Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from the 2021 virtual graduation commencement message for Artios Christian College on August 7.
To the class of 2021: You’ve worked hard. You’ve earned this moment in the spotlight. You are “class unique,” graduating in the midst of a global pandemic! Congratulations!
It’s been observed that the eleven disciples who were left to carry on following Jesus’ crucifixion aren’t given nearly enough credit for all they must have faced in that time of crisis. Even after they knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, they still grappled with what to do next now that the comfort zone they’d so enjoyed for three-plus years was suddenly pulled out from under them. Their sense of community and identity were stripped away; their feeling of vulnerability was at an all-time high.
Seeing it from this perspective, we’re better able to sympathize with their plight and identify with Peter, the self-appointed spokesperson for the group, who promptly suggested that they face reality and return to their old fishing trade. But that first night, they caught nothing. So early the next morning when a Stranger suggested that they cast their net on the other side of the boat, they obliged — and caught so many fish that they struggled to drag the nets back to shore. A flashback to an identical scene three years earlier (Luke 5:6-11) prompted John to recognize the Stranger and tell Peter, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7).
What Jesus does next is touching, to say the least. He cooks and serves breakfast to the motley crew! A fish ‘n’ chips, you think? Then, as if the others were no longer around, Jesus turns the spotlight on one disciple. The one who, when Jesus asked, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” came up with the right answer: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13, 16, KJV). The one who, when many of Jesus’ followers walked away, declared, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The disciple who, when Jesus warned of His impending crucifixion, boldly asserted that, unlike his fellow disciples, he would love and defend Jesus even to the point of death (Mark 8:31-33).
To this disciple, named Peter, Jesus turns and asks, “Do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15). Some read “more than these” as a reference to the fresh catch; some believe Jesus is referring to the other disciples. Either way, the point is the same. And when asked a third time, it elicits this visceral response from Peter: “Lord, you know all things” (v. 17). That is to say,”Jesus, You know full well the audacious claims and commitments I’ve made and how I blew them, every one. You know how fragile my faith is, how my convictions are often eclipsed by my contradictions. So, Lord, what do You want me to say now?”
Here’s why this story is so heartwarming. To a disciple struggling with shame over the brokenness of his life, Jesus comes and lovingly says, “Feed My sheep.” Artios graduates who are pursuing pastoral ministry should give close attention to the shepherding imagery Jesus uses. There has never been a time in modern history when shepherding God’s flock has been more important.
To a world in constant crisis, now compounded by a global pandemic, you are called to love, guide, and protect God’s people. You have the assurance that no matter what, even if you falter and fail, Jesus will never give up on you! And should times get so tough that you feel like quitting, Jesus will come looking for you, give you individual attention, and may even cook you breakfast!
John doesn’t tell us this, but at some point during that exchange Jesus may have challenged Peter along these lines: “What are you doing here? What’s this thing about going fishing? Did you think My death would bring an end to the kingdom I came to die for? Peter, don’t you get it?”
By God’s grace, Peter eventually does. He discovers that the call to follow Jesus involves both suffering and glory in an unstoppable kingdom of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Our only appropriate response is humility and service, traits that mark the remainder of Peter’s life and ministry.
Humility is the outworking of love. Without it, ministry becomes all about us, which betrays Him who said, “I am among you as one who serves” and “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Luke 22:27; Matthew 20:28).
Humility is also the way of the cross, the path on which this fragile disciple matured into a solid rock — so much so that when faced with a second chance to put his life on the line for Jesus, to match words with actions, Peter did so not only willingly, but with much humility. He asked, as tradition says, to be crucified upside down.
“As leaders, we teach what we know, but we reproduce what we are,” says John Maxwell. So the most important thing about us is what we are becoming each day in our walk with Jesus. Therefore, let’s truly “be becoming” Jesus’ disciples, like Peter: called, broken, restored, rock solid, feeding His sheep — all for love’s sake. That’s the aim of our Christian calling, the goal of spiritual leadership, the passion of Artios College, and the charge to the Class of 2021.
One poet captures it well:
I saw a human life ablaze with God,
I felt a power divine,
As through an empty vessel of frail clay
I saw God’s glory shine.
Then woke I from a dream and cried aloud,
“My Father, give to me
The blessings of a life consumed by God
That I may live for Thee.”