Reading of the Holy Gospel according to John (21:15-19)
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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him,“Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”Do you love me more than these? There is a little bit of ambiguity in this question that we just heard. Here are three possible interpretations:
One, do you. Peter, love me more than these other disciples love me? Do you love me more than you love these other disciples? Or do you, Peter, love me more than you love these tools of your trade, your life as a fisherman, what has become familiar and comfortable to you?
In the Greek, we can actually rule out the option of do you love me more than these other disciples love me. It's not asking that. Jesus is not suggesting that Peter's love is somehow less than or for that matter, greater than, the other disciples' love for Him. However, the other possibilities, that is that Peter, do you love me more in fact than you love these other disciples, or do you love me more than you love these things in your life with which you are so comfortable. These two are both equally possible in the original text. If Jesus is in fact asking whether he, Peter, loves Jesus more than the other disciples, this is really the prevailing interpretation among most commentators. However, that final possibility is equally valid. Jesus could, in fact, have been asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than he loved those things that were near and dear to him.
For a moment, let's just set aside what I will later refer to as these ambiguities in the original. We can easily imagine Peter's discomfort at having the same question asked of him, not once, not twice but three times. This is at the end of John's Gospel and it was, therefore, a post-resurrection encounter with the Risen Lord. We can sympathize with Peter's discomfort.
And probably like Peter, we know almost intuitively that the threefold question is in fact the consequences of Peter's earlier threefold denial of Jesus. Peter had been asked, "You are one of his followers, aren't you?" And three times he responded, "I am not." And after his third denial, the rooster crowed.
Despite Peter's discomfort at having been reminded of his own threefold denial of Jesus, Jesus is in fact giving him a gift. He is giving him an opportunity to declare his love three times in a row. "I love you, I love you, I love you." Perhaps such a threefold declaration, its significance is lost on us. But to a First Century Jew, its significance would have been very clear. A threefold verbal declaration is a contract. This ancient tradition even lives on to this day in Islam, where a declaration of divorce is uttered three times. The [unintelligible] for Peter's threefold declaration of love are the consequences of that love. "Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep."
Now some of you have heard me preach before, and so you know that I love to pick on the sheep. At Christmas time, I have been known to have run down from the ambo and over to the Nativity set and picked up a little plaster of paris lamb, which are surprisingly heavy, and walked around with it while I preach.
I do this intentionally to call to mind that these images that we have of lambs and sheep - they have more in common with Bo Peep than they do with the message that Jesus is trying to communicate in the Gospel. And like Bo Peep, these cartoon images of sheep and lambs are fairy tales. Sheep are docile, dimwitted and dirty. And, my dear friends, so are we.
This is why I love this metaphor of sheep. It actually describes us well. Sheep stink. Sheep have all sorts of grubby things that cling to them. Sheep routinely lose their way. On their own, they will wander off, get lost and eventually they'll fall victim, perhaps, to some predator. Outside of the sheepfold, their future is very bleak. They will not survive long.
In order for us to survive, we need to be a part of a community. If we are excluded from that community, we will not do well. More importantly, if we are pushed away from the sheepfold, it would seem that the shepherds are not doing a very good job.
Let's return to those last two ambiguities. Do you love me more than you love these other sheep, or do you love me more than you love what is familiar and comfortable to you. Peter, having been given a chance, a new beginning, a rebirth, it's likely that Peter knew that he was simultaneously both sheep and shepherd. Peter knew that he had been cared for, and therefore he had a duty to care for others. In other words, Peter might very well have understood Jesus' question far better than we do.
Perhaps Jesus was not asking Peter whether he loved Jesus more than other Christians, but if he loved Jesus AND all others more than those things that for so long made Peter feel secure: his life as a fisherman, the tools of his trade, perhaps even his ideas.
And what if these things applied to us. Include things such as preconception, hardheartedness, and prejudice. If it includes these things, and then Jesus turns to us, and asks a simple question: do you love me more than these?