Friday, May 29, 2009

Do You Love Me?

The story of Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is told in all four gospels. When the big fisherman from Galilee, Simon Peter, denied that he was a disciple of Jesus, that he didn’t even know the fellow, he added some rather forceful curses and oaths in persuading his listeners – not to mention saving his own life.

So, it is not surprising that after the events of that weekend, Peter returned to his former occupation, and so did the other surviving members of The Twelve. Jesus appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where the boys are mending nets, returning from a night on the water with empty nets. He sends them out again, and this time the hold is so full of fish that the boat is in danger of sinking. Then they all enjoy a breakfast of freshly caught and freshly cooked fish (and no doubt some bread and wine).

But that’s merely the prelude to the real story. After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” A second time Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Again, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus then said, “Feed my sheep.” Then Jesus asked a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” By now, Peter is disturbed, not only by the repeated question, but no doubt by the reawakened memory of his triple denial in the courtyard of Pilate’s palace. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!”

In addition, something else is happening in the original language, something that doesn’t appear in English. To understand “the rest of the story”, you have to be aware that in Greek there are several verbs that mean “to love”. Two of these verbs are used in this dialogue.  Philein means to love someone as a friend – (as in the name of a city in Egypt, and one in Pennsylvania, “Philadelphia” -- brotherly love. Agapan means to love  unselfishly, as Jesus did, “Greater love than this no one has, than to give one’s love for a friend”. In John’s usage, this type of love agape is both deeper and broader than friendship. It does not depend on mutuality, but asks no response from the loved one; it can extend even to one’s enemy.

In this dialogue, Jesus first asks Peter, Agapas me? (Do you love me selflessly?) Peter answers, Philo se (I love you as a friend.) The second time, the question and answer are the same. But the third time, Jesus asks, Phileis me? (Do you love me as a friend?) Peter answers as he did the two previous times.

There is something very moving about this dialogue. At this point in his life, Peter is not yet able to love in a heroic manner. He can love Jesus only as a friend he has known for three years. The third time, though, Jesus changes the question. He asks Peter to profess what he is able to offer at the time; his capacity for selfless love will improve, as we will see later.

There is another aspect of the question Jesus raised to Peter. What role do you have in shepherding the flock of Jesus? Each of us will answer that question in our own way: priests and bishops, mothers and fathers, doctors, nurses, laboratorians also tend to their portion of the flock. What about the rest of us?

Each of us must answer that question for ourselves, but there is an answer for all of us in the Gospels. Jesus did not come only for “the flock”, but especially for the sheep that stray, and for those “who do not belong to this flock.” Our love must be – or at least strive to be – universal. Are there some people I have excluded from my love? “You don’t have to like the boy who gave you the bloody nose during recess yesterday, but you do have to love him”, as a mother told her son about sixty years ago.

At the end of the dialogue, Jesus says to Peter, “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.” Peter will achieve the fullness of love as a total gift of self on Vatican Hill in Rome. That is the bottom line of faith and trust in God. It’s easy to be a friend of Jesus, if I have the opportunity to choose where I want to go, and what I want to do. I become a true disciple when I allow him to ask me to do what I don’t want to do, and to go where I don’t want to go.

Lord, give me eyes to see as you see, hands that are willing to help, a heart that is compassionate and courageous, and unshakeable trust in the power of your grace to transform my life and the lives of those I meet.

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