When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
In Jewish tradition, a rabbi is required to refuse the request for conversion three times before answering in the affirmative. Each time, the potential convert has to face rejection, doubt, introspection. Only through perseverance, it is thought, can one understand what it really means to be a Jew.
The structure of this pericope is rather genius. Gathered together–whether by swimming or by boat–a simple charcoal fire organizes the make-shift community. A familiar scene. Jesus producing a miracle and then demanding that all be fed. There is no absence. Nothing is bereft. Bread in abundance; fishy aplenty. All has been prepared by God. And like they have during the feeding of the 5,000 (reported by all the gospels) and the 4,000 (reported by Mark and Matthew, but not Luke and John), and the last supper (not reported by John), they gather again. The author of John notes that Jesus’ grab and gab is the third resurrection visit.
Reclining after the meal, Jesus turns to Simon Peter. Do you love me? he asks. No matter how many times I read it, Jesus’ voice will always be that of Tevya (preferably voiced by Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof; do you love me? When Peter says yes, Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” No explanation. No qualifications. “Feed my lambs.” One can imagine Peter’s thoughts: What does it mean to feed? Who are lambs? How often am I to feed them? Before he can muster a question, Peter is faced with Jesus doubling down: “Do you love me?” Now I hear Golde from Fiddler: “Do I what!?” With the second question, one imagines what might be going on in Peter’s mind. Do I love you? Of course. Of course I do, but why do you keep asking? Peter assents, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Again, the questions: What does it mean to tend? So am I to only tend to the sheep and feed the lambs? Do the lambs not need tending and the sheep not need feeding? What’s going on here?
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Each time. Each time Simon Peter is forbidden to forget the face of his father. Each time he is challenged to bring his whole self. Do you really understand what it means to love? Do you understand what it means to love God through Jesus Christ? Because this love is not just about you. It is about others. It is about the sheep and the lambs. It is about feeding and tending.
Sometimes we have to hear the unspoken “no.” Sometimes we have to be asked the same question several times to assure others we really mean what we say. The movement of this passage is beautiful. They all know who Jesus is as they eat with him on the beach, but none of them dare ask. They don’t give voice to their questions. They shovel pieces of fish and bread into their mouths, looking awkwardly from face to face. Do we talk about the fact that we’re eating with a dead man? Or at least a man who was dead but now is not? And what does this mean for us? We can imagine that all of these issues are racing through their minds, but Jesus is not concerned about that. He wants to make sure that Peter (and here we could go into a whole discussion of apostolic succession and how this passage parallels Matthew 16:19, but let’s not and say that we didn’t) understands the depths and requirements of love. Like rabbis who will follow for centuries, he wants to make certain that those who wish to follow in the ways of the Jewish God fully understand what is required.
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
I cut out that line about death. That is the author of John speaking to us, and with all due respect John gets it wrong. This is not about Jesus’ death. I mean, maybe it is but I think it is about so much more. This is about the requirements of love. Love does take us where we don’t wish to go. At least the love Jesus teaches us. But the promise is that we won’t be alone. God will be with us. And others whom God animates will be there, too.
We have to hear the “no.” The no to doing what is easy or comfortable. The no that comes with realizing that we most likely will not be the persons we hoped we would be, but if we follow God we will be the persons we are meant to be. We have to hear the “no” that God gives to shallow or empty love. We have to hear the “no” to certain questions that God simply will not answer, because God is more concerned with how we are loving. How do we practice this love, this resurrection?
Well, fiddlesticks. Yeah. I will. I’ll tend and feed and eat and love and follow and swim and take boats and be confused. Keep asking, though God. Because eventually I’ll hear the unspoken nos as a final “yes.”