Peter’s Unfinished Love (John 21:15-23)

“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.””

(John 21:15 NRSV)

This week, as I was thinking about the sermon, I asked my kids if they had anything they thought I should preach about.

This is taking my discernment to a whole new level.

I don’t think they knew exactly what I was asking at first so we talked for a little bit until they finally settled on an idea: Inspector Gadget.

That’s right. They wanted me to preach a message on inspector gadget. One of my absolute favorite childhood cartoons and now that Netflix has recreated the show, it’s theirs too.

The appeal of gadget for me growing up was, well, all his gadgets. I would get my mom to buy my pants that had pockets everywhere, and I would keep trinkets in them. She’d call them my inspector gadget pants. That may be why I like to wear vests now. More pockets for more gear.

But there’s also some charm about gadget, if you’re familiar with the cartoon, he’s this detective who undergoes a top-secret experiment where he becomes a cyborg, except that he is very glitchy. So that every time he says, “Go Go Gadget Copter” or “Ray Gun” what activates is always something more ridiculous like a lawn chair or a squirt gun.

It’s like Lee Majors “Six Million Dollar Man” meets the Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau.

He’s a highly technological weapon basically, but unfortunately, he’s also a bumbling idiot full of glitches.

Now my kids like the show for different reasons. Penny, Gadget’s niece, and her dog Brain are the superstars of the show for them. And for good reason. Penny is the one who makes everything happen. She’s the one who figures out what Dr. Claw’s latest evil plot and constantly foils it.

And she does this all while she’s making Gadget look good, despite the fact that he can barely figure out where the crime scene is.

And this is one of the tensions in the show: why does Penny never get the credit she is due and why gadget continues to look like the hero even though he actually is pretty destructive.

Two kinds of Leadership

We could go a lot of places with this but one way we could discuss the difference between Penny and Gadget is a difference in leadership.

Gadget is very self-focused, he doesn’t listen to Penny or really anyone, he doesn’t pay attention to what is going on around him, and is pretty much constantly getting things only about half-right and tripping all over himself. It seems as though he’s never gotten comfortable in his own skin, or done anything other than be self-serving.

Penny, on the other hand, has this kind of self-sacrificing leadership that is fairly subtle, she’s never out to be the main protagonist, and she’s very courageous. For someone her age, she is constantly putting herself in challenging situations. She is often captured by M.A.D. but then finds ways to escape, or she asks Brain for his help. (Asking for help is another thing I’ve never heard Gadget do).

I think this actually can shed some light on what is happening in our text this morning which is also about difference in leadership and what Jesus is calling Peter and the rest of the church to as he prepares to ascend to heaven.

Forgiveness as a Pathway to Transformation

Here are two places we can learn about what leadership looks like after Jesus:

First, forgiveness is the pathway to becoming a transformed leader.

If you picked up on the three statements as mirroring the three denials of Peter than you were right. Here standing around a charcoal fire, which as you know was the site of Peter’s denial in John 18, is this trio of statements by Jesus and Peter that symbolize forgiveness.

I don’t think Jesus asks three times “Peter, do you love me more than these” because Jesus doesn’t know the answer. I think Jesus asks because Peter is insecure within himself. I think that the repetition of three times is to help Peter in this healing, to help him begin to trust himself again, to help him overcome his own shame and to know that even the victim of his betrayal has forgiven him.

This forgiveness is meant to help to clear the path for Peter’s transformation into a leader like the “Good Shepherd” Jesus keeps alluding to. If you want to be able to emulate the love of the Good Shepherd, then you are going to have to learn to forgive and be forgiven.

The conversation here shows us that until we are able to work through our own stuff, name those places we feel we have failed, where we have been let down, where we are in pain and grieving, and where we struggle with shame and begin down this path to forgiveness, our leadership is going to be hung-up in the residue from those previous relationships.

From Phileo to agape Love

Second, Peter is invited to deepen his love. Jesus invites him to move from follower affection to one whose own life bears the witness of the Good Shepherd’s love within the community.

