There is no such thing as arriving. If an individual or group ever thinks they are close to the stable, mature, well-functioning ideal that they have longed for and worked towards, they are probably fossilizing. Jesus keeps moving; that’s why we are called to follow—beyond failures, through responsibilities and sacrifices, ignoring distractions.
Jesus’ three-part conversation with Peter (John 21:15-17) was the subtle giving of a second chance. A few days earlier, Peter had bragged about his undying loyalty to Jesus. That had ended in a cowardly denial of any association with Him. Memories of failure can act like an epitaph or obituary pronouncing death and burial of goals and ideals. Jesus’ questions probed like a physician’s scope showing Peter that his love still lived and needed rehabilitation. Hence the call to shepherding.
A good under-shepherd cares for the sheep on behalf of the chief shepherd. The love that Jesus calls out is evident in an obedience that requires no personal gain, and often involves risk and sacrifice. Are we willing to follow Jesus on those terms?
The second challenge is more direct and has implied questions (John 21:18-19). Will you, Peter, follow me even when it means surrendering your own freedom? Will you trust that I am guiding your path when it seems like your enemies have prevailed? Will you stay loyal enough to go through the door of death against every ounce of your instinct? If we understand early on in our walk with the Lord that there will be increasingly tough choices to make between the path that Jesus is beckoning us to take and gentler alternatives then we will be better prepared to stay on His heels.
Peter did what so many of us do to avoid serious questions; he let a “squirrel” distract him. Seeing John following them, Peter asked, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 21:21-23)
It’s so easy to lose focus on Jesus because we sense that others have it easier or better. We want things to be fair. If their path looks gentler, why can’t we walk it? The envious question is irrelevant. We will falter if we compare ourselves with others instead of attending to Jesus’ next move.
Jesus’ response was wise. He let the cause of envy linger as a possibility while He challenged Peter to his own obedience. It would have been easy to dismiss the possibility of super-longevity for John to reassure Peter of fairness, but obedience is tested better in the presence of trials.
The idea of favoritism irks us. How could Jesus single out a beloved disciple? But did He? Wasn’t it perhaps that John, the author, identified himself in that way simply because Jesus made Him feel specially loved? And was it Jesus who loved John differently, or was it John’s understanding of Jesus, and his faith in Him, that resulted in a deeper bond between them—we call it connection. Relationships are a two-way street; the flow of love is greatest when the lanes are wide and smooth in both directions.
Ironically, Jesus interacted more with Peter than with John. Yet John was secure in the depth of his relationship with Jesus. That depth came from trust and understanding, not extra attention. Attention can be skin deep; shared heartbeats are profound.