Love. We sing about it, talk about it, aspire to it, even are blessed enough to experience it. People do both intensely beautiful and amazingly wicked things for love. It can be the most selfless and also the most selfish of feelings.
I remember one of my first romances; I had to be all of fifteen or sixteen. And very, very insecure. After our first awkward adolescent declaration of love, I believed if he were not actively continuing to declare it, his love for me had somehow disappeared. So every time we saw each other, I asked him, “Do you love me? Do you really love me?”
My teenaged Romeo—quite rightly—finally had enough and decided that he didn’t love me after all. I was devastated, of course, and wrote a lot of bad self-pitying poetry in response, as one does. It was a good lesson in trust, and I don’t think I made that particular mistake in subsequent relationships (though of course, I made plenty of others!).
I don’t remember the first time I read or heard today’s Gospel passage, but I do remember my response to it: surprise. How could Jesus, who knows everything, who sees into the very hearts of those around him, how could he keep asking the same question I’d once repetitively asked with such teenage angst? Even Peter is astonished by the repetition: you know everything there is to know, you’ve got to know I love you!
As happens with many scripture passages, there’s a subtlety here that isn’t immediately apparent. Jesus isn’t asking Peter how much Peter loves him; Jesus is asking about how Peter loves him. It’s not a question meant to quantify, but rather to qualify.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus asking Peter here? Peter, a little taken aback, says, yes, of course you know I do. Jesus responds by saying, in essence, “Okay, then, feed my lambs.” Fair enough.
But then Jesus presses the point. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter is paying closer attention now; perhaps he wants to make sure he hears Jesus correctly. “You know I do,” he says. This time, Jesus says, “Then tend my sheep.”
The question has not changed, but its consequence has. If you answer yes the first time, that’s all well and good, and I expect you to continue as we’ve been doing together, feeding those who hunger for the Word of God — giving my children sustenance. But the second question’s consequence is more profound: tend my sheep.
There’s a big difference between feeding and tending, just as there’s a difference between lambs and sheep. I happen to be rather fond of sheep, and I enjoy going to county fairs and petting them; sometimes, I’ve been allowed to give a bottle of milk to a lamb. It’s a lovely experience, and then it’s over. I go back to my life, and someone else does the hard part, keeping the flock safe, shearing the wool, staying up when one is sick. I “love” sheep, but my love doesn’t extend to caring for them. It’s a love without commitment.
Feeding lambs is one thing, but caring for the whole lifetime of the sheep requires more, a deeper commitment, a real love that transcends inconvenience and hardship. Tend my sheep, Jesus said. Take care of one another; accompany your sisters and brothers on the journey to healing. Commit to them, not just for the moments you’re together, but forever.
And then, unbelievably, Jesus asks Peter yet a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
This time Peter gets exasperated. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” to which Jesus reiterates that Peter is to feed his sheep. He adds something else, a foreshadowing of the future, and finally ends his questioning with the most significant consequence of all: “Follow me.”
The commitment of a shepherd to his flock is total; it has to be. Their lives depend on it. There can’t be favorites: the shepherd is there for every one of those sheep. And Jesus is asking us to care about him and each other in precisely that way. That’s what love is — not a breathless self-serving declaration of a feeling, but a lifetime commitment.
To love me, says Jesus, is to follow me. To follow me is to care genuinely, effectively, and appropriately for others, and that includes standing up for those the world has forgotten, speaking out for those in misery and poverty. To love me is to follow me; this also means doing the unpopular and the misunderstood.
English, though well-intentioned, is a language without much subtlety. We use the word “love” for many different things: I love ice cream, I love my child, I love to read, I love God. The Greek of the New Testament wisely knows all love is not equal, and it uses these differences in language to make a point lost to us in English. The word for love Jesus uses is agapa: a verb meaning sacrificial, redemptive love, the highest form of love.
“Do you love me in this way, Peter?” And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I am your friend; I have such affection for you,” using the Greek verb philein. But this kind of love between friends or even family is not necessarily agape love. So Jesus asks again, “But do you love me? You’re not hearing me! What is the quality of your love, Peter?”
What is the quality of your love?
Jesus tells Peter the answer: if this is love, then there are consequences. You will go where you don’t want to go. You will do what you won’t want to do. If you love me, you will follow me, and the journey will not always be to your liking.
Loving Christ entails consequences. Loving him will take us on a journey that is long, and arduous, and often very scary indeed. Loving him means being with others on their journey, and looking out for them along the way and keeping them safe, as the shepherd keeps his sheep safe. Keeping them nourished and healthy, as the shepherd keeps his sheep nourished and healthy. That’s loving well. That’s what Jesus was trying to show Peter.
Do you love him?
Do you love him?
Do you love him?
When Jesus was alone in Gethsemane, he was saddened by the disciples falling asleep and leaving him to face the night alone. I used to read that and think, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep, I would have stayed with him. Then I got older and wiser and understood with some sadness that I, too, would have slept.
Peter slept. And now, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, Jesus is giving him a chance to redeem himself, by clarifying the kind of love Peter will need to sustain him into the future and to sustain the church for which he will become responsible. This is not a love for the faint of heart. This is a love that cares more for others than for self. This is a love that keeps all the sheep safe, no matter what the threat, even if it means dying to protect them.
Love changes everything. Can we love that way? That well?
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