“Do you love me? . . . Then take care of my sheep” (John 21:1–19)

“Do you love me? . . . Then take care of my sheep” (John 21:1–19) May 6, 2019

In 1984, Alberta Billy, an Aboriginal member of the United Church of Canada, or UCC, told the UCC leadership: “It is time you apologize to Native people.” Two years later the General Council of the UCC met to discuss what such an apology might entail, while the Native elders waited outside in a gravel parking lot. Finally, the UCC leaders finished their apology and came out to read it to the elders.

Residential school group photograph, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1908 / wikimedia commons

It read,

Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured. We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused our Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.

As far as apologies go, this seems like a good one. It is what the Native elders had asked for. It acknowledged real wrongdoing. It asked for forgiveness.

And so the UCC leaders were probably a bit surprised when the Native elders took two years before responding. And they were probably even more surprised when, two years later, the Native elders responded by acknowledging the apology but not accepting it.

One of the elders explained, “In the native way, apologies are not ‘accepted’, they are acknowledged. [This is because] an apology must be lived out if it’s to be a real apology. The church is being asked to live out its real apology.”

Instead of accepting the apology, the elders erected a mound of stones on the spot where the apology was delivered. Over the years, stones were added to represent specific steps toward healing and progress in the relationship between the church and the Native peoples. On the twentieth anniversary of the apology, the apology was read again on the same spot, with more stones added to represent actions that had been taken toward reconciliation and restitution.*

To some observers, it may seem that the Native elders were being unforgiving or even obstinate. Isn’t it the Christian thing to do to accept someone’s apology and forgive them immediately? But, digging deeper, we see that the Native elders were offering something deeper than the quick forgiveness they had been asked to give. By their response, they were teaching the church leaders what true repentance and forgiveness entail.

It’s not about saying, “I’m sorry,” and responding, “I forgive you.” It’s about turning from your harmful ways and taking concrete steps toward restoring a broken relationship or reconciling with those harmed. It’s about making what is wrong right again—establishing lasting peace and harmony between those formerly at enmity.

The Native elders response was for the church’s own good as much as it was for the elders’. They gave the church space to grow and heal. And in so doing, they taught the church what it means to truly repent and forgive.

In the story from the end John’s Gospel, Jesus’s repeated questioning of Peter can come across a bit harsh. Like the Native elders’ refusal to immediately accept the church’s apology, it can seem that Jesus is being stubborn by repeatedly asking Peter if he loves him. But, as with the Native elders, there’s deep wisdom in Jesus’s approach to Peter.

Prior to this encounter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the last conversation Jesus had with Peter was at the Last Supper. During the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them only a little longer. And so he left them these parting instructions: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34–35).

Peter immediately responded by asking Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?”

When Jesus responded that Peter can’t go with him but would follow him later, Peter protested, “But why can’t I come now, Lord? I’m ready to die for you.”

To which Jesus replied, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me” (13:36–38).

Peter had talked a big game, telling Jesus that he would die for him. But when push came to shove, he did just as Jesus foretold: he denied Jesus three times.

Now, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, in his first real conversation with Jesus since the Last Supper, Peter must be ashamed of his denials. He must wonder whether his word is good for anything anymore. He must doubt the sincerity of his commitment to Jesus.

After all, he believed he was sincere and committed on the night of the Last Supper too. And yet, hours later, he had denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. What he needs in this moment, then, is not for Jesus to tell him, “Your denials are forgiven. That’s all behind us know. Let’s just forgive and forget, and we can all move on together.”

That might deal with the specific denials in the past, but it wouldn’t repair the relationship in the present, and it wouldn’t calm Peter’s doubts about his actions in the future.

When Jesus last met the disciples, he met Thomas in his unbelief and provided just what Thomas needed to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas couldn’t get himself to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead without seeing Jesus in the flesh. And so Jesus appeared to Thomas and showed him the wounds in his hands and side.

Now it’s not Thomas but Peter who needs some personalized attention. And now the issue isn’t Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus as it is Peter’s lack of faith in himself. Is his word good for anything? Will Jesus ever be able to count on him again?

So Jesus gives Peter a parting gift. It isn’t that he questions Peter three times whether he loves him—or that he gives Peter three opportunities to declare his love for Jesus. No, the gift Jesus gives Peter is the threefold reminder of how he can demonstrate his love for Jesus.

At the Last Supper, Jesus had told the disciples that to demonstrate their love for him, they were to love each other. But at the time, that simple command didn’t sound heroic enough for eager Peter. He wanted to declare his love for Jesus in grandiose fashion. So he shouted that he loved Jesus so much he was ready to die for him—only to find hours later that he wasn’t ready at all. His declaration was meaningless, as he left Jesus to be crucified alone.

Now Peter doesn’t even believe himself anymore. So he pleads with Jesus: Jesus, you know I love you. Right? Jesus, you’re omniscient, all knowing, please just confirm that I really do love you!

What Peter needs now is not to be forgiven for past offenses. He needs to be restored to wholeness. And so Jesus tells him,

I don’t need your heroism, Peter. I don’t need any grand gestures. I don’t need any declarations of love. We both know that your words can’t be trusted right now. But here’s how you can show me, others, and perhaps most importantly yourself that you do indeed love me: Feed my sheep.

Through simple acts of loving-kindness toward those I love, you will begin to restore trust. Your words will begin to have meaning again because they will be backed by action.

This isn’t about earning my love. I already love you beyond measure.

It isn’t about earning my forgiveness. I forgave you on the cross.

It isn’t about earning your salvation. Your salvation was secured on Easter morning.

No, this is about restoring your integrity. It’s about restoring your trustworthiness. It’s about restoring the meaningfulness of your words. It’s about restoring everything you lost when you denied me so that you can finally follow me instead of running away when times get tough.

Each time you feed my sheep by showing them concrete acts of love, you will be placing another stone on the mound. And some day, when your faith in your own dedication and sincerity gets tested—when you have the chance to deny me again to save your skin—you can look at that heaping mound of stones and declare with full confidence: “Yes, I do know Jesus of Nazareth! I love him with all my heart! Look, I’ve been feeding his sheep for years!”

And in that moment, rather than fleeing in fear, you will be empowered to face death with resolve—knowing that the Lord you love and the Lord you’ve followed to the cross has overcome Death so that you, too, have everything you need for resurrection life.

*This account is drawn from Jeremy Bergen, Ecclesial Repentance, 245–45.

About David C. Cramer
David C. Cramer is teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. You can read more about the author here.
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