15 ¶ So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
18 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.
19 This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.
Jesus has told Peter that he is to be the chief among the Apostles, the primate of the Church. During the Passion, Peter denied Jesus three times. It is perhaps for this reason that Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to declare his love for him, three times to atone for his triple denial. Each time, Jesus responds with the command to lead the Church: ‘Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep.’ Peter and his successors are to be shepherds of the whole Church, imitating Jesus as Jesus declared himself to be in the parable of the Good Shepherd.
When Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him, he is teaching us again about the core truth of Christianity, which is to love. We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, with all our mind. We are to love one another as God has loved us. Such love represents a complete way of life, of selflessness and service to others, always looking toward what is good for each other, giving ourselves to each other. Those such as Peter who lead the Church may have to give most. All Christians, however, have Christ’s example to guide them. After all, in these verses of the Bible, Jesus has just prepared breakfast for the disciples. He has fed his sheep.
Peter, the third time he is asked, commits himself wholly to Christ’s mercy and knowledge of everything he, Peter, thinks and feels, of all that he carries inside himself. This is a perfect surrender to Jesus. What more can he say to Jesus, knowing that Jesus knows everything? There is great faith here, and we see the mutuality of the love between Peter and Jesus.
Jesus tells Peter how he has matured as a person, and too what his life will hold. When he was younger, Peter could go wherever he would. Now his call to loving obedience, to service, will lead him along a greater path. There is a tradition that both Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome during Nero’s persecution of Christians between the years 64 and 68, Peter dying by crucifixion, head downward. In this he followed Christ, and Peter’s death glorified God. His was complete love and selfless service.
‘This gift which is in Christ is one, yet offered, and offered in its fullness, to everyone. Always available, it is given in proportion to each one’s will to receive; it remains with each according to his will to grow in merit. This is what is with us to the end of time; this is our consolation in our time of waiting; this, through what it bestows and effects, is the pledge of our hope for the future; this is the light of our minds, the splendour of our understanding.’ St Hilary