17 May 2013

How do you love the Shepherd?

7th Week of Easter (F) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic Church, NOLA 

I always find this reading from John a little embarrassing to read aloud. It's like watching one of the detectives on Law & Order gently lead an otherwise sympathetic criminal to confess his crimes. I don't mean to say that Peter is confessing a crime; it's just that he denied Christ at a crucial moment and now Jesus is giving him a chance to make things right. The whole scene is at once intensely private and hard not to watch. Not only is our Lord gently teaching Peter the meaning of Christian leadership, he is also exercising Peter's heart so that he will be strong enough to endure what's coming. That we read this scene out loud at Mass tells us something about our witness to Christ and what he expects of us as his followers. Imagine you're sitting there with Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” While Peter thinks about his answer, Jesus glances up at you with the same question in his eyes. He's wondering, do you love him? And if you do, how do you love him? As a legendary religious figure? An ancient super-hero? A much beloved uncle or favorite teacher? How we love one another is as important as whether or not we love we love one another. 

It should go without saying that Jesus already knows the answer to his questions. Being the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, etc. makes it hard to imagine that he doesn't. Asking Peter these very intimate questions isn't about getting til now unknown information. Peter needs to hear himself saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Peter needs to know that he loves the Lord and that he loves him as his Lord. Not as a friend or a teacher or a favorite uncle. But as the only one who owns his allegiance, the only one who possesses his heart and mind. Peter needs to know all this—and profess all this—b/c Jesus has handed him the keys to the kingdom; that is, Jesus has made Peter his steward on earth, given him the apostolic authority to shepherd God's family on pilgrimage. Tend my sheep; feed my sheep. Take care of these little ones given to me by my Father. And how should the sheep love the shepherd? Not as a friend or a teacher or a favorite uncle. But as one given the authority to keep them safe from the ravening wolves. Just as Peter loves Christ, so the sheep must love Peter. Otherwise, any one of us could find himself alone among those who would just as well see see us lost or even dead. 

So, what does it mean for us to love Peter as Peter loved Christ? Obviously, we're not to love Peter as our lord and savior. Peter loved Christ with a sacrificial love (agape). With agape, we are called upon to love Peter as our shepherd, our protector. Practically speaking, this means that we look to Peter's successor, our Holy Father, Francis, to guide us, to show us the way through this world to Christ. We look to our bishops and their pastoral assistants. And, most immediately, we look to one another. When Jesus prompts Peter to profess his love, Jesus adds, “Tend my sheep. . .feed my sheep.” As Christ's steward, our Holy Father does exactly that when he teaches the apostolic faith and leads the Church in truth. Each one of us tends and feeds the flock when we strengthen one another in truth; build up the body with goodness; and encourage one another in holiness. But we can only tend and feed the flock if we follow the Good Shepherd and listen to his appointed stewards. If you love Christ as your lord and savior, love his flock. Tend and feed one another. We will need strong hearts and minds to endure what the world has in store for us.
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1 comment:

  1. This almost made me cry! ;-) When you start with a softer/personal intro (can't think of any other way to describe it), it tends to lead me into a deeper reading or listening; it puts me into the story. I liked the way you handled this well-known story, and the ending was much appreciated. I also liked how the energy of the writing started slowly and then built just perfectly all the way to the end.

    Thank you!