“Do you love me?”
In this Season of Easter, we read and remember the wonderful stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Luke’s Gospel has him appear to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, and Matthew says he appeared to a bunch of disciples together on the top of a mountain. According to John, he first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the cemetery, then to the disciples in a locked room. And in his final appearance, Jesus serves breakfast to his disciples on a beach, and has a heart-rending conversation with Peter.
What a strange conversation it is – with Jesus, a full-grown man, asking his full-grown fisherman friend, Peter, if he loves him. Not just asking once… but again and again. It sounds like the kind of thing that a sad or needy child asks a mum or dad: “Do you love me?” “Yes, of course I love you,” comes the response along with a smile and a hug of reassurance. You are safe. You are loved. You are mine.
But I don’t think that’s what is going on here. Jesus doesn’t need reassurance from Peter. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. Jesus is reassuring Peter that Jesus still loves him. After all, Peter is the one who denied knowing Jesus three times when Jesus was arrested. Peter is the one who ran away when Jesus was crucified. Peter is the one who failed to show his love when his friend was in trouble.
Did you notice how Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
As many times at Peter denied knowing Jesus at the time of his arrest and trial, Jesus asks him to voice his devotion. As many times as Peter turned away when Jesus was in need, Jesus asks him to commit himself to love and faithfulness. It’s a moment of reconciliation between Jesus and the disciple who will help to establish the church. Jesus doesn’t just ignore the fact that Peter denied him and ran away, but he subtly acknowledges it, forgives it, and establishes a new pattern of faithful discipleship for Peter to follow.
Peter’s story makes me think about times when I’ve had a conflict or disagreement with someone that I love. Usually such arguments are about unimportant things like “who said what” or “who was supposed to do what,” but sometimes they’re about deeper things too – about faithfulness, about being there for each other, about what is important to us.
Early in life, I learned a pattern when arguing in my family… We would argue, and then we would cool down, and then it was over. We knew that we loved each other, and we would always love each other, and that was not going to change. So I don’t remember a lot of apologizing and patching things up. Once the arguing and the cooling down were done, we would just go back to life as usual. We didn’t hold grudges, and we would soon forget about whatever topic we had been bickering about anyway.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that there are times when more work needs to be done to mend relationships. A few times I’ve been shocked to discover that some little disagreement that I thought was no big deal… something that I long ago put behind me and forgot about… has been bothering a friend or colleague for months. I don’t remember what that person said to me hastily when they were tired and frustrated, but they’re still feeling torn up about it. I assumed that my harsh comment would be similarly forgotten, but it’s still weighing heavily on the person who took it to heart.
Jesus’ conversation with Peter challenges me to pay more attention to the relationships in my life, and to devote as much time to mending them as we’ve spent stressing and straining them in the first place.
Certainly, I think Peter knew Jesus well enough and understood Jesus’ teaching clearly enough that he must have known that Jesus would forgive him. Jesus was always forgiving people, giving them another chance, showing them patience, and grace, and mercy. But what Peter did was pretty awful. And the guilt he must have been carrying around from it was pretty heavy.
And so Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to mend that relationship – to profess his love as many times as he had turned away and pretended not to know Jesus.
The “Do you love me?” question brings to mind that famous scene in the “Fiddler on the Roof.” Maybe you remember the one in which Tevye asks his wife, Golde, that same question: “Do you love me?”
Of course, the issue in the “Fiddler on the Roof” is that Tevye and Golde’s marriage was arranged for them. They didn’t fall in love and then get married as most people do today. They got married, because their parents arranged it. They got married in the hope that they would grow to love each other. And twenty-five years later, they are still figuring out that they do.
Tevye asks, “Golde, Do you love me?”
“Do I what?”
He asks again, “Do you love me?”
With some insistence, he gets her to think about it. She says, “For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow… After 25 years why talk about love right now?”
But he keeps talking. He keeps asking, “Do you love me?”
She says to herself, “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, 25 years my bed is his, if that’s not love, what is?”
“Then you love me!” he exclaims with joy.
“I suppose I do,” she replies.
“And I suppose I love you too,” he adds.
Long before Tevye and Golde felt love for each other, and before they expressed their love in words of devotion, they loved one another in their faithfulness, in their service to each other, and in their sharing of life together. Their love was already real and true. But there was something wonderful that happened that day when they sang about it together, and expressed their love in words.
At the end of the scene, they sing together: “It doesn’t change a thing. But even so, after 25 years, it’s nice to know.”
Golde knows that love is not just a feeling or something that you say, but love is expressed in service, in care, and in being present for the other. Golde is good at enacting her love, and not so good at professing it – saying it out loud. Peter, on the other hand, is pretty good at making declarations, but doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to following through.
And so Jesus is very clear about what Peter’s love should look like: “If you love me, feed my lambs. If you love me, tend my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep.” There is a sense that the failures of the past are being left behind and forgotten, and Peter has the chance to begin again in loving relationship with Jesus.
Jesus won’t be physically present, but the relationship will continue nonetheless. And Peter will be able to express his love for Jesus not only with words, but with faithful service to all the little ones who are part of Jesus’ family.
As disciples of Jesus today, I believe we are invited to enjoy that same kind of relationship with Jesus. It’s not just about coming to church to worship God and profess our love for Jesus all the time. That love isn’t real if it is just about words – if it is just about singing praises and then going home to live for ourselves in the glow of a happy church experience.
On the other hand, it’s not just about doing good deeds, feeding the hungry, finding shelter for the homeless, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger. They are good things to do, of course. Certainly. And there are many, many people of different faiths or of no faith who do them regularly and generously.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to feed Jesus’ sheep and tend Jesus’ lambs out of love for Christ, out of thankfulness for God’s love for us, in fulfillment of a relationship of love.
Someone might say that it doesn’t make any difference if the actions are the same. But I disagree. I think that Tevye and Golde might disagree after professing their love for each other.
If you were rich, you could have a servant to make you breakfast in bed every day, and that might be nice. But isn’t it a different thing altogether when your five your old child gets the idea to make your breakfast on your birthday, and snuggles up with you while you eat it.
The discipleship life is not just about following a set of rules, and living a life filled with good deeds. It’s about loving Jesus, listening to Jesus, and doing our best to live as he directs us. Everything we do that is good is because we love him, and that makes a difference.
Today I want to invite you to reflect on Jesus’ conversation with Peter, and to place yourself in Peter’s shoes. Imagine Jesus asking you the same question that he asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
No matter what mistakes you have made, however you have denied, or betrayed, or abandoned Jesus in the past… Jesus is giving you another chance to profess your love and to live it out in faithful service.
May we all have the courage to proclaim again, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And may we have the determination to “Feed his sheep” and “Follow him” all the days of our lives. Amen.