John 21:15-24 – Peter Restored
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally broadcast November 11, 2007. Craig Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was an historic week in America. The national debt topped nine trillion dollars for the first time. Perhaps the President and Congress should write “I will not increase the national debt” nine trillion times. TLast Sunday, we had the mission lovefeast last Sunday to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church. The music was very nice. Today we are observing the anniversary of the founding of Home Moravian Church and are having a lovefeast. Moravians often take lovefeasts for granted and even grow weary of the organization they require, but this is a ritual that is much admired outside the Moravian Church. I often get calls from other churches that wanted to do a lovefeast. I told them that a pastor is the last person to put in charge of this service. You need someone who can handle organization and give clear instructions, not a theologian. But I do tell them the theology and meaning of the lovefeast. They were often disappointed that there is not much more to the service than simply eating together in love as followers of Christ. And yet, this is a major theme of the gospels. Much of Jesus’ teaching was done at meals. There is something about sitting down together to eat that is vital to the life of the church. Last week we saw that Jesus was revealed to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee when he ate with them. This was a lovefeast on the beach and it provides an image of the church that can guide us today. This morning the lesson talks about feeding the sheep.
Denouement of the Gospel Last week we discussed the theory that the final chapter of John was added as an epilogue to the gospel. We could call the denouement of the gospel narrative. I learned the word denouement in English class at Reynolds High, and I rarely get to use it in public. The denouement is the part of a novel that some of us skip because it comes after the climax. It is the section where lose ends are tied up and the reader is reassured that the surviving protagonists are going to live happily ever after. It allows the reader to exhale before closing the book. In John’s Gospel, the climax was not the crucifixion, as it is in Mark. It was not the resurrection as it is in Luke. It is not even the ascension as it is in Matthew. It is the moment when Thomas cries out “My Lord and my God.” The final chapter shows us that the story of discipleship and devotion continued after the climatic moment, just as our story of discipleship continues after the moment of conversion or recognition of Jesus as Lord.
Simon son of John Peter is one of the most important figures of the New Testament. His name was actually Simon, and his father was either named Jonah or John. The church called him by the nickname Cephas or Peter, which the gospels all claim was given to him by Jesus himself. But in the gospels, Jesus always calls him Simon. There is little doubt that Simon was chief among Jesus’ followers before the crucifixion and became head of the church in Jerusalem after the resurrection, but he was not a perfect disciple by any means. Each of the gospels portray him as eager to follow Jesus. Last week we saw him splashing through the water fully clothed rushing to greet Jesus on the beach, but the gospels also record that he denied Jesus three times on the eve of his execution. That is a very disturbing fact, especially considering that it was the head of the church who denied Jesus. And so, someone added a story about the reconciliation between Simon (Peter) and Jesus to the end of John’s Gospel. Three times Peter denied he was a follower Jesus. Three times, the resurrected Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. It was a painful moment for Peter.
Do you love me? By now you will probably not be surprised to hear that there are some difficulties in translating and interpreting this dialog between Jesus and Peter. The opening question is as ambiguous in the Greek as it is in English. “Do you love me more than these?” These what? For nearly 2000 years, scholars have offered possible answers to that question. Some think that Jesus was pointing at the fish or the fishing boat and asking if Peter loves him more than these things. This interpretation goes along with the theory that Peter had stopped being an apostle and had gone back to his old employment as a fisherman. Jesus’ question then becomes a reprimand or at least a reminder to Peter of his apostolic mission. Or, it could mean that Jesus was asking Peter a question asked by the wives of many boat-owners in the US. Do you love me more than your boat? We’ll call this the Hagar the Horrible reading.
Other scholars propose that Jesus is pointing at the other disciples and asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than he loves the other disciples. This, again, sounds like the kind of a question a wife might ask of a husband. Do you love me more than your fishing buddies? Since this conflict between marriage and friendship is the theme of many movies, we’ll call this the Hollywood interpretation of “these”. Still other scholars assert that Jesus is asking “do you love me more than the other disciples love me?” In other words, Peter’s status as chief of the apostles may have been based on that fact that he loves Jesus more than all the other apostles. We’ll call this the Fan Club interpretation.
