John 21, 15-19
‘Tend my sheep, feed my lambs.’ With these words Peter is called by Jezus to lead the very tiny and very young community of followers that is just about to evolve during that strange, exciting period between Easter and Pentecost. Jezus is still among his friends and disciples, but only for such a short time, and so much still has to be arranged and organised and communicated, on all kinds of levels and on a variety of topics.
Before Peter is entrusted with the care for Jezus’ flock, questions are asked. Well… three times the same question really: Peter, do you love me? And thus this lecture mirrors the readings of some weeks earlier, the friday before Easter, Good Friday.
There were questions then, remember, in that courtyard near the palace by the fire: You’re one of them, aren’t you? Yeah, you’re from Galilee; I saw you with him, Jezus of Nazareth. And three times Peter denies: What are you talking about? I have no idea what you mean. I don’t know that man! … and then the cock crows.
It is this threefold denial Peter has to make up for now. Three chances to mend his betrayal. But more important than the atonement as such is the way it is done. We often tend to look at Peter in this story, again totally overwhelmed with grief and shame and slightly panicking as Jezus keeps repeating his question. But actually we should be focussing on Jezus instead and more so on the intention behind his threefold question. For he doesn’t put his questions in the same manner and the same vocabulary as the people in that palace coutyard did: Are you one of us? Do you belong to me, to my group?
No! Do you love me? That is what Jezus asks. That is what he wants to be sure of, because belonging in the sense of being member of a group simply isn’t good enough if one is to be entrusted with the care and guidance of this young, fragile community-in-the-making. Jezus is not interested in that kind of superficial commitment. No, the commitment has to radical, deeply rooted in the heart and the soul, not on the level of casual friendship or business agreement but on the deepest level of real love.
That’s why Jezus also does not bother about all kinds of practical qualifications: does Peter have the proper education for this job? Is he fit for this work, does he even speak foreign languages? Jezus does not ask because he does not care. He does not ask because that’s not what it’s about! He asks for the one thing that really does matter: Do you love me? Are you really committed? Do you really belong to me, heart and soul? Will you do your work lovingly, for no other reason than your love for me? Are you prepared to face danger and even death to keep my people safe, to lead this flock, to tend my sheep?
In life we are all called to commit ourselves to some sort of task, be it professional, be it personal. And yes, despite our best efforts and despite the most dashing talents and qualifications we may have acquired, we sometimes feel completely hopeless and helpless and so not up to the task. Yet we can somehow overcome this hopelessness and helplessness if we once again tune in on that deep sense of belonging, that LOVE in which we are truly one with God and each other and the whole of creation. And from that love comes all the strength and wisdom and whatever we need, to be able to do what we are asked to do… lovingly.