Lenten Reflections

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John 21:15-19

April 8, 2024
John 21:15-19

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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 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.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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 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.” 19 (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.”


The beach along the Sea of Galilee becomes the scene for one of the most moving exchanges with Jesus in the gospels. Remember that just days before, Peter insisted emphatically that even if everyone else falls away, he will remain loyal. He will not let Jesus down. He will go to prison and death and even lay down his life for Jesus. But then we watch Peter try and fail without even seeming to realize what he is doing. Peter dares to follow Jesus even into the courtyard of the high priest, but then he denies being one of his followers. He swears that he doesn’t even know the man. And then the cock crows. That moment must have been burned into his memory, and it all happens beside a charcoal fire.

Therefore, it is no accident that Jesus lights up a charcoal fire to cook fish for breakfast. By the heat of the fire, with the smell of charcoal in the air, Jesus asks three questions for each of his three denials. Jesus does not refer to him as “Peter” - but by his old name when they first met. Notice, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter: “Why did you do it? Why did you deny me? Do you realize what you have done?” He doesn’t needle Peter by asking: “How often have you prayed? How many tears have you cried? Are you really sorry?” No, instead, Jesus simply asks: “Do you love me?” 

In fact, the first time Jesus poses the question, he asks: “Do you love me more than these?” - presumably referring to the other disciples. Now Peter is finally starting to get it. Before his denial, Peter elevated himself above all the others. Now he is not so cocky. He affirms his love for Jesus, but his love is not based on his own self-confidence but rather on the sureness of Jesus’ knowledge of him. In response to the third question, Peter says: “You know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter refuses to put on a show of false humility. He doesn’t reply: “Obviously I must not love you after all because I denied you.” Nor does he presume to know how the other disciples love Jesus. He finally takes himself out of the comparison game. Peter places his confidence in the fact that Jesus knew that Peter would deny him, and Jesus knows that, yes, Peter does love him.

It is hard to imagine a more powerful picture of forgiveness. It is one thing to know that you are forgiven in theory, but another to feel it in practice. Jesus directly addresses Peter’s old ache. That’s why the task Jesus gives Peter is even more moving than the question he poses. It would be one thing if Jesus said: “It’s ok. I forgive you.” But Jesus doesn’t pat Peter on the shoulder and send him away. Rather Jesus gives Peter a job to do - and not just any old job. Jesus trusts Peter with Jesus’ own mission. We might have thought that at best Jesus would allow Peter to wash the dishes and make up for his failure. But Jesus gives Peter his old job back: to feed his lambs, to take care of his sheep. Despite his failure, Jesus gives Peter the most important task of all.

How do you need Jesus to address the old wounds in your own life?