“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.'” John 21: 17-19.
In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When I was a young man, back in Odessa, Texas, someone gave me a copy of the album Jesus Christ Superstar and it had a profound impact on my spiritual life for several years thereafter. I was amazed that these stories that I had grown up with all my life could be told in a way that was, well, relevant. I can still recall many of the songs well, but especially Yvonne Elliman singing the ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I think for many of us today that statement remains haunting, or at least it should haunt us: how well do we know how to love God?
For lots of us, our relationship with God looks a good deal more like that of Jacob. We know the story of Jacob well, the trickster who stole his brother’s birthright, only to find himself on the business end of a fraud as he sought to marry Leah. And in the Old Testament lesson we find Jacob on the eve of meeting his brother for the first time after having betrayed him. And that night, at Peniel, Jacob spent a sleepless night wrestling with God.
I suspect many of us have spent a night like that, struggling with and against the Almighty Lord of All Creation. And like Jacob, many of us have been injured in the process. But that evening, Jacob ended up with two gifts: he got a blessing; and he got a new name. Scripture tells us “Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans,and have prevailed.’” And in a very real sense, the name Israel or Struggles With God, describes the entire history of the people of Israel as told in the Old and New Testament.
The people of Israel are always struggling with God, from the story of the Fall in the garden through to the last prayer or promise of Revelations that “Surely he is coming soon.” The New Testament records that as the Gentiles were baptized into the promises of Israel, the Church continued to wrestle with God’s will. Like Abraham advocating for Sodom, we have all tried to dicker with God, to bargain with the Almighty. And like Peter standing in the courtyard in the glow of a charcoal fire, we have all denied him. The simple truth is we don’t know how to love him.
And yet, although we struggle to love, it constantly eludes us, though we know how important it is. St. Paul reminds us that without love even if we could speak in angelic tongues it would amount to a senseless clanging gong. Paul says that without love, even our acts of mercy and our faith are meaningless.
How many of us have been impatient with God? We don’t know how to love him. When confronted with one of the Lord’s stubborn children, how many of us have failed in our kindness? We don’t know how to love God. How many of us feel that we have not gotten our due, that we are not adequately regarded or our work has gone unrecognized? How many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are doing God’s will when we are chasing after our own goals? We do not understand how to love God. Because Paul tells us “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” We don’t know how to love him.
I think part of the problem is that we want to understand God. We are so frail, and so very proud. We have convinced ourselves that we will love God once we know what He is up to. Once we understand Him, then we can love Him. Somehow, I need to understand the Almighty, who knows where the snow is kept in the summer, who knows the number of the ever-dwindling hairs on my head. Once he makes himself clear to me, then I will love him. But anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows that real love is not dependent on understanding. In our frailty, in our brokenness, we will never understand the depth of His love or his wisdom. Our understanding is inherently flawed. But as our brother St. Thomas said, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”
We turn, then to the Gospel reading, where we find Jesus on the beach with Peter, who personifies the bumbling, painful difficulty of loving God. After the crucifixion and after Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice, Peter determines that there is only one way to address these deeply spiritual and terribly confusing events: he’s going fishing, going back to work. And we’ve all been there: these events are simply too intense, and Peter wants something to feel normal again.
So, there they are, on the beach, and Jesus seeks out Peter with a very specific purpose. John’s Gospel sets this story in the context of a charcoal fire, and we can almost smell that fire burning on the beach. Earlier, in the 18th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times as the smoke from a charcoal fire filled the air. It’s interesting that Jesus refers to him as “Simon,” as though he’s inviting Peter to return to the beginning of their relationship and start with a clean slate. I think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Christ asks Peter three times to confirm his love, echoing Peter’s earlier three-fold denial. We can almost hear the pain in Peter’s voice as he assures Jesus, “Lord, you know I love you.” That pain arises from a clear recollection of his earlier failures, his earlier inability to love God fearlessly.
You see, John’s Gospel teaches us that this is not the sort of love we encounter in our modern culture: this is not about rainbows and kittens and smiley faces. This is the kind of love that will break your heart. But in this moment of radical redemption, Simon Peter’s prior deprivation and failure will be transfigured into a feast.
Jesus shows Peter the way forward, telling him “Feed my sheep.” If we want to understand how to love, this passage is terribly important. How does a good shepherd tend to his sheep? He takes them to where the grass is deep and green, and keeps them away from the wolves. Our care for the people of God arises from one simple and yet terribly difficult source: we do this for the love of God.
John Henry Newman once noted that love contains all of the virtues, all of the graces. He said “Love is the material (so to speak) out of which all graces are made, the quality of mind which is the fruit of regeneration, and in which the Spirit dwells, according to St. John’s words, ‘he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.'” It was love, and love alone, that worked the regeneration of Peter.
John’s Gospel teaches us that God does not love us because we are a holy people; rather, we are a holy people because God loves us. And because He loves us, and because we were made in his image, we have the capacity for love. Our love for each other constitutes a defining characteristic of the faith: Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” Love is the uniform we wear, by which the world will know we follow Christ.
It is my hope, no it is my prayer for us all that we Feed His Sheep with the love that “bears all things,believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis
As a postscript to this great essay, John Wesley said that the role of faith in redemption is “the grand means of restoring that holy faith wherein man was originally created.” (in Kenneth Collins, “The Theology of John Wesley”).
That Wesley guy….he was pretty smart.
Oops – that should be “holy love” not ‘holy faith” Apologies to John Wesley!
Brother, I do think you are touching a very real nerve here, as it relates to love and knowing God. I think a sort of opposite experience is true for many as well. That is, they are not that interested in knowing God., as long as God is available to them for whatever crisis might come their way. This is sort of like some poor love relationships where one partner is happy as long he/she is getting what he/she wants, with little interest in knowing the other person holistically at all.
This brings us to the fact that Christian truth is personal. Because we love God we do seek to know Him better. Though we cannot – as you point out – trust that this knowledge will somehow make us love Him more (though it can!).
I think St. Thomas was correct in the observation that we learn to love by first being loved. For many folks, that’s the tricky part: accepting the premise of being the beloved as a starting point. Many thanks for your thoughts.