15When 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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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.” John 21:15-17
When we find Peter in John 21, he’s come through some bad times. He denied Jesus three times, fled from the scene at the cross, peeked into the empty tomb and witnessed some mysterious appearances of the resurrected Jesus. It’s no wonder that in the midst of this chaos, he declares, “I’m going fishing,” and a few other disciples quickly jump into the boat with him. We can only function in full crisis mode for so long until someone has to run to the grocery store and we rest into to the comfort of small routines. I imagine Peter feels most competent and at home in a boat, rough nets in his hands, the sea water spread out around him like a warm blanket as he sinks into the muscle memory of a thousand fishing trips.
This is where Jesus finds him, empty nets in his hands, exhausted and returning to shore after a long and unsuccessful night. Jesus knows feeding their hunger is his first priority, and soon their nets are busting with silvery fish and they struggle to pull them all to shore, and they eat together. After the meal, with full bellies and tired bodies, Jesus changes Peter’s life forever.
At this point, after his grievous mistakes and fearful hiding illumined his true character, Peter assumes he’s done with Jesus. He’s preparing to return to his fishing life, to what he knows. Jesus knows better. With three questions, Jesus echoes Peter’s three denials and rewrites them in a litany commissioning Peter into his life as a faithful, courageous leader. “Peter, do you love me?” Three times Peter says yes, yes, yes.
Jesus gives Peter a command and sends him out–feed my sheep. To love Jesus doesn’t mean we’re perfect or make the right decisions or show boldness and courage every time we’re afraid. Jesus has more than enough perfection and wisdom and courage for us. We’re called to lose our lives for the sake of others; in doing so we fulfill Jesus’ commission to us, to open our eyes to all we can do, despite our misgivings and self-doubts. To love Jesus is to love the world, to embrace the new identities we’re given in Christ, to feed and clothe and advocate and walk alongside the world, to go places we may not want to go.