In John 21, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter replies in the affirmative. And Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” A second time the exchange is repeated. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” Then, a third time, the entire exchange is repeated, only this time Peter is exasperated and wounded by Jesus’ question. Still, he repeats his answer—only even more emphatically: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And what is Jesus’ reply? “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus doesn’t acknowledge the pain he’s caused Peter. He doesn’t change the message. He doesn’t stop and explain why he asked the third time. Jesus’ response is the same each time: feed my sheep. What’s the point?
Some like to point out that Jesus is undoing Peter’s three-times denial of his master—giving him a chance to redeem himself by acknowledging his love for Jesus as many times as he denied it. Maybe. Peter’s proclamation in the end, of course, is correct. Jesus did know all things. He did know whether Peter loved him. So Jesus wasn’t asking for his own sake. He wanted Peter to learn something. Maybe it was just to help him feel better, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think the answer is tied to Jesus’ repeated response.
Sometimes I am asked a question by someone who really wants to know the answer. And sometimes I am asked a question by someone who wants me to pay attention to something. And usually, when that happens, they have to ask me three or more times to make their point. I think Jesus wants Peter to connect the dots in a way he might not be able to connect them on his own.
Do you love me? Then feed my lambs. Do you love me? Then tend my sheep. Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Love. Feed. Tend. Feed. If you love me, then take care of my people. Or, put another way, because you love me, you must take care of others.
I help people out here at the church fairly often. Most of the time, they are basically anonymous people who walk in and ask for financial assistance. Occasionally, they are people who need conversation and prayer more than they need a check. I take care of these people because it’s my job. But it’s more than that. It’s not just my job as a priest. It’s my duty as a Christian—as someone who loves Jesus. And the same is true for you.
Everything we do is a response to our love for Jesus and his love for us. In order for us to know what it means to love Jesus (and be loved by him), we have to be in Jesus-centered relationship with others. We can’t know what it really means to love Jesus unless we’re tending the sheep. Everyone. Everywhere. Our care for others is because we love Jesus. They aren’t separable.