The Gentle Art of Leading (John 21)

Have you ever held people’s lives in your hands?

In your work or personal life have you had the responsibility to care for someone’s physical, spiritual, financial, or emotional health? To feel the weight of this responsibility is humbling, isn’t it? It forces us to take our job more seriously, for if we make a mistake, someone might get hurt!

I’ll share with you a story from 17 years ago, during my initial training in the Navy, when I was put in a position of leadership – the full weight of responsibility was put on me and things did not go as planned.

Our class was taken out into the “bush” it was an exercise called ‘Leadership Challenge’ – we took turns leading a company of men and women in scenarios we might encounter in our future military career. My first challenge was to lead my group of 10 people in building a small playground in a ‘third world country’. This was an easy task, it felt like child’s play really and I was quite dissatisfied with the lack of challenge. I thought to myself ‘as if I will ever build playgrounds in the Navy!’

Boldly, I approached my Directing Officer to ask for a more difficult challenge. You see I was the senior cadet at the Academy and in my pride I felt that I was selling myself short by not taking on something more challenging to demonstrate my leadership skills. He agreed, and I was put in charge of a very large company of men and women (perhaps about 50 people) to lead an exercise known as ‘downed pilot’.

Situation: A plane has crashed and the pilot’s parachute landed in a tree and he is hanging upside-down unconscious. Mission: It’s a search and rescue mission. I was given verbal instructions, I had a map of the area – which I gave to my second in charge – and I was introduced to the witness who saw the plane come down and had a first aid kit.

Execution: Immediately I ordered a small search party to go out and find the pilot, another group were the security detail to wait along the road in case of ‘enemy attack’ and a third group were to remain close by to assist with first aid or evacuating the wounded pilot. After quite some time standing in the same spot, looking vaguely at the map, staring blankly at the ‘witness’ and wondering what to do, my search party came back and reported that could not find the downed pilot. I did not think to ask the witness for directions. I just sent them out! This pilot’s life was hanging in the balance.. He was left ‘hanging’ for a long time! If it were a real scenario, perhaps he would have died.

Fortunately, during my Navy career I never had to rescue a downed pilot.. but three years after this leadership challenge, on a visit to Vanuatu, we were required to build two large playgrounds for AUSAID and they put me in charge. We thought we had done a great job on the day. Not long after we had poured the concrete, the local children broke through the safety barriers and launched themselves onto the equipment; we stood there watching the setting cement slopping around on the ground. A few years later the playgrounds had to be rebuilt by another visiting ships’ company. Despite all the effort we put in, our work was not built to last.

In John 21, the apostle Peter is being given a significant Leadership Challenge. This is also is a search and rescue mission. Peter receives his directions from Jesus Christ the Son of God – and yes, people’s lives and salvation are hanging in the balance.

At the last supper and at the resurrection, the disciples were told to return to Galilee, and Jesus would see them there. As professional fishermen, it is natural they would occupy themselves fishing while they waited for him.[1] They went back to their day job.

In the Gospel story so far, Jesus, the ultimate leader of God’s people in humility, died on the cross for his people, He is then raised from the dead! The disciples have already seen his risen body, Thomas placed his fingers in Jesus wounds to confirm that it was true.

The main character here, Peter, is a very enthusiastic disciple of Jesus. Let’s have a look at what we know of Peter’s life: Peter – This is your Life!

Peter was known as Simon Peter, first called to follow Jesus when he was the owner of a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. We can read of the first time Peter meets Jesus in Luke 5:1-11: At Peter’s first calling on the sea of Galilee – he had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus told them to cast their nets deeper. When they did, the nets were so full they began to tear! Peter’s response to this miracle – he humbly repents of his sin.

“When Simon Peter realised what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me – I’m too much of a sinner to be around you,’ for he was awestruck by the size of his catch.”

…v.10 Jesus replied to Simon (Peter) “ Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!”  This was Peter’s first calling to become a disciple of Jesus.

Peter is the first disciple to proclaim that Jesus is indeed the Messiah (in Luke 9:18-20), Jesus also heals Peter’s mother-in-law from sickness in Luke 4.

Peter follows Jesus everywhere and witnesses amazing miracles, including the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36 – where he saw Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus on a mountain. While they were speaking, this event was so exciting, Peter fell asleep, when he woke he had a great idea to build three shrines for each of the prophets..

“a cloud came over them, and terror gripped them as it covered them. Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.”

Peter walks on water to meet Jesus during a terrible storm in Matthew 14:29.

When Peter became terrified and sank, Jesus held out his hand and said “You don’t have much faith, Why did you doubt me?”

At the Last Supper Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows the next morning. And, to his shame, that is exactly what he does.

So if we could rate Peter’s experiences while following Jesus on a scale of one to ten – with 10 being someone who is enjoying eternal life with God, zero is  someone who does not believe God exists, perhaps 2 is someone who has seen the movie the Passion, 5 could be your everyday faithful Christian, 7 – someone who has witnessed a miracle or healing in their life.. Peter would be about a 9.

Where are we in our experience of God? Do we need to have seen all that Peter has seen to have faith in Jesus Christ? John’s reading gives us good news no matter where you are on the scale of experience we can have a personal relationship with Jesus the risen Christ. This Simon Peter who saw the most amazing miracles and healing and was a close friend of Jesus in the flesh… he denied Christ three times!

Peter is a sinner, just like us. The good news is that no matter how far we have walked away from God, all we have to do is turn around. To do an about-turn, to repent of our sin and turn back to God.

This is what Peter does. After Peter has witnessed Jesus death and resurrection he goes back to Galilee to go fishing with the other disciples. They are simply following Jesus’ directions, they have not been given their orders, neither have they been given the Holy Spirit as a guide to help them carry out his mission.

