Eating with Jesus was always event. You never knew exactly what might happen and who would join this open meal, literally open to anyone and excluding no one. A homeowner, such as Simon the Leper, invited Jesus, only to have a woman , a known sinner, wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry his feet with her hair. Or the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shared a meal relating it to his impending death. Or you might be surprised by the locations of a meal—on the field with 5000, or at home of an infamous regional tax collector Zacchaeus, or in the home of a religious critic.
Meals provided Jesus with occasions to stress the central themes of his message of God’s companionship of empowerment. The themes of forgiveness, unconditional love, shared abundance, compassionate care, inclusivity, healing, the mutuality of discipleship, love, and non-violence. Jesus loved food and wine, and he took the opportunity to break all the etiquette rules and purity codes for meals held by Pharisees and other religious groups.
For outcasts, throwaway people such as tax collectors and prostitutes, these meals were therapeutic and liberative. The open table was healing for many participants. The meals were egalitarian, where all were equals and where all were beloved children of God. They shared stories of their pain at religious exclusion and social shunning at these meals and dreamt about God’s empowered companionship and the type of new society created. They experienced healing from destructive elements of Jewish religious fundamentalism with its stress on a judgmental, patriarchal God. Religious people stigmatized them as sinners, and Jesus told them were forgiven before they even came to sit down at table.
The table of radical inclusivity was revolutionary. Around meals, they found companionship with Jesus and God and with one another. In the nourishing and healing environment of meals, they discovered friendships and some felt call as disciples. Jesus’ meals as healing and empowering occasions have been overlooked by the church over the centuries.
In addition, Christians have read the Last Supper not in the context of Jesus’ meals but the only meal and gave it undue importance, making it an exclusive event for justifying an exclusive male priesthood. For Jesus, his last meal with the disciples was important but so were all his meals with folks. Its particularity was his emotional preparation of his female and male disciples for his death for God’s reign. All Jesus’ meals symbolized the inclusivity of all into God’s reign.
But meals with the risen Jesus were even more eventful. They were to be inclusive, healing, and empowering. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus invite a stranger who had accompanied them on their journey to join them for an evening dinner. When the stranger broke bread, the two grieving disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. He symbolized his continued presence in community with remembered events and the breaking of bread. His walking on the road to Emmaus and joining them for dinner addressed their grief over his death and ritualizing his mission and presence.
Or today’s gospel, after two appearances of the risen Christ, the disciples went back to what they know best, fishing. Did they have to get away from the intensity of feelings from community scoffers, doubters, or their own feelings of guilt from abandoning Jesus to the Temple police and ultimately final crucifixion? Jesus surprises a group of disciples at the Sea of Galilee; they returned to their ordinary lives and have gone fishing.
Easter night and the following week, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room. The first meeting was mixed in its emotions, happiness in Jesus as risen from the dead, deep shame and guilt at abandoning Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Peter, both for his denying Jesus three times and his abandonment of him. Peter brashly professed his faith and commitment as a disciple to the ministry of Jesus. He faced Jesus with shame and guilt over his betrayal. Jesus forgave him and started the process of healing.
Jesus appears as a stranger, and he calls out to them: “Have you caught any fish yet?” Then he instructs to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they did so and caught a multitude of fish. The beloved disciple recognizes the stranger: “It is the Lord!”
Peter strips off his clothes and swims to shore. The disciples bring the fish to Jesus who has lit a charcoal fire to barbeque the fish and serve bread with the meal. None of the disciples were bold enough to ask. “Who are you?” The stranger reveals himself in the serving a meal of fish and bread.
This meal on the shore of Lake Tiberias was thus no ordinary meal. Jesus was not presiding over the meal, but preparing the meal for several disciples. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ action at his final meal where he washed the feet of his disciples—the duties of slave and women. Here again he takes a service role in cooking fish for breakfast for the few disciples after a night of fishing.
Jesus’ risen presence is revealed at meals, and these risen meals also include healing and empowerment. There was unfinished business between Jesus and Peter. Even though Peter betrayed him and abandoned him, Jesus is there to restore his relationship with Peter. The grace of unconditional love and forgiveness counters the past failures of Peter. The breakfast on the beach was to continue the healing of Peter and to empower him as whole as possible for the on-going mission of God’s companionship of empowerment.
