JOHN 21: 15-19


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.”

This passage has two important contexts and both are important.  It occurs in the middle of one Jesus’ resurrection appearances and second, it fits into a long effort on Jesus’ part to communicate the nature of the new life that he offered.  

Peter lived with Jesus, walked with Jesus, heard him preach and witnessed many wondrous things—yet he famously denied Jesus, not once, not twice but three times.   No matter how many times Jesus explained his messiahship Peter (and the others) did not get it.
In our discussion in FIRL, we discussed the preconceptions we have about God and the ways those preconceptions make it difficult to know God. Though most quickly rejected the image of an aging white man directing and judging humanity, most of us have the image of God as an authoritarian father imprinted in our childhoods.   Some could replace that image with a God of love but it was hard not to have the ghost of judgment in our midst. Similarly, for those who have known awe and wonder in the presence of the majesty of God, talk of knowing God in the daily encounters with each other almost seemed too small for the hugeness of God’s creative power.  It is really difficult to change our first learnings. Almost all of us have difficulty holding paradoxical truths in our minds. God existed before time and made the world possible and God is in the face of our neighbor. Both are true and both are God.
These are ancient struggles.  The struggle to know God is unceasing and well documented.   Our Old Testament scriptures are full of images of God—some blatantly contradictory, some violent and some infinitely kind.  This was the tradition that Peter knew. No wonder he had so much difficulty grasping the meaning of Jesus’ life.
Our struggle is no different. Jesus radically refined power and leadership.  We have all kinds of personal ideas about what it means to have power but Jesus’ power is a power far greater than any we imagine.  Jesus promises hope; Jesus promises freedom and Jesus promises life. But it comes to us upside down. It comes in letting go of our preconceptions.  It comes from not knowing. It comes from waiting and trusting even as everything we have counted on dissolves. It comes in trusting God’s presence no matter what happens to us.  Peter repeatedly viewed God through the lens of his preconceptions. He could not imagine a savior who was vulnerable, much less one who was killed.
Early in life, we can imagine that we are ‘masters of our own destiny.’  We decide where we will go. That’s what it means to be grown up. Only later in life do we learn that we cannot keep our autonomy and that our self sufficiency is not the measure of our lives.  Life takes left turns. Others decide for us. Discovering that we matter, even when we are completely dependent is nearly impossible to grasp until it happens.
In real life, you cannot warn people about what it is like to become an adult, what it is like to bear a child, what it is like to feel your body failing you.  It is helpful to hear the words but their full meaning cannot be known until we have the experience.
I have spent most of my life trying to understand, trying to put ordinary words to the Gospel. I have distrusted God, argued with God and sometimes begrudgingly yielded to God.  Out of all of that, I have sought to engage others in the process. I have looked for fellow seekers. It is how the Faith in Real Life groups were born.
Especially in the first year, my brain seemed like it was on fire.  I would wake up in the middle of the night with new responses and new connections to the scriptures.  I started to understand what it might mean to be in conversation with God. One night, and I swear this seemed like an external voice that interrupted my reflections, I heard the words, ‘Feed my sheep.’  It was so simple. It stopped me cold. All of my words, all of my understanding, all of my theological arguments came second.
Jesus said, If you love me, love the ones I love.  Feed my sheep. His incredible claim was that we will know God in the activity of loving.  Loving extends through all of time, it extends through our deaths and it is manifest in the most unlikely of places.  Jesus shows up in the middle of grieving, on the road as we flee, in the rooms where we despair, in our struggle to make a living and at our tables when we eat together.  You do not have to understand to know him.
God, the Father, the God of all creation; the God of steadfast love, the God who is our rock and refuge can be glimpsed and even known in Jesus.  Conversations continue. They never cease. It is process I would wish for anyone.

May you know the wonder and promise of God in every corner of your ordinary life and in every act of loving kindness.  Let it be so.


Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has  providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more out about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our Staff Page  or  FIRL.