15 So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus *said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He *said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He *said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
16 He *said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He *said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He *said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
17 He *said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus *said to him, “Tend My sheep.
(John 21:15-17, NASB).
Grace Equals License?
One of the criticisms that is often raised concerning the message of grace is that it goes too far, that it gives license to sin. Grace is theoretically wonderful, but too much grace out of balance means “fire insurance” or “sloppy agape”. Even back in the earliest days of the church Paul dealt with this problem:
8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.
(Romans 3:8, NASB).
Strong words! This report was raised because of Paul’s strong stance on grace and on the incredible power of the gospel to forgive and save. So it continues to this day. Those who preach and teach the persistent one-way love of God for sinners are slandered as teaching the liberty to do evil, because their detractors really do not quite believe in the power of Christ’s blood. They believe that it is deeds, not creeds, which qualify a man for service. Of course, since they thus self-justify and are sinners, it is literally true that their condemnation is just.
Jesus’ Crazy Leadership Training
In this passage in John, we see a very different thing, a very beautiful and liberating and “one-way love” kind of thing. Peter has denied Christ three times. He denied Him in His darkest hour. He had promised that he would die with Him, but instead he actively denied Him. Peter had failed Jesus, and He felt the weight of it.
So after Jesus has raised from the dead, He asks Him three times, “do you love Me?” He presses this question 3 times, and most people think it is because it is directly related to Peter’s 3 denials. Whatever the reason, Jesus presses the question three times, until Peter is grieved. Notice Jesus’ response: “Tend My lambs.” “Shepherd My sheep.” “Tend My sheep.” Because of His persistent and perfect love, despite Peter’s failure, Jesus doesn’t just “forgive” while denying him authority on account of his weakness. He sets Peter on a mission! He passes the torch to him! He entrusts him with His most important and sacred duty! He does this just as Peter has been pressed to realize how deeply unqualified he truly is.
It was at Peter’s lowest point, at the height of his recognition that he was at his lowest point, that Jesus hands him the torch.
The legalist looks for qualifying standards of success before entrusting someone with important functions. The legalist looks to strip away responsibility, to remove authority, to take away mission. The qualifying standards are the rules by which the threat of removal from leadership remain strong. The legalist would say, you abandoned me in my darkest hour, so how could I entrust this important task to you? When the going gets tough, you crater, so how could I expect you to be any kind of effective leader? Contrary to the normal conception, if there has ever been a failure, the legalists removes the possibility of obedience. Strong standards do not create obedient servant leaders; they destroy them.
Grace does the opposite. Despite failure, as part of the general world of acceptance and genuine forgiveness, persistent love grants mission. Grace imparts authority, and passes the torch as a show of trust and healing. Grace and perfect persistent love go past disqualifications and grant the authority and mandate to obey. The most disheartening thing in an organization is to be cut out of the authority structure, to be removed from important projects, and to be given pointless grunt tasks simply to prove oneself. Grace has the effect of giving real and meaningful authority to do true work. This is the craving of the soul of the redeemed: “Here am I! Send me!” The mandate to serve and obey is not given as an unwanted obligation, but as a powerful affirmation and an astonishing gift. Far from pressing us down into some dry obedience we don’t want, it is a liberation into a world of affirmation and grace.
So, Jesus chooses the deniers, the abandoners, the unfaithful, the cowardly and self-serving, as leaders. He chooses the weak, the foolish, the untrained, the backward. He chooses the fisherman, the tax-gatherer, the Nazerene, not the educated sophisticated urbane leader from Jerusalem. He is looking for the failed man to empower, the humbled man to entrust His mission to. He is not looking for the successful man, but the broken failure. What a savior!