If you love me, feed my sheep. John 21
The gospel for today, coming as it does as a bit of an appendix to the Fourth Gospel, is very important. What Jesus says to Peter applies to Peter personally, but it is also critically important for all who serve in roles of leadership and pastoral service in the Church. It is also a revealing message for all of us to chew.
We remember the context for this story. Peter denied ever knowing Jesus. And he denied it rather forcefully, three times. So, when Peter decides, after the Resurrection, to go back fishing, and after Jesus appears to them by the sea and re-calls them with a miraculous catch of fish, reminding Peter of his first call to follow Jesus, the conversation between Jesus and Peter is stunning.
Jesus asks Peter three times, if he loves Jesus. Peter responds positively each time, painfully aware of his three denials: "Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, 'Do you love me?' and he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'" What is surprising is not Peter's response but Jesus' follow-up. If Peter loves Jesus - if we love Jesus - we are asked by Jesus to show that love by feeding his sheep.
I find several things helpful for me today in this reflection. It starts with an invitation to love Jesus. In the Greek original text of this story, this message is even clearer. The author uses two different words for "love." The first is agape, a very special kind of love. So, in effect, two times, Jesus asks, "Do you love me with the kind of self-sacrificing love by which God loves you?" Peter answers with the word phileo, which is "brotherly love" (the name for Philadelphia - city of brotherly love - contains this root). In effect, Peter answers three times, saying, "Yes, Lord, I love you with a special friendship." The third time Jesus uses Peter's word. Even if our love for Jesus is a special closeness, and hasn't become a self-sacrificing love yet, he still asks us to feed his sheep. And the first point for our reflection today is this: if I am feeling that I'm not feeding his sheep generously enough, then the reason may be that I need to grow in gratitude and love for Jesus' love for me first. A grateful lover of Jesus will love his sheep.
The second thing to reflect upon today is the question, "What does it mean for me to feed or tend Jesus' sheep?" It makes sense, that if Peter or a bishop is to be a shepherd of Jesus' flock, he must take care of Jesus' sheep, "but what does this mean for me?" Or, "Who are the sheep Jesus asks me to feed or tend to today?" Each of us will answer that in our own way but the answer the whole rest of the Gospels give is that Jesus came for the "lost sheep," for those who stray, even for those who "don't belong to this flock." Our love needs to be universal - at least always broader, always open, always like his. A very fruitful reflection for today. Are there some people I've excluded from loving? Does my relationship with Jesus make me more open to loving those people on the margins of society? What will it mean concretely for me to have greater care for them?
Finally, Jesus tells Peter that someday he will be taken "where you do not want to go." Sometimes, I think, this is the "bottom line" of our faith. It is easy to have a relationship with Jesus, if it still leaves me the room to do things my way and go where I want to go. I really become a follower and a disciple when I let him take me where I don't want to go. It is a good day to offer him that kind of surrender, and ask for the grace and freedom to live it when it comes our time to say "yes" in a most unexpected way.
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