The apostle John refers to himself in his gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which I always found a bit sneakily self-promoting. He left off the words “the most”, but that’s the impression I get, especially since he also mentions more than once that he was the one who had “leaned on Jesus’ bosom” during the Last Supper.
And maybe it’s just my imagination, but I’ve also detected a bit of a rivalry between John and Peter. Especially near the end of the gospel, when Jesus foretells Peter’s death and Peter points to John and says, “What about him?” To which Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain until I return, what’s that to you?” I hear a bit of scolding in Jesus’ tone, don’t you?
Yet I have come to see that if John was the disciple whom Jesus loved best, then Peter was the disciple who loved Jesus best. Not in spite of, but because of, his earlier betrayal.
We all come to believe in Jesus in different ways and maybe for different reasons. John’s gospel highlights this. At the tomb, John believed that Jesus rose and from the dead as soon as he saw the linens. He needed no further proof, even though he didn’t understand the meaning behind it all yet. John was the first to believe, because of the evidence of the empty tomb.
Mary Magdalene wasn’t convinced by the empty tomb. She thought someone had stolen the body. Even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t sway her at first, not until he spoke her name. She thought he was the gardener. Unlike John, she needed a personal encounter. She needed Jesus to show up and call her by name.
Thomas did not believe until he could not only see Jesus but put his hands in his wounds. He wasn’t going to rest on the testimony of the others who had seen Jesus’ resurrected body walk through walls and eat fish. (One has to wonder if Thomas was ever in the room when Jesus was foretelling his own death. He seemed to be absent a lot.)
And then there’s Peter. John tells us nothing of Peter’s reaction at the empty tomb. Nor does he mention his name in the first two appearances of Jesus in the locked upper room. Presumably, Peter believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, but there was still that nagging guilt he carried, that he had betrayed Jesus when he needed him the most. Perhaps he felt an irreconcilable distance from his Teacher, and his grief was so great that he couldn’t get past it. Perhaps he felt, like Judas, that he had blown it forever.
That’s why, I believe, it’s Peter whom Jesus targets on his third appearance to the disciples. Jesus turns up when Peter is out fishing—just like the first time they met. They have come full circle. And Jesus fills his nets to overflowing for the second time (at least.) This is how Peter knows that Jesus is who He says He is, and that Peter is not forsaken.
He is so filled with joy he cannot even wait for the boat to dock. He “threw himself into the sea” and swam to shore, where Jesus was cooking breakfast. (I love the image of Jesus cooking.)
And then Jesus and Peter finally have a conversation. But it’s an odd conversation, perhaps not the one Peter wanted to have. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” To which Peter answers “yes” all three times, grieved in the end that Jesus doesn’t seem to believe him. Perhaps Jesus wanted to give Peter three opportunities to declare his love, to counter the three times he had denied Jesus at the trial. Perhaps Jesus knew that Peter could be a little dense and needed to hear his command, “Feed my sheep,” three times.
What I do see from this conversation is that Peter loved Jesus completely, wildly, unreasonably. His was the kind of love Jesus knew would be required of the man who would carry on His work. John was not included in this conversation. John, whom Jesus loved (best), had a different mission. It’s Peter to whom Jesus trusts the biggest, and perhaps the hardest, job of all. Feeding his sheep.
Peter had seen all the evidence, but in order to truly believe, he first had to be forgiven. As Jesus had said, “Those who are forgiven much, love much.” Peter loved Jesus to distraction, to the exclusion of his own life, because he knew that despite what he had done, Jesus had never stopped loving him and had never wavered from preparing him for his true mission.
Jesus’ last words to him are “Follow me,” the same thing he said the first time they met. Jesus knew all along the path Peter would follow. And He knew that this hapless, bumbling, sometimes frustratingly impulsive disciple would be the one to carry His message to the world.
Because of his love.
I kind of wonder if John had been just a little bit jealous?