When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
The story of Jesus’ breakfast on the beach with the disciples is one of restoration. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, is asked three times if he loves Jesus. Peter, once disgraced and weeping bitterly while Jesus was led to the cross, now shares a meal that Jesus has provided. It is a story for all of us who have fallen, who have thought about giving up, who have felt ashamed of our faulting attempts to serve Jesus. Jesus restores Peter.
But this is also a story of commissioning. Each piece of this conversation has three movements: question, answer, call. Jesus asks a question (“Do you love me?”), Peter responds (“You know that I love you”) and then Jesus gives Peter a command (“Feed my lambs”) Peter is not only restored to fellowship with Jesus, he is given a mission.
This mission begins with the love of Christ. The task of feeding the people of God, like feeding real sheep, is difficult and exhausting. Every week, every day, working to open God’s word to others, to see their souls nourished, to help them listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, is tiring and often thankless work. The rate of burnout among pastors testifies to the challenge of this call.
This is why Jesus question is so important for all those who lead God’s flock: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Those who are called to govern the Church ought, therefore, to remember that, if they are desirous to discharge their office properly and faithfully, they must begin with the love of God…And, indeed, nothing could have been spoken that was better fitted for encouraging the ministers of the Gospel, than to inform them that no service can be more agreeable to Christ than that which is bestowed on feeding his flock (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John).
If we are motivated by “results” or metrics or praise or a sense of accomplishment, we won’t make it. If those who preach, teach, shepherd, and guide the people of God neglect to turn their faces toward the love of God, we will not make it. We will not persevere unless the love of God reigns in our hearts.
The order of the story is important. Only after asking after his love, only after fixing his attention on the love of Christ, does Jesus tell Peter to feed the sheep. To begin anywhere else is to invite disaster.