“Tell me something I did beautifully.”
A friend once asked me this, and I remember thinking, “What a tremendous mixture of courage and vulnerability. The spiritual maturity to know that beauty can occur with and without intent, and the humility to ask, ‘Please help me find it.’”
“Tell me something I did beautifully.”
Well, most of us have probably done something more beautiful than denying a beloved one, or being so excited to see the beloved return that we jump into a lake after putting our clothes back on!
Do you think Jesus laughed when he saw that? I hope so!
It’s 100% Peter as we know him – rash, impulsive, audacious. The Sufi poet Attar writes that those who seek God with all their hearts can afford to be audacious:
“So if you act out of turn, it’s from pure enthusiasm.
You’re so giddy with love, you can walk on water.
Good fortune to you. May you prosper in your boldness,
for you’re like a lunatic on fire.”
We know Peter walked on water briefly, but lost his nerve. This time, he doesn’t care whether he walks or drowns! He’s got to get to the beach! He waited all night, daybreak came, it’s time! Mary Magdalene and Thomas got their chances. Now it’s his turn to level up.
What a sight he must have been, making the water boil around him, probably falling and getting it up his nose. All while Jesus waits there, getting the fire ready.
A charcoal fire – ooh.
When was the last time Peter stood at a charcoal fire?
It was not a time like this, full of expectation and love and dawning sunlight. That fire wasn’t built for breakfast on the beach. That fire was built for heat, because it was a cold night.
Do you know what Christians in Damascus call Maundy Thursday? “Night of Secrets.”
A cold night of secrets and betrayal, arrest and conviction.
A hair-raising night of “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”, and three denials, and the sharp accusation of some far-off rooster.
In that moment, there was no asking, “Tell me something I did beautifully.”
Sometimes I wonder if Peter paused for a moment on the beach, only coming closer when Jesus, who once encouraged would-be disciples to “Come and see” now invites apostles to “Come and eat.”
Eat bread and fish, signs of abundance and mercy.
What do you imagine their conversation was like? Was there any? Did they keep staring? Was it awkward? It’s not important to the Evangelist. Some secrets stay secret. In the veiling of these precious moments, it’s as if disciples and teacher all become one body: a prefiguration of what you and I celebrate here in this place.
And then the real work begins. Because Jesus turns to Peter, and, unprompted, invites him to do something different. Something beautiful.
There are three things to note in this most important part of the story. The first is action. The second is language. The third is time.
Action. Jesus asks three questions, and Peter gives three responses.
We know why. It’s the charcoal fire.
Over a charcoal fire, Peter fulfilled Jesus’s prophecy of betrayal.
Over a charcoal fire, Peter is offered redemption.
Three denials, two of them explicitly identical, in response to whether he was a disciple: “I am not.” The third is not explicitly mentioned, but that very fact implies that it was also identical. “I am not.”
Here, barring a slight change in the last response, same deal. Identically worded: “You know that I love you.”
Threefold invitation to forgiveness. Threefold acceptance. Threefold invitation to redemptive action and responsibility, both of which mirror Jesus’s own ministry as the Good Shepherd.
The curse of Peter’s denial is lifted. Action.
Language. Jesus asks three questions, Peter gives three responses. The questions, unlike the responses, are not identical. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Who are these? Maybe the other apostles. Maybe a reference to some other conversation. Doesn’t matter.
In this first question Jesus uses the word, “ἀγαπᾷς,” which the English translates “love,” but that’s not the word Peter uses in his answer. That’s “φιλῶ.”
One scholar I consulted, Dr. John Bechtle, suggested that ἀγάπη is “primarily a matter of choice rather than emotions…a one-way love that can flow even toward someone who does not deserve or return it,” while φιλία is “often an emotional response to someone or something that appeals to you…a two-way love that instinctively flows toward someone who returns your love.”
Many theologians far more educated than me squabble over the possible reasons why two different words are used here. Let’s put a pin in that.
After issuing the cryptic command, “Feed my lambs,” Jesus asks the second question, slightly different from the first: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
No “more than these.” And again, he uses ἀγαπᾷς.
But Peter’s response, as we already said, is identical to the first. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Using “φιλῶ” again.
Finally, the last question, which, in English, is the same as the second, but in the Greek is not.
Now Jesus uses φιλεῖς.
Peter’s hurt makes more sense when we know this. He just said to Jesus twice that he loved him – φιλῶ. But it’s deeper than that. The English phrase “Peter felt hurt” doesn’t really convey what’s happening here. It sounds like an awkward misunderstanding between friends. No, the Greek suggests Peter felt grieved. This is deep pain – the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible actually uses this word for the pain of childbirth.
How apt, considering what is occurring as the denials are undone. Maybe this is what leveling up feels like for Peter.
Now his response is different: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
This isn’t, “You’re omniscient, all-knowing.” This is, “You knew what I would do, you know what I did do, you surely know all that’s going to come after – but you also must know what’s in my heart right now. You know I’m all in.”
Jesus does know he’s all in, but Peter’s missed the real purpose in Jesus finally using φιλῶ. Peter seems to think Jesus chooses this word to twist the knife, and is grieved because he asked “a third time.”
But Jesus actually asked three different questions.
Maybe, having ascended by being lifted up on the Cross, he is once again descending to us.
“Is it ἀγάπη you feel for me – your newly risen and sublime Lord?
Is it ἀγάπη for me, your teacher who invited you on the journey from the Jordan to Jerusalem?
Is it φιλία for me – the friend you betrayed?”
Peter responds, “Lord, I have φιλία for you. You told us we were no longer servants but friends.”
Ah, Jesus surely thought. Now here is something you have done beautifully. Leveling up. Language.
Now, finally, time.
Here the English translation really fails us. For most of the Gospel, the action has been taking place in a particular tense. Mostly, it’s aorist – a tense that doesn’t exist in English but was used in ancient Greek to tell stories.
But once we get to chapter 20, the tense shifts…to present.
All of the stories of the resurrected Jesus are told in the present tense.
He is still with us, unbound by time.
All three of Jesus’s questions and two of Peter’s answers are in the present tense; not “Jesus said to Simon Peter” but “Jesus SAYS to Simon Peter.”
Until we get to the third response. Then it shifts briefly back to aorist again. Peter’s grief is locked in time.
He stepped out of the boat and walked on water, but now he’s starting to sink again.
And Jesus pulls him back up. Back to present tense: “Jesus says to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
Friends, this is the heart of it. Present tense means we’re all there with Peter, with the apostles, on the shore, in the young sunlight, hearts alive with the electricity of resurrection.
Right now, in this moment – can you smell the fire and the fish?
Jesus says, “Follow me.”
Do something beautiful.