This is the second part to my teaching on The Risen Lord Renews Our Calling: Fishing & Feasting (see my notes). A continuation of the same post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, now focused on loving and leading (see the video teaching). John shifts the attention from Peter and the disciples fishing and feasting, to Peter’s personal renewal of calling to lead, from love, with an implied contrast to John’s calling, the beloved disciple.
Using homiletical license, we can say that Jesus, the master-psychologist:
First, recreates the scene of their first calling in Luke 5:1-11, for them to relive and renew their calling in resurrection power.
Second, recreates the meal of the Kingdom feast that he frequently enacted, breaking bread and fish – his shared life, now in resurrection power.
Third, in so doing, Jesus recreates the scene of Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus while warming himself around a fire (John 18:15-27). For emphasis, John repeats the word “warm/ing” three times along with Peter’s three denials. That incident – Peter’s guilt-ridden, pain-full memory of his threefold denial – is now reversed by Jesus as he creates a new event around a new fire, a resurrection healing memory of a threefold confession and forgiveness, affirmation and commission.
Renewal of Call to Lead by Love (John 21:15-17)
Imagine the dramatic scene. Put yourself in Peter’s sandals. He was cold after swimming to the shore. He warmed himself at the fire that Jesus had made. Then, “when they had finished eating”, he turns to address Peter. Why did he wait till after the meal to address Peter? Was he contemplating what to say? Perhaps quietly praying for Peter as he had done earlier (John 17:9,15; Luke 22:31-32)?
So, as they all sit around the fire warming themselves, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”, and waits for his answers. Peter must have thought, “I’ve seen this movie before!” His three answers reversed the words he spoke only two weeks earlier around the fire outside the High Priest’s courtyard. Then Jesus commissions Peter, renewing the call, now not to fish people, but to shepherd his sheep – going beyond “have you caught any fish?” to “do you love me?”, beyond “doing” to “being”.
Jesus pierces Peter’s heart with the demand of love, just as Peter pierced his heart with sorrow by his shameful threefold denial (especially because he said he would die for Jesus, John 13:37). Matthew 26:69-75 shows a downward spiral of intensity around the earlier fire: Peter first denied being “with Jesus”, then swore an oath, “I don’t know the man”, finally he “called down curses on himself” to prove he was telling the truth! Now the Good Shepherd comes to seek the one sheep that has gone astray. He prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:32). He knows his sheep, tenderly calls him by name (his birth name, “Simon son of John”), and gently leads him out to be the lead-shepherd of Jesus’ flock.
The three questions:
We should not read too much into the usage of agapeo (love) in Jesus’ first two questions and phileo (love) in Peter’s three answers. Scholars have shown that John uses these two Greek words for love interchangeably. The most we can say is: Jesus’ use of phileo in his third question comes down to Peter’s level of “you know I phileo you (affectionately love you)”.
The point is: Jesus wants to know, does Peter love him after he denied knowing him? To hear his verbal confession/commitment in this regard. Jesus wants to know if love the source of your ministry and leadership, indeed, life itself? Anything else will not sustain, it will subvert us. We all live and lead from mixed motives: for identity, to feel good about ourselves, for success, popularity, power, etc. The demand of love is the heart-motivation. To love is to obey Jesus (John 14:15,21). Jesus’ persistent questions of love echo the essence of God’s revelation to humanity: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”, “Love one another as I have loved you”, “I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me”.
His first question “Do you love me more than these?” refers, not to the disciples sitting there, but to the fish, Peter’s fishing business and ‘life as usual’ (see my notes from last week). What or who do you really love? That ultimately is your life and worship either of God or gods – “money, sex and power” – the traditional false trinity in church history. What or who you love is your treasure. That is where your heart is.
The three confessions:
The questions face Peter with his own heart and his failure. He answers, “You know that I love you!” The words reverse “I do not know him”, and affirm his love and commitment to Jesus, despite acute awareness of his sin. In effect Peter is saying, for all of us, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you! You know me, I can’t hide anything from you. You know I’ve messed up, that I’m weak and sinful. Nevertheless, I really do love you – as faulty as my love may be!” This is implied in his third response when he “was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time” (v17).
Jesus pressed the point. He wants to know how honestly in touch we are with ourselves. Then he can entrust his sheep to us! We are all wounded healers. To the extent we deny our own brokenness, we minister and lead from a wrong source, from faulty motivations. It leads to use and abuse God’s sheep for our own purposes, to achieve our vision, as the false shepherds of Israel did (Ezekiel 34:1-6), as the “hireling shepherds” did in Jesus’ day (John 10:1-13). Confession is indeed good for the soul. It cleanses and forgives, releases and empowers us, so that our brokenness and failures do not disqualify us in our God-given calling.
