(Originally delivered 1-20-13)
Today this nation observes one of its most significant rituals – Inauguration Day, a time set aside for the administration of a solemn oath to the President-elect for his upcoming term of office. By law, the Inauguration takes place on January 20, so Barack Obama, honoring the precedents set by the six previous occasions this date has occurred on a Sunday, will participate in a private ceremony at the White House this morning, with the public event occurring tomorrow in front of the Capital Building. The oath which he will swear requires the President to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is not a mandate to serve any specific group of people, or a government, or even a nation; it is instead a calling to preserve a set of ideals: a way of thinking about what our leaders should and should not do to and for those under their authority.
In New Testament times, the religious leaders of that era, the Sanhedrin, were likewise not concerned with serving a people, or protecting a nation – in truth, as a puppet state under Roman occupation, they had very little say in these matters. Instead, they also felt called to preserve a set of ideals: the Torah – the Law of Moses – and the Talmud – a compilation of the remainder of the oral traditions of Judaism (Mishna) and centuries of accumulated commentary (Gemara). One sect, the Pharisees, considered themselves the “experts” on the Law and its many detailed interpretations, and jealously guarded their authority to tell the people what they could and could not do in their service to God.
Whenever Jesus interacted with the Jewish religious leaders, they always brought up the subject of “authority” – usually in the form of demands that Jesus explain or defend His actions, and demonstrate the source of His authority to do and say the things He did and said. When He responded to them (He didn’t always), He often cited the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed such expertise over, particularly the writings of Moses, such as we see recorded in John 5:39-40, and then in verses 45-47:
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”
Over and over, Jesus stated that His authority was from the Father, and His calling was to do the will of the Father, to make the Kingdom of heaven present on earth, as we see when Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:10-
“Your kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When Jesus had completed His work on earth, having shed His blood on the cross, been buried in the tomb, and risen again; and was about to return to the Father’s right hand, He passed that authority on to His disciples, and to us, the church of Jesus Christ, with an unmistakable mandate, a Great Commission:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This appearance of the risen Christ occurs at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, but it is not the last time Jesus speaks to His followers in Galilee. Scripture shows us another meeting by the shore of the sea, this time at the end of John’s Gospel, Chapter 21:15-22, our anchor text for today. We heard it read earlier, let’s look at it together now:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.” The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. Very truly I tell you, 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 to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”
Today I want to examine in more detail the way Jesus poses His questions, the way Peter responds, and how Jesus in turn commands Him…because we read it today and see the same words used in each instance; but language and cultural differences obscure the fact that there are two different ideas being discussed, and three distinct mandates. And those distinctions are important…perhaps the MOST important things for us today, as we ask ourselves, “How do we love Him?”
We cannot look at this story without thinking of how Peter had previously denied Jesus three times…the parallel is so obvious that I can only believe it is intentional; that we are meant to compare this scene to the other. I am referring, of course, to the events occurring after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 22:54-62 –
Then seizing [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Recall that, only a short while before this, Peter had made some very bold claims about the quality of his faithfulness, saying he would follow Jesus to his death if need be; the bitterness of his tears comes from the realization of his weakness. Indeed, at the beginning of John 21, despite having seen his Lord risen from the grave, Peter has returned to fishing, with several of the others accompanying him on the boat. Scripture is not explicit about Peter’s emotional state, but let me hazard a guess: I have been in the place of having made big promises that I could not live up to; feeling unworthy because of it; deciding that maybe it would be better if I just went back to doing what I knew I was good at, and leaving the boldness to others…and I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Today, on this side of history, we have the advantage of knowing how this story works out: Peter, along with the other disciples and followers of Jesus, receives the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becoming a powerful and persuasive preacher and leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later in the great churches of Antioch and Rome; in fact, the Roman Catholic tradition venerates Peter as the “First Pope”. But Peter doesn’t know that, does he? He certainly believes in Jesus, but I have to wonder how much he believes in himself right at this moment. I believe this is why Jesus speaks to him directly, to restore Peter from “fisherman” to “fisher of men”, to bring home to Peter the truth of forgiveness and redemption – the same truth that applies to each and every one of us here today: the truth that the grace of God overcomes all our weaknesses, and provides the means for us to carry on the work of the Kingdom here on earth.
