When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Feed My lambs,” He told him.
A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.
He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?”
He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.”
“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.
(John 21:15-17, HCSB)
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about our mutual struggle with feeling like we weren’t “doing enough” in our lives. Which is ironic because we are both mothers which should have just ended the questioning right there. Our primary vocation is to not only keep another person (or persons) alive but to help them thrive as individuals. Is there any higher calling than that? Any greater burden to carry? For the ultimate flourishing of another?
But the reality was that we both faced a lie that would convince us that we weren’t doing enough..for others, for our own high standards, perhaps even for God? Like I said, it’s a lie from the Enemy of our souls. But it’s a sneaky one. It creeps in through the most innocuous of mediums- through social media, through conversations over coffee, through our own undisciplined thoughts run wild. This lie will convince us that we must prove our love for others by doing more. It will assure us that our security can be locked down by the next paycheck. It will persuade us that we must show God how much we love Him with all of our might!
But the problem with this lie is that it’s not only exhausting, it’s a dead end.
Simon Peter’s struggle to grow in love and understanding of the Lord is all too familiar. He does things and says things that are easy to relate to…easy to imagine myself doing and saying (haven’t I already though?)
Before he was the great “Saint Peter” he was Simon, son of John, a husband and brother and fisherman. He was just a guy, living his life, waiting and hoping that one day the real Messiah would come back for his people. And then Simon’s brother Andrew approaches him one day, breathless and with eyes blazing and says, “We have found the Messiah,” and they go together to see if this could actually be true.
Meeting Jesus of Nazareth was a turning point for Simon. Jesus called him “Peter” (petros or rock) and healed his mother-in-law and challenged him to be “fishers of men.” The Christ was here, in the flesh, and He was teaching Peter. Jesus was building the earnest disciple’s faith with every moment they shared; Peter’s entire worldview was being re-framed.
Peter was passionate- he was a man of action and risk and he dared to step out onto the surface of a crashing sea that would bring him to his Lord. But he was also hasty to take up the sword and take things into his own hands for the sake of control (“Don’t worry Lord! I can handle this!”) He zealously pledged his allegiance until the end, until even death. Peter was one who witnessed the very mountain-top glory of God and stand face-to-face with the Fathers of his own father’s faith and yes, a mere few days later, he would also deny even knowing Jesus at all. Three times.
Peter wanted to build alters for God (exclamation point!!) yet he tried refusing a humble foot washing. And bless him, he was always the one to speak up and ask the question everyone was already wondering. After the dark day of Golgotha, Peter would race to the empty tomb searching for Jesus. He would jump into the water once more, rushing to meet the risen Christ on the beach. He was ardently after the Lord and still, he was wrestling an invisible battle with his inner man.
Who would be victorious? Would Peter continue to allow his own will and desire for dominion to call the shots? Would he continue to hold the rein of control, as the grip of weathered rope and straining fish became increasingly too much to maintain? Or would he submit himself to the way of the cross, following the example of his Rabbi, the very Lamb of God? Peter was facing the reality that in order to call himself a devoted disciple of Christ he must crucify the old man trying to cling to the throne of his own heart. He must take up his cross and deny the self within that still grappled for control. As John the Baptist would put it, “He must become greater; I must become less.”
Oswald Chambers addressed this essential idea as it applied to the state of the church during his time, urging them to eat of Christ, drink of Him. To be satisfied primarily and entirely of Christ. The year was 1935. Not much has changed in the last 83 years, huh? Here’s how Chambers so poignantly stated it-
“We count as service what we do in the way of Christian work; Jesus Christ calls service what we are to Him, not what we do for Him…Today we have substituted credal belief for personal belief, and that is why so many are devoted to causes and so few devoted to Jesus Christ. People do not want to be devoted to Jesus, but only to the cause He started.”
Why is this so important to grasp? So people want to do good works in the name of Christianity, what’s the big deal? Well, besides the fact that simply living a life considered “good” is not actually the same thing as being a Christian, there is a deeper concern for Chambers’s topic, and ultimately what Jesus was teaching Peter. Chambers continues,
“If I am devoted to the cause of humanity only, I will soon be exhausted and come to the place where my love will falter; but if I love Jesus Christ personally and passionately, I can serve humanity though men treat me as a doormat.”
Jesus could see the inner battle that Peter was facing. He knew that Peter’s best intentions were to follow after the Christ for all of his living days, but He also saw the deception that wanted to convince Peter to assert himself, even in the name of devotion. Jesus was tenderly reinstating Peter as a leader in the newly birthed Church, knowing that Peter would indeed give his life as a martyr. And as He did so, Jesus reminded Peter of the foundational truth that would be his petros. He urged Peter to give His lambs the only thing that would sustain them…the only One that would truly satisfy. And perhaps He was reminding Peter of that very thing as well.
“Do you love me?” Jesus to Peter. “Feed my sheep.”
Our culture wants to convince us to work for our salvation, both eternally and momentarily. But that same persuasion also rises up, like silent tendrils of sweet smoke, from within the deep places of my own heart. I find myself at times believing that I need to hustle more, build something great, shout louder, take situations into my own hands, demand my own way. Prove to others that I am valuable, prove to myself that I have worth. Prove to God that I am a good Christian and worth being loved. It is easier (and more temporarily gratifying) to spend my energy on “Christian work” and the “cause of humanity,” but as Chambers reminds us, it will never be enough. That kind of effort satiates the cravings of my inner self-will but it does not last. Pursuing that end, we will crash and burn like a bad experiment gone wrong. Which was the intention of the Enemy all along.
As Peter sat around a fire eating fish, he was communing with the true food; as he sipped water from his cup, he was being quenched of the true drink. Christ had come -not to give Peter a creed to live by- but to give of Himself, for Peter to live through. The life-giving Truth is Christ and if we give ourselves over to His exemplified way of the cross, we determine our self to be crucified. We give our rights to personal autonomy, the ownership of our days and our destiny, to Jesus Christ as Lord. We do this, willingly, because he wooed us with His perfect love and rescued us from the darkness. Peter would eventually give his body over as a martyr (traditionally thought to be crucified upside-down) but his spirit was already bound to Christ. He had spiritual freedom, even as he was led to his death in chains.
I may not die a martyrs death (although I hope to be willing, if the moment arose) but I am called to die daily to myself and live by the power of the Spirit of God. Like Peter, I am called to face the lie of the Enemy, who temps with promises of power and self-knowledge and goodness apart from God, and fight it by submitting to the leadership of the living Word and Truth of Christ. I may be constantly saturated with messages from a world that knows not and loves not the Lord- but I am called to take the time to pull away, to be quiet, to be still before Him. To abide in Him. To be satisfied in Him. To languish in the love of God and to live by the power of that love.
And then to take that love, that bubbling up spring of love, and to offer a drink to His sheep.