It’s dark and still, waves, muffled chatter and the crackling of flames the only sounds. A group of men sit eating, but one of them stands apart. This is the guy who denied the Son of God. This is Peter.
It hasn’t been long since he told people he’d never met Jesus, and the guilt is still raw. This isn’t the first time he’s encountered the risen Jesus, but maybe the initial joy has worn off to be replaced by shame. Then the moment of truth – Jesus asks to walk with him along the shore. This is it. This is the moment Peter will either stand condemned, or….
The whole evening has been pointing towards something significant. In the aftermath of the resurrection, Peter and a few of the other disciples have unsuccessfully been fishing. Then a voice from the shore: “Haven’t you caught anything? Throw the nets over the other side, that’ll do it.” They follow the stranger’s advice and end up with a mammoth catch, and because this is very similar to a miracle they witnessed when Peter first became a disciple, they realise who the voice on the shore belongs to. It’s Jesus.
The repeat of that early miracle sets the scene for Peter’s reinstatement – a miraculous catch of fish, followed by Peter jumping in with both feet, followed be…
“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks. The assumption is that he’s talking about the other disciples – just before his denial, Peter claimed that, even if the other eleven abandoned Jesus, he never would. Here’s his chance to claim that and actually mean it this time.
(There’s another interesting interpretation – that Jesus isn’t talking about the other disciples, he’s talking about the fish and the boats, and therefore Peter’s old life. After all, for a man who, when given the chance to leave Jesus, replied with “Where would we go?”, he was suspiciously fast to return to the life of a fisherman.)
But there’s even more going on in this conversation. The word Jesus uses for love is ‘agape’, the highest, noblest form of love, the love of God. When John says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…”, this is the love he was talking about.
“Yes, I love you,” replies Peter, but he’s not getting caught by Jesus’s words. The love he refers to is ‘philio’, brotherly love. A good and powerful thing for sure, but not divine like agape. Maybe Peter’s been humbled by his denial, especially in the light of all the times he professed his loyalty. Or maybe he just doesn’t think a man can love like God, and that the question is unfair.
“Do you love me?” Jesus uses agape again, and again Peter replies with philio. The novelty is wearing off, and if Jesus is going to say something then he should just come right out and…
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks yet again, and this time he uses philo. Peter is hurt – Jesus must have heard what he said earlier, the only explanation is that he doesn’t believe him, right? “Lord, you know I love you…” Philio again. The love Jesus is asking for, and the love Peter can give finally match up, and Jesus accepts this. At this point Peter isn’t able to offer that great, supernatural, divine love demonstrated by the cross; heck, in a few verses he’s going to sound a little jealous of John, so maybe even his philio is a little wobbly.
But maybe all this talk of different kinds of love is important, because then Jesus goes on to give a prophecy about Peter’s eventual death. According to tradition, Peter died a martyr, crucified upside down. His loyalty to Jesus, while confused, would never again waver as badly as it once did, and so these three questions cancel out the three denials. And while Peter could only offer Jesus all the philo in his heart, maybe in the years to come he’d come to understand more of agape. He’d pretty much have to, and in some way Jesus recognises that.
Because while much of this passage echoes Peter’s past, there’s a new element that points to his future. In between each “Do you love me?” question, Jesus issues Peter with a command – “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Up until now, the metaphors around Peter’s ministry have reflected his job – “You’ll be a fisher of men” Jesus originally tells him as Peter gets out of his boat to follow him. Now the evenings fish metaphors cease and we’re into the realms of something deeper and more weighty. Peter is being given the role of a shepherd for the disciples and future Christians. Maybe that’s even reflected in the haul of fish – Peter drags the catch ashore, only to find Jesus already cooking fish – he doesn’t need a fisherman anymore, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for Peter.
Being a shepherd links to the Hebrew scriptures, where it serves as a metaphor for religious and political leaders. In Numbers 27:15-17, Moses asks God to appoint his successor so that Israel won’t be “sheep without a shepherd”, while Ezekiel 34 is an extended attack on the bad ‘shepherds’ and points out that God himself will act as a good shepherd, which turns out to be a very famous description of Jesus. And now Jesus seems to be appointing Peter as another of these, to act as leader of the fledgling church following Jesus’s ascension. And this confused, impulsive former-fisherman goes on to succeed in this.
And that’s why the reinstatement of Peter is important. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jesus forgave Peter, but I suspect that this is the moment at which Peter forgives himself. All his guilt, regrets, treachery and mistakes are put aside, left in the past as Jesus gives him a new destiny, one that is for him personally, not just for the church as a whole. On the shore of Lake Galilee, Jesus gives Peter a new life and a new purpose, freeing him from his past and his sins.
This is a story we need to hear.