In their last post-meal conversation, Peter pledged his unwavering loyalty to the Lord. A few hours later, he had denied three times that he even knew Jesus. In John 21, Jesus has been resurrected and He asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?”
Three times, Peter insists that he does and, three times, Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs… Take care of my sheep… Feed my sheep.”
The triplicate nature of Jesus’ question may be a reference back to Peter’s three denials, but I also wonder if Jesus repeated and rephrased his instructions to challenge Peter to think broadly about what His words meant. If you love me, He tells Peter, you’ll also love, care for, and feed my sheep. “My sheep,” from the one who identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), clearly refers to His followers but what do “feed” and “take care of” mean?
For Peter, whose name Jesus bestowed upon him because he was to be the rock upon which Jesus’ church was built (Matthew 16:18), this care and feeding certainly implied spiritual nurturing. He could show his love for Jesus by providing discipleship and pastoral (shepherd-like) care to God’s fledgling church.
But the repetition and rephrasing might also suggest that Jesus’ charge to Peter was broader and more holistic. Maybe He actually meant that Peter would need to feed some people—because not all of God’s people had enough to eat. Indeed, Peter and the other disciples later appointed deacons to ensure that the vulnerable widows among them—of all ethnic backgrounds—had enough to eat (Acts 6:1-7). “Taking care” of Jesus’ flock might have meant equipping Jesus’ followers to feed themselves, ensuring economic opportunity. It might have meant speaking out against unjust systems that limited God’s people from flourishing.
Such feeding and caring for Jesus’ sheep would be costly. Jesus made clear that Peter would, ultimately, give his life in the process of feeding and caring for Jesus’ flock but he beckons him just the same: “Follow me!”
Millennia later, Jesus’ flock is more scattered and more diverse than ever before: there are still Christ-followers in Jerusalem and the Middle East, but tens of millions more in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America. Still, I believe Christ’s call to us this Lent is the same costly invitation he made to Peter: “If you love me, feed and care for my sheep.”