The first verse of today’s text links this section with the previous one (21:4-14) through the words, “When they had finished breakfast”. It is a continuation of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples at Lake Tiberius where, because they obey his instructions, they are able to haul in 153 fish.
The verses of today’s text narrate the conversation that Jesus has with Simon Peter. Some are of the opinion that the reason why Jesus asks Peter three questions is because Peter denied him three times. While this may be so, it is also important to realize that the questions are all different. The first question which Jesus asks is inclusive. It includes the other disciples, the boat, the nets, and the fish. Jesus is asking Peter whether Peter loves him more than he loves the other disciples and/or his livelihood. The second question is direct and involves only Jesus and Peter. Everything else recedes into the background. The spotlight shifts only to the two. Does Peter love Jesus? Though the third question seems similar to the second, it is really different because in it, Jesus asks Peter about friendship. It reads: “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?” This is a crucial change from the earlier question because, in 15:13, Jesus had explained the true meaning of friendship when he said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” By affirming that Peter is, indeed, a friend of Jesus, he is affirming his willingness to die for Jesus.
This interpretation is confirmed by the fact that as soon as Peter affirms his friendship, Jesus invites him to lay down his life. This invitation begins with the double Amen in 21:18, and so marks the introduction of a solemn pronouncement. The saying of Jesus that follows explains how, when Peter was young, he fastened his own belt and went wherever he wished to go. This is an indication of the freedom that Peter experienced earlier. However, soon he will have to stretch out his hands and someone else will fasten his belt for him, and take him where he does not wish to go. This is seen as a specific reference to Peter’s death by crucifixion, and is confirmed by the explanation that John gives in parenthesis in 21:19: “(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)”
The text ends with Jesus inviting Peter to follow him. Though this command of Jesus may be seen as a general invitation to discipleship, here it means a specific command to martyrdom and even death.
It is significant that the call to martyrdom to Peter is given only after his threefold confession of his love of Jesus, and he is given charge of the sheep only after he has confessed this love. It is thus clear that there is no coercion on the part of Jesus, but a call that Peter has accepted freely. Peter knows, even as he answers, that trials and difficulties are part and parcel of his commitment. He is aware that following Jesus is not going to be easy and that he will be called to make great sacrifices. He is ready, willing, and able.
The call to follow Jesus today is a call that will continue to be heard as long as there are people who dare to open their hearts to this call. While it will not always be a call to martyrdom by death, like it was in the case of Peter, it will always be a call to be a martyr or witness. This is because the voice of Jesus can only be heard today in his disciples and he can be seen and experienced only when those who profess to follow him reach out in love.