For most of my life that I have been praying and studying scriptures, until 2:53 Saturday pm, I have pictured this scene in the gospel along the lines of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. In the musical, there is this wonderful moment where Tevye, a man trying to hold to tradition in a rapidly changing world, asks his wife: “Do you love me?”
She answers by telling him all the things she has done for him. It’s not enough. Tevye persists:”Do you love me?” Golde answers: “I’m your wife.” He says, “I know. But do you love me?”
She then sings, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye concludes, “Then you love me?” She says, “I suppose I do.” He says, “And I suppose I love you too.” Together they sing: “It doesn’t change a thing. But even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.” (Lights fade to black…)
And in my mind, that is the scenario going on in today’s gospel. Jesus pulls Simon aside and has a little heart to heart, just as Tevye is using a moment when the room is quiet in the run up to Sabbath and he is alone with Golde to do the same. Jesus gives Simon a chance to make it right, to say aloud what he couldn’t say and do in the courtyard of Caiaphas. Three yes’s for the three No’s.
Yet, something in the text kept nagging at me. If this was in that context – a private one on one – why would Peter be hurt/embarrassed enough so as to say such strong words: “You know everything, you KNOW that I love you…” It’s overkill for that situation.
As I was praying/thinking about that, at 2:53pm, I suddenly realized what the gospel narrative DIDN’T say. It didn’t say that Jesus pulled Simon apart from the others. Nope. He asks this burley fisherman, right there in front of his peers, if he loves him! This is no warm, fuzzy scene from Fiddler on the roof anymore. Right there in front of the others – 3 times which would instantly remind the other disciples of the three times Peter denied him – he asks him about love, and tells him the consequence of it.
And then the other piece clicked into place. Our tradition always speaks about the “Primacy of Peter” – his role as ‘head’ of the apostles. The image of Peter being the one to haul in the net with 153 fish (the number of known ‘countries’ in the world at that time according to some scholars), is symbolic of him exercising that function, and of that primacy. And now, very publically, he is being asked about his love for Jesus. Jesus is up to something!
This is the commissioning moment for Peter. This is not a sentimental ‘Fiddler” moment, but the rock hard, put your feet to the road moment. Jesus says to Simon: “Peter, it is not about fishing anymore. It is not about going back to life as it used to be any more. DO YOU LOVE ME – then get to work! Do you love me?” then feed my sheep! Do you love me? Then be the leader of this motley crew that I am commissioning to bring my good news to the corner of the world. Oh, and by the way, it will cost you. You’ll be led to places you would rather not go, to do things that you would rather not do. This is what I ask of you in my love for you – to go where I send you.”
Do you hear that difference in the unfolding of this scene in the gospel. Certainly we can pray about in in the context a chance to tell Jesus that we love him and to let him tell us in the Eucharist he loves us too. But that is not the most important part of this scene in the gospel.
Feeding my lambs! Tending my sheep! – that is what matters. So, too, for us. The Lord appears to us and asks US whether we love him. If so, there is a bill in the Missouri legislature – #446 that would preclude any possibility of mediations for people in the foreclosure process that many people are still struggling with. Social workers and local governments think this is a bad idea. A section of the banking community thinks it is a GREAT idea. (hmm…) Find out about it and make a response. Or, our bishops are encouraging us to stand up for religious liberty in the face of the HHS mandate which would deny the conscience rights of employers. And to make a stand for the scriptural definition of marriage as defined by God as something between a man and a woman. There are prayers to be prayed and fasts to be undertaken and congressmen to be written to. And on the local level, the Vincent de Paul society continues to do that feeding and tending and supporting the poor in the very tangible way Jesus asked Peter to do… Give them a hand.
“Do you love me?” Tevye asks Golde. “I suppose I do.” “It doesn’t change a thing,” they both sing, but “it’s nice to know.”
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks us. “We suppose we do,” – that’s why we’re here this morning. But, unlike the play, this changes EVERYTHING….