3rd Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Dominic Priory, NOLA
Judas sells Christ to his enemies for thirty pieces of silver. Peter, the Rock, denies belonging to Christ three times that same night. In the ensuing chaos after Christ dies on the Cross, Judas commits suicide. Tellingly, he hangs himself on a tree. The disciples flee to the Upper Room in despair. Everything they'd hoped for, planned for, dreamt about is in ruins and nothing makes sense. Then, Jesus starts appearing to them in the flesh, his resurrected flesh. He proves who he is with his wounds. He eats with them. He teaches them. Even Doubting Thomas is convinced! Now, they are together in Galilee where Jesus promised to meet them. Peter decides to go fishing, but the fish are too busy to be caught. Jesus appears to them with some helpful advice. And they land a net full of fish. Finally! All the chaos, despair, grief, and fear begin to fade and a mission starts to take shape. With one question, Jesus sets this band of sorry students on their apostolic path, “Peter,” he asks, “do you love me more than these?” Peter, you denied me in the Garden as I said you would. But now, do you love me? This is also Christ's daily, hourly question to you and to me.
Why does Jesus need to hear the answer to this question? Surely, he knows Peter's heart. Surely, he knows that Peter denied him in the Garden out of panic and fear. Of course, Jesus knows this. But does Peter? Does Peter know why he denied Christ? It would appear that he doesn't. Just look at his luck with the fish. Twice we read that Peter goes fishing and catches nothing; that is, not until Christ appears and re-teaches him how to fish. Peter fails to provide...twice. Peter fails to see the Lord for who he is...twice. And twice Peter is confused by the Lord's instructions, nearly drowning himself one time in a panic. This time he is distressed b/c the Lord keeps asking him, “Peter, do you love me?” He answers, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Three times he hears the question and three times he answers yes. And each time he answers, Jesus, orders him to feed his sheep. To feed the Lord's sheep, Peter must love the Lord. Fear, panic, despair, crippling doubt, anxiety, distress...none of these put fish in the boat. None of these put sustenance on the table. Peter the Rock, the foundation of the Church, must himself be grounded on the bedrock of loving Christ. Love me first, Jesus says, then feed my sheep.
When Jesus is finished teaching Peter that loving him is the bedrock of feeding his sheep, he turns to you and me and asks, “Do you love me?” We might wonder why Jesus needs us to love him. He sounds like a too-needy friend who pesters us for constant attention. Or maybe a spouse who doesn't trust the weekly “I love you” and needs more. Of course, Jesus isn't us this question for his benefit. He knows the answer already. The question is for our benefit. Hearing the question and answering it requires us to pause and survey our thoughts, words, and deeds. We have to take stock, a quick inventory of how we actually feel about the Lord. Do I love him? Or do I love the idea of him? Do I love my image of him? Maybe I love my version of him, my personalized concept of who and what he is to me. Maybe I love the Good Shepherd and the Teacher but not the angry guy flipping tables in the temple yard, the one talking about unrepentant sinner going to hell. Maybe I love the Just Judge who rigorously enforces the moral standards I approve of but not the one who forgives with the Father's mercy. You'll notice that Jesus doesn't ask Peter, “Do you love your version of me?” You'll notice that he doesn't ask you or me if we love what we like about him and ignore the rest.
The Lord asks, “Do you love me?” Does all of you love all of me? Do you love the Good Shepherd, the Just Judge, the one who feeds the five thousand; who whipped the money changers; who shamed the ones who accused the adulterous woman; who threatens divine torture for those who refuse to forgive; who called the little child to him and taught us that we must love him and hate mother, father, son, and daughter? Do you love Him? Jesus the Social Worker and Jesus the Great High Priest? Jesus the 1st century rabbi and Jesus the Incarnate Son of God? Peter fails as a fisherman b/c he loved his fear, his panic, and his doubt more than he loved his Savior. When Peter obeys the Lord, his net is full and so is his love. And out of this love, Peter will feed the Lord's sheep. When the Lord's sheep are fed in love, they mature in love and love in turn. The net gets bigger. The catch grows. More and more are fed. More and more come to love the Lord. And we welcome more and more fishermen. Jesus looks down from heaven, smiling, and says, “I think we're gonna need a bigger boat!”