This text from the Gospel of John would normally be read sometime between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the day we celebrate the birth of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit in May or June depending on when Easter is.
Chapter 20 of the Gospel of John is the story of the resurrection including an appearance to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and 2 appearances of Jesus to the Disciples. Then, chapter 20 ends this way:
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Kinda like, that’s the end. But, then, there’s one more chapter. Chapter 21 may have been added on after the original end was written. Like an editor added it after the author had finished it.
Chapter 21 begins with the Disciples not really knowing what to do after Jesus had appeared to them twice. So, they revert back to their old ways and go fishing. They had gone out fishing for the night and caught nothing. At daybreak, Jesus met the Disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee. With His help, they caught a net full of fish and towed it to shore. Jesus fed the Disciples in a scene similar to the Last Supper.
After their breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says. This round repeats ‘til Jesus had asked Peter if he loved Him 3 times and had 3 times commanded Peter to feed or take care of His sheep. Peter was hurt, not because Jesus asked him once; Peter was hurt because Jesus felt it necessary to ask 3 times.
When we read this story about Peter confessing he loves Jesus, we think of Peter’s denial. On the night the Disciples ate with Jesus in the Upper Room, they went out to the Garden of Gethsemane after dinner. Roman soldiers came to the garden to arrest Jesus and take Him away. (Chapter 18 of John) Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that other disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the gate. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “Are you one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” Now, the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it warming themselves. Peter also stood with them warming himself. The slaves and police asked him, “Are you one of His disciples?” He denied it and said “I am not”. One of the slaves of the high priest asked “Didn’t I see you in the garden with Him?” Again Peter denied it; then, the cock crowed.
We’ve all heard many sermons and read many devotions about those denials being denials of knowing Jesus. However, Peter doesn’t deny knowing Jesus; he denies being a disciple. There is a difference between knowing Jesus and following Jesus or being His disciple. Lots of people knew Jesus. Peter knew Jesus. The people questioning him that evening didn’t ask Peter if he knew Jesus. The people asked if he was a disciple of Jesus.
Each time Peter responded to Jesus saying that he did love Jesus, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” or “take care of my lambs.” Jesus is telling Peter, and us, that part of loving Jesus is loving and caring for those whom Jesus loves. Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of love by commissioning him to do good work. He’s to look out for others and devote himself to the community. Peter finds a sense of belonging in the community of Disciples and is given a purpose by being a Disciple.
Peter doesn’t need forgiveness for denying being a disciple. He doesn’t need justification. Peter doesn’t need reinstated. Peter never denied knowing Jesus; Peter denied his role as disciple. “The conversation between Jesus and Peter has nothing to do with [Jesus forgiving Peter for his denial]…[it] is John’s version of ‘take up your cross’ … [Peter needs an invitation to discipleship, an invitation to participate].” Jesus’ question about love is not a question if Peter knew Jesus; Jesus’ question is whether or not Peter will participate in the continued mission of Jesus once He is taken up to Heaven. Peter confesses that by his love he is devoted to Christ and will accept His commission.
The life of a disciple is not an easy life. When we make a confession of faith and are baptized, we enter into a life that should be marked as different because of our commitment to discipleship. Discipleship is the act of being a disciple and living the life of faith. Jesus tells Peter that devotion to Him requires Peter and all who confess to love Jesus to participate in the kingdom building work that Jesus continues through his faithful Church.
I saw a video by Frances Chan who is a United Methodist. Frances was talking about discipleship and used his daughter as a reference. He said when he tells his daughter to go clean her room he means for her to go clean her room. He doesn’t want her to come back next week and say, “Hey, dad, I remembered what you said about cleaning my room.” He doesn’t want her to convene a study group of teenagers about what it means to clean their bedrooms. Frances means clean your room. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgQ2wiTefmQ
Jesus tells Peter, “feed my sheep”. When Jesus tells us to feed His sheep, we know who Jesus’ sheep are and how to care for and feed them. The least, last and lost – those are Jesus’ sheep. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but I think it sums up all Jesus said about who He came to save – the least, last and lost. Our acts of discipleship should include serving the least, last, and lost.
Over the past 7 weeks, we’ve read and I’ve preached about 7 commands of Jesus. Let your light shine. Do not worry. Go and do likewise. Do not be afraid. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Take up your cross. Feed my sheep. These are not suggestions. These are commands. Jesus didn’t ask, “will you please do these things?” Jesus didn’t say, “if it pleases you, you can try these things.” Jesus said to do this. Jesus told His Disciples and therefore us, as those who confess to be His disciples, what we can do to show that we are followers of Jesus and that we love Him. Being a disciple means that we make an effort to do what He tells us to do because we call Him Lord and Master.