Today we celebrate what is known as a saint’s day in the life of the church. We’re already familiar with those saints’ days that have translated well from the church into secular culture, such as St. Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day. But we don’t always honor those saints who have not made the leap from the world of the church into society at large. And, even though we honor both Peter and Paul today, when I looked at the Scripture readings assigned for this day, I wondered why we had two readings about Peter and only one about Paul. And then I realized that we hear from Paul almost every Sunday of the church year. Most of the New Testament letters were written by him, and so perhaps the people who worked on the lectionary decided that Peter needed to come out of the shadows a little bit more on this day. So, with my apologies to the apostle Paul and a promise to one day talk more about him, today I’m going to focus on the Gospel reading from John and the question that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
As I reflected on this question that Jesus asked Peter, it took on a musical tone, and I realized that this question has, in fact, been set to music. So, I’m going to play this song from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. And as this is played, I would like you to think about these questions: Why is Tevye asking Golde if she loves him? What does Golde present as evidence that she loves Tevye, but without saying directly that she loves him? Why does Tevye, and also Golde in the end, need to hear these three little words? (Access video at the following link):
So, let’s look at this conversation between Jesus and Peter in the same way. To set the scene, Jesus has been crucified and is now resurrected. In this gospel, he has appeared to Mary Magdalene, who has run and told the disciples; he has appeared to all of the disciples except Thomas and breathed the Holy Spirit on them; and then a week later he appears to all of the disciples again when Thomas is there, and Thomas confesses him to be Lord and God. Now, in chapter 21, life has seemed to go back to a somewhat normal routine for the disciples. They are in Galilee, and when Simon Peter says, “I am going fishing,” the other disciples say, “OK, we’re coming, too.” They don’t catch anything all night. After daybreak, Jesus stands on the shore and asks them if they have any fish, and the disciples say no. So Jesus tells them where to cast their net, and suddenly they get lots of fish. The disciples recognize Jesus and rush ashore, dragging the net behind them. And they find Jesus cooking their breakfast over the fire on the shore. It is then that Jesus turns to Peter and begins the series of three questions and the following commands for Peter to tend his sheep.
So, why is Jesus asking Peter if Peter loves him? Doesn’t he, as Peter says, “know all things”? Why does Jesus need to hear the words? Or, does Jesus not need to hear the words and he is asking Peter for a different reason altogether? Well, if we think back to the night when Jesus was handed over for trial and then crucifixion, we will remember that Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times. Jesus, who knows all things, had predicted that this would happen, and knew that it did happen. So, perhaps Jesus wanted to hear Peter say that he loved him as many times as he had denied him. But, I believe it was more than that. I believe that Peter needed to say it for himself, and Jesus knew that he needed to say it. I always wondered why Peter was upset when Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” After all, didn’t he know why Jesus was doing this? But, I think Peter did know. Picture this: Jesus asks Peter the question the first time, “Do you love me?” Peter is taken aback, but he says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” A few minutes go by and Jesus asks it again. Peter is surprised, but now he can see where this is going, and he answers more strongly, but with tears in his eyes, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” When Jesus asks the third time, Peter is fully remembering his former denial of Jesus, weeping openly now at the graciousness of Jesus in restoring him to his place of leadership, and testifying that yes, Jesus knows all things, and he knows that Peter loves him.
We’ve heard the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But today’s account of this episode between Jesus and Peter says, “With great love comes great responsibility.” For Jesus did indeed know how much Peter loved him, and Jesus knew that for love of him Peter would take on the responsibility of caring for his sheep—the people who followed him—in Jesus’ physical absence from this world. Tradition says that Peter somehow journeyed from Galilee to Rome, where, according to the Roman Catholic Church, he was the first pope, or bishop of Rome. Regardless of what we think of that Roman Catholic tradition, it is clear that Peter was entrusted with great responsibility, that of tending Jesus’ sheep, in the city of Rome. Tradition also says, probably born from Jesus’ prediction in today’s reading of Peter stretching out his hands, that he was crucified because he was a follower of Jesus. And some traditions say that Peter was crucified upside down, because he did not believe himself to be worthy of dying in the same manner as Jesus. This tradition testifies to the great love that Peter had for Jesus, so much that, similar to Jesus, he laid down his life for the sheep that were entrusted to his care.
So, what kind of meaning does Peter’s life have for us today? Most of us would point to the stories about Peter in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, saying that if Jesus could use this flawed and impulsive fisherman who very often put his foot in his mouth to give a rousing speech on Pentecost, do miracles in Jesus’ name, and spread the Gospel message to everyone, then that is encouragement that Jesus can use each one of us to do the same. And we are not wrong in saying that. But there is more that we can take from Peter’s story. What Jesus asks Peter in today’s lesson, Jesus asks each one of us, “Name, do you love me?” If we are to follow Jesus, then we must start with love. If we say we love Jesus, then that love for Jesus will naturally be shown in love for one another. And when we answer Jesus’ question with, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus’ response will be, “Feed my sheep.” Love for one another means love both in word and in deed. Noted marriage consultant Gary Chapman speaks of five “love languages”: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. He says that each one of us has a primary love language, the way in which we prefer to communicate love for another and to receive love from another. I believe that, as Christians, we are called to use all of these ways—in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time, of course—to communicate God’s love for one another. In this way, we will continually fulfill Jesus’ commission to both love him and to tend his sheep.
And just as Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, and just as Jesus asks each one of us individually, “Do you love me?”, he also asks us as a congregation, “Hope Lutheran Church of Powell, Wyoming: Do you love me?” Of course our answer is, “Yes, Lord, you know all things, you know that we love you.” Jesus then gives us the command that he once gave Peter, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” We as a congregation are commanded to put our love into both words and deeds as we minister to one another and to the surrounding community. And while this feeding and tending includes feeding people who are physically hungry, it also includes tending those who are spiritually hungry: those who are waiting for reassurance that God loves them. And, just as the Lord told Peter that one day he would give his very life for the sheep, we as a congregation are called to give our life for those to whom we are ministering. Are we ready to do this? Then let us listen for the voice of Jesus to show us the way in which we will give up our life for the sheep. Amen.