3rd Sunday of Easter 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary
Our Lord asks Peter a question—The Question, actually—the question that makes Peter squirm like a worm on a hot rock: “Simon [Peter], son of John, do you love me more than these?”* We can't help but wonder what went through Peter's head at hearing this question. He must've flashed back to the time Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And he answered, “You are the Son of the living God.” He must've remembered rebuking Jesus when the Lord revealed that he would die in Jerusalem, and Jesus yelling at him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He must've remembered Jesus' prophecy that he would deny knowing him three times in the Garden. That memory must've made him blush in shame. His betrayal. Fleeing arrest. Outright lying. Now, the Risen Lord sits with him on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and asks, “Simon [Peter], do you love me more than these?” Of course, Peter says that he loves the Lord. Could he say anything else? Truly, sitting there in the presence of the Risen Lord, could he confess to any other passion but the love btw friends, friends who willingly die for one another? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
This first answer to the Jesus' question tells us that Peter is confused. “You know that I love you,” so why are you asking me if I love you? All those memories of rebuking Jesus, betraying him, denying him; all those chances to live out the radical love btw friends willing to die for one another; all those flashes of revelation into his teacher's true nature and ministry, the entirety of his short but intense life with this extraordinary man of God—they all collapse into this single, profoundly intimate meeting btw a sinner and his Savior: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” No, Peter isn't confused at all. He's feeling awkward, spiritually clumsy. He wants this moment to end. What can I say to get this over with? Or maybe he's hurt that his teacher thinks he might not love him. He has every reason to doubt that he does. Or maybe Peter is offended by the question, “You know that I love you, Lord,” why do you ask? Why does Jesus interrogate Peter this way? Not once or twice but three times he asks. And three times Peter gives the same answer. By the third time, John tells us, Peter is “distressed.” He's worried. Does the Lord really think that I don't love him? Peter is “grieved” by the possibility, so he answers, a little desperately, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
This seaside scene btw Jesus and Peter brings to harvest a number of seeds planted by Christ in the hearts and minds of his disciples. Though Peter is the focus of this interrogation, the other disciples bear their own spiritual wounds and fruits as a result of Christ's teaching. Since he first said, “Follow me” to these fishermen, Jesus has taught them in word and deed to forgive one another, to be at peace with one another, and above all, to love one another. He's taught them to surrender themselves to God by taking up their crosses and bearing up under whatever burdens must be carried. He's taught them to remember him in the breaking of the bread, in daily prayer, in fasting and in taking care of the least among them. He's taught them that being first in God's kingdom means being last in the Enemy's; and that if they love him, if they are truly willing to die for love of him, they will feed those who follow him. Feed my sheep. Feed them with the bread of life. Feed them with the Word. Satisfy their hunger for heaven, their thirst for the truth. This seaside scene btw Peter and Jesus is not only Peter's reconciliation with his Lord, it is also his final exam, his last test as the Lord's favored student.
As students of Christ, how would you and I do on this final exam? If the Risen Lord were to appear to us and ask, “Do you love me?” how would we react? Would we be confused by the question? Hurt? Offended? Embarrassed? Distressed? Or would we jump at the chance to tell the Lord that we do love him? Would there be that split second btw the question and our answer when we remembered that time when we had the chance to bear witness to God's mercy and didn't? That chance to forgive we let slip away. Would we recall all the times we've denied knowing Christ by failing to love as we should? Those times when we let our pride stand in the way of our humility? Would our failures to give God thanks for our blessings cause us to stutter an answer? Would we blush at our lack of growth in holiness? Our spiritual clumsiness when disaster strikes? Yes, probably; yes, to all of these. And then we'd remember what Christ taught from his cross: all is forgiven; every sin, every flaw and fault, every failure to love is washed away. And we'd say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And he'd say to us, “Feed my sheep.”
When Peter and the other Apostles are arrested by the Sanhedrin, did they remember this profoundly intimate meeting with the Risen Lord? They must've. The high priest accuses them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name? Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. . .” Before he responds to the accusation, Peter must've heard Jesus saying, “Feed my sheep.” So, he says to the priests, “We must obey God rather than men. . .” Rather than obey men, we must feed the Lord's sheep. Rather than bowing to your worldly power, we must bow before the glory of God. Rather than surrender ourselves to this world's hatred, we must teach others to surrender themselves to God's love. Peter must've smiled a little, recalling the grilling Jesus gave him by the Sea of Tiberias. Three times he had to confess his love for Christ. Three times Christ ordered him to feed his sheep. And now, here he is, standing before the powers of men, and he understands why Christ put him to the question. Jesus knew that he, Peter, could not feed his sheep if he himself would not be fed. The Lord absolved Peter of his sins, gave him a word of mercy so that when the time came to defy the world, he can so ready to die. I imagine Peter in front of the Sanhedrin, whispering, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
You know already, brothers and sisters, that we must obey God rather than men. We know this, but can we do it. More often than not, there is no conflict btw what we must do to satisfy the world and what we must do to satisfy God. But when a conflict arises, do we think immediately of Peter before the Sanhedrin? Do we think of him at the seashore with Jesus? Or do we think instead of all our failures and flaws, all of our sins and then excuse ourselves again from the obligation to put Christ first in our lives? Our failures and flaws cannot serves as excuses. After the death and resurrection of Christ, our sins are forgiven. We can no long demur in our duties to God b/c we are unworthy, or b/c we imagine ourselves to be too irresponsible to love properly. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” If your answer is, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” then hear him say to you, “Feed my sheep.”
* If you're interested in my take on why Jesus uses the phrase "more than these," check out this daily homily from 2008.
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