‘Feed my Sheep’

Easter 5
John 21:15-25

The postscript to John’s Gospel contains two stories of Jesus on the beach on the shore of Lake Galilee with his disciples. The first story, as you recall, was the catch of the 153 fish and Jesus cooking breakfast for his disciples. This story was characterised, as we saw, by several memory triggers that reminded both the disciples and the reader of earlier incidents, including the miraculous catch of fish when Jesus first met Peter, the feeding of the five thousand with bread and fish, Peter walking on water when he left the others in the boat to go to Jesus, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

But there is another memory trigger in this first story that we did not highlight. And that is the charcoal fire on the beach. It is only the second time in John’s Gospel that a charcoal fire is mentioned. The first was at the courtyard of the high priest on the night Jesus was betrayed. On that night Peter sat around the charcoal fire and ended up denying Jesus three times. The mention of the charcoal fire in this final post-resurrection appearance of Jesus is another intentional memory trigger. And as the conversation between Jesus and Peter unfolds we will see its significance.

To understand the context of this conversation between Peter and Jesus we need to recall the conversation between Peter and Jesus, which took place in the Upper Room before Jesus’ arrest, recorded in John 13:36-38.

‘Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now: but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cost crows, you will have denied my three times.”

Now, back to today’s text. Jesus and the disciples have just finished eating their breakfast of fish and bread around the charcoal fire on the shore. The presence of the charcoal fire reminds the reader of the fire that Peter stood by when he denied Jesus three times. The three-fold denial is significant because according to ancient custom to repeat a statement three times had strong legal and moral force. Now there needs to be a resolution of this three-fold denial. There needs to be a reconciliation and reinstatement of Peter and his role as leader of the group of disciples.

So we read that when they had finished eating, Jesus turned to Peter. And Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me more than these others do?”

Well, that’s one heck of a question. What was Peter to think? Of course he loved Jesus. After all, he had just jumped out of a boat and swam to shore to see him. None of the other disciples had done that! So Peter says, ‘Yes, Lord. Of course. You know that I love you.”  But in the Greek in which John writes the account, there is an important difference in wording used by Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter, Do you love me, using the word agape for love. It is a love that transcends all love. It is a love that knows no bounds. It is a deep metaphysical and spiritual love. In fact, John actually defines agape in the words of Jesus earlier in his gospel when he quotes Jesus telling his disciples “No one has greater love (agape) than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). So Jesus does not need to tell Peter and the others that he loves them. He has already demonstrated this through his actions.

But when Peter answers Jesus, he does not use the word agape. Instead he uses the word philo, which is the second highest type of love. It denotes a deep ‘brotherly love.’ In most of our English translations we miss this important nuance because the word ‘love’ is used to translate both words.

In essence, Jesus has just asked Peter if he loves him in the most profound and eternal way possible. And Peter responds, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that l love you like a brother.” This might strike us as odd and even awkward. It is a bit like a young person saying to their boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time those words, ‘I love you’ and in response getting only, ‘That’s nice. I like you, too.’ But Peter was not being rude or awkward here. Given his recent denial of Christ (three times!), it is likely that Peter simply did not feel worthy enough to pronounce this kind of love for Jesus. The last time Peter had boldly proclaimed his commitment to follow Jesus to death he had not been able to follow through. In fact, he had completely lost his courage and denied three times that he even knew Jesus. So here we find a much humbled Peter; a man less certain of himself than before his denial of Jesus. Peter, to put it simply, seems reluctant to commit to more than he is confident he can follow through on. And after claiming that even if the other disciples faltered, he would follow Jesus to the death, he is certainly not willing to say he loves Jesus more than the other disciples do.

In response, Jesus appears to ignore the difference in words used and says to Peter, ‘Well, if you love me, feed my lambs.’  Jesus is looking for action to back up Peter’s words. Jesus showed his own love for the disciples and for each one of us by laying down his life. Now he asks Peter to show his love for him through action.

Then Jesus repeats the question to Peter, using the word agape again. But this time Jesus leaves off the phrase, ‘more than these others.’ Perhaps if Peter is simply asked if he has an agape love for Jesus, and not whether he has this love even more deeply than the others, Peter might be willing to commit. But Peter responds for the second time using the word philo. ‘Yes Lord,’ Peter says, ‘I love you like a brother.’ And Jesus once more asks Peter to tend his flock. But this time he uses the word sheep instead of lambs, and the word tend instead of feed. The request made of Peter has been significantly downgraded! Hand feeding young lambs is much more work and requires a much greater commitment than keeping an eye on adult sheep out grazing. Perhaps Jesus was suggesting that if Peter can only commit to brotherly love, then feeding the little lambs might be too much for him. But Peter could at least tend to the adult sheep, who can feed themselves and need less care and attention than the lambs.

