I have to say that I am very grateful for the disciple Peter. I know that Peter gets a bad rap as the guy who denies Jesus during his trial, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from Peter’s idea of discipleship, and that’s what I’m grateful for.
If you think back to the lives of the disciples prior to the crucifixion, Peter is a pretty average guy, but he’s a very excitable disciple. Peter is a fisherman, which we’re reminded of in this gospel account from John. Peter’s first experience with Jesus is on the lakeshore when Jesus calls him to be a “fisher of people”. During his time with Jesus, he attempted to walk on water, but failed when his faith faltered. When Jesus asked him “who do you say I am” he answers without hesitation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And then when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the last supper, Peter doesn’t really understand what’s happening, and so he says “not only my feet but my hands and head also”.
In all these accounts, Peter is pretty ordinary. We like to think of him as the disciple who just doesn’t get it, but in reality, I think he’s a reflection of who we are. Like Peter, we have been called to be “fishers of people”, to walk on water and to recognize Christ in the world. Sometimes we can, but sometimes we come up short and miss the chances to explore our faith.
During the pre-crucifixion trial, Peter gets painted by the gospel writers as the disciple who denied Jesus. Three times Peter is asked if he knows who Jesus is and three times he says “no”. He is acting out of a place of fear instead of faith. He’s afraid of the hostile situation that is happening around him, and maybe that if he confesses knowing Jesus that he too will be arrested. Perhaps for Peter, it’s easier to be perceived as a bystander than confess his faith in the Son of the living God. And once again, Peter serves as a reflection to us…sometimes it is easier to be silent than to confess our faith and claim our identity as disciples.
But here’s where I find hope and gratefulness in Peter. In Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter and the beloved disciple fishing once again…and along comes the resurrected Jesus. After some conversation about where to place the fishing nets, and an abundance of a catch, Jesus and Peter spend some time by the fire eating breakfast. And in this intimate scene of the two disciples and Jesus by the fire, having their breakfast, Jesus asks Peter “do you love me”. Three times Jesus asks this of Peter, and three times Peter responds “you know I love you”.
So there’s a couple of interesting things about this little dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The asking and responding three times recalls Peter’s denial when asked three times. But what I find more interesting is the word “love”. If you were to look back to the Greek text, when Jesus asks Peter “do you love me” the word used is “agape” which implies an unconditional love. When Peter responds “you know I love you” the word used is “philia” which implies brotherly love.
So why do I find that so interesting? First, because Jesus is asking Peter “do you love me unconditionally” and Peter responds with “I love you kindly”. As much as we want to think that we can love Jesus as much as he loves us, the truth is unconditional love is bigger than we can imagine, and so we love as much as we can…and Peter is modeling that for us in his response. The other reason I find this dialogue between Jesus and Peter, and the difference in the understanding of the word “love” so interesting is because each time Jesus asks and Peter responds, Jesus call Peter to ministry… “feed my sheep”. I think this is important to note because it reminds us that no matter how much love we have for Jesus, be it brotherly or sisterly love, or unconditional love, Jesus accepts our love and commands us to use that love to care for others. In other words, we don’t have to be perfect to be disciples.
The Bible is full of unlikely evangelists, prophets and disciples. Throughout the Old Testament, God often called the most unlikely folks to be messengers of grace…a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian, an old man with a barren wife, the last in a long line of sons, a widowed woman, and a prostitute…all people who were flawed or imperfect in some way. And throughout the New Testament, Jesus also calls the most unlikely folks to be disciples and evangelists…fishermen, tax collectors, a woman who had been possessed...all ordinary folks who were flawed or imperfect in some way. And yet, because of unconditional love, these people were met in their life journeys and transformed. Because of God’s grace, their “philia” love was enough for mission and ministry.
So yes, Peter often gets a bad rap for being a denier of Jesus and a clueless disciple, but I am so grateful for his life and ministry. It is because of Peter that I am reminded that I don’t have to be perfect to do God’s work. It is because of Peter’s failure to walk on water that I am reminded that if I at least try, God will be there to support me. Jesus meets me where I am in my journey and still invites me into ministry.
My hope is that all of us can say “you know I love you” and answer Jesus’ call to feed his sheep.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.