Some personal stories in our lives we remember because they are so beautiful. Some we cannot forget because they are so powerful. Jesus’ disciple, Peter, could not forget the exchange he and Jesus had after breakfast that day. This would be the third time Jesus appeared alive again to the disciples after he had been killed. Peter was beyond excited to see Jesus once again. Little did he know things were about to get really uncomfortable. He could not have known how critical it was for him – and the future of the Church – that it did. Here is what is recorded in John’s Gospel:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” – John 21:15-17 (NRSV)
Simon Peter, or Simon son of John? My parents, sisters and brother have called me “Peter” since I was born. For the most part, except for when I am getting formally introduced, the only time I hear myself called “Peter” is when it comes out of their mouths. When I am with them, I am Peter. I became Pete in eighth grade. It wasn’t something I chose. It just happened. It was Alex’s doing. Alex Claypool was probably the most popular guy in school. Think Ferris Beuhler. He played trombone, as did I, and we sat next to each other every day in band class. We became friends. He called me Pete. Since he happened to be a demigod at Okemos Middle School, everyone else fell in line with his decree. Since then, pretty much everybody has called me “Pete.” But then my sister Ann married a great guy named Ken. Ken switches it up. Sometimes he calls me Pete instead of Peter in family gatherings. It seriously jacks with me. But I like it, because I need to blend the two together. The reason I share this with you is to help point out something obvious to me: when Jesus called his disciple “son of John”, you can be completely confident that Peter’s ears perked up. That was his family name, not his friend-of-Jesus name.
The first time we hear the son of John name is at the beginning of Peter’s journey with Jesus:
Then Andrew brought Simon to meet Jesus. Looking intently at Simon, Jesus said, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”). – John 1:42 (NLT)
Simon was what his parents, sisters and brothers called him. Jesus gave him a new name – and an altered identity – when he began calling him Peter. I wonder what Peter’s initial reaction was to be called that name from his beginnings as a disciple. Upon reflection, I imagine he realized that by calling him Simon, something greater was being communicated. It was. What was about to ensue was a conversation to help both Jesus and Peter determine who Peter really was, and who Peter would choose to become. Bear in mind that Peter’s dark moment – when he denied even knowing Jesus the night Jesus was arrested – had not yet been addressed. Everybody knew that. There was unfinished business that needed to be addressed. Starting the conversation by calling him Simon called into question his status as a disciple. It may have been just Peter and Jesus around the campfire, but I have a hunch there may have been listening ears nearby.
Do you love me more than these? As it sometimes happens, when Jesus asked this question, Peter was no doubt flooded with thoughts. Everything in Peter wants to declare allegiance, of course, yet the “more than these” adds a different dimension. Jesus is most likely referring to the others disciples. What he is really asking is this: do you love me more than they love me? That might seem like an odd question, like a child asking their parents who they love more (BTW, if my siblings are paying attention, it’s me). Jesus asked it, however, because of how Peter behaved in the past regarding his devotion. Around the dinner table with other disciples present, in a moment of adoration (and a little desperation), Peter essentially blurted out that he would die for Jesus (John 13:34-48). I bet more than a few of the other followers were thinking, what a brown noser! That’s fair. And it’s why Jesus is asking the question about his devotion in this way. In light of the fact that this would-be-martyr couldn’t even handle a guilty-by-association test, would he still be willing to make such a claim? Is he still a disciple?
As they sit by the campfire, Peter assures Jesus of his devotion. Jesus gives an instruction: feed my lambs. Jesus asks the same question again, but this time drops the reference about loving him more than the others love him – no more comparing – do you love me or what? Peter says yes again. Once again, Jesus instructs essentially the same thing: tend my sheep. A third time Jesus asks the same question. Peter clues in. The last time he was asked about his relationship to Jesus around a campfire three times in succession things did not go so well.
We don’t generally seek out such moments as this when we are faced to see ourselves in the mirror with such clarifying light. Peter’s past, present and future all came together in this confluence of confessional symbolism. His name. Fire which warms but also sheds light, and also burns. Love and devotion questioned in light of everything that’s happened. Who are you? Who do you choose to be? Simon son of John or Simon Peter? The choice was Peter’s to make. One was to go back to life before Jesus. One was to be resurrected to being a wholly devoted follower once more. A choice that would require a stretch. A stretch for his life in the future. A stretch of humility in this moment.
We all have the choice to stay put, to even try to go back. But let’s recognize that it is a choice. We may kid ourselves thinking there isn’t a choice because we haven’t consciously made a choice, but that is a choice in and of itself! Choose to be Simon son of John if you want. But if you want to move forward, that’s a choice, too, and the stretch is tough yet incredibly worth it.
To affirm that you love Jesus and are still devoted means you come to grips with where you’ve been and where you are. This was an accountability moment. Who have you been? What have you done? How are your words of devotion matched up with your behavior? It’s no accident that Jesus’ instruction to Peter at each affirming was to do something tangible – feed my sheep – and not write another praise song. Real life change, genuine transformation yields fruit in the form of changed behavior. How many people shout out deep devotion to God yet have never devoted any time to serving someone else, or for connecting deeply with God, or growing in understanding, or giving financially to the work God is doing in the place you call your home church? Jesus’ refrain rings again and again: do you love me or what? Prove it!
This is a literal come to Jesus story, for sure. You may be glad that you haven’t messed up so badly that you require such a meeting. Think again. Not about being a screw up (we all are), but about such a meeting. In my experience, this kind of hold-a-mirror-to-my-face is pretty normal. We may not like it at first, but in time, it is a great gift. When we choose to connect with God on deeper levels that a quick shout-out prayer in the shower or an occasional prayer while stuck in traffic, we can expect the Spirit of God to bring to our attention this kind of stuff. Questions about who we are, what we’re about, and what it means for moving forward are normal and good. And essential if we actually want to grow and see a difference in the world. My hunch is that while Peter may have felt incredibly uncomfortable in that moment, he cherished it, and looked forward to the next visit around the campfire where he could see himself clearly once more.
Are you ready for a campfire talk with God? What name will God use to get your attention? How might God craft the love and devotion question for your particular situation? What instructional invitation might God put in front of you? These are questions that, with the help of the Spirit, foster in us a quality of life marked by depth and abundance. The kind of life we all yearn for. The kind of life that joins God in the effort to move the work of resurrection forward. Which, of course, is what God has been about since the beginning.