This line is part of a longer section near the end of John’s gospel, often called “The Farewell Discourse”. Here Jesus asks Peter the same question three times, “Do you love me?” When you first read this Scripture you may feel, even as Peter may have, that Jesus is just being annoying. The question is asked and answered; move on! There is more to this exchange than is at first obvious to us, and to Peter. What is the point Jesus is trying to make here and how should we respond?
The first thing most preachers will tell you about this verse is that it is intended to remind Peter that he denied Jesus three times just a few days before this. Peter was so sure he would remain loyal and yet he easily said, “I do not know the man!” three times when Jesus needed him the most. When Jesus keeps coming at Peter with the question, “Do you love me?” it seems like he is scolding Peter. That may be partially true; it fits and we kind of like seeing Peter get in trouble for being so bad.
I think there is more to the story than that, however. We need to look at all that Jesus says during this exchange with Peter. One thing to notice is only evident when we look at the Greek words used in this story. Jesus uses the Greek word agapéō, which refers to unselfish, sacrificial love. Agape is not an emotional feeling, it is an act of our will; it is the kind of love God has for us. Peter uses the Greek word philéō, which refers to the warm, emotional feeling of affection we have for friends; it seeks to make others happy. The difference is clear when we realize that we do not harbor philéō toward our enemies, but God commands us to have agapéō for everyone, including our enemies.
Jesus tells Peter that, if Peter truly loves him, he will then “feed my sheep”; in other words, Peter is called to care for all the people Jesus cares for – that is everyone. The real message in this text is that Jesus tells all of us to have agapéō for every human being; to care for them and treat them as God’s own. This now brings new meaning to Jesus’ call for the disciples to become “fishers of men.” This text brings us around to what it means to “make disciples.”
Catching fish, or bringing people into church, is a good thing. Often, however, we seem to disconnect after the fish get into the net. What do we do with all the fish? There are so many different kinds of fish; they have so much potential and so many different purposes. Sometimes the church brings the net on shore and then leaves the fish flapping around on their own until they either die or find their way back into the water for someone else to catch. It seems the modern church operates a “catch and release” form of evangelism.
Jesus gives Peter a different vision. Once caught, the fish become part of the flock of sheep. They need care; they need to be fed; they need someone to love them enough to keep them from feeling left out on their own. Making disciples is simply about caring for and about the people God places in our lives. It means helping them get to know who Jesus is and who we are as members of the Body of Christ. If we really love Jesus, as we say we do, then we will care for and tend the flock of sheep; the catch of fish; the people that God loves as much as God loves us.