Peter got a lump his throat and became speechless for a moment; he was more embarrassed by his denial of Jesus than his nakedness, dripping with water. He is confronted with his own guilt and shame in letting down Jesus in the moment of his greatest need—his own death. He promised Jesus faithfulness and reliability. Instead he abandoned Christ; he lied and denied that he even knew him to save his own skin. He faced Christ stirring the charcoal fire and looking him straight into his eyes. He melted with shame and guilt. But Jesus served him breakfast and reminded him of the many times that they shared meals of forgiveness and love during his ministry.
Peter knew that this appearance was meant for him and about his relationship with Christ. There was unfinished business yet to be dealt with. Maybe for a moment, he wished he was anywhere but there. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus spoke to Simon Peter. Now, we are getting to the point of the story. This story is about the rehabilitation of Simon Peter. But Jesus’ questions to Peter are wider than this event; the risen Lord asks these questions of ourselves. This may be the important question asked in the Bible.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Love meaning self-sacrificing love, love “more than these.” And write “boats, nets, fish, food, family, and friends.” Jesus was asking what are you prepared to do for me? Peter answers, “I love with the love of a friend.” He is not able to love unconditionally as parent loves a child. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to follow me, let that person take the cross and follow me.”
Why did Peter deny Jesus three times in the first place? I think it was because he, like all of us, loved life and the things of this life such as family, friends, fish, boats, nets, etc. Peter loved this life, and he didn’t want to die. It is simple as that. That is why I think Peter denied Jesus in the first place. He loved the things of his own life way more than the possibility of his premature death for God and Christ. But Jesus probes Peter of his reliability. Are you prepared to deny yourself and give up everything to follow me? Can I rely on you and your word to continue my mission?
Peter’s threefold profession of his friendship love for Jesus parallels his threefold denial, that Jesus is giving Peter the chance to fill the hole he has dug for himself with three huge shovelfuls of love.
But there is more. Jesus is not only trying to bring Peter back to where he was before but to move him beyond that. Jesus looked Peter in the eyes intently. Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, I love you as a friend.” Then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus wants to be assured that Peter loves him. Jesus is not sure about the reliability of Peter’s love and so Jesus asks Peter a second time, “Do you love me as a friend?” Jesus changes the verb from self-sacrificing love to where Peter is at and uses Peter’s verb to love as a friend. Even this friendship love requires reliability and consistency of word.
By the third time, “do you love me as a friend?” Peter feels hurt and responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” The risen Christ entrusts those whom he loves to one who loves him.
Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” He goes on says, “Very truly, I tell you when you were younger you were able to fasten your 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.” Jesus predicts, “Peter, you may love me as a friend, but over time that love become unconditional love that I now share with you.”
Suddenly it is clear. Jesus has made this encore appearance for Peter’s benefit. In the same way, he returned for Thomas in the upper room, to move him from doubt to faith, he now returns for Peter, to move him from faith to active discipleship.
Jesus also asks us that same basic question: Do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than your family, your friends, your occupation? This is a personal question for each one of us. We, too, like Peter, will come to that time and place in our lives when Jesus will ask us that fundamental question: Do you love me unconditionally more than these things and people? Do you love me more than your own life?
There is a consequence in saying “yes”. Jesus says, “Feed my lambs and tend my sheep.” The Latin word for shepherd is Pastor. How do Christian pastors feed the lambs and tend sheep?
The first purpose of a pastor’s life, of a shepherd’s life, is to feed the lambs in the community and to help them grow into good disciples. Pastors are called to remind the community of their mission, radical inclusive love—the vision of God’s unconditional grace.
He is instructing him on how to become a Pastor, open-hearted and open to the new requirements of serving the post-Easter Church. He had to reliably live up to his word with courage. Peter learned that he had to think before acting. We finally got to the core. Jesus knows everything, including the death by which Peter was going to die, by Roman crucifixion, being lifted up onto his own cross.
Jesus knew that eventually, in his old age, that Simon Peter was going to mature and that his love for Christ would move beyond friendship love to unconditional love and that he would die by crucifixion. It did come true. Simon Peter died a martyr’s death, on a cross, upside down, in Rome, under Nero. Peter who had denied Jesus three times at the home of Caiaphas would be faithful to Jesus onto death. Jesus knew the future and prophesied about Peter’s death. At his death in Rome, Peter thought that it would be too much of an honor for him to be crucified in the way Christ was crucified so he requested to be crucified upside down. Peter learned the humility to follow Christ.