When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
— John 21:15-19, NRSV
I defended my doctoral dissertation on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. I remember this fact only because I said a Eucharist for that feast day the morning of my defense. Since my dissertation was about how liturgy and the sacraments should re-order our thinking about time, I wanted to practice what I wrote — by liturgically offering my work to God before I offered it to my committee. I’m reminded of that event this week partly because my installation as Canon Theologian of the Diocese is coming up on Sunday, and my graduation from Duke is happening the week after that. It’s a time for joy and celebration, as well as for gratitude to each one of you for your support of my ministry at Trinity Church and beyond. But I’m also reminded of it because the Gospel for that feast day is the same one that appears in our lectionary this Sunday.
In Sunday’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling Peter that one day, someone will fasten a belt around him and take him where he doesn’t want to go. Even though that’s a phrase that comes to mind every time I put on my cincture before the Eucharist, and I think it does capture something of what priesthood is about, that’s about Peter. It’s not about me. Finishing a dissertation is not analogous to martyrdom. I am one of those rare people who actually had a great time in graduate school — so much so that I did it twice! And even though priesthood, and theological scholarship too, can be a walk to the cross, perhaps it is not for any of us to desire suffering for the sake of the Gospel. It comes to us quite independent of our desires or our efforts, and perhaps rightly so.
Instead, what I want to note is the shape of Jesus’ call to Peter. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Follow me. Three times, the risen Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter says yes. Three times. The one who denied his Lord three times gets a second chance to make it right. In the form and the pattern of Peter’s betrayal, in the wake of his greatest shame, the risen Christ shows us that in him, everything really can be redeemed. Peter is called to follow once again, and to be that rock upon whom the church will be built, because the God we serve is a God of second chances, new life, and new birth.
I wouldn’t be writing to you today if it wasn’t true. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Yours faithfully in Christ,
The Rev. Canon Dr. Kara Slade