Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning. We have to think back to what happened between Peter and Jesus just before Easter. Peter had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times. People asked if he knew the Lord, but he denied him every time. Then came Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. Peter and Jesus hadn’t yet had a chance to talk about what happened. So today’s Gospel is the first chance they’ve had for a heart to heart since the resurrection.
Jesus asks him: “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter says “of course.” Then he asks him again, and a third time even. He asks Peter three times not because he didn’t hear him, and not even because he didn’t know what Peter would say. He asks him three times because Peter denied him three times. So Jesus comforts Peter in this way, because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.
After Jesus heals Peter, he challenges him: “Feed my sheep.” When we are forgiven or graced in any way, we, like Peter, are then challenged to do something about it. Feed my sheep, follow me, give me your life, come to know my grace in a deeper way. These are the ways Jesus calls us when we have been redeemed.
Finally, Jesus has for Peter words of warning: “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” This foretold that Peter would give his life as a martyr for the faith. He denied his Lord three times, but he would never do it again! Martyrdom was certainly a scary idea, but when we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.
At the end of the reading, Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.” Yes, Peter had messed up, but Jesus knew that he was better than that. We mess up too, don’t we? But Jesus doesn’t write us off, either. No matter what we disciples have done in our past, no matter how many times we have messed up or in what ways, there is always forgiveness if we give ourselves over to our Savior and our friend.
So Jesus asks us all today: “Do you love me?”