...Not only is it significant that it is the risen Lord who is appearing to the Disciples, who’s manifested himself through this miracle of catching not just any fish, but a hundred and fifty three fish in one net — that’s a big haul — and inviting them to have breakfast. But this exchange that takes place between Peter and Jesus particularly, is meant to echo the triple denial of Jesus, is now going to be counteracted, undone, forgiven (so-to-speak), restored (Peter will be restored) through a triple affirmation of his love for Jesus.
So, I want to look at that exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter more closely here. So if you look at it, you’ll notice something significant. Most people remember that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” I mean, everybody kind of picks up on that. But notice the specific words of Jesus. What does he say? “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” What does that mean? “Do you love me more than the other Apostles?” Why would Jesus ask that? Well, two possibilities. First, think back to Peter’s own emphatic declaration that when everyone else abandoned Jesus, he would be faithful. Remember that? “Even if they all abandon you, I will never abandon you.” So Peter, before the Passion, had proclaimed he loved Jesus more than all the other Disciples. That he would be faithful even if they weren’t. So in one sense there’s an echo of Peter’s former words here. But, on a deeper level (and I think this is even more important), Jesus is actually calling Peter to love him more than the others, in the sense that he’s calling him to a position of primacy over the others. He’s calling him to be the leader of the other Disciples. And you can see this because it is Peter (and Peter alone) that Jesus gives the office of shepherd. This is so crucial. It’s not just that Peter’s being restored by his triple affirmation of love, but that in being restored, Jesus is assigning to Peter the office of being shepherd over his flock. Look at Jesus’ words here. When Peter says I love you the first time, what does Jesus say? “Feed my lambs.” When he says it the second time, what does Jesus say? “Tend my sheep.” And then when he says it the third time, what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep.” It’s unfortunate that in the Revised Standard Version the second one there they translate as “Tend my sheep.” It’s kind of weak. In English it makes it sound like, “Take care of the sheep… pat them on the head, be kind to them.” But the Greek word there is poimaino
, which is just a verb for shepherd. So in other words it means “Feed my lambs…shepherd my sheep…feed my sheep.” So in other words, he’s establishing him as shepherd of the flock.
Now, the reason that is so crucial here in the context of John’s overall gospel is that in John 10, Jesus reveals that he himself is the Good Shepherd. And he even says there will be one flock and one shepherd. And then he turns around (after his resurrection) and makes Peter the shepherd of the flock. So, which is it? Is Jesus the shepherd or is Peter the shepherd? And the answer is both. Jesus is of course the Divine Shepherd, the Supreme Shepherd; we’re going to see that when we look at Jesus’ own words on Good Shepherd Sunday, but Peter is established as the earthly shepherd over the flock of Jesus’ disciples, and that includes (very importantly) the other twelve. As Jesus says, “Do you love me more than these?” So, the three questions (do you love me?) correspond to the three denials by Peter, and then the three exhortations establish Peter as the shepherd of the Church, as the shepherd of the disciples, as the shepherd of Jesus’ one flock.
And it’s interesting (and very powerful) that in that context, what does Peter’s role as chief shepherd mean? You might think, “Well look, this is great. Jesus is giving Peter power, right? He has authority. He’s the head of the Apostles. He has primacy over them and over the Church.” And that’s all true, but what are the implications? What does Christ-like leadership look like? Well it looks like martyrdom. It looks like execution. And Jesus, no sooner does he establish Peter as shepherd of the sheep (who, by the notice, he’s going to feed them – hmm. What might he feed them with? If you look at John’s gospel in particular, what is the imagery of food always linked with? Well it’s linked with Jesus feeding the multitudes bread and then promising to feed his Disciples with his body and his blood). So this is both governance of the Church, but also the sacramental life of the Church. He’s going to feed them with the Eucharist. He will feed the flock with the bread of life...
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