Image: Northern lights
In today’s Gospel Peter receives an opportunity for a clean slate, a chance to start over again and to put his shameful act of betrayal behind him. How it must have been weighing on his heart, the moment when he denied knowing his Lord not once, but three times. Once was a mistake, twice was weakness, but three times was willful and, in Peter’s mind, unforgivable.
As Jesus approached Peter, I wonder if Peter was even listening to what his Lord was saying to him. I suspect he was thinking more about his own guilt and perhaps trying to form an apology or perhaps even an excuse, knowing that neither would make a scratch in the armor of guilt that rested upon his weary shoulders.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, Jesus asks. Here it comes; it seems as if Jesus is going to twist the knife by appealing to love. How much easier it would be if he would just shout and be angry and demand to know why Peter had let him down. “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” Peter responds with hesitation waiting for the shoe to drop and for the accusations to follow, but instead he hears, “Feed my lambs.”
What did he just hear? An invitation? Jesus was inviting Peter back into the fold. Perhaps Peter thought he was mishearing Jesus. What could Jesus mean by asking him to feed his lambs and why of all people, would he ask Peter who had proven to be so unreliable?
While Peter’s thoughts continued to revolve Jesus gently asks a second time. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Something clicks in Peter now, Jesus is serious and his tone is not angry but matches his words. Jesus, who Peter had denied, was not upset but instead vulnerable. He was opening himself up to Peter and allowing the dreaded night of the crucifixion to unfold once again so that Peter could do it differently this time. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my sheep.” Jesus asks.
Peter must have been feeling proud, “Yes I did it, I was able to stand up for Jesus, even if it was only here, on the beach, where there is no danger.” It must have seemed a strange kind of reconciliation to Peter, but if that was what Jesus wanted to hear Peter was only too eager to oblige. Peter was glad that he could make Jesus happy and as for feeding the sheep, a strange request, but he would agree and figure it out later.
Then Jesus asks a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” For a moment everything stops, Peter suddenly realizes that this is nothing to do with his words at all. It is all about Jesus who is offering love and forgiveness and healing. Jesus is not looking for guilt, or an apology or an excuse from Peter. He is simply pouring out the love that is pure gift. Peter’s thoughts about the situation suddenly stop and his focus shifts from himself to Jesus who is standing before him. As he does so, his heart opens to the gift that Jesus is offering to him. It is a gift of the purest reconciliation that requires nothing of Peter but his complete acceptance. In response, the words come out of his mouth with utter sincerity, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” Jesus says again.
Jesus stands before you today asking, “Do you love me?” What is your response?