Meeting Us Where We Are, John 21:15-19

A message preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, May 1, 2022

If we peer down from 40K feet, we can see how John’s gospel begins and ends very neatly and includes both a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue, which begins with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God” sets up the rest of the gospel Story by explaining who Jesus is. The rest of the Story in John unpacks Jesus’ purpose. Today, we are looking at the epilogue, the ending of John’s Story, and what I want us to get out of is this: God goes out of God’s way to meet us where we are in life.

Chapter 21 highlights two characters. The first is Peter and the second is the Apostle, John. Our text this morning is about Peter, and we join the Apostles in having breakfast with Jesus on the beach. Before we hear this morning’s text, it’s helpful to remember the very last words Peter spoke to Jesus during the Last Supper as Jesus was telling the disciples what is about to happen. Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going…why can’t I follow you now? I will lay my life down for you!”  Jesus looking at Peter simply replies, “Truly, truly I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.”[1] Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 21:15-19

15When 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.” 16A 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.” 17He 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. 18Very 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.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”[2]

Oh, dear Peter. We Southerners have a little saying we have when someone we are with does or says something really dumb. We smile and simply say, “Bless his heart.” A second one like it is, “God, love ya’.” As we look down upon this scene in John, we see the group finishing up breakfast when in the middle of it all, Jesus turns to Peter and has “the talk” with him. We find Peter experiencing one of these “bless your heart” moments.

Over the course of Lent, I have been watching a series on Jesus’ life with the Twelve. One of you told me about it and I love it. It’s called The Chosen[3] and it’s an app you can download to your device at the Google or Apple stores; it is the first television series to be completely crowdfunded by viewers. I have to say, the portrayal of the characters and their personalities is refreshing. For example, the guy who plays the disciple Matthew portrays him as a lonely, outcast, highly functional autistic Jewish tax collector. It’s brilliant. Throughout the story, the brash and always ready to get into a fight, Peter, belittles Matthew incessantly for being a traitor to his fellow Jews by taking taxes for Rome from his own Jewish people. Peter comes across as a cocksure tough guy who tries to live into Jesus’ mandate to be the Rock. Many scholars believe that Jesus’ three difficult questions to Peter are a way to counterbalance Peter’s three previous denials.  In John 18 when the rooster crows, Peter betrays Jesus. Our Story today is the Story of reconciliation and restoration of Peter into the Fellowship as its leader.[4] New Testament scholar, the late Raymond Brown notes, “The choice of Peter is a demonstration of God’s working in the weak things of the world.”[5] In other words, friends, if there is hope for Peter, then there sure is hope for people like you and me.

I love this Story in John because it’s a Story where once again we are reminded that the Great God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, comes and meets us where we are in our life. God takes the initiative. God searches us out and finds us amid our everyday, mundane lives…just like he did with Peter and the others. Our Story today has the Lord God physically going to where Peter was and is seeking him out. We are reminded that God comes to where you and I physically are, too, in our board rooms, classrooms, examining rooms, or standing in line at Trader Joe’s. Is our spiritual life tuned enough to be able to see him? But our Story holds another clue as to how God comes to meet us where we are; we can hear how Jesus meets us spiritually where we are by looking at how the conversation in our Story is actually written.  

We have a set of three questions and three commands. At first, they appear to be the same command but at closer reading, they are subtlety very different. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times with a growing sense of guilt and sadness, Peter declares, “O Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus then replies with three commands to Peter after each profession of love: Feed my lambs; tend to my sheep; feed my sheep.

Unfortunately, in the English language, there is only one word for love – Love. In the original language of John’s Gospel, there are at least three words for love. First, there is eros, which is sensual love. Next, there is phileo which is where the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, gets its name. And then there is agape which is a love that is intentional, inconvenient, sacrificial, and an all-encompassing love that extended to people in a Spirit of Grace.  Our text uses two of these expressions of love, agape, and phileo, in Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now, there is debate among scholars as to whether this means anything because, they say, these two types of love are sometimes used synonymously in the Story.[6] This is where I disagree with the modern scholars and agree more with the pre-modern ones. You see, when someone is writing a story, the author is very intentional and economical in the words he or she chooses to place in the narrative. The Gospel of John was carefully written with words that are unique to John’s Story in order to tease out who Jesus was and is as well as to outline Jesus’ purpose. I personally think John’s use of the different words for love is intentional; they are words that are supposed to make a point that God spiritually meets us where we are as well.

Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love, i.e., agape me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love, i.e., phileo, you!” A second time Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?” And once again, Peter replies again, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”

Let’s pause: Jesus is asking Simon Peter if Peter has the love for him that expresses itself through sacrifice, inconvenience, intentionality, and grace like Jesus’ love was shown to Peter on the Cross. Peter’s reply is, “Lord, you know I love you like a brother.” Peter pulls up short. Whereas he brashly told Jesus during the Lord’s Supper that he would be willing to die for him, Peter now simply, and quite honestly, I’ll add, admits he loves Jesus as a dear friend. And then finally, Jesus asks Simon one more time, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me? Do you love me as a brother and dear friend?” This is where John changes it up here! He uses a different word for love and then Peters bursts out and says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I phileo you, love you as a soul brother and dear friend.”

I believe John was very intentional in the way he wrote this conversation. Jesus adjusted his expectations of Simon based on where Simon was at the time. Jesus meets Simon Peter right where he was in his faith development. If Peter could not promise agape love to Jesus, he could at least provide love as a best friend and soul brother. And Jesus received that love. Jesus adapted to where Simon spiritually was at that point in Simon’s faith.

Beloved, what does this all say about God and God’s relationship with you? It says God will physically come to where you are in your life and life’s circumstances and meet you there. It says God has high expectations for us as disciples but that the Lord shows us enough agape love to adjust his expectations of where we are in our faith walk. It says that God doesn’t want us to fail and flail; the Lord wants a relationship with you and me and purposefully seeks us out.

So, my sisters and brothers, in just a moment you are about to have a meal with Jesus. As you eat of the bread and drink from the cup this morning, listen for Jesus asking you, me, “Patrick Hurd Wrisley, do you love me with agape-type love?” How shall I answer? How shall you? Beloved, the Lord meets us where we are and then takes us by the hand and leads us to where he wants us to be. Communion is God’s gift to remind us of that fact. Pray with me. 

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.


[1] John 13:36-38

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] To see or learn more about The Chosen, please see https://watch.angelstudios.com/thechosen.

[4] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p 806.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans’s Publishing, 2012), p. 1225.

[6] Ibid.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a husband, father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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