“Do you really love me?”, Jesus said to Peter.
“Do you really love me?”, Jesus said again.
“Lord, you know I love you!” Peter said with joy.
“Then feed my lambs,” he said, “Peter, feed my sheep”.
That’s one of the first solos I ever sang in church, at about the age of 11 or 12 – and it’s stuck with me – perhaps because I really feel for Peter in today’s story. He’s had a pretty rough time over the last few weeks or months since Jesus was first arrested. He’s seen his friend and teacher taken prisoner; he’s found himself lacking the inner strength he thought he had to stand up for his Lord; he’s watched Jesus die a cruel and drawn-out death, and has experienced the despair and shock of tragic loss. He’s been on a roller-coaster of emotion, unable to believe that the women’s tale of resurrection was true, yet forced to believe it when Jesus appeared to the disciples gathered in an upper room. He’s had a heck of a time. So he’s done what many of us do when we are having trouble dealing with our emotions. He’s gone back to work: back to something familiar, that lets his body be active while giving his thoughts and emotions a rest. He’s out there fishing with people he knows are going through the same thing, and he finds comfort in their presence. Maybe he finds some peace out on the water, in the stillness of the night.
And then Jesus comes along and shakes things up again. Jesus comes along and turns the disciples’ fishing trip into a demonstration of the power he still holds, the love he still has for them, and a reminder of the task that awaits them. He reminds them that fishing for fish is no longer their primary calling: that there are, you might say, other fish to fry. Life is not about to stay calm and ordinary: not with the Risen Jesus appearing in their lives once more.
To give Peter credit, he’s not at all reluctant to greet his friend: he’s so befuddled and excited that he FIRST puts his clothes back on and THEN jumps in the water to splash toward Jesus. The other disciples are left to bring the boat with its amazing load of fish into land, where Jesus invites them for breakfast.
After they have shared a meal together, Jesus focuses his attention on Peter. They have some unfinished business. Peter has denied Jesus, forsaking his friend in his time of need. In order to heal the wound in Peter’s heart, he needs an encounter with the risen Jesus.
You can just picture it: this big, gruff, working man struggling with all the emotions he’s got churning inside. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” asks Jesus. You can imagine Peter thinking: I just jumped in the water with my clothes on to get to you; how can you ask me that? But he answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Whew, I said it! thinks Peter. And Jesus says to him : “Feed my lambs.” Ok, thinks Peter, I can do that.
But Jesus asks him again: Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter says again, probably with some sense of frustration, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” And Jesus responds again with a commandment to care for the flock.
But then he asks one more time: “Do you really? Do you love me?” And this poor fisherman aches with the pain of it. Maybe Jesus doesn’t trust him anymore. Maybe he doesn’t love him anymore! After all, Peter had denied Jesus three times. He wouldn’t blame the Master for condemning him. But mastering his emotions, Peter responds once more, “Lord, you know everything…you know that I love you!” And Jesus responds again, “Feed my sheep.”
It’s an interesting conversation: They could have spoken about many other things. They could have rehashed the betrayal and the hurt. They could have talked in detail about the consequences of Peter’s actions, but the most important question is brought to the surface. Do You Love Me?
It’s a good question to consider. After the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter has a more realistic experience of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It may have been easier in the past to say he was a disciple, when he believed that Jesus would be victorious and Peter would be able to be in charge. It might have looked and felt more appealing to be known as a follower of Jesus then, than it did after the crucifixion. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him from the context of his new experiences. He says, “Peter, knowing what you know now, Do You Love Me?”
This is a reality check. It is almost as if Jesus would say to those of us who have been living this Christian life for some time now, “Knowing what you know now, Do You Love Me?” After many years of attending worship and serving the faith community, many years of trying to be faithful in relationship to friends and family, after many years of trying to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless, after many years of hearing the difficult and challenging call to speak and to live the Gospel, “Do You Love Me?” Now that we know what is involved in being a disciple of Jesus, do we still want to be involved with our whole lives?
This is a perfect Easter Question. The Resurrection is certainly exciting, but what about the suffering and death of Jesus? Can we be disciples in the midst of hardship, as well as surrounded by joy?
Many of us were given the gift of Baptism at infancy. Some have chosen it later in life. We are all reaffirming that choice today. Inevitably, as we grow we learn more of the reality of what it means to be Jesus’ disciple, as we try to be faithful to our calling. We all have stumbled in our faithfulness, from time to time. We have turned away from Jesus when he most needed us. His face is the face of the hungry and thirsty, the naked and the homeless, the hurting and abused, the sick and imprisoned. We have abandoned them and him for our own comfort, and then felt sore at heart for the choices we have made.
Rather than making us go through all the details of where we have fallen short and making us feel even more guilty than we do already, Jesus asks us today a simple question. Knowing what you know now, as you sit in this church this morning, are you willing to feed my sheep? Do you love me? Will you be attentive to me and not betray me?
If we say yes, then we commit ourselves to relinquish the final control of our lives. We decide that we are not the centre of our own universe. This is a step of faith. It has real and lasting consequences. It will change how we live. And Jesus will take us at our word.
What are the consequences in your life? How can we shift our attention away from ourselves and pay more attention to Jesus’ flock, Jesus’ people?
Look to the fringes, the outskirts of your family, your neighborhood, your community, your world. Who are the ones who are often betrayed by society in general, and even by us? Who is at the bottom of the social heap? We may betray with our judgments. We may betray with our lack of forgiveness and compassion. We may betray by choosing what we want over what someone else needs. We may betray by simply not noticing, or by not caring, or by not acting on our caring. When we betray Jesus’ flock, we betray Jesus. And it is hard, then, to stand before Jesus and hear him ask, “Do you love me? Do you REALLY love me?”
Knowing that we don’t get a vacation or retire from being a Christian; knowing that it is a high and challenging calling; knowing that we are called to be accountable to Jesus for how we love and treat others; knowing that it will cost us money and energy, tears and frustration, even maybe some of our hopes and dreams: Knowing what we know now, Do You Love Me? That is what Jesus asks. The path toward the cross and the path away from the tomb are the same. They cannot be divided. Do we love Jesus enough to walk that one path together, for the sake of the world?
Do You Love Me? This direct Easter question was given by Jesus to Peter and is given to us today. It is ours to answer Yes or No, not with our words, but with our lives. Amen.