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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.
(Church in Wales Lectionary, New Revised Standard Version)
Have you ever had to ask someone "Do you love me?" I very much doubt if most of us have. It smacks of desperation, after all they might actually say "No, I don't love you!" We tend to offer a "Love you!" to others, particularly family members. But as for asking if they love us, well we take their loving actions towards us as evidence that they do care for us.
So is there another reason for Jesus asking Peter three times 'Do you love me?' It's interesting to note that he uses his full name, Simon Peter, and the formal reference to his parent, 'Simon son of John'. Before he denied Jesus three times in the High Priest's courtyard, Peter had proclaimed that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples (Matthew 26.33). Now, Jesus challenges him three times to restore him to his place as the leader of the disciples. He doesn't ask Peter if he's sorry, instead he challenges him to 'tend His flock', that is God's people, and to 'nurture His lambs', that is those who are new Christians. He is not just to spiritually feed them, but to take care of them, guide them, govern them, and defend them. He calls Peter to be the shepherd of His people.
This call is one given to all priests and ministers today, and the task is so huge that it can only be achieved with the help of God. But it also comes to each of us. We are to support and pray for our clergy, and especially to pray for new vocations to ministry to be discerned.
Lord Jesus Christ,
we pray today for our clergy and pastors -
those who nurture and teach us,
that they may show wisdom
and discernment in all their duties.
We pray for the Church worldwide
that it may fulfill its calling,
and that new vocations will be discerned
to continue the work which you
gave first to Your disciple, Peter.
You might like to look up this short video of the incident with Jesus and Peter. It uses the King James words, however, it emphasises the difference between the three questions beautifully - look at the emphasis as spoken by the actor playing Jesus: