Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
There are some people in the world that I will never understand, and these people are skydivers and bungee jumpers.
I will never understand the desire to strap yourself into some kind of backpack apparatus and just jump out of a perfectly good and functional airplane. I will never understand the desire to put on a harness belt thing attached to an elastic cord and jump off a bridge. These are things people do, and that boggles my mind. Any century before this one, they would have called these people mad. Why would anyone put themselves in such danger as this?
I’ve heard many stories of people doing these things, people who were talked into taking the plunge, either out of a plane or off of a bridge. They did it because their friends were doing it, or they always had wanted to but never had the courage to do it, and now they’re at the top and they can’t turn back now. They do it sometimes when they don’t want to, and then someone they trust ties a belt, harness, parachute to them, and takes them to a place they feared to go—but doing that has made all the difference. They come back afterwards for the better, despite the fear they felt going into it.
Now, let me be clear: I will not be doing skydiving or bungee jumping any time soon. That’s probably a step too far for me, given that I can’t hardly climb a ladder without shaking and fearing the worst. Baby steps, people baby steps. However, the situation of heights aside, there are many other things that I would fear to do that I would do anyways. Places that maybe do not put me in mortal danger like jumping off a bridge, but more fearful than I would like to admit.
I know I’m not the only one; we all have situations we fear. For some, it might be when you are a child, and you are afraid of the darkness in the house and all you want is to be near your mom and dad. It might be going back to the school where you know your bully is waiting for you. It might be moving out of the house for the first time, discovering your new freedom but also being alone for the first time. It might be the hospital room where you know a loved one is close to the end. For others, it may be the interview room at a possible new job, after so many other places have turned you down. For yet another, it might be where you are being deployed after enlisting in the military. It may be going home after you lost your job.
There are so many places that we fear to tread, it would be impossible for me to list them all. The point of it all is, there are going to be times when you are going to be headed somewhere that you do not want to go, and there’s very little you can do about it sometimes. However, nobody ever promised that we would never have to go to those places. In fact, Jesus practically promised that we would have to go to those places, especially in this scripture, a scripture that is one of the most striking parts of the whole New Testament.
The bible is really good at giving us intense, grandiose, epic moments. The parting of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho falling down, the battle of David and Goliath, Jesus being baptized, or walking on water, or the cleansing of the temple—all of these moments are big and intense, milestones that stick in the minds of believers. So it’s funny to me that, near the very end of the gospel of John, we have this story. It’s a very subdued ending. A quiet ending. Not grandiose in any way. Far from epic. No explosions, no choirs of angels, no deeds of military might. Just a bunch of guys, too much fish, breakfast on the beach, and conversation. And yet, it’s one of the most significant and important moments of Jesus’s story, perhaps because it is so quiet, and yet so powerful.
It’s easy, in this passage, to imagine yourself there. To hear the water. To feel the sea breeze. To imagine the ship the disciples were on, and how on the side of the sea of Galilee, a single man yells out to them how the catch is going. An invitation to breakfast after an astounding catch. The smell of the fish roasting over the fire. The quiet of the morning. And then, the questions; questions that cut right to the heart. Questions that could only come out of Jesus’s mouth.
“Do you love me more than these?”
At the first, Peter is flippant. He’s nonchalant, unknowing what the man whom he loves means by this question. It comes out of nowhere, and seems fairly straightforward. And so Peter answers “Yes, you know that I love you.” What, is he going to tell him no, straight to his face? Of course he’s going to say yes! Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” Okay. That seems like it would be the end of a discussion. Jesus asks a question, gets an answer, gives a commandment. The group is silent once again, listening to the morning silence. But then the question comes again.
“Do you love me?”
At this, Peter is more curious. He thinks, maybe Jesus didn’t hear me the first time. Maybe he’s just making sure he heard the answer correctly. He gave an answer, heck, he even gave a commandment; all would seem that he heard him. Oh, maybe he’s trying to get some kind of lesson across to us, oh this will be good. I’ll bite, thinks Peter. “Of course, you know that I love you.” Jesus simply looks at him and says to Peter, “Tend my sheep.” Satisfied that Jesus gave basically the same commandment as before, Peter sits restful, thinking that he’s done with the interrogation. Silence falls on the group once more.
And then the question is asked a third time. “Do you love me?”
It hits Peter finally. Three times. Three times I denied him on the day of his death. Three times he asks me if I love him. This isn’t just a lesson. This isn’t just a breakfast. This is penance. Peter becomes hurt, knowing that in denying the man he called Lord, he denied his love for him. He finally understands what’s at stake here. He responds, finally, taking it all in, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”
Jesus responds again, finally letting him know with the full weight of the commandment. “Feed my Sheep.” In saying this we learn what Jesus truly meant in this quiet moment. If we are to say that we love Jesus, if we do so knowing that to do so is to renounce all other Lords in our life, we do so knowing that the command in response is to feed his sheep. To tend the lambs of the world, the defenseless, the downtrodden, the mourning, the poor, the alien, the unloved. Tend to them. Feed them. Love them. Do so knowing that if you love Jesus, this is what you are commanded to do.
However, do so knowing this also. After he tells Peter a third time to tend the sheep, Jesus says something that I think is perhaps the most important part of the Gospel of John for Christians. I would even go as far as to say it’s more important that John 3:16, because this tells us what Christ will do to us once we love him. He says these words that chill me to the bone, but also give me hope. “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Follow me.”
John explains this as something to foreshadow the martyrdom of the disciples, but I think it might be even more important for us today than that. Few people are martyred these days in our culture because of their faith; while over in other countries this might be more true, for us, we probably won’t have that experience. More than likely though, it has to do with those places that I mentioned earlier. These places we fear to tread are the very places Jesus might lead us. Jesus is going to tie a belt around us and take us to places we fear to go—this is not a threat, but a promise. Jesus is calling us to face our fears when we follow him. Peter, in the face of his fear of being caught and killed, denied Christ. We’re called to do better. We’re called to witness to Christ as we follow him into the places we fear to go.
Though Christ tells us this, it’s always with this in mind: Christ is the one leading us there, and therefore, Christ will always be with us. Christ will be with us in the dark places, in the fearful places. Christ will walk with us when enemies beset us. Christ will walk with us as we face our disappointments, our challenges, and our obstacles. Christ will be with us as we take the plunge, as we jump from the planes and bridges. Christ will be with us as we walk into the valleys of dark shadow, and will lead us always into the light.
This also means that Christ will lead us to do things that we never dreamed we would do. That may mean caring for someone who can’t care for themselves. That might mean feeding the hungry, or volunteering at a nursing home, or mentoring a young student. That might mean walking with a loved one through cancer, or some difficult disease. It might mean making a meal for someone dealing with grief. It might mean many things, but always, though we might be afraid, Christ will be with us, leading us all the way. He will be our bungee cord and our parachute. He will lead us, and always, save us.
As we venture into the dark places of life, as we face our fears and run headfirst into unknown adventures, Christ will always be with us. That means peace will be with us. Power will be with us. Grace will be with us. Love will always be with us. Do you love him? Then feed his sheep. Amen.