In the 21st Chapter of the Gospel of John, we read about an interesting conversation between Jesus and Peter. It takes place around a campfire, on the sands of the shore, after the Resurrection of Jesus. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you really love me?”
It echoes the same question heard in one scene in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Tevye asks his wife Golde an important question, “Do you love me?” Golde offers an annoyed and exasperated answer, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked, your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow and you ask if I love you?”
Could God pose the same question to us? Would our answer reflect Golde’s? “For twenty-five years, I’ve gone to Mass, said daily prayers, sent my children to Catholic school, volunteered as Lector, CCD teacher, Greeter, Girl Scout Leader, baked cakes for fundraisers and you ask if I love you?”
Is it possible that God might then respond, “I never asked you to do any of those things.”
Twice Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves Him with a total, self-giving, self-sacrificing, kind of love. The Scriptures use the Greek word, “agape” for this kind of love. Twice Peter hedges. He betrayed Jesus three times. He isn’t giving Jesus a hard time by kind of saying… “I’m not sure.” Peter simply knows himself too well. He isn’t’ sure if he is up to the task. So the third time Jesus asks the question, Jesus changes a word. Jesus asks Peter if he (at least) loves Jesus as a brother or a friend – the Greek word philio. The Bible says that Peter was hurt. Of course he was. It was as if Jesus said, ‘I’ve given you two chances to strive for excellence. Can’t you handle that? Ok, I’ll lower the bar for you. Can you at least do this ….” At that moment, Peter also realizes that Jesus wasn’t insulting Him. Jesus was saying, “Of COURSE, you can’t love me in that “agape” way. Nobody can! Only I am capable of doing that. But together – you and I – we can reach that. I can take your imperfect love, and transform it into something more, something better, something higher. And in the midst of that, I will transform you as well.”
That is the start of discipleship. It’s not about performing. It’s not about doing stuff. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about “being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That kind of perfection can only be accomplished together in a close relationship with Christ.
Jesus says, “Look, be easy on yourself. Give me what you can. I’ll do the rest.” And thus begins the “encounter” with Christ. God first begins to address the problem of our desires. So often, the issue is not that we desire too much from God. It is that we desire too little! The encounter with Christ causes us to expand our expectations, of God, of ourselves, of what can be done in the world. Not only that, the breath of the Holy Spirit begins to permeate our entire being in a deeper way. It especially goes to those dark places where we do not believe that we could be loved. It goes to those places where we think that God would not want to go.
This is precisely the place where Jesus most longs to meet us. When we meet Jesus in these dark places, we are not the same. Something happens. People are often changed. They discover their faith in a new way. It’s no longer about being “nice” – it’s about being “new.” It’s no longer about doing religious activities. It’s about being on fire with a mission.