It is Peter’s last intimate conversation with his friend Jesus.
The Crucifixion is past. Peter’s denial of Jesus—uttered not just once but three times—is a horrible memory. The Resurrection has occurred, leading to joy and fear and confusion.
Peter and the disciples go fishing out on the lake. The text deliberately tells us it is Peter’s idea. Maybe Peter has decided that, even though the Resurrection has occurred, his failure is too great, his destiny is lost, his separation from Jesus is irrevocable, and he will go back to his old identity and vocation. What goes around comes around.
A stranger stands on the shore. He asks if the disciples have caught any fish. Not a single one, they tell him. He instructs them to throw their nets on the right side of the boat. They do, and the haul of fish is so great that their nets can’t hold them and begin to break. John is the first to realize it: the divine Fish Finder is at it again. What goes around comes around.
On the first performance of this miracle, Peter sank to his knees and asked Jesus to go away. This time he cannot wait to get close. With his trademark impulsiveness, Peter leaps into the water with his clothes on and outswims the boat to Jesus.
When Peter gets to the shore, Jesus is before a charcoal fire, cooking fish and baking bread for breakfast. It was in front of a charcoal fire that Peter denied Jesus three times. The sense of smell is said to evoke emotional memory more powerfully than any of our other senses. It is not accidental that Jesus starts such a fire, or that the Gospel of John includes this detail. Peter is reminded of his estrangement from his friend.
After breakfast Jesus speaks to Peter. He addresses him formally: “Simon son of John.” Jesus does not use his old familiar nickname—Peter, the “Rock”; not even just Simon—but “Simon son of John,” the way we do when a relationship has experienced a breach. Peter must have wondered in that moment if his old intimacy with Jesus was now lost.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15).
It is an achingly vulnerable question. In Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, sits shyly with his wife, Golde, wondering at the strange new world in which their daughter marries a man not because of a matchmaker’s order but simply because of love. A question occurs to him. With uncharacteristic bashfulness he asks her, “Golde—do you love me?”
“Do I what?”
He asks again. She evades. Eventually, in a charming song, they realize they love each other. “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”
It doesn’t change a thing.
Except that it changes everything.
Can a human being love God? Can a person be on intimate terms with the divine? Can a mortal being experience union with the infinite?
I wonder if Jesus was shy when he asked Peter this question, a little bit like an adolescent, a little bit like a parent with an estranged child, a little bit like Tevye with Golde. “Peter, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter answers.
For reasons Peter must have wondered about, Jesus asks him again. “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Again, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:16).
And then a third time. At first Peter is hurt. Does Jesus not believe him? “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:17).
And they speak more about Peter’s future, about what he will suffer, about how God will use Peter’s sufferings just as God has used Jesus’ sufferings.
And Peter remembers, if not at that moment, then later on. Three times, before a charcoal fire, he had the chance to express his love for Jesus and instead denied him.
Three times, before a charcoal fire, he has the chance to express his love for Jesus. And this time he gets it right.
What goes around comes around.
And then Jesus says to him, one more time, at the end of their time together, what he said to him the first time—“Follow me” (John 21:19)—showing, perhaps, that in the spiritual life, we’re never really done. As long as we’re alive, the journey toward Jesus is never finished—we awaken and need purging and get illumined and experience oneness and need awakening all over again someplace else.
What goes around comes around.
But what we are moving toward, in our coming and our going, in the strange, spiraling, three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward pilgrimage, is something so transcendently great that it almost makes us blush to say the words.
Union with God.
“Do you love me?”
Peter will not see Jesus much after this encounter, but he will know a new and greater closeness to him, as though he is not just with Christ but in Christ.
Or that Christ is in him.
Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.