I said a minute ago that language obscures some important distinctions in this passage, so let me now unpack that, by looking at the text in the original Greek. Let’s begin in v.15, and you’ll see what I mean – (I will address Jesus’ responses in a minute; for now let’s focus on the question and answer portion):
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.”
The word for “love” that Jesus uses – agapao – speaks of unconditional love; love with no regard to circumstance, worthiness, emotion, or behavior; love based on intention and commitment; a decision instead of a reaction. His comment “more than these” is a direct reference to Peter’s bragging in the upper room – since that is what it was – when Peter said that, no matter what anyone else did, HE would stand the test…and then he didn’t. Jesus wants Peter to confront his shame and failure, but at first Peter dodges the issue; the word he answers with – phileo – carries the idea of affection for someone, liking a person because you have something in common, or some situation that would build closeness: the “band of brothers” kind of love that develops between teammates; or coworkers; or soldiers; …or disciples of one master. This kind of love depends on the situation; once the bond is broken, the love can fade away. This is all Peter is willing to own up to, at this point….but Jesus know better than that. In v.16, Jesus repeats the question, but more directly –
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”
This second query follows the pattern of the first: Jesus says agapao, Peter answers phileo – Jesus is asking for total commitment, but Peter can only promise the passion of the moment. He knows that he has failed his Lord: when it came down to it, his fear for his personal safety was greater than his love for the One he followed – the promises of what was to come were overshadowed by the certainty of what he could see right in front of him. (In all fairness, Peter was not alone: all the disciples scattered; most of them were on the boat fishing with Peter at the beginning of Chapter 21; but I believe Peter is singled out because he did the loudest boasting, and thus had the greatest shame.) I can understand the nature if that fear: the Jewish authorities were working hand in hand with the Romans to preserve the “peace” in Jerusalem, as well as their own position; had they allowed the uprising of Jesus and His followers to continue, Rome would have certainly brought down brutal retribution to squash any dissent – and replaced those in leadership with someone more effective, something that had occurred more than once within the experience of all those present. Peter believed that Jesus was who He said He was, the resurrection was His obvious testimony…but Peter also knew that death by the sword was ever-present, lurking in the background, waiting for any excuse to manifest itself. Being human comes with human fears, and dependence on human sensibilities for survival; and at this point, human ability was all Peter had to go on… Pentecost was still to come, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the church. Jesus knows this, too, but He wants Peter to see beyond that – to remember the trust developed in the years they have spent together, the bond they had formed while sleeping, eating, walking, talking, teaching, preaching, healing, 24/7/365… so He persists in His questioning – look at v.17:
The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”
This time, Jesus meets Peter halfway – phileo instead of agapao – saying that He knows this is the best Peter can do, but if he will commit that much, it is enough. This is important, because the pain Peter feels comes from his acknowledgment of his own unworthiness, his confession made in repentance. Jesus has finally brought Peter to the point of surrender, of submission, the place where each of us must come to before we can fully receive what Jesus has to offer us. As long as we are willing to make excuses for ourselves…to say, “It’s too hard to follow Jesus, and live for Him, and love Him like I should…I’m just a fisherman, I quit”…we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus looked right at Peter after he had denied Him three times, and Peter ran away in shame. This time, Jesus is looking right at Peter after he has confirmed his love for him three times – the only love he is capable of, but love nonetheless…and Peter does not run away; and because of that, Jesus responds with compassion and forgiveness…and a promise, a prophecy – let’s read v.18-19:
“Very truly I tell you, 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 to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”
That image of “stretching out your hands” had a very specific connotation to the people in first century Palestine – it meant that person would be crucified, their hands tied or nailed to a cross to be executed. Remember Peter bragging that he would follow Jesus to death if it was required of him? Jesus had answered him that it would not happen as Peter imagined it, but that it would happen – here Jesus repeats that prophesy, and in fact Peter did die by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, as an older man, some thirty years after Jesus; church tradition states that he was tied to his cross, rather than nailed, and hung upside down by his own request, since he considered himself less worthy than Jesus, and wished his head to point down towards earth, rather than up towards heaven. Jesus last words in v.18, “Follow Me!” should be considered at a renewal of Peter’s calling as an apostle, a command to continue in what he had been doing all along – living out the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.
