Madonna House

Do You Love Me?

by Cheryl Ann Smith

When I was younger, I aspired to be like St. John, the disciple Jesus loved. John seemed to be one of those rare, limpid souls who know they are loved, and who intuitively know the one they love. And I envied him at the Last Supper, as he leaned on Jesus’ breast to drink in his words and love.

However, in time I came to see that I’m much more like St. Peter—passionate, impetuous and constantly getting into trouble, full of genuine love for the Lord, but not very constant in that love.

It is particularly when I find myself flat on my face that I take consolation in my affinity with Peter. After all, Jesus never stopped loving or believing in him.

When I turned 40, I was taken to another level of identification with Peter. Since this birthday was such a milestone, I asked God for a word for the next stage of my life. I have to admit, I had a “John-type” word in mind, something reflecting a resting in the heart of my beloved Lord.

So imagine my consternation when I opened Scripture to Peter’s denials of Jesus!

Next, I turned to a book of sermons and opened to one focussing on these words of Jesus to Peter: When you were young, you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go (Jn 21:18).

As I read those words, I had a feeling that Jesus was preparing me for what was to come in my life.

Finally at Mass that day, the Gospel was Peter’s profession of faith, followed by Jesus’ words about his Passion!

What was God trying to say to me?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this “birthday present” was one of the greatest gifts I could have received.

For days later I plunged into a classic mid-life crisis filled with emotional, spiritual, and vocational doubts and anguish. I’ll spare you the details, but after several months, I embarked on a 30-day Ignatian Retreat to confront all these issues.

On that retreat, the Scripture passage that pierced my heart and helped to lead me out of this wilderness was from the Last Supper. Jesus forewarned Peter thatSatan…has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers (Lk 22:31-2).

What kindness! Jesus loved his friend, even though he knew he would deny him. He prayed for him to recover from his devastation in that betrayal, so that he could continue as an apostle of the Gospel.

When I read this passage on my retreat, the Lord reminded me that on my birthday he had forewarned me of my “denials.”

He had known that I would soon be running from the cross, running from my own pain, running from him and from the vocation he had given me.

He had been telling me that he would be with me through it all and would lead me out of that wilderness. He would help me recover and he would call me into a more compassionate and humble ministry! And so he did.

What was it like when Peter encountered Jesus after the Resurrection? His joy must have been overwhelming, of course, but what about the shadow that his cowardice would have cast between them? How would that shadow be dispelled?

Let’s take a look at the conversation between Peter and the Risen Lord after Jesus had grilled fish and fed his disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberias.

Taking Peter aside he asked, Simon, do you love me more than these others do? (Jn 21:15).

The kind of love he asked about was agape, the kind of love that would embrace imprisonment and even death for the beloved.

A totally self-sacrificing love, a divine love, a love that Peter had claimed he possessed when he had boldly proclaimed, Though all lose faith in you, I will never lose faith…Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you (Mt 26:33, 35).

But now, they both knew the truth. Much as Peter desired to love with an agapelove, he didn’t have it. His love was flawed. It was a very human love.

Gone was the bravado of the old Peter. His humiliation had brought him to truth and humility. As he answered, Yes, Lord, you know I love you, the term he used for his love was philos.

He did love Jesus, but it was with his own human philos kind of love, a love that had proved inadequate.

This truth needed to be acknowledged.

A second time, the Lord asked him, Do you love me? And my own heart had to answer as Peter had:

“Lord, you know I love you. You know I want to lay down my life for you in all those I meet and in everything I do. But you know how much I fail. I’m not like you. My love is so small.”

Yet as Peter had, I made that admission to eyes filled with acceptance and love.

The third time Jesus asked the question, it was Simon, son of John, do you philos me? Perhaps now, with the wound of shame lanced, Peter could truly hear the astounding commission Jesus was offering: Feed my sheep.

Far from losing confidence in him, Jesus was giving Peter the most sacred trust possible.

There is a long history to this commission. Throughout the Old Testament, God lamented that his leaders were faithless shepherds to his people. And so he promised to shepherd them himself—to rescue, pasture and feed them, and to show them where to rest.

I shall look for the lost one, bring back the strays, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall be a true shepherd to them (Ez 34:16).

This prophecy was fulfilled perfectly in Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And now he was entrusting this sacred call to his very flawed friend. Although Peter had not been able to follow his Master to the Cross, Jesus now indicated that he, Peter, would suffer and die for these sheep and for his Lord.

How could this be, if he didn’t possess agape love?

Luke gives us the answer in the Acts of the Apostles. By then Peter was in a leadership role, and a dramatic change had happened in him when the Holy Spirit fell upon him at Pentecost.

It was because he knew that his own love was not enough to fulfill his mandate from the Lord that he was totally open to receive power from the Holy Spirit.

And because he did so, his words were inspired, his works made fruitful by divine power, and his love made perfect by the agape love of the Holy Spirit.

And so Peter, a beloved disciple, can lead us through our journey—through the painful acknowledgement of the poverty of our love, through the intimate knowledge of Jesus’ love and acceptance, and finally through receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to help build the Church.

Do you love me?

Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.

Feed my sheep.(cf. Jn 21: 17).