The three commissions:
Jesus’ response to Peter’s honest confessions/affirmations of love, is not to exhort him to be strong, do better, be faithful, etc, but to entrust his church to Peter! Entrust his lambs to Peter! Can you believe it? Jesus never called the successful, professionally holy, Torah obedient, theologians, lawyers, to follow him; but simple fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, very ordinary broken people. He patiently, lovingly, transformed them into leaders that would change the world!
“Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep”. In the context it means, “feed my sheep just as I provided for you and fed you this morning.” Jesus is our example, the Chief Shepherd, who calls us to lead with him as his ‘under-shepherds’: to lovingly feed his lambs and sheep, to care for them in their pain, sin and failures, as he would if he were us. Peter later teaches this from personal experience (1 Peter 5:1-4). They are HIS sheep, not ours! The Church does not belong to the man of God, the pastor, the elders, but to Jesus! He bought it with HIS precious blood. He will hold us accountable as to how we shepherd and lead. Jesus’ commission is clearly based on his teaching in John 10:1-18, which in turn clearly refers to Ezekiel 34:1-16.
Following and Leading from Love (John 21:18-24)
Why did Jesus do this personal confrontation with Peter in the presence of the other disciples (John 21:2)? They see and hear the drama. Perhaps, because Peter said at the last Passover meal, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I will never… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”. And all the other disciples said the same (Matthew 26:33-35). That happened in community around a meal and is now reversed in community around a meal. In other words, Jesus is also addressing them, through Peter. And also, because Jesus reinstates Peter as their leader. He does it in their presence because, what unfolds, shows that there is still insecurity and comparative rivalry among them, as is common among leaders and people.
After Jesus’ threefold commission to Peter, he says, “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… Follow me!” (John 21:18-19). Earlier Peter had “wrapped his garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water” to swim to Jesus (John 21:7-8). He did what he wanted, when he wanted, taking the initiative. That is the mark of youthful leadership, the ideal of freedom.
Maturity, however, is different. It faces death. It goes through death into resurrection. Leadership in the resurrection is the freedom of surrender, God’s true liberation, entered into by the obedience of “not my will, but yours be done”. The longer we “follow me”, under the loving discipline of the Chief Shepherd’s rod and the staff, we learn to lead by being led. The paradox of Kingdom leadership. We surrender initiative to him in all things, just as he surrendered initiative to his Father in all things, thereby leading by being led (John 5:17-20). It means we let go. We surrender control, trusting his patient and persistent love that initiates, defines and leads us. We learn to no longer define ourselves but allow God to (re)define us through community, through others. Incredibly vulnerable.
Like our Master who was stripped naked, flogged, and re-clothed in a purple robe (John 19:1-2), God slowly but surely strips us of that which identified and defined us in our heroic early years of ministry and leadership. God uses people and circumstance, ‘strangers’ who walk on the shore, even our enemies, to do this. We open our hands in vulnerability, even stretch them out to be nailed to a cross. We lead with spiritual authority and real influence, like Jesus, to the extent we allow ourselves to be led by those whom God uses to dress and take us to where we would naturally not want to go. That is leading in, by, and from the suffering love of God in Jesus, who suffered the brokenness of those he led, healing and transforming them in his resurrection. So, to lead in the Shepherd’s Spirit is death to self, to live his love in resurrection power.
This kind of mature selfless leadership is what truly glorifies God; just as God’s choice of Peter’s martyrdom was “the kind of death by which he would glorify God” (John 21:19); just as the Good Shepherd “glorified God” (John 12:23-27) by “the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). Indeed, Peter literally “followed in Christ’s footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21), “knowing that I will soon die as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (2 Peter 1:14). Reliable tradition says that Peter was executed by the Romans, crucified upside down at his own request, because, he said, he was not worthy to be crucified right side up like his Lord and Master. Astonishing.
To complete the story. Perhaps, in all of this we see John ‘setting the record straight’ in his old age, long after Peter had glorified God through his life and particular death. I say this because we see Peter still looking around and comparing himself with John (John 21:20-23), just as we do with other followers and leaders: “Lord, what about him?” “Why didn’t I first recognize it was Jesus?” “Does Jesus love me as much as he loves him?” “Why didn’t I get to rest my head on Jesus’ chest and listen to his heartbeat?”
Jesus’ answer is, “It’s none of your business! YOU follow me!” God’s plan and destiny for each of us is different, because we are uniquely loved and called by God. That is what gives us our value and identity, our meaning and purpose. Insecure leaders cause great damage to their fellow leaders and those who follow them. The sooner we learn to be fully secure in God’s personalized love for us, the more we surrender to that love, and learn to lead in and from love, as Jesus did.