by Eric Burd
It was the best fish Peter had ever eaten, and for a fisherman on the majestic Sea of Galilee that was saying something! Yes, this promised to be a beautiful day as Jesus prepared a luscious meal for Peter and six of his fellow disciples on the seashore. What could be better?
Spending time with the Master had always been wonderful, but since Jesus’ resurrection, time with Him had been unusually sweet. Peter had betrayed, yes, but Jesus had recognized his remorse. He had forgiven Peter and all was well again between them.
Now just as Peter was snuggled in for a cozy conversation, out of nowhere came a shocking and disturbing question (author’s paraphrase): “Peter, do you still think that you are more willing to die for me than are the other disciples?”
Peter’s mind flashed back to the night of the crucifixion when he had boldly proclaimed, “Lord, though all forsake you, I will never forsake you.” Putting his stake in the ground, Peter stood tall. That commitment remained in the garden as Peter slashed the ear of the high priest’s servant with a sword, ready for mortal combat to save Jesus! But Jesus would have none of it as He was quietly led away to be tried.
Peter followed close behind, and we know what happened: Peter denied even knowing the Son of God. Now, sitting by the sea, Jesus’ words are like a slap in the face. Why would Jesus ask this question? Why would he bring this up now? Was this not forgiven? Doesn’t Jesus know how badly Peter feels? Looking into Jesus’ eyes, the question is inescapable: “Peter, do you still think that you are more willing to die for me than are the other disciples?”
What can Peter say? Another vow? Not now – it would seem an empty boast. He responds, “Lord, you know I have great affection for you.”
Wow. How lackluster. Peter had been the most daring! The first to declare Jesus the Messiah – even the Son of the Living God! On his own initiative he had stepped out of a boat into a violent sea. Now what? Where is his pledge? Where is his self-confidence? Willing to die for Jesus? Yes – sometimes. But sometimes not! His zeal for Jesus, burning hot in the garden, was ice cold in the courtyard. It didn’t make sense, not even to Peter. He only knew that at this moment he did not really know himself. He was unsure of his own commitment.
Jesus’ response must have stunned Peter and the others: “Peter, feed my sheep.”
Peter did not know his own heart, but Jesus did. He was testing Peter. Was the brash, impetuous Peter of three years ago still the same man? Had the revelation of his betrayal shaken his self-assurance?
Now, a second time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me enough to die for me?
Again embarrassed, Peter answers, “Jesus, you know I have great affection for you.”
Jesus replies, “Be the pastor of my sheep.” How strange. Would not Jesus want the powerful, the confident, the “adequate” to be his shepherds?
But Peter could make no such boast. Confessing his lack of devotion, Peter is saying: “No promises, Jesus. I am unsure. I don’t even know my own level of commitment.” And under these circumstances Jesus commissions Peter to be a pastor of His Church? Wow!
Finally, Jesus lowers the bar, “Do you have affection for me, Peter?” Now this is a knife through Peter’s heart! Jesus knows all things. He could have assured Peter. He could have told Peter of his undying love. But no. Jesus merely asks Peter if he has affection for Him.
Heartbroken, Peter replies, “Yes, Jesus, you know all things, and you know I have affection for you.”
Jesus commands, “Feed my precious little sheep.”
This is a beautiful story. Not of Jesus’ unforgiveness or revenge. But this is a story of Jesus pressing upon His faithful servant the reality of man’s natural inadequacy for ministry. Peter’s insecurity was good and he would not find the only source of adequacy until the upper room at Pentecost, when we see him – by grace – stepping out to preach the Church’s first gospel message. Peter would then go on to a long and fruitful ministry, all in reliance, not upon the strength of his own commitment, but always finding his adequacy in the indwelling Spirit.
And for us, whether pastors or parent or in any other role, we must move beyond our failures. Not to ascend into higher levels of commitment and confidence, but to descend into our own inadequacy; using our many failures to pollinate our reliance upon the ever present work of the living Christ within us.