“Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.
Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:1–25)
Who are the sheep? Jesus says this figuratively to mean us. We are a group of people who need a leader like a flock of sheep have a shepherd. The word bishop means overseer, the one who watches over sheep. Pastor simply means shepherd. This image was used in Ancient Israel to refer to the relationship between a king and his subjects. Jesus is calling Peter to lead the Christian community.
What is this leadership that Jesus is calling Peter to? Is Peter the leader we need? And when we discuss Peter, we must remember that he was the leader of the apostles. What we say of him as a leader we are also saying of all the apostles.
What kind of person was it that Jesus was calling to leadership? Peter is the man who walked on the water, but began to sink because of his lack of faith. Peter is the man who swore he would die with Jesus. But when Jesus was about to die, Peter ran away and swore an oath that he did not know Jesus. Peter swore that he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Three times. All the apostles except for one abandoned Jesus. These are the ones who will feed Jesus’ sheep!
When we sin, we harm ourselves and we harm others. When we sin it is easier and easier to do it again. When we sin, we lose our boldness in prayer. We lose sight of our high calling. We lose faith in the hope of growing into the stature of Christ; the noble and honourable stature of a child of God. We stop believing that is possible when we sin because sin is the opposite of that nobility.
When we have been weakened by this sin, any suffering or hardship or disappointment we endure will be perceived as a much heavier and oppressive torment than it really is. When our feelings are hurt, we are more likely to despair and think of a relationship as broken beyond repair. When we failures in our work or have setbacks in life, we are more likely to despair and see ourselves as irredeemable. We think, “I am the problem.” This is what happens when we are weakened by sin
And our despondency is contagious! We resent those who have the hope that shows itself in innocence, in obedience, the hope that manifests itself as guilelessness. We see such people as childish. We begin to resent those who have the hope that we so desperately wish we had. Sin makes us bitter. Bitterness makes us cold-hearted. Cold-heartedness kills our relationships and that makes us lonely and isolated.
The Christian life is like a marathon. It is hard enough to run a marathon, but when we sin it is like putting on a heavy backpack while we are running. It is like putting a sharp pebble in our shoe. How much harder is it then not to quit?
What if we had someone who could show us how to not end up with that extra burden? When we have failed, and hurt others, and humiliated ourselves, and shown how selfish and arrogant we are, when we have harmed our relationships, what if we had someone who could lead us back? What if we had someone who would give us the strength to withstand despair and despondency? What if there was someone who has done this before?
That is the ministry of a pastor. That is the apostolic ministry of the Church; of the priest and the bishop. That is the ministry of the Holy Fathers, That is the ministry of a confessor. That is the ministry of Christ, as it is practiced by the body of Christ.
When Jesus appointed Peter and the other apostles as shepherds for his flock, he gave them the gift of repentance. Jesus gave Peter the fearsome experience of being confronted with his failures; confronted by the living God, the judge of the universe. St. Isaac the Syrian says, “The suffering that grips the heart as a result from sinning against love is sharper than all other tortures.” The Creator of the world asked Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, to correspond to the three times that Peter denied him. Peter was invited to do the opposite of what he had done wrong. He failed to confess his love for Jesus when Jesus was about to die, now Peter confessed his love three times. Peter swore he would die with Jesus but ran away, Jesus promised to give Peter a new opportunity to share in his death.
Notice that Jesus did not say to Peter, “Ok, now that you have confessed me three times: now I forgive you.” Jesus had already forgiven Peter. Jesus did not have this conversation with Peter because it was necessary before forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the whole story of our salvation. Forgiveness is the beginning of salvation, not the end. Anyone who wants to make forgiveness the only thing that happens in the story of salvation is robbing us of our shepherd.
There are two things in the Orthodox Church does that I have never seen anywhere else. One is that we speak so much about remission of sins. We are always talking about how we are sinners. We say, “Have mercy on me the sinner” every day. We are constantly talking about repentance. I have never been anywhere that does that as much as we do.
The other thing we do that no one does quite as much is to offer detailed guidance about askesis: fasting, obedience, confession, prostrations. No one seems to have as many services as we do, especially during lent. Hours and hours of long services.
And I have never seen as many services in any other church that focus so much on calling out for help: “Help us, Jesus, to stop sinning. Save us, O Theotokos, for we are sinners. Because salvation is not reduced to forgiveness, it makes all the sense in the world to ask the Theotokos to save us by her prayers. “Help us, O blessed Theotokos, we are lost; we are perishing in our passions and in our sins. I do not know any other church that does that to the same extent. Is that because we think it is really hard to be forgiven? Do we do all that extra work because while other people think forgiveness is difficult, we think it is not only difficult but almost impossible? Is that Orthodoxy? Do we need to convince Jesus?
On the contrary, we do not teach the heresy of the angry God who must be placated. Our understanding is that forgiveness is easy. St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Just as a grain of sand will not balance in the scales against a great weight of gold, such too is the case with God’s justice when it is weighed against His compassion. When compared with God’s mind, the sins of all flesh are like a handful of sand thrown in the sea.”
Saint Isaac the Syrian says that if all that God needed to do was to forgive us, then Jesus did not need to die on the cross. He says, “The entire purpose of our Lord’s death was not to redeem us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for creation. Had all this astounding affair taken place solely for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us by some other means.”
Forgiving us is easy. Jesus died on the cross in order to show us how to leave the way of sin and become holy. He died on the cross so that when he fills us with his Holy Spirit there is a content to the life that the Holy Spirit leads us towards. He died on the cross so that if we die with him, we will trample down death as he did.
All of the apostolic Church’s pastoral guidance is a comfort to us because we need a guide to show us where to go. It is the light yoke, the nobility and dignity of Christ which is given to us. Being led on the right path is the continuation into the fullness of salvation. Calling ourselves sinners is not oppressive when we know that we have a trustworthy guide Our mothers and our fathers in Christ have all been through this same journey of repentance and ascetical struggle. The extreme focus on repentance is the antidote to despondency! Despondency is not from knowing that you are a sinner but from not facing it, not having anything to run to, being left on your own.
The apostolic ministry of the Church gives us the opportunity to be guided and taught. It gives us the opportunity to do the opposite of the sins that are weighing us down: rebellion, militant ignorance, rejection of communion with God. The Church offers us the nativity fast. The chance to do the opposite of our thoughtlessness, to do the opposite of our selfishness. The Church offers us repentance as a way back to the nobility that God created us for. It is best for each person to go to confession once during Advent. The Church is the community of sinners who have found a way to follow Jesus again, and have returned to the true path. Will we accept that opportunity?