Though any of these is possible, none of these interpretations is very persuasive especially in the context of John’s Gospel. But the fault lies in the text as much as in the interpreters. John’s Gospel simply does not clarify what “these” refers to, and perhaps it is not that important. The emphasis of the question was not on the object of comparison but on the superlative love of Peter for Jesus. Remember, this comes after Thomas’ declaration of Jesus’ divinity, and so this question may be a reference to the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me” or perhaps to the great commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. It does not matter what “these” refer to because Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him more than all things and all people. In essence, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him with the love that is properly due to God. In light of what follows, the question could even mean do you love me more than your own life?
Yes! And Simon Peter says, “yes. You know I love you.” In the context of the narrative, this is a strange answer, I think. Peter’s mouth says, “Yes,” but his actions have said “no”. At the moment of Jesus’ greatest trial and suffering, Peter denied he even knew him. As Jesus died on the cross, Peter was in hiding. The Beloved Disciple was there. Mary was there. Joseph was there to ask for the body and buried him. Nicodemus provided ointments. Mary Magdalene wept by the tomb. But Peter was not there. Peter came to the tomb and did not see Jesus. Jesus came to the disciples and Thomas cried out in words of faith, but Peter said nothing. “Yes, you know that I love you,” Peter said. But he had not lived up to this.
Agape and Philo So three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times in memory of three betrayals. Interestingly, different Greek words are used for love in this little catechism. Twice Jesus asks the question using the word Agapan or Agape and the final time using the word Philo. Each time Peter answers Philo, I love you. Many scholars draw attention to the distinction between the brotherly love expressed in the word Greek word Philo and the more exalted esteem expressed by Agape. Agape has become a popular word in many churches to express a specifically Christian type of unconditional love, but it is not clear that differences between these words is helpful in reading John because John often uses these two words as synonyms. It is unlikely that this story is drawing a contrast between how Jesus wants to be loved and how Peter loved him, especially since the questions move from the greater love to the lesser.
Lambs and Sheep The way Jesus responded to Peter’s repeated declaration of love is a bit surprising. He tells Peter to feed his lambs, tend his sheep, and feed his sheep. In this passage, different words are used in each sentence, and it is tempting to look for a deeper meaning in that. Some commentators see a progression from lambs to sheep, and a progression from feeding to tending the flock. But the third verse refuses to cooperate with this interpretation. There we are back to feeding and the word is one used for young sheep. The problem is compounded by the fact that ancient scribes tried to solve the problem by substituting their words, so there are many variations in the manuscripts.
What do these lambs and sheep represent? Some medieval commentators asserted Jesus was talking about deacons, priests, and bishops with Peter as the pope above them. Not surprisingly, Protestant scholars rejected that interpretation. Some argued Peter was told to care for both the young and the elderly in the church. There have been many sermons on that theme especially when raising money for nursing homes, but again, that seems strained. It is possible that the writer simply wanted to add some variety to the repeated questions. There doesn’t appear to be an intention contrast between lambs and sheep or between feeding them and taking care of them. The focus is on Peter’s duty to be a shepherd of the flock. He is to feed and care for the entire flock of lambs and sheep. It will be Peter’s actions toward the church that will provide the true answer to the question “Do you love me?” Words alone are not sufficient. It is our actions that display our love. Peter has failed, but he can be redeemed through his love for Christ and his service to others.
Shepherd There is ample evidence in the Bible that “shepherd” was a metaphor for a ruler, and it appears Jesus is here making Peter the head of the church, the chief shepherd. Catholic scholars have often claimed that Peter is being made the shepherd over the other apostles as the first pope, but that is quite a stretch. We can safely assume that the other apostles were expected to be shepherds, too. Notice that this scene in John is quite different from the one in Matthew where Peter was given the keys to the kingdom. Peter is not made a judge in John. His role is one of nurture and protection. Most important, it is clear that the lambs and sheep belong to Christ, not to Peter. Jesus says, my sheep, not your sheep. It is Jesus who calls the flock, and Peter is to care for those whom Jesus has called.