Then the question and answer are repeated for a third time. And this is a not-so-subtle reminder of Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus. This three-fold repetition of question and response is meant to highlight that something very important is being said here. In first century Judaism a witness often was asked to make a statement or accusation three times. And a man who wanted to divorce his wife had to repeat this three times to have legal binding. So Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus was a big deal. Now Jesus is providing the chance for Peter make things good by affirming his loyalty to Jesus three times.

But this third time there is a change in Jesus’ question. Jesus does not use the word agape this time. He realises that Peter does not feel able to proclaim this level of love. So Jesus comes down to Peter’s language, using the word philo, and asks Peter, ‘Do you love me like a brother?’ At this point Peter is getting a bit agitated because he thinks Jesus is asking him the same question over and over. So again he says, ‘Of course, Lord. Why do you keep asking me? You know everything. You know I love you like a brother.” Finally the question and the response match up, but only because Jesus has decided to meet Peter where he is at. Jesus and Peter agree on brotherly love. On philo love. It will have to be enough!

And again, Jesus challenges Peter, and asks him to ‘feed my sheep.” Jesus has returned to the request to feed, rather than to simply tend, but has retained the term for adult sheep, rather than reverting fully to his original request to feed the baby lambs. The third request does not bear the full responsibility of feeding the little lambs from the first request. But is more than just tending the sheep, as in Jesus’ second request to Peter. Once again, Jesus accommodates not only his language, but also his request, to what Peter at this point in time is capable of doing.  

It is agreed that Peter, the leader of the disciples, is able to commit to brotherly love of Jesus, and to feeding his sheep. And so the reconciliation is complete. Peter has been brought back into the fold as leader of the disciples.

But there is a final part to this conversation on the beach.

At the end of Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter about loving him, he tells Peter that he will give his life for him. But he asks him to follow him nonetheless. And this is exactly what Peter had asked to do, even pledged to do, at the Last Supper. But Peter becomes immediately distracted when he notices John coming toward them. And Peter brings up the question of what will happen to John. ‘What about that guy?’ he wants to know. ‘Will he, too, die for his faith?’ Jesus tells Peter that he is not to worry about John but to focus on his own commitment to discipleship. Then Jesus again repeats the command to follow him. And this command to follow Jesus is the final reference to the earlier conversation between Jesus and Peter at the Last Supper.

Remember, the context of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s threefold denial was Peter’s request to follow Jesus to his death. Jesus asked Peter then, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me?’ Now Jesus is calling Peter not simply to follow him, but to do exactly what he had pledged before his crucifixion, that is, to follow Jesus to death. And so Jesus tells Peter the kind of death he will die. The reference to his hands being stretched out and led where he does now want to go is a reference to crucifixion. And when John wrote his Gospel his readers would have all known that Peter, the leader of the disciples, had been crucified some years earlier in Rome under Nero.

But what does this text mean for all of us today? We are, after all, not Peter.

Importantly, what Jesus says to Peter is meant not just for him, but for the other disciples, and for all of us who would one day follow Jesus.

So Jesus is asking all of us if we love him. He is asking all of us to care for his sheep, that is to take care of and to love one another. And he is asking all of us to follow him, whatever the cost.

And this is how John closes out his Gospel, his life of Jesus. He concludes with a conversation on a beach that recalls many key events from the ministry of Jesus. He concludes his Gospel with the story of Peter, who despite all his faults and failures, is forgiven and reinstated by Jesus. John concludes his Gospel with these words of Jesus echoing down through generations of followers of Jesus: ‘If you love me, feed my sheep and follow me.’

So, do we love Jesus?

If we love Jesus, however we understand that love, then Jesus calls us to demonstrate this love by our actions. Like Peter, we might have let Jesus down in the past. We might feel unworthy to make a bold commitment of agape love. It doesn’t matter. Jesus calls us all the same to show our love for him by our actions. He calls each one of us to love and care for one another, and he calls us to follow him, whatever the cost.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.