The Word in the Wings
From the study: called to follow
By: KAYA PRASAD
On the first day of the week after Jesus is crucified, he appears to Mary Magdalene and to his other disciples, demonstrating even to the most doubtful that he lives again (John 20). Later, while Peter and some of the others are out fishing, Jesus shows up on the shore, generates a miraculous catch, and prepares breakfast (John 21:1-14). Then Jesus has an important conversation with Peter. Peter’s answers to Jesus’s questions and the turn Jesus makes in the second part of the conversation include imagery and vocabulary that illustrate how Peter’s faith has matured since before Jesus’s death. The way this dialogue fits into the larger narrative of Holy Week shows the centrality of Jesus’s presence with his disciples for his call on their lives.
John 21:15 So when they’d had breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these things?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
16 He said to him a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.” He said to him, “Pasture my lambs.”
17 He said to him a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was upset that 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, “Tend my lambs.”
At the end of their shared meal, Jesus asks Peter the same question three times. Some aspects of the dialogue remain consistent through each repetition. Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon son of John,” which is how Jesus addresses Peter at their first meeting (John 1:42). Biblical scholar Patrick E. Spencer calls this an inclusio for the whole book (61); though Jesus gives “Simon son of John” the name “Peter” at the beginning of his discipleship journey (John 1:42), he invokes Peter’s family name again here to mark a similarly transitional scene.
Additionally, Peter always affirms that he does love Jesus, and in each case Jesus responds with an instruction employing the metaphor of shepherding. However, each time Jesus responds to Peter’s affirmation, he uses a slightly different combination of words. He uses a general term for “sheep” as well as a specific word for “lambs,” indicating that his instruction pertains to the young and vulnerable among Jesus’s followers (Schmidtberger).
When I studied this passage with the dancers, a few shared their interpretations of Jesus’s shepherding imagery. One pointed out that to “feed” is a simple, material task, while another suggested that to “tend” may be a more involved and varied form of care. A third noted that young and old require different kinds of care. When caring for Jesus-followers who are like “lambs,” young or new to their faith, a disciple like Peter might simply give what they think is good. But other “sheep” who are growing and maturing might express their own needs more clearly and specifically, based on their increased understanding of following Jesus.
From these reflections, it looks like Jesus is asking Peter to take up a form of leadership that requires investing in relationships and continuing to grow alongside other disciples–a form of leadership that reflects how Jesus has loved and walked alongside Peter up to this point.
Another detail that changes in this dialogue structured by repetition is how Peter answers Jesus on the third time. The Gospel writer narrates Peter’s emotional response and conveys that Peter adds an explanation to his answer. Spencer suggests that “Peter is grieved because of his previous failure to follow Jesus,” referring to his threefold denial during Jesus’s arrest and trial (61). Earlier, when Jesus’s disciples expressed difficulty believing his teachings about his relationship with the Father, Jesus assured them that they could look at his actions to see that he was indeed in complete unity with God (John 13:11). In Jesus’s case, actions demonstrate unity and corroborate the truth of his verbal assertions.
For Peter, by contrast, his recent actions don’t align with the assertion he makes in this moment, that he loves Jesus. So when Jesus presses him by asking three times, “Do you love me?” Peter might worry that Jesus doubts his truthfulness and his love. Further, Peter may realize the difficulty of drawing on any observable evidence to support his claim. So instead of appealing to any right actions of his own to demonstrate that he loves Jesus, Peter appeals to Jesus’s knowledge, trusting Jesus to see the truth of Peter’s love despite his past shortcomings (Schmidtberger).
Once Peter acknowledges that he relies on Jesus to confirm their bond of love, Jesus moves on from the question.
18 “Very truly I say to you, when you were young you dressed yourself, and you went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and they will take you where you do not want.”
19 But he said this to signify by what kind of death he would glorify God, and having said this he said to him, “Follow me.”
“Follow me” is an imperative associated with “the mantle of discipleship” (Spencer 62). The verb echoes Jesus calling Peter and others to begin their discipleship at the beginning of the narrative (John 1:37-43) as well as Jesus’s conversation with these disciples just before his arrest (John 13:36-14:12). Before his arrest, Jesus says Peter “cannot follow [him] now” but “will follow me afterward” (John 13:36). At that earlier point, Jesus is at pains to explain to Peter and the other disciples that he is “going to the Father.” They likely don’t expect Jesus to die (see Matthew 16:21-22), so Peter’s assertion, “I would lay down my life for you” (John 13:37), doesn’t carry the weight of experience. While Peter doesn’t yet understand the role of death in Jesus’s purpose, Jesus insists that Peter not yet follow him.
But now that Jesus has died and risen again, Peter can see more clearly all that is implied by following Jesus and laying down his life for Jesus. Now also Jesus explains that Peter will be humbled in his death much as Jesus was. When Jesus finally does tell Peter, “Follow me,” it is in the context of understanding the weight of that commitment, having witnessed Jesus follow God’s will even unto death. This new depth in Peter’s understanding also reflects the maturing knowledge Jesus expects Peter to see among the “sheep” that he will “tend.” Jesus has walked patiently alongside Peter, guiding him through time and experience to deeper understanding of God’s purpose and Jesus’s love. Likewise, Jesus calls Peter to a kind of leadership where he will exercise patience, conveying Jesus’s relational love for him through relational love for others in the flock.
Dancer Katie Mills-Yatsko has reflected that Walk This Road begins and ends with scenes of joy and celebration, but that the joy at the beginning, while not misplaced, is not as mature as the joy expressed in the ballet’s finale. This development over the course of the ballet, from simple celebration to the fuller joy that comes through grief to deeper understanding, reflects the way Peter’s understanding of Jesus has deepened over the course of the Gospel narrative through the experience of Jesus’s death. Even though he has already asserted his commitment to Jesus, it becomes weightier after he has seen that Jesus suffers and dies, and after Peter understands that he will indeed be called to lay down his life for Jesus’s sake.
Herein lies some of the complexity of God’s already-but-not-yet realized kingdom for present disciples of Jesus: we know the joy of Jesus’s resurrection, but we also witness the ongoing reality of the presence of sin and death. The joy of resurrection has gravity, and commitment to life in Christ is commitment through suffering into new life, even as we taste the first-fruits of that new life.
Fortunately, Jesus’s call to “Follow me” isn’t a command to isolation. Jesus has already walked to the cross to suffer and conquer death. Perhaps this is why Jesus waits before giving Peter this instruction to follow. Having seen Jesus walk this road already, Peter can see that it leads ultimately to new life and restored relationship with God, and he can commit to walk this road himself knowing that Jesus walks with him.
Biblical quotations in this post are my own translation.
“Narrative Echoes in John 21: Intertextual Interpretation and Intratextual Connection” by Patrick E. Spencer, in Journal for the Study of the New Testament (1999), pp. 49-68.
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