Peter must have been devastated when Jesus kept asking him, Do you love me? In his usual way he got a bit hot under the collar! But the three times Jesus asked him, “do you love me?” reflected the three times that Peter had denied Jesus, after insisting that he would never do so. Did you notice that Jesus calls him Simon son of John, rather than his new name Peter? Maybe Jesus was reminding Simon Peter who he was to begin with, where he came from, with his name in its Jewish form, denoting his lineage. Does this mean that Peter was to have a special ministry to the Jewish people? Some commentators think so.
There were three times that Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and three times Jesus told him to feed his sheep. But wait a minute, they are not all the same. In the first one, Jesus tells him to tend his lambs. The word ‘tend’ means to feed, pasture, protect them while they are grazing. And it refers to lambs. Jesus was saying, take care of my little ones, my babies. Peter was being told to care for those who are starting out on their Christian journey.
The second time Jesus tells Peter to tend his sheep. Note that it’s not just the lambs, but the mature sheep, a more inclusive term, taking in the followers of the Way who are more experienced. And the original Greek word used for tend is not the same as the first one – it means to supervise like a shepherd, to rule over. Maybe it’s more of a bishop’s role – and Peter was to be the first bishop of Rome. This command of Jesus to Peter gives him the authority to run the church structurally, to take care of the administration. Even though the church was very new and tiny, this idea of a supervising shepherd was very important.
But it wasn’t Jesus’ last instruction to Peter. The third time he tells Peter to ‘Feed my sheep’, using the same term for feeding as he did at first – to provide spiritual food, not just the milk for the babies but the food, and the pasture, and the protection, for the mature as well. And this is almost a description of a three-fold ministry as we see it in the Anglican clergy – the roles of deacon, priest and bishop. Peter was told to do all three. All three were seen as vital. And much of the way the church was to develop came from an understanding of Jesus’ three commands to Peter.
The last part of the reading can seem a bit strange, all about fastening his own belt. This was Jesus prophesying what was to happen to Peter. Remember that in an earlier verse Peter had jumped out of the boat without his garment, so that he could get to the Lord faster, and then had to wrap himself up in his garment and fasten it. This passage says that when he will be old he will not be able to fasten his own clothes. We all know that buttons and zips and laces can be difficult for aging, stiffened fingers. But it’s not really about clothes. Jesus is telling Peter that others will fasten him, tie him, up, bind him. Peter was hearing that as an old man he would be taken prisoner. Peter knew then that he would give his life serving Jesus. But Jesus says to him anyway, Follow me.
If we knew that we would die following Jesus, would we do it? The message here is for Peter, and it’s for us too. Our physical lives will come to an end anyway. But in following Jesus we’re doing something more important than preserving ourselves.
Remember, the disciples were having breakfast on the shore with the Risen Christ – they knew that death was not the end of the story. And this gave them the confidence for the next part of the story – taking the Christian message to everyone.