Everyone knows the Easter story.
On Good Friday, Jesus was marched to Calvary and crucified. After his death, his followers wrapped his body in a shroud and laid him in a tomb, sealed by a boulder. On the morning of the Third Day, what we now call Easter, Mary Magdalene found the tomb opened and his body gone. She erupted into tears at the idea that after having lost in Jesus everything she had loved to the Roman Empire, someone had come in the night and stolen now even his corpse.
And it is in this state of impenetrable agony that Mary opens her eyes to become the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.
Later that night, Christ appears to the rest of his disciples. This is where Doubting Thomas receives his famous sobriquet after telling the others that he could not possibly believe in the resurrection without first having seen for himself the wounds of crucifixion. So Christ appears to him in full stigmata, and invites Thomas to plunge his doubting fingers into the wound left in his side where the Roman soldiers had stabbed him.
Those two events are usually what we Christians think about when we tell of the resurrection. For many, this is all the resurrection entails.
But according to John, the Risen Christ makes a third appearance. It happens some time after Easter—we know this because the setting is different—no longer in Jerusalem, the site of the crucifixion, but rather sixty miles away, back in lower Galilee, where Christ’s ministry first began.
And in this last chapter, we again encounter the apostle Peter back where Jesus had found him: as a struggling fisherman.
Jesus again tells Peter how he might actually go about catching some fish. He does as he says and, lo and behold, he catches some fish—a lot of them. 153 miracle fish, to be precise. Someone had made a point to count them.
After the men bring in their haul and empty their nets, we find Christ reunited once more with Peter, his first disciple, exactly where the freshly baptized Jesus had found originally him.
In this way, there is a perfect symmetry to the Gospel of John—the closing of a circle, the story ultimately ending where it began.
Except now, of course, we know how the story ends. Christ’s ministry had so threatened the Pharisees and the Roman Empire that they had him crucified. And as for Simon Peter, after Jesus was taken in the night from the garden of Gethsemane, he would deny having even known his beloved teacher three times before the rooster crowed at dawn.
Obviously, Jesus had foreknowledge that Peter would betray him. He literally told him what would happen. He even called the rooster.
But seeing as forgiveness is sort of his thing, we find Jesus, now back from the dead, huddled around a fire with his first disciple, sharing for old time’s sake one last meal of miracle fish.
And here, the resurrected Christ turns to Simon Peter and asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs.”
Then Jesus repeated the question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep.”
Then a third time, Jesus asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”
Note what Jesus does not say to Peter. He never once says to Peter: lead my sheep. He does not crown Peter the heir of the Kingdom of Heaven, nor does he bequeath to him any divine authority. He does not say, Peter, it’s ok that you betrayed me, abandoned your calling and returned to your former life of a fisherman—please, by all means, take charge of everything and use my favor to lord over others like a king.
Instead, here’s what Jesus does say to Peter: if you love me as much as you claim, then why aren’t you feeding my sheep?
And what he does say, he repeats three times, leaving no room for misinterpretation.
Being omniscient, of course, Jesus knows that Peter loves Christ. But Peter’s threefold confession of faith means as little to Christ as did his threefold betrayal.
What use does a man who already knows everything have for confessions?
What use are words to a carpenter when what he asks for are your hands?
To profess love to God in word alone is to pay no special honor to Christ or his ministry, for had not the Pharisees professed to love God the most and nevertheless had him crucified?
The only thing Jesus ever asked his disciples was to love another, as he loved them. But to love as Christ loved is no easy love. Jesus did not spend three years walking around Palestine sending heart emojis.
To love the world as Christ so loved the world is to return it to its original holiness, to gather up all its broken, shattered pieces and bring them together in the holy spirit of communion. To this aim, Jesus dedicated his ministry to feeding the poor, healing the sick, and flipping every hypocritical table he could find. The Kingdom of Heaven that he spoke about was not some abstract utopia in the clouds but rather a potential reality here on Earth, ours for the making if only we would take up the cross and follow him.
To us, with the benefit of the Gospels, these instructions seem so clear.
But here we find the apostles, who had just witnessed the full glory of divine resurrection, having already abandoned their call to ministry and gone fishing—quite literally.
But lest we judge, remember that it was Christ himself who warned us: Judge not, lest ye be judged...
This closing scene shared between Peter and Jesus is not about Peter’s confession of faith. Nor is it even about Christ’s forgiveness of Peter’s betrayal, since this being Jesus Christ himself, that’s implied. The significance of this moment must be read between the lines: Peter’s heart is breaking open, this time for good.
During Jesus’ lifetime, Peter never fully understood what Christ meant when he said, “Follow me.” In those three years in which he served as his disciple, Peter never understood that to follow Jesus meant not simply to walk behind him, but rather to emulate him, to become like him, in heart, mind and deed.
These experiences of heart-opening epiphany are fairly common for Peter, who as a disciple is often portrayed throughout the Gospels as doubtful, dimwitted and disloyal. He is the prodigal screwup, the first called, perhaps, but never the best. And yet, it is Peter who Jesus establishes as the rock of his church— and this is purely speculation on my part—because he struck Jesus as the most human.
In the Gospels, it is through an imperfect Peter that Christ is always reaching forward to us, we of so little faith, we who so often forget to pick up our cross and follow him. Peter is never portrayed in the scriptures as an especially good disciple but had he not struggled in his discipleship, Christ would have no occasion to teach him and through him, us, the righteous path of infinite mercy.
And so with this last teaching, everything finally clicks into place for Peter with perfect clarity: to love Christ is to love as Christ; to love the shepherd is to keep feeding his sheep.
This final encounter with the Risen Christ marks the beginning of Peter’s ministry and thus the beginning of Christianity itself. From that moment forward, Peter would finally abandon his nets for once and for all and become a proper fisher of men, carrying forward the good news of his beloved teacher from Galilee to Rome. There, he would become established as the first Pope and was, in fact, himself crucified by the Empire.
But not before spending the last years of his life feeding the poor, healing the sick and flipping over every hypocritical table he could find.
For he so loved the world, as Christ so loved the world.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.