we traditionally read it as "the reinstatement of peter". a liturgy of sorts between the risen Jesus and peter, who denied him... three "do you love me?"s for three denials. but maybe...
peter gets off the boat. there is Jesus, on the beach waiting. "peter, do you love me?"
curtis comes home from work, i am on the porch waiting. "curtis, do you love me?"
a moment later, Jesus stirs the coals on the fire, turning the fish, lost in thought. then, "peter, do you love me?"
"yes, Lord, you know i love you!"
i am making dinner, and my heart is flimsy. i leave the stove to touch curtis' arm. "curtis, really? do you love me?"
"rachel, you know i love you!"
once more, with the dawn rising over the water and the smell of the sea in the air, Jesus catches his eye. "peter, do you love me more than these?"
"Lord! you know i love you more than anything!"
i lean my forehead against his chest, my words muffled, "curtis, do you love me really? forever?"
he wraps me up, leaning his head on my head, "rachel, i love you. i love you forever."
about this passage, ellen davis writes, "were it any other speaker, we would not hesitate to recognize the poignancy in the question, and the anxious doubt, especially following a betrayal."
even the second half of Jesus's words to peter - "then feed my sheep" - almost read as a plea from the one who must leave to the one who will be left to carry on. it kept me up last night, as i was reminded of the agonizing choice parents must make when they choose guardians for their children. if i die, who loves me enough to love my children enough? who knows me enough to tell my children about me, tell them how much i loved them, to share my stories & keep me alive in their minds? who loves me enough to raise them up the way i would want them to be raised? who could possibly be that trustworthy?
Jesus chooses peter - but first, "peter, do you love me?" then, "please, peter, feed my sheep... tell them my story... tell them i love them... remind them... take care of them..." there is more going on here than a stoic liturgy on the sand. maybe, just maybe, we see a bit of the vulnerability of God, the nakedness of Jesus' heart... "do you love me?"