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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (Jn 21:15-19)
Feed my lambs. This is Jesus admonition to Peter. He will now be a shepherd of souls. Jesus gives him this commission three times. Each time he gives him this commission he does so after having asked Peter if he loves him. It was a question asked in the wake of Peter denying Jesus three times. Peter’s answer is almost sheepish. He doesn’t make any brash claim about how much he loves Jesus. He doesn’t try to brag about how loyal he will be. Peter has been confronted with his own weakness. His true self has been exposed. He was tested and did exactly what Jesus said he would do. He denied Jesus. Now Peter only answers that despite everything, Jesus knows that he loves him. This is faith it lives in us despite our sin. It lives in us because of Christ’s love for us. And Christ’s love for us is not dependent upon any strength inside of us. Christ loves us despite our sin, despite the fact that we deny him.
And deny him we do. Each and every sin is a denial of Jesus. That’s really the equalizing effect of sin. This is the reason that sin is sin in Jesus eyes. In the same way that you break the first commandment every time you break the 9 other commandments. Every sin is in some way a manner of denying Christ, not confessing Christ with your love. And the answer to this is not more condemnation. The law tries to force love, but it never works. It’s the great catch 22 of life, of the law. Applying the law in a situation like Peter’s just increases guilt, increases resentment. The guilt and resentment doesn’t actually have the effect keeping people from sinning. Rather, it turns them away and into themselves, it causes them to lash out and sin more. And the weakness of man makes certain that there will always be plenty of sin in a person’s life to get that ball rolling in the first place. So Jesus responds not by condemning Peter but by commissioning Peter to feed his sheep.
In the context it is Jesus forgiving Peter. It is Jesus saying I forgive you, I don’t hold it against you. I still trust you to feed my sheep. Jesus doesn’t need his pastors to be sinless any more than he needs his sheep to be sinless. He only needs them to feed his sheep with the same forgiveness by which they live. And perhaps it is just that that a pastor needs more than anything, to know they live in forgiveness, their job is carried out in forgiveness, and without forgiveness it would be impossible because no one is actually above reproach. But then it is by living in forgiveness that the love of Christ is confessed and not denied.