Sometimes there is a subtlety to the Greek language that is lost in our English translations. Today Christ asks Saint Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” But our Lord uses two different verbs for “love”. The first is a gracious, undeserved love. The second is more of a love between close friends. Perhaps this means that Christ was setting the bar lower and lower for Peter, especially because the first time Christ asks, “Do you love Me more than these?” and after that simply asks, “Do you love Me?” Perhaps Christ is saying, “Do you even love me at all?” or something like that.
But perhaps these differences in verbs are not significant. In language, we often switch to equivalent synonyms for variation when there is repetition. Or perhaps Christ was simply being thorough, as if to say by using different verbs, “Do you love Me every way that you can love Me?”
So it is hard to say for certain the exact nuance of Christ’s intention. But we can get the broad strokes.
When Christ says a third time, “Do you love Me?” then Peter was saddened. We might notice that Christ was deliberately doing something that would cause Peter grief. Sometimes causing grief is necessary.
Was Peter grieved because Christ switched to the less powerful word for love, merely a close friendship? Or was he grieved because it was a threefold repetition? In the context, I believe it was the threefold repetition, because Peter remembered that his denial of Christ was also threefold. Even if a person thinks the weakening of the verb to a friendship love is the cause of Peter’s grief, it would still carry an implication that points to Peter’s denial. So either way, Christ is specifically making Peter think of his failure.
Why does Christ cause this pain in an apostle whom He loves? Because Christ is reinstating Peter. Christ is saying, “Yes, you betrayed Me three times. But I am still giving you My commission to feed My sheep. By entrusting you with this, I am not holding against you your failure.” In other words, Christ was forgiving Peter in front of other witnesses, and publicly recommissioning him as an apostle.
There was another time that Christ came to Peter privately, before this event. We do not have a record of that conversation precisely because it was for Peter’s ears, not ours. But undoubtedly what was said there was exactly what Peter needed to hear. Our dear Lord certainly said to him, “You failed Me, as predicted you would. But I died for that sin. I forgive you.” Privately, Peter needed to hear those words.
But since Peter was to have a public ministry, his Lord needed to publicly reinstate him. That was the message of our Gospel tonight.
We should not minimize the seriousness of Peter’s denial. That serves neither Peter nor us. Peter, by denying his Lord, died spiritually. Whether he fell from faith temporarily is hard to say. But the spiritual death of his serious betrayal of the Lord should not be brushed aside lightly. It was a heinous crime against the Man who deserves no betrayals or denials.
Whereas Peter died in his denial, Christ much more, by dying and rising, raised Peter to life again. His precious Blood overcomes the most serious sins, even Peter’s threefold, cowardly, faithless denial.
By maintaining the seriousness of Peter’s sin, then we are able to look at our most serious sins and say, “We are dead in our sins, yet Christ has made us alive.” We cannot ever say, “Christ forgives sins, but my sins are too big.” No, there is no such thing. If the dear, trusted apostle stabbed his dear Lord in the back, so to speak, yet was forgiven, then our grave trespasses also cannot overpower Christ’s Blood.
What is the proof? The empty Tomb. Christ is not there. He is risen. Therefore the sacrifice for the world’s sin has been accepted by the Father. We dare not contradict the Great Judge’s verdict.
So Christ commissions Peter to feed and shepherd and care for His sheep. Who are Christ’s sheep? They are the sheep washed in Baptism, sealed with His Name, redeemed with His Blood. This makes them His.
What is more precious to Christ than His lambs? Nothing and no one. Therefore He is entrusting Peter with the most valuable thing He can. Caring for sheep is the most important work in Christ’s eyes.
Notice that this is not a case of Christ needing Peter’s love. The All-powerful and All-sufficient Lord can never need anything. But He wants His tender lambs tended to.
So we also. Not only does He want us cared for, but He also wants us to care for one another. Although the main thrust of Peter’s commissioning is that he as a minister feeds his Lord’s sheep with the Gospel of life, nevertheless we all can show love to one another.
As with Peter, Christ wants us to show love to Him by loving our neighbor. Although a shepherd, that is, a pastor, particularly shepherds the sheep, still Christ accepts all our acts of mercy toward His Body as done to Him. So He is pleased whenever we do good for our fellow sheep. He sees such work as a most excellent gift to Him.
Some of the works Christ the Good Shepherd did include the fact that He brought sheep to the Gospel and life. He called back wandering sheep. He visited and healed the sick. He strengthened the weak in faith. He bound up the broken in body and heart. He guarded the healthy from wolves and lions. In the end, He gave Himself up for the sheep.
The shepherds He appoints do all these things in various degrees. Sometimes any of the saints may do these and similar works.
But when Christ says, “Feed My sheep,” we should not ignore that little word, “My”. A pastor must not forget that they are Christ’s sheep, not the pastor’s. It is not necessarily wrong to refer to them as “my sheep” if we simply mean those sheep the Good Shepherd has placed into our care. But a pastor may wish to make them his sheep by attaching them to himself rather than to the Good Shepherd; attach them to himself by personality, by love, by friendship, by acts of service that impress the sheep, and so forth. Not that any of these acts are bad in themselves. But the pastor may wrongly think of himself as the lure that brings people to Christ. Then he is not really luring them to Christ, but luring them to himself. Instead, shepherds like Peter must simply point to Christ by delivering Word and Sacrament. Keep showing the Good Shepherd to the sheep, and let them come to Him and be His forever.
But as for the sacrifices a shepherd makes, they will always be there, so long as he is a faithful shepherd. He need not go looking for a cross to carry. The Lord will provide one in His good time. Nor should anyone think that they are more or less valued by Christ because they suffer more or less than another.
The successful application and the ability to bear a cross must come from Christ. Peter had wanted to suffer for Christ and boasted he would go to death for Christ. Yet Peter badly failed. Christ in our text predicts that Peter would suffer and be led away to death. So Christ is saying in the last verses, “Yes, you will get your desire. You will die for Me. You could not have done it by your strength, which is why you failed. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. But I will give you your desire to suffer and die for Me.”
Pastors and all saints who deny themselves for the sake of the Gospel are dying little deaths. Perhaps they will even receive the martyr’s crown. But we cannot seize it of our own accord. It must be given by Christ. If by our strength we try to make ourselves worthy of self-sacrifice, we will fail. But He is gracious and merciful in all things. He gives His gifts, even the bitter and difficult ones, in His time and according to His will.
The Spirit help us to submit to His will. Amen.
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