a sermon for the third Sunday in Eastertide
he 21st chapter of the Gospel according to John contains some of the most poignant material in the whole of the New Testament. In an extraordinarily artful way, this chapter draws together everything John has told us about this Jesus, setting the stage for how this little community of disciples is now to carry forward what they have received.
The setting is the sea of Tiberias, or the Galilean Sea, where seven of the disciples have returned after their days in Jerusalem. Simon Peter has suggested a night of fishing on the sea – they’re fishermen, after all, and they’re still very much trying to sort out what it means to live now after this experience they’ve had of the resurrected Jesus – something familiar, something they know, is in order.
The night’s fishing, though, is not successful, and at daybreak they see a lone figure on the beach, who calls out to them: “Children, you have no fish, have you?,” or as Reynolds Price has rendered it, “Boys, nothing to eat?” (Price, Three Gospels). It is Jesus, though they haven’t yet recognized him. “Toss your nets on the other side, then.” They do, and they net a mighty catch, at which point John – “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he is always named in this gospel – does recognize him. “It is the Lord!” he says to Peter, who in his typically exuberant manner leaps into the lake and swims to the shore.
And there is Jesus, crouched by a little fire, preparing bread and getting ready to grill some of the fish for his friends. Breakfast time.
What John has offered us in this scene is a sort of recapitulation of two key gospel scenes: the miraculous haul of fish that had first led these fishermen to dare to follow, and the story of the feeding of the multitudes with the loaves and fishes. Pieces of what they had experienced earlier with Jesus on their road-trip as his students and disciples are now being played out for them on that beach; offered anew, in light of his resurrection. And wonderfully, in his resurrected life, he seems no less interested in good and ordinary things like fishing nets and breakfast.
And then comes this scene, this heart-rending scene for exuberant Simon Peter, who must face up to another chapter of their time together. “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’”
It is a question that will be asked and answered three times: Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? Yes… yes… yes… It is a restoration scene, because weeks earlier on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had denied knowing him – much less loving him – three times. Hanging over Peter’s head would have been that knowledge, all tangled up in guilt and shame from which he needed to be released.
But there is more. Our translations miss what is present in the Greek in which John originally wrote, namely the different words that are rendered as “love” in English. Many modern commentators don’t think much is intended by John’s use of these different words, but given how careful John tends to be in his choice of language that doesn’t strike me as being very likely. Watch.
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John – and notice that Jesus doesn’t call him by his nickname of Peter, “the rock,” but rather by his given name – do you love me? Do you have agape for me; the kind of servanthood, self-giving love that has so characterized my way of being in the world? And do you have more agape for me than the others?’ Peter, after all, had claimed that he among all the others was the one who would never desert, never deny, never flee. “Do you have that love for me?”
And Peter answers, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I have phileo for you.’ That’s the Greek word for the love of friendship. I am your friend, I care for you. And Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
And then he asks a second time, ‘Simon son of John, do you have agape for me?’ No comparison this time with the others. And again Peter answers, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I have phileo for you.’ I am your friend. And Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
Jesus speaks again, but this time his language has changed: ‘Simon son of John, do you have phileo for me?’ Are you my friend? And Peter is evidently hurt, because of the continued questioning. Hurt or defensive or maybe just a little overwhelmed. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I have phileo for you.’ You know that I am your friend. Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.”
It might be tempting to suggest that Jesus begins by setting a high standard, and that he basically lowers it to meet Peter where he is. He starts with self-giving love, and moves to friendship, which is the most Peter seems able to offer. That is a fairly standard interpretation.
Almost 100 years ago, the Russian Orthodox theologian Pavel Forensky offered another reading, one that pays deep attention to what Jesus actually teaches about friendship. When Jesus asks Peter if he has that selfless servanthood love for him, Peter actually offers a pledge of something more: friendship. When, in the third round of questioning, Jesus shifts his language from agape to friendship, it is in a gesture of true and deep acceptance of Peter. For all that he’d denied knowing him and fled into the night in fear of arrest, Peter can yet be embraced as a friend. He’s not compromising the high standards of agape and settling for friendship, but rather he’s accepting Peter’s pledge of friendship, in spite of what has gone on in the past.
Remember that earlier in John’s account, on the night of the arrest, Jesus says some very powerful things about that kind of friendship love:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15:12-15a)
And the words that Jesus speaks to bring this all to a close are, ‘Follow me.’ The same words he’d spoken to Peter at the beginning of their relationship, on that same beach by that same sea. The restoration is complete.
More than complete, really, if we follow Forenksy on this. The disciple who was mentored by the teacher to learn something of self-giving agape has now been embraced in friendship. His three-fold denial is forgiven, and a new challenge is set before him; as Reynolds Price names it, “Feed my lambs. I was the shepherd. Now I’m leaving. Serve awhile in my stead.”
And Peter does. And so will Paul, a brief piece of whose calling story we read tonight. And so must we all. Named now as friends of Christ, we now all of us have shepherding to which to attend.