When I teach groups about the Gospels I usually highlight what distinguishes each of them. Part of the task involves focusing on four different characterizations of Christian discipleship. This is a little reductionistic, but my point is illustrative. The Jesus in Matthew seeks pupils. In Mark, Jesus summons followers. In Luke, it’s partners. I change my mind frequently about John. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is looking either for believers or lovers. In any case, believing and loving are nearly indistinguishable things in John’s theological imagination.
I tend to think I’m better at the first three, the Synoptic depictions of discipleship. Probably that’s because they keep me occupied, especially in my particular vocation. One of the lies that scholars and preachers often tell ourselves is that introspection can hurt your productivity. But then I get some free time, or the Gospel of John comes along, or there’s a pandemic that makes me rethink everything, and I have to stop and think about love. Less doing, more being.
So many aspects of John’s final scene leave me uncertain about how to make sense of what’s happening there. I’m not talking about the strange number of fish or the details about Peter’s clothing choices. It’s an unusual conversation that Jesus and Peter share, made all the more tense and poignant with the reminders of Peter’s three-time betrayal woven into the narrated details. Their dialogue about love and shepherding comes across as extremely intimate and emotionally complex. Jesus keeps asking his fallible disciple questions whose answers he already knows, according to Peter. By the end Peter is grieved, and Jesus informs him he shouldn’t expect to die of natural causes. Great. It’s not the most pleasant breakfast on the beach I can conjure in my mind.
Moreover, who asks a question like this: Do you love me? You usually ask that when you’re entirely sure of the answer you’re going to get, when you’re emotionally needy, or when you want to show up your dialogue partner. Why doesn’t Jesus ask Peter something easier and more disarming, like “Do you know how much I love you?”
You can get a deeper sense of the scene’s potential for emotional heft if you read it with different inflections. It works as a restoration dialogue orchestrated by a relentlessly generous Jesus, which is probably the best interpretation. But try other ways. The conversation also works if you voice both men as deeply hurt and groping for a foundation on which they can rebuild together. It also works as a tale about Jesus inflicting psychological torment on Peter, reminding him of just how far short he fell … and might fall yet again if he’s not careful.
My point isn’t to contort the scene into something it isn’t; I simply am pointing out the emotional freight that roams these verses. The biblical dialogue can awaken bad memories for some readers. It might bring certain insecurities to the surface, especially if we wonder, as perhaps Peter does, “Why is Jesus even asking me this? And multiple times?” It highlights the unfathomable question of what it really looks like—and feels like—to love a resurrected Lord.
As I said, it’s a very intimate scene. Peter gives account not of what he has done or what he plans to do; he tries to bare his heart to Jesus. Because that’s what Jesus asks. If I were Peter I would have wished the dialogue to be kept between just me and Jesus. I’d vote for letting this Gospel end with Chapter 20 instead.
Still, Chapter 21 abides. I therefore hope you have times this Eastertide for opportunities like this one, Working Preachers. Times for honesty and intimacy with Jesus. Gather with friends. Go fishing, if that’s your thing. Get away from the usual paces and places of learning, following, and co-laboring that are such critical parts of the preaching and pastoral life. Peter and his six associates haven’t done anything wrong, unfaithful, or unloving by heading back to the lake. They’re probably not abandoning their callings as much as searching for supplemental income (Working Preachers, can I get an amen?). Whether accidentally or intentionally, they end up renewing their vocation.
At least, Jesus shows up to help them with that part. Like he does.
Renew your vocation, in part through honest dialogue with a Jesus who simply wants your love, no matter how feeble or inconsistent. The preaching vocation demands moments like these and honest self-examination based less on what you’ve done or what you plan to do and more on where your heart resides. Jesus comes to the beach, not to call back a straying disciple or to twist the knife about the threefold denial. He’s here to renew Peter’s calling. Because new challenges lie ahead. Vulnerable sheep can’t be helped by someone incapable of love.
The jury appears still to be out on how much the pandemic might have contributed to attrition rates among preachers, but most of the preachers I’ve talked to about their experiences over the last two-plus years have had to reassess their priorities, expectations, and boundaries. That’s vital vocational work, no matter what direction it points you. It requires honesty with oneself and with God. Perhaps you find that as difficult as I do.
As you reexplore your vocation and ponder what’s ahead, take the time to fall in love again, Or examine why that’s really hard for you right now. Jesus can take it.
It’s all part of feeding his lambs.