“Do You Love Me?”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
“Simon, son of John, do you love me…?” — John 21:15,16,17
In this coda to the Gospel of John the risen Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Can there be a more poignant question? How many times have we asked that of one another, in our uncertainty, our hope, and our need! “Do you love me? Do you really love me, ‘more than all others’?” How many affirmative answers has it taken to satisfy our need? Countless! We seem to need a “Yes very much!” response every day. Why then does Peter resent being asked a third time? Can it be that he does not understand the human need, especially after a threefold betrayal, of multiple affirmations of renewed love and loyalty? Can it be that the risen Jesus still needs his earthly friends? Still wants to reconcile with a dear friend who had let him down badly?
I have introduced this psychological note into a text that is by intention theological rather than novelistic, for two reasons: to highlight by contrast its hieratic nature, and to open the door for reflection on the nature of the ongoing relationship between God and us.
Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage sees it as a strong warrant for the unique authority of Peter and his successors in the Chair of Peter. Jesus entrusts to Peter the care of his lambs, of his flock, and of his sheep. Jesus commands: “Feed my lambs… shepherd my flock…feed my sheep.” This interpretation does justice to the theological intention of the passage, which is to cancel the three denials in which Peter’s fear trumped Peter’s faith and his cowardice cancelled his integrity. Catholicism builds on this and Matthew 16 a doctrine of the Church as an inviolable institution literally resting on the physical person of Peter and those whom Peter literally touches through a succession of men (only) who pass that touch from one to another by the “laying on of hands.” The ramifications of this succession make up the essence of the church, its hierarchy, and the hierarchy inhabits a special world of inviolable authority.
Protestant interpretation bases the nature of the church not on Peter’s literal identity as Simon son of John (he could have been George son of Harry), but on Peter’s confession of love for Jesus, on his repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, and on Jesus’ determination not to humiliate, punish or reject him, but rather to raise him up again, enable him to return to the love they once shared, and turn his head from the shameful side glance to the candid face to face. Jesus “saves Peter’s face.”
So hear my interpretation: Firstly, it is a relief beyond belief that I who have betrayed my Jesus many more times than three, hear him asking, again and again, “Do you love me?” The premise of that question stops my mouth with amazement and chokes me with gratitude: “He still loves me! He still loves me! How can that be after all the betrayals?” Our story tells us first and foremost that God saves (our face) and God reconciles with us, because God loves, incessantly and indefeasibly, not just Peter but all of us, you and even me.
Secondly then, Peter stands for every Christian. He is our representative and that means that the church is not a hierarchy of historical privilege but a community of common sinners in the process of being loved into being and truth by the living God. Put yourself in the place of Peter in this story. Don’t stand aside observing one man named Peter being endowed with a special privilege, but see yourself as Peter and hear God ask for your love, and accept from him the gift of the great confidence he has in you. Yes, a great confidence, because he entrusts to you and me the feeding of his lambs, which is the very sum and substance of his church. The church is the community where the love of Jesus for each of us feeds all of us. Not only does Jesus reconcile with his betrayer, with me, but he also shows again complete confidence in me and entrusts to me the feeding of his lambs.
Please don’t make my comparison of the Catholic and Protestant readings of our story a cause of contention. I have made the comparison for rhetorical reasons, to highlight by contrast. There is too much about Catholic theology that I do not know to license my comparison as criticism. Let me rather conclude with a brief meditation on the love of Christ, both subjectively and objectively.
Subjectively the topic is Christ’s love for us; objectively it is our love for Christ. Christ’s love for us is the overwhelming truth of our story and of our faith. He suffers humiliation, pain and death in order to save our lives, he forgives our disloyalty to a best friend, and he even cooks us breakfast. When last did you have a cooked breakfast? So the great good news is that “where sin abounds grace super -abounds,” (Romans 5), that grace always trumps shame, and since it is the Risen Jesus with whom we are having breakfast, life always trumps death. Let that divine love be the first and last word; let it be the banner over us.
Objectively, that is concerning our love for Christ, the case is not quite as uncomplicated as Christ’s love for us. We still betray him, even when we know this story and also know by experience the agony of a lover’s treachery. Is this because we do not find Christ lovely and loveable, or is it because we cannot yet do the deed of love itself well enough? I think both causes are in play: many of us cannot find Christ lovable because we cannot find him at all; our faith fails us. Many of us cannot love him enough because we love ourselves too much; in the instant we love our self rather than Christ’s self.
Clearly we cannot do much more here than mention these questions; to answer them is the work of perhaps more than one lifetime, so let us leave it there. Except for this: Recently I was reminded that St Augustine taught that moral action was guided at the deepest level not by law but by love. He said, “If you want to know what kind of a man he is, don’t ask him what he believes, find out what he loves. A man will always do what he loves, rather than what he believes.” That is a paraphrase not a quote but it gives the gist of Augustine’s wisdom. He is right, of course. That is why Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Not “Will you obey me?” or “Do you believe in me?” This truth warrants the soundness of Augustine’s well-known and immensely helpful additional moral maxim, “Love God! And do what you please.”
Those corrupters of public morals, the media of all kinds, understand this and try always to suborn our love rather than persuade our minds or command our wills. They suborn by imitation; they show desirable people and circumstances and we copy that desire and follow like lambs to the slaughter. We are enticed by the simple portrayal of false love. Or they paint pictures of horror and we imitate their mock recoil in dismay and anger. (We have too much of the latter imitation in our political discourse these days).
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks you, looking you in the eye. If you can answer like Peter did, aver three time, or as many times as your betrayals might require, that you do, or perhaps more honestly, that you want to, you will begin to wake up to the amazing grace that already enfolds you, and to step out in the freedom of action inspired by your love of God, that is, by your response to God’s love for you; and you will begin ay last really to become responsible.