Now, let me back up and collect the loose ends: the responses Jesus has each time Peter affirms his love. At first glance it might seem that each is a simple repetition, but this is not the case – none of us here today are farmers or shepherds, so we are simply unfamiliar with the care of sheep, and we miss the nuances. I feel, however, that the subtle differences in these three statements actually comprise the job description for a pastor, so I want to quickly go over them. Let’s put all three statements together, and you will see what I mean:
v.15 – “Feed My lambs.” – means to nurture the newborns and get them started
v.16 – “Take care of My sheep.” – means to watch over and guide the flock
v.17 – “Feed My sheep.” – means to ensure the flock is well fed on good pasture
If we compare this to the Great Commission we looked at earlier, we see that each has a correspondence: “lambs” refers to new believers, those to whom we preach the Gospel and baptize into the community of faith; “caring for sheep” can be seen as the work of correction and rebuke that is required on an ongoing basis to make disciples; “feeding sheep” refers to the instruction in God’s Word that we who are more mature are called to do to for and among our brothers and sisters, that they may also grow in spiritual maturity and godliness…a process that all of us should be willing to be a part of, in submission to the Holy Spirit and the ongoing work of sanctification we are expected to participate in, as we await the return of our Lord, on that day when we are lifted up by Him and presented to the Father. I personally believe that we are all under these commands, but especially those of us called into leadership – the preachers, the teachers, the pastors – we have a special gifting that allows us to serve the Kingdom of God in a special way, and this interaction we see between Jesus and Peter is a blessing and a reminder that, even when our human natures cause us to stumble or fail, Jesus will hear our confessions, and receive us back to resume our ministry, to be His hand and feet here on earth. We may not be capable of agape love on our own; in fact I am certain we are not; but Jesus is, and by His Spirit residing in us, we can love Him as He loves us.
Let’s close with the final verses of this passage. I believe this serves us as a reminder that we are to say focused on what God is doing in OUR lives, and how we are only responsible for how WE answer the calling He places upon each of us. Often times, we are distracted, or even discouraged, by the way another brother or sister is being used by God – we look at them and say to ourselves, “Wow, what a great work he is doing! I can’t do anything like that, why should I even bother? The Lord doesn’t need me when He has workers like that!” Peter nearly falls for this same trick of the enemy, when he asks about what Jesus has in mind for “the beloved disciple”, who is probably John himself. Jesus tells Peter straight out, “Mind your own business!” He has His entire plan in mind, and He instructs each of us in our part of it…and frankly, managing that is about as much as any of us is capable of, isn’t it? We must not get confused about this, which can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and start looking at others, or ourselves. His final words are neither a suggestion nor a statement..the verb is an imperative: “You MUST follow Me!”
The ideas I have shared from this passage have been on my heart and on my mind for about a year now – in fact, ever since our pastor announced that he was leaving, and moving his ministry elsewhere. That act made real to me something I knew intellectually, but not internally….that the ways we serve God will change as we mature in Christ…or, at least, they should, if we are doing it right! Thinking that things will never change is in fact a sinful quenching of the Spirit, such as we are warned against by the writer of Hebrews in 5:12-14 –
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
All of us should be desiring to respond to our callings, to get up from our seats and move in His grace, to do the work He has set for us to do…so I invite you now, as we prepare to close our worship in singing today, to pray now for God to reveal how you can best serve His kingdom…to confess your fears and failures – He already knows them, after all, so He won’t think less of you for doing it – and allow Jesus to restore you to your rightful place as one of His ministers, one of His shepherds, one of those who tends His flocks. Will you stand? Will you pray with me? Will you love Jesus today?