John 21 1:19‘Fishing, feeding and following’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

I wonder if you were struck, as I was, by the curious coincidence in the conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter after the breakfast by the Sea of Tiberius.  In the three times Jesus questioned Simon Peter about his feelings for him, there were echoes of the three times, after Jesus was arrested, that Peter was asked if he knew him.   That earlier time, of course, Peter denied he knew Jesus, all three times.  This time, Simon Peter replied yes to all three questions.  His answer each time, did not express any great confidence in the strength of his love but rests more on the sureness of Jesus’ knowledge.  “You know everything about me, who I am, who I am not; you know that I love you” he responds.  And each time Jesus directs him to guide, guard and nourish those who belong to Jesus.  “Feed my sheep”, he says.  The pattern of this interactions shows that the earlier threefold denial has been wiped out in the threefold declaration of love and subsequent instruction from Jesus as to how to express that professed love.

You might have noticed that in this whole section of the story Jesus addresses his questions not to Peter, but to his old name Simon, son of John.  The theologian Lesslie Newbiggin suggests that Jesus can no longer refer to him as Peter, which means rock, because in his earlier denials of Jesus, Peter has proven himself to be more like quicksand than rock.  So, now in this first catch up, after the events of Easter, Jesus reverts to the name he knew when Jesus first met him, Simon, son of John.

When Jesus asks, Simon, son of John, “Do you love me?” what is he really asking?  The Ancient Greek language has something like eight words available to them to describe the different dimensions of love, as it was understood.  This allows for a lot more nuance than what is available for us in English.  If you go back to the Greek, you will find that there are two of these meanings of love that are used in this story.  They are agape and philos.   Agape is used to describe selfless, or sacrificial, universal love and Philos is affectionate love, or friendship.  They are different, you can see why a language might need more options to be clear about what type of love is being referred to. 

The Greek text tells us that when Jesus asked Simon Peter, do you love me, the first two times he used the word agape and the third time, philos.  But Simon Peter replied each time using philos.  So, maybe this makes it clearer; Jesus asked Simon Peter twice if he loved Jesus in the selfless, agape way – enough to give himself away for Jesus (or die for him) and the third time he asked, do you have sufficient affection for me to give yourself away for others, and Simon Peter replies yes, you know that.  And that is when Jesus knows that Simon, son of John has changed; he is now on the solid ground and he named him as Peter, the rock on which Jesus’ church can be built!

I have been speculating as to whether Jesus might have deliberately interposed the two meaning of love; agape and philos.  Maybe they cannot be so easily separated.  Earlier in John 15:13 we hear Jesus explain agape in terms of philos.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  And then he goes on to define his relationship with his disciples in terms of friendship – “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends (philos) (15:15).  He may have done this to show that there is no hierarchy in love. 

Does that indicate that to live that unconditional universal, agape love we can’t be disconnected from a practical expression of it?  Is it a love God by loving our neighbour, kind of thing?  I think so.  Peter’s restoration to renewed relationship with Jesus is also a restoration to a new kind of leadership.  Fisherman no longer, he is called to feed Christ’s sheep (15:17). 

This new leadership will require a new more expansive, way of loving.  This kind of love, whether it is called philos or agapē, involves an inherent expectation of “doing.”  You can’t love in theory alone, true love requires an expression, a doing.  So, to love universally you need to be connected to those around you, to your neighbour, otherwise it’s just a good idea and love of that kind will rarely change anything.  Love is as love does. This love Jesus points to is to love courageously, to love with risk, to love without wavering, to love regardless of what it calls us to do.  

Feeding Jesus’ sheep means nourishing, guiding and caring for those who belong to Jesus.  That’s a wide, wide group rather than a narrow one, in my view for God so loved the world!  This is what it means to Jesus to love others, selflessly.  Earlier we learned that the good shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.  Peter had said he was ready to do this, and demanded the right to follow Jesus, but Jesus had sensed, back then, that he was not ready.  He was not ready because he wanted to follow on his own terms and did not fully appreciate that to follow meant the way of the Cross, and the way of dying to self.  Now, post-Easter, he gets it, so Jesus says the words that Peter had longed to hear earlier, “Follow me.”

These are not light words; they are words that bring with them whole of life change.  ‘Follow me’ is not a call to follow when, or where it suits.  It can be a call to discomfort, or it may take us to places we least expect or wish to go to.  It is only after the events of Easter that Jesus knows that Peter is ready to hear them.  ‘Follow me’ means dying to self, a readiness to give it all as Jesus had.  To die to self as Jesus had demonstrated.  Does the risen Christ call Peter and us, as individuals, and as communities of faith, to follow him even where we would not otherwise go, even where we might not want to go?  

The times in which we live are no time to resist because “we have never done it that way before,” nor are they the time for returning to what we are used to, because we fear what we don’t know.  These times, more than ever, are times that call for the best love of God, friends, neighbours, and enemies, that we can muster.  Or, better yet, these times cry out for the love to which God calls us and that God will bring to life within us for the sake of others.  Included in the call to follow me, is the call to prepare others to also be able to follow him.  Sometimes we hear this expressed as discipleship but that word has become rather loaded and can be off-putting if not explained well.  Preparing others to follow is what all of us are engaged in.  It’s why we meet together and serve in whatever way we do, or did.  It’s the purpose of our children and young people ministries, it’s why we preach, pray and share communion.  It’s why we put so much effort into connecting with the community around us, so we can live this out in our context.

There is a lot in this story of Jesus being reunited with Peter on the beach that morning.  But perhaps the bit that speaks the most, is this: The one who denied the Lord, becomes the one on which Jesus builds his church.  Quicksand becomes rock.  That surely gives our floundering attempts to be church some reassurance.  We are not always going to get things right, or follow the where we are called, but we shouldn’t give up the efforts to respond to Jesus’ question, each and every day, do you love me.  Are we ready to say yes; to love and live sacrificially by feeding his sheep and following where he leads?  It’s not a passive thing this: we are being called to give of ourselves even when it doesn’t suit.  And even if active expressions are no longer the way in which you are able to serve, then encouraging those who are able, praying for them and supporting them are still ways to express the self-giving, universal agape love in philos fashion.  Hearing the story again this morning, is a reminder that we are still engaged in what started that morning on the beach of the Sea of Tiberius, and it continues to pull us in, with those simple words of Jesus, “Follow me.”