By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, Commentary on the lectionary for April 10, 2016
It apparently wasn’t long after the first Easter that the first discipleship communities had to grapple with the question of leadership and authority within their own circles. All of the gospels show Jesus strongly rejecting the kind of domination-over-others approach that was the norm in the Roman Empire. But the fact that the evangelists consistently show the disciples fighting to be #1 among themselves reveals how much of a struggle this must have been.
By the time John’s gospel was written, there seems to have been an emerging sense of “apostolic authority,” which elevated a few individuals (James, Peter and John) to what Paul rather disdainfully calls “pillars” (Gal 2.9ff). Matthew’s Gospel further enshrines this in the famous “keys of the kingdom” given to Peter alone (Matt 16.18-19). Over the following centuries, this was applied to the bishop of Rome, eventually given the title “pope” for Roman Catholics.
John’s gospel will have none of this. Nowhere in the gospel is anyone given the title “apostle.” Rather, “apostle” in John is a verb: apestellō, “ to be sent,” used twenty-eight times in that gospel alone. The two characters most fitting that designation are women: the anonymous Samaritan (4.28-30, 39) and Mary Magdalene (20.18-18).
This is the context for the scene in this week’s lectionary gospel. Beginning with the Last Supper, our evangelist sets up a competition of sorts between Peter and one known only as “the one Jesus loves,” aka “the Beloved Disciple.” In their first engagement, Jesus has just announced the presence of a betrayer in the midst, of which all the disciples are clueless. The position of the Beloved Disciple is hidden in many translations, such as the NRSV’s “reclining next to Jesus” (13.25). But the Greek says that he was en tō kolpō—“in the bosom”—of Jesus. Alert readers recognize the parallel with the position of Jesus in relationship to God from the Prologue: eis ton kolpon, rendered weakly and misleadingly by the NRSV as “close to the Father’s heart” (1.18). In other words, the Beloved Disciple is in a position of embodied intimacy with Jesus, as Jesus is with the One he knows as “Father.” Peter, meanwhile, is at some distance, having to motion to the Beloved Disciple to find out from Jesus who the betrayer is (13.24).
Our evangelist next contrasts the two by having Peter use violence during Jesus’ arrest and then deny Jesus three times while standing around the imperial fire, while the Beloved Disciple follows Jesus all the way to the cross (18.10-27; 19.26). Then, they engage in a choreographed race to the tomb, with the Beloved Disciple arriving first. All of these scenes prepare us for the one in today’s gospel.
The scene finds the disciples back in Galilee, fishing at night and catching nothing. When the Risen One anonymously suggests they fish on the right side of the boat, they gain a great catch, leading the Beloved Disciple to declare, “It is the Lord!” (21.7). This leads to the comedy of Simon Peter putting his clothes on and throwing himself into the sea, while the others arrive at the shore by boat. At the center of the scene is a meal of fish and bread, ironically enough, with fish Jesus himself provides. This meal is the flipside of the one in John 6, where the emphasis was on the bread. There, the meal was aimed at drawing disciples into community as “munchers” of Jesus’ own flesh. Here, the emphasis is on the fish, which is to say, on their mission to gather others into the community.
When the meal is done, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love [agapas] me more than these?” Peter’s response is ambiguous: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [philō] you.” The question-and-answer are repeated a second time. On the third try, Jesus changes the terms of the question: “Do you love [phileis] me?” Peter has missed the difference between agapē-love and philea-love. Peter offers a love that is friendship, while Jesus is calling for a love for Jesus that is self-sacrificial for others. Having failed to get the assent he was seeking, Jesus tells Peter:
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go. (21.18)
After this—and only after this—Jesus says to Peter, “follow me” (21.19). What this all adds up to is a challenge to the emerging notion of apostolic authority. If Peter is to be a “shepherd,” it is not on the basis of holding an office or being given a personal grant of power. Rather, it is on the basis of his willingness to embody a love that lays down one’s life for the sheep (10.11) grounded in his “abiding in” Jesus (15.4-5). This, our evangelist implies, is the only true foundation for leadership in the discipleship community. Paul, while insisting on his status as an “apostle,” agreed, insisting that all the gifts of leadership mean nothing if they are not centered on agape (1 Cor 12-14).
How different might the history of Christianity be if church leaders were empowered and evaluated on the basis of their embodiment of agape! While we cannot reverse Western history, we can and must insist that our own faith communities ground leadership on this foundation. Receiving the power of the resurrection enables us to embody such love, by exorcising the fear that would keep us—like Peter—from being willing to lay down our lives for one another. As we continue our journey through the season of Uprising, may we seek to lead, individually and as communities, in the Name of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.