Jesus comes out to Peter at the lake, it is the third time Jesus appears to the disciples, he calls out to them.. his men pull in 153 fish. When Peter hears it was Jesus, what does he do? He doesn’t ask Jesus whether he can walk on water, he hitches up his clothes and swims ashore! Peter is so excited to see Jesus, he leaves his boat and his men behind to bring in the large catch. They eat breakfast together; Jesus already has some fish and bread cooked for them on the fire as they haul their miraculous catch ashore. Some of their own fish is added to the feast. The disciples are experiencing deja-vu, they’ve seen all this before; they know this is the risen Jesus.

Jesus has power over laws of nature, he provides all their needs and feeds and takes care of his people. Jesus then recommissions Peter to do the same.

Jesus gives Peter a short job interview that seems more like an interrogation:

Three times Jesus asks him (just as three times Peter had denied him earlier)

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jesus asks Peter whether his love and loyalty to Jesus is greater than the other disciples.)

“Yes Lord, Peter replied, you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs”

His commission to Peter was to feed the lambs – provide spiritual nourishment for new believers.[2]

Verse 16: Jesus repeats the question. “do you love me?”

Peter says ‘Yes, Lord you know I love you.”

“Then, take care of my sheep”, Jesus said.

Jesus’ commission to Peter is to take care of (poimaine) his ‘sheep’ (probata) this implies pastoral care of believers generally[3]

Verse 17.. Jesus asks Peter again ‘do you love me?”

Peter was grieved that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you” Jesus said “Then feed my sheep.” “Follow me”

The words used here for ‘love’ – agapaō and phileō are used synonymously[4] here in the fourth gospel to represent Peter’s brotherly love for Jesus, it also used to explain the Father’s sacrificial love for the disciples. This sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrates on the cross, he asks of Peter when he calls him to lead God’s people..

Jesus is the true shepherd, the most humble servant leader of God’s people, who gave up his life so that we might be saved from sin and death. Jesus the true shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb. He humbles himself to death on a cross, and God raises him up. Jesus calls his people back, Peter, like a lost sheep, is brought back into the fold after denying Jesus publicly three times when Jesus was being sent to his gruesome death. If your friend denied you in your time of need, it would be very difficult to forgive. Yet Jesus asks Peter to follow Him and become a leader or shepherd of God’s people. God’s grace and mercy is sufficient for Peter. God’s forgiveness is sufficient for us too. Jesus sacrifice bridges the gap between our human frailty, our disbelief, our doubt and denial (here at point zero) – and gives us as a free gift we have not earned nor deserve – eternal life with God (to 10/10)

Two points to this story: God’s provision (verses 1-14)/ Jesus’ mission (verses 15-25)

God’s provision:

God gives ABUNDANTLY to provide for our physical needs.. It is once the disciples see the miracle catch of fish and the sharing of food and bread that they know in their hearts that this man at the lake is the risen Jesus. Jesus feeds his lambs and takes care of his sheep. Jesus says, in John 12:8 ‘the poor you will always have among you, but I will not always be among you.’ Much more than just providing our basic needs,

God gives abundantly to provide for our spiritual needs. God’s grace is sufficient for Peter, and for us. Wherever we lack ability or knowledge or strength, (or leadership skills), God is able to overcome our weaknesses. God’s grace is so abundant that those who have experienced this free gift of eternal life can’t help but share it with others. Jesus is the humble servant leader, calling us back to him, no matter how far we have wandered away..

Jesus’ mission:

Peter’s challenge was to become a leader on this search and rescue mission to save thousands of people from sin and death, by telling everyone what he had seen and heard, by the power of the Holy Spirit – which was soon to receive.

Looking forward:

In Acts 1, Peter is given the power of the Holy Spirit; he then becomes the spokesperson for the first apostles. He is given courage and boldness to proclaim Jesus’ name to the highest echelons in society, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law in the temples and in the streets. Peter quotes scripture and is persuasive in his arguments, performs healings, he preaches and interprets God’s word in the temple. Peter’s words are heard by thousands of men and women who turn their lives to God and decide to follow Jesus. The first Christian Church is led by the Holy Spirit through Peter and the apostles.

 Is God asking us to give up our day job to go on mission?

Often our work can feel futile, like the playgrounds we built for AUSAID, we put in all our effort and work diligently together, using valuable resources, only for it to be broken and torn down. Our efforts on earth are like a child’s playground compared to what God is doing to build His Kingdom for eternity. God is the master builder and has the map and plan for our salvation. We obey His commands and have the privilege to see a glimpse of God’s Kingdom during our short time on earth. But at least we know that these works have eternal value and cannot be torn down.

What can we possibly learn from the first disciples? We have not seen or experienced Jesus’ physical presence in our lives. Yet, we have the same Spirit available to us as a Holy helper – to interpret God’s commands in His word, to give us faith, courage, and boldness in the face of trials and temptation.

God’s Commandment – to receive his grace and forgiveness, to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul (we look upward); we find our identity in the risen Christ (we look inward); so that God’s Great Commission might be fulfilled, to make disciples of all nations (we look outward).

God invites all of us – to rely on His abundant provision, so that we will receive our fill, bless others in our company and provide for people in need. To follow Jesus means to love God and love one another– if we see a brother or sister in need – ‘Don’t leave them hanging!’

This is a Search and rescue mission to those who are lost and in need of help and salvation.God gives us everything we need to love and serve Him and share the Good News with others.

Lord we ask for your provision that the Holy Spirit will dwell among us, to save us from sin and death; we ask for your provision in healing sickness, disease or depression.  As we gather here together as your people, call us out to fulfil your Great Commission – to go and make disciples of all nations – give us the help we need to do this together. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


[1] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 383). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 385). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 386). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 386). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.