepherding. Surely Jesus knew it would take all the shepherding qualities, to feed, to ensure well-being, to be ever watchful, to make sure that none get lost, that all have safe pasturing. Peter is making his pledge and promise, a pledge and promise because he loves Jesus.
After Jesus tells Peter the cost, he simply repeats the first words he ever said to him. Follow me.