Thus, John’s gospel ends on the theme of the Good Shepherd who devotes him or herself to the sheep that belong to the Lord. For centuries this passage has help define the role of all pastors in a church. In fact, the word pastor reflects this idea of being a shepherd of a flock. Jesus is telling Peter, and all pastors, that the church does not belong to them; it belongs to Christ. The pastor should act as Christ would act. There are close parallels between this passage and the letter of I Peter (5:2-3) where pastors are told to exercise authority without being domineering. Pastors are to govern through good example and love. Most importantly, the pastor must give the congregation something good to eat and take care them. This conversation with Peter is even more powerful when we remember that he is talking to the Good Shepherd who had just laid down his life for the sheep. How many pastors today love their congregations that much?
Death of Peter After this reconciliation of Peter, Jesus gives an obscure prophecy that we are told is a prediction of the death of Peter. This appears to be an old part of the oral tradition that is placed here to remind the reader that Peter eventually did fulfill his vow to die for Jesus. Peter became the shepherd who laid down his life. The prophecy works is an inverse parallelism between youth and old age. Young men gird their own loins and go where they wish, but old men must be dressed by others and may be led where they do not wish to go. The Evangelist has added a parenthetical comment that connects this to the death of Peter, but it doesn’t explain what this means. Ancient tradition claims that Peter was crucified in Rome by Nero in 64. There is no direct reference to crucifixion in the prophecy, but many commentators have interpreted the image of stretching out of one’s hands as a reference to being hung on a cross. The reference to girding or putting on a belt could refer to the chains that a prisoner wore, and the statement about being led where you don’t want to go could refer to execution.
The Beloved Disciple After this, attention is turned to the Beloved Disciple who was following Peter and Jesus. One of the purposes of the epilogue is to explain the troubling fact that the Beloved Disciple had died despite the hopes of his followers that he would see Jesus again. Though the Beloved Disciple is never named in the Gospel, it seems likely that he was the founder of the church for whom this gospel was originally written. We have seen repeatedly that the Gospel of John claims to be based on the witness of this close companion of Jesus. It is unlikely that the Gospel itself was written by the Beloved Disciple, since he would hardly call himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” But he was the primary source for the information in the Gospel and may have written portions of it.
The final form of the Gospel was clearly written after the Beloved Disciple has died of natural causes at an advanced age. His death would have been traumatic to the church he had founded, especially if they believed that Jesus would return before the Beloved Disciple died. The author of chapter 21 claims that Jesus’ statement “if it is my will that he remain until I return, what is that to you?” was the source of the idea that the Beloved Disciple would still be alive when Jesus returned. We know there were legends that the John the disciple, like Elvis, had not really died but was wondering the world in secret waiting for Jesus to return. Presbyter John became an immortal figure of legendary wisdom and magical powers in medieval lore. Another legend arose that claimed John was asleep in his grave in Ephesus still alive. He would awaken on the last day and greet Jesus. If legends like these survived for a thousand years after the death of the Apostle John, we can imagine why the author of John’s Gospel would include a conversation about the death of the Beloved Disciple in the epilogue.
This little dialogue about the death of the last of the apostles gives us an insight into the development of Christianity from an apocalyptic sect eagerly anticipating the return of Christ to a church that sought to follow faithfully the teachings of Jesus through many generations. Most of the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus is always with us and salvation is experienced in this life. There is not an emphasis on the Second Coming in John, but there are echoes of the older view that Jesus would soon return in glory. Here in chapter 21 we have evidence of the church moving from a fervent belief in the imminent return of Jesus to an awareness that history will continue. We can see the same transformation in Paul’s letters, by the way.
Conclusion There is more to this story, though. The Beloved Disciple is identified as the one who asked Jesus about the betrayer. This reminds us of the contrast between three disciples. Judas betrayed Jesus and was lost to perdition; Peter denied him and was reconciled; but the Beloved Disciple never abandoned Jesus. In the long run, which is harder: to die heroically as a follower of Jesus or to live to an advanced age loving and serving Jesus day after day? John’s Gospel conclude with a reminder that we should not compare ourselves to others, but to love Jesus as we are loved by him. This Beloved Disciple was a true witness to Jesus even though he was not put to death. And the final word of the Gospel is that many more books can be written about the things Jesus has done because the story of the Gospel continues with us.