Now that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is leaving, if you want to know what that love looks like, what actions it takes in the world, there must be people willing to embody it.

Jesus is asking Peter if he is ready to go there with him?

If the repetition of the three symbolizes the necessity for forgiveness as a pathway to transformation, then just underneath the surface of this conversation we see that Jesus is challenging Peter’s whole concept of love.

In order to see this, we need to understand two different Greek words for love: agape and phileo.

Agape – agape is self-sacrificing love. It’s that covenantal love that you offer another person in marriage, or the kind of love that in healthy relationships parents have for their kids.

It is a love that gives all and does not “count the cost.”

It is the kind of love that Jesus references 30x in the last supper conversation with his disciples:

[Slide] > I give you a new commandment, that you love (agape) one another just. Just as I have loved (agape) you, you also should love (agape) one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love (agape) for one another. (13:34–35)

We know love (agape) by this, that he lay down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 Jn. 3:16–17)

Phileo – means friendship. It means to have affection for or to be fond of someone. It also means to kiss. My guess is that you have phileo for most of the people you follow on Facebook, and only a few have your agape love. There is nothing wrong with phileo love, but it is more narrow than the all-encompassing “Agape” kind.

“Whoever loves (phileo) his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25 ESV)

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss (Phileo) is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” (Mark 14:44) (One one who betrayed him).

Let’s look at this conversation between Jesus and Peter and you’re going to see something very interesting going on here:

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (phileo) me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17 NRSV)

Isn’t this fascinating?

What do you think is going on here?

For reasons we’ve already expressed Peter has some blockage in terms of what he is willing commit to that I think the sufi poet Rumi hits on well:

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. (Rumi) (@elizabethquaker)

And Jesus is aware of these barriers. Looking back over the course of Peter’s life with Jesus, he continually gets things about half-right, often he’s tripping over himself in his responses. He has some barriers to moving from Phileo to Agape and Jesus knows it.

He’s leading more like gadget, when Jesus wants him to be more like Penny.

And so eventually, after Peter shows that he is yet unable to go there, Jesus changes it to “phileo” to match Peter’s lower threshold. Jesus knows that the more you try and push someone the less likely they are to move but it is also revealing to the fact that Peter, who really needs to take on leadership in Jesus’ absence, is not ready to go there.

Learning to Relax and Trust So that We Might Love

I have said before that faith is a lot like learning how to relax, it is learning how to trust and coming into a right relationship with God, with others and with yourself.

In this conversation between Peter and Jesus, I see Jesus trying to help Peter again relax, to realize that he is safe. That he can move. Jesus invites Peter into a deeper and stronger love and if he is able to go there that is how he will expand and grow and work through those barriers to love he has within himself.

After everything that happened, Peter’s idea of love is still far too limited, its tangled up in his own issues of forgiveness and there’s one other issue: he’s still looking around him and judging his own relationship to God on the basis of others.

“Lord, what about him?”
Jesus said, “What’s it to you? Follow me.”

And this is it. When our idea of love is still not developed we will find ourselves looking around a lot, comparing, getting lost in shame, or having our basis of our commitment to faith directed at this person or that.

“Lord, what about him?”
“Lord, what about her?”

When the response is simply, “Follow me.”

Jesus says,

“Relax and trust. Your commitment is to be focused on listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd, remaining open to whatever God’s call is for you. I invite you to give yourself over to that, to see that what I really require of my people is not death, or right doctrine, or vast biblical knowledge, or perfect actions, or answers to life’s most profound questions, but that you expand your understanding and practice love. That you love no matter the cost to you. Then you will be like the Good Shepherd who tends and feeds those within his care.”

And this is a challenging call, but one that has at its roots life and light and love. This is why Jesus pressed Peter to expand his understanding of love: the call of God always moves in the direction where our understanding will grow and be stretched to match the agape love of God.


I would like to hear how you have wrestled with this movement from phileo connection to agape love in your life and relationship with God?