Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep’ … Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’
John 21.15-17, 19
A disciple was expected to follow his rabbi, to go wherever he went and do whatever he did, so that by imitation he might become like him. This sounds strange in a culture like ours that celebrates autonomy and individuality, but in the first century it would have been the greatest of honours for a rabbi to call a disciple and say, ‘Follow me’.
We can imagine, then, how sorrowful it must have felt for Jesus when Simon Peter denied him three times. Peter, supposed to be a devoted follower of Jesus and one of his closest friends, abandons him when the going gets tough all to save his own skin. Though Jesus had predicted the denial, it would have been no less painful.
But Jesus forgives Peter. Indeed, though Peter’s commitment to Jesus wavered, Jesus’ to Peter did not. When he asks Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’ he graciously gives Peter the opportunity to renew his commitment to Jesus. To show that Peter is forgiven and the situation totally reversed, Jesus again invites him to be his disciple and says, ‘Follow me!’
Jesus, in the first century and in the twenty-first century, does not limit his invitation only to the ‘best of the best,’ but to anyone who hears his call and chooses to follow him. His earliest disciples were a ragtag bunch of oddballs and rejects, full of faults and flaws: often we can feel that way too.
Perhaps you feel far from Jesus right now. Perhaps, like Peter, you have denied him, been ashamed to show yourself to be his follower at work, with friends, or even amongst family. If this sounds like you, then hear again the words Jesus spoke when he first called you: ‘Follow me!’
Yes, this call is a challenge. Following Jesus can be difficult! Peter knew this more than most; although his encounter with Jesus totally transformed his life and led to him becoming a leading figure in the early church, it also got him killed as a martyr.
But this call is also full of grace, for Jesus is ever committed to those whom he calls. Peter could face anything that came his way because of this immense security. Just as he was ever with Jesus, his rabbi, so too was Jesus ever with him.
Alex is a student at Durham University, and soon to begin graduate study in New Testament at Oxford. He blogs at The Coffeehouse Cleric.