Today’s gospel concludes the Easter Season readings from the Gospel of John. Tomorrow is the Vigil of the Great Feast of Pentecost and then on Monday we return to the readings from the Gospel of Mark.
When Jesus and Simon (in this gospel only called “son of John”) first met, it began a somewhat contentious relationship. It came to an almost complete breakup when Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. The look exchanged between Jesus and Peter led to the latter’s breakdown in tears.
We are all familiar with the experience of the intense emotions involved in close personal relationships. Jesus and Peter are not the only friends to have experienced a breakup.
Now, we fast-forward to the final scene of John’s gospel. Jesus and the disciples have just finished breakfast. The other disciples fade into the background and we do not hear of them again. Rather Jesus focuses on Peter alone. Jesus doesn’t call him Peter, however. He calls him by the name he had when they first met: Simon. Simon bar Joseph, or Simon son of John. (To this day, Jewish males are known by their own first name, followed by the name of their father).
In their final conversation, Jesus returns to the happier time before Peter would betray their friendship. Jesus begins a process of reconciliation by asking Peter is he really loves him. Probably paralleling the three-fold denial, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Receiving the increasingly intense assurance of his love, Jesus changes not only Simon’s name, but now his profession. He changes him from a fisherman to a shepherd.
Peter is said to have been hurt by Jesus’ repeated questioning of his true feelings about their relationship. But it was Jesus who should have been the one who was hurt.
In light of the symbolic role of shepherd ~ a title given to ancient kings and modern pastors ~ Peter has been given a promotion. Jesus entrusts him with the care of his flock. Jesus remains the “true shepherd,” and Peter becomes his representative.
The sheep belong to Jesus and Peter is to take care of them. In reflecting on this unique role of Peter’s, we cannot forget the other disciples who, while in the background, are still there. They, too, will become shepherds.
This final encounter is intended to continue. It does in fact continue. Jesus never abandons his followers. Sometimes the shepherds fail in their responsibility. But rehabilitation is always possible. Even for the most conscientious of relationships.