In the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we find a gut-wrenching encounter between Jesus and Peter that defines the essence of Peter’s mission. To make this encounter unforgettable, Jesus takes Peter to the point of deep distress as he asks him not once, but three times, “Do you love me?”
It is hard to imagine what this must have been like for Peter. I have a natural expectation that if your wife looked intently at you and asked, “Do you love me?”, you would answer, and all would be fine. But if she looked at you again and asked the same question, you would start to worry. If, after your second response, she continued to look into your eyes — without acknowledgement of your insistence that you do love her — you would be deeply grieved and concerned about your relationship. You would wonder what you had done, where her line of questioning was leading, where you had failed her.
Peter must have felt the same anxiety, as Jesus continued to gaze at him and solemnly repeat for a third time “Feed my sheep.”
Through this exchange Jesus, in an unforgettable way, defines what it means for Peter to love him. After this encounter, Peter’s purpose and mission are burned into his soul with perfect clarity. He must feed Jesus’ sheep, giving them what they need to know the Lord — and to love him with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
This might have been one of the most intense of their encounters, but Jesus had already made this point to his disciples on many prior occasions. Jesus consistently emphasized that if we love him, we must be dedicated to serving others. The love we give to others in his name is love for Jesus Himself — and the love we withhold from others is love withheld from our Lord himself. Amen.
Fr. John Peter