Some years ago the London Daily Telegraph carried a letter written by an eleven-year-old boy to his mother while he was on vacation in Switzerland. He wrote this: “Dear Mom, yesterday the instructor took eight of us to the slopes to teach us to ski. I was not very good at it, so I broke a leg. Thank goodness, it wasn’t mine! Love, Billy.” Now, that mother had only a limited insight into what actually happened on the ski slopes of Switzerland that day and she had to figure out what might have happened from what she already knew about her son. And you and I have only a limited insight into what happened on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day. We have to put it together with what we know about Jesus and Peter.
This event happened several weeks or so after the resurrection of Jesus. We know that the disciples were in Jerusalem on Easter day and we know they were still there the next weekend because that is when Thomas saw Jesus. But after that, things get a bit fuzzy time-wise. Jesus is still appearing to the disciples and he will continue to do so until his ascension but he seems to pop-in and out. He no longer stays with them. The disciples, at least most of them have left Jerusalem and gone home. In this account we heard today, Peter, James and John, Thomas, Nathaniel, and two others are just hanging around and apparently after of day of just hanging out, Peter tells the others that he is going fishing. (By the way, in the first century fishermen usually did go out at night so that the next morning they would have fresh fish to sell in the market.) I suspect the disciples are bored. They don’t know what to do. They no longer have a purpose or goal in life. When they were with Jesus they were thinking that they were going to be in on the ground floor of a new earthly kingdom that Jesus was going to set up. But then he died. Now Jesus may be resurrected but he isn’t here. Life will not be the same as it was and their old perspectives on what was going on no longer fit. And so they go fishing, but it is a bust. They spend the entire night and catch nothing; it is as though there are no more fish in the Sea of Galilee. So they are headed back to port and as they get close a fellow on shore shouts out to them, “Haven’t caught anything have you?” The stranger then says, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” They do and then bang! All kinds of fish jump into their net and all the sudden John goes, “It is the Lord!” Suddenly it is just like the old days when Jesus was around, miraculous things just happen and Peter gets so excited he jumps into the water and swims to shore to be with Jesus. Perhaps to make sure Jesus doesn’t pop off somewhere, I don’t know. But when everyone else gets to the shore, Jesus cooks them fish for breakfast along with some bread. It all seems kind of surreal. The disciples feel awkward because nobody really knows what to say. After breakfast Jesus turns to Peter and asks him, “Do you love me more than these?”
“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus never asked this before. And it would be great to have more clarification too. It would be really helpful for us right here to have had a little video camera. Just like Billy’s mother we just don’t know exactly what happens here. To what does Jesus point? Does he point to the fishing boat and the fish? Is Jesus asking if Peter loves him more than he loves fishing, perhaps more than his old profession, his old way of life? Is Jesus pointing to the other disciples? Is he asking if Peter loves him more than the other disciples do? After all, on the Thursday night of the last supper, Peter had told Jesus that even though all the other disciples might fall away, he would never fall away. He was willing to go to jail or even to die for Jesus. But then, later that night, just like Jesus foretold, Peter had denied Jesus, not once but three times. So it could be Jesus is pointing to the other disciples around them. And saying really, do you love me more than they do? Or it could be a more expansive ‘these.’ It could be that Jesus says, “Do you love me more than these?” and swings his arm around to indicate the whole world around him. Do you love me more than your job, more than your best friends, more than you love this world you live in? What about it Peter? Do you love me more than these?
Peter doesn’t try to bluster or say that this time, this time Jesus I will really hang in there and show you how much I love you. No, Peter simply says, “Yes, yes I love you, you know I love you.” And look what Jesus then says, “Feed my lambs.” What is that supposed to mean? There is a pause and then Jesus asks him again, “Do you love me?” Peter responds again with, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus says this time, “Tend my sheep.” There is another pause and Jesus once more asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And we are told that Peter’s feelings are hurt. Peter said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
Do you love me? If you love me then feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep. What is going on here? Again, we don’t know exactly, but some commentators have speculated that since Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus had him reaffirm that he really did love him three times. That is certainly possible. Another possibility is simply to wrench Peter into a new perspective. This is kind of a new Jesus that is now in front of him. Things have changed dramatically and Jesus wants Peter to really begin to get that this is the new reality. Can Peter love Jesus who is not physically present all the time? Jesus is not going to be the popular superstar preacher/healer anymore. What Peter has left is that he knows that Jesus came back from the dead. He knows everything that Jesus has taught and said are absolutely true. And now Jesus is asking Peter once more to lay it all on the line. Now what, Peter? What are you going to do? Jesus then says to Peter “Follow me.” These are the same words with which Jesus called him into discipleship some three years ago.
We may not know exactly what really happened that day but we certainly know the end result. Peter really does love Jesus. He feeds the lambs, tends the sheep, and feeds the sheep of Jesus. He becomes that leader that Jesus appointed him to become.
As for us, what can we learn from this event? I think the question Jesus asks Peter is the same question he asks each of us. Do you love me? If we say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” then Jesus tells us, just like he did to Peter, “Follow me and then serve like I have called you.”
So it is not a question of whether God or Jesus loves us. We know he does. Jesus endured the cross for us. He died in agony to pay the price for my sins and for your sins. Yes, we know that Jesus loves us. The question is do we love Jesus? If we do then we are called to serve him. We are not Peter; still you and I are called to serve Jesus just like he was. If you are serving, this is a good time to consider our motives. Are we serving out of love for our Lord, do we love him in return for his love for us? If you are not serving and don’t know what to do to serve, there is a paper with service opportunities for St. Andrew’s in the narthex. Pick one up and pray about where God would have you serve. If you look at the list and God is not calling you to any of those ministries; make an appointment and come talk with me. All of us who are trying to follow Jesus, all of us who love Jesus, all of us are called to serve. Amen