I’m working on a sermon on John 21:15-19- Jesus “reinstating” Peter. There’s some baffling Greek wording here, and although I don’t want to drown the poor folks with all the technical ins and outs of semantic ranges and such, it’s sometimes hard to get around, especially when commentaries are written by nerds like me who love to get at nickpicky little things like this. Luckily, I have a blog to vent some of the nerdy brain dump stuff that would make my sermon incomprehensible and just plain dull to the non nerd. The one discussion which gets the most coverage in this passage is the agapao vs phileo (two words translated as “love”, Jesus asks “agapas me” “do you love me” and Peter says “philo se“- “I love you”) in the back and forth.
But what’s sticking me is Jesus’ initial question, “do you love me more than these?” What or who are “these”? There’s a few thoughts on this; Jesus is talking about Peter’s fishing gear (the scene happens on the beach after Jesus shows up while Peter and the other apostles are fishing)- and he’s asking Peter if he’s truly committed to leaving his livelihood to be a disciple. The other argument is that “these” refers to the other apostles. Typically in most languages, if the subject isn’t specified, a phrase like this (a demonstrative pronoun; the Greek word is τούτων) would refer to the most immediately preceding object (that would mean the other apostles). So this is probably the case, but not necessarily, as it in a quotation, so Jesus could be gesturing. But then the next question is what is Jesus saying about Peter’s love for Jesus and the apostles: “do you love me more than you love these guys?” or “do you love me more these guys love me?”
Obviously the point is that Jesus wants Peter’s first and greatest love to be for Jesus. But is Jesus suggesting Peter compare himself to his friends? That hardly seems inline with Jesus’ character.
In this context, Jesus is challenging Peter to step up and assume leadership within his group of peers. There is a call to care for the Church, to be the shepherd of Jesus’ disciples (not just the 12, but the broader group of folks aligned with Jesus). Perhaps he is giving Peter a chance to reiterate his loyalty. In John 13:37 Peter says, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus then predicts Peter’s threefold denial. After the resurrection Jesus speaks to Peter, telling him to take care of the Church, to lead, but soon, others would lead him to his death. He concludes with “Follow me!” (21:19). John has framed the story. Peter who professed to be the most faithful, eager to follow Jesus anywhere, even to death, but he proved he was not the most committed (in John’s gospel, John stands with a group of women who followed Jesus at Calvary, while Peter was nowhere to be found). After Jesus says, “Follow me!” (i.e. live up to your self-professed commitment) Peter motions towards John and says to Jesus, “what about him?” In other words, this story is about Peter and John; which is the “key leader”. Peter seems to think John would be better qualified- he stuck around, he’ll lay down his life for sure. But Jesus says, no, what happens to John is none of your concern, Peter. You, Peter, follow me. I’m giving you this role.
Personally, I always struggle with Peter as a leader- the leader even. He has this role as first among the apostles (I’m not supporting Papal claims here- just so we’re clear). All the disciples are odd choices for the task of leading the community of God. But Peter’s a dolt, a coward even. John, “the disciple Jesus loved”, is so faithful to Jesus that Mary is put under his care, a new “son” for Mary (why not one Mary’s other sons, Joseph or James?). John outlives Peter. He’s right there with Peter on Pentecost. He writes more, and even avoids execution, so we’re told. John, not Peter seems to be unique. And there’s reason to believe Peter struggles after his phenomenal work following Pentecost (See Galatians 2:6-21). And in Acts 15, when addressing the circumcision of Gentiles, Paul speaks, then Peter affirms, then James. It is when James speaks and is on board with Paul’s proposal that the issue seems to be put to rest, as if James trumps Peter. Wouldn’t Peter get the last word?
Whatever the case, this whole “more than these” issue is bugging me. Is Jesus just challenging Peter to step up to his calling, or is there something more here? Were there suggestions that John was the guy which are being addressed? Is John’s gospel saying, no really, Peter was actually hand picked by Jesus. If so, how come Luke turns his attention almost exclusively to Paul after the gathering in Jerusalem? At the end of Acts Paul goes to Rome under arrest, ready for martyrdom. Peter is said to have been martyred in Rome around the same time. Why not even mention it? If Peter leaves Jesus more than these, that’s a story worth telling.
What I wouldn’t give for time machine to see all this play out.