“The third time (Jesus) said to Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep’ ” (John 21:17, NIV).
When Peter and the other disciples arrive on shore, Peter soaking wet from his swim and the other men sitting in the relative comfort of their fishing boat, Jesus already has breakfast warming over a fire. As the heat of the dancing flames warms Peter’s skin and the smell of fresh fish and bread fills the air, Peter can’t help but think back to several years ago, to his calling as a follower of Jesus. That instance had also involved a huge and miraculous catch of fish. But that was well before Peter’s recent denial of Jesus. Now, Peter’s sin is at the forefront of his mind. As he pulls the fish-filled net onto shore, Peter hopes that he can still be of use to Jesus, that he can once again “ ‘…fish for people’ ” (Luke 5:10, NIV) as Jesus had called him to do.
I imagine there is some level of uncomfortableness on the part of Peter as he shares the meal with Jesus and the other disciples. Peter knows all-to-well that he has hurt Jesus and wonders if their relationship, their friendship, will ever be as it once was. The laughter of the group of men around the fire calms Peter’s anxiety to some extent, but it doesn’t change the fact or the cruel consequences of his sin.
But then, following their meal, there’s a moment in time, an exchange between Peter and Jesus, where Peter’s doubts are diminished and his hope is restored. Jesus asks Peter a series of questions, three times in fact, the same number of times that Peter had denied knowing Jesus, “…do you love me?” (John 21:15-17, NIV).
Each time, Peter affirmatively responds with an answer of “yes” and each time Jesus tells Peter some variation of the phrase, “…feed my sheep…” (John 21:15-17, NIV). Jesus is not finished with Peter, even though Peter has given up on himself. Jesus has forgiven Peter, despite his denial, and now Peter needs to forgive himself. Peter, who had been called to fish for people is now being called to feed Jesus’ sheep, his lambs, a calling that will ultimately cause Peter to lose his life. But it will all be worth it. Peter will lead and fish and feed Jesus’ people the remainder of his life, and his confession of faith will outlive his denial in doubt.