17 May 2010

Peter, Do you Love Me? Part 1

Spending time with Friday's Gospel (May 21th, John 21:15-19) marked one of those unexpected moments for me when the Holy Spirit empowers one to hear something completely new, and when the text takes on a new sound, a new perspective and lesson. Throughout the Easter season I had at least implicitly heard the question Jesus posed to Peter in this lection again. Partly this was because we read the Gospel of John and the command to love God and one another turns up again and again with this question tacitly embedded within it. Partly it was because of people who modelled such love for me again and again and were central to this year's Easter season -- not least Ann and Don and their family. Partly, I suppose it is the natural question of one who desires to love God and others but continually falls short.

Like most people I have always heard Jesus' questions to Peter merely as a kind of test. Clearly they follow Peter's triple denial of Jesus on the night he was arrested, and Peter's own affirmations serve to counter those. Perhaps Jesus really asked Peter these questions in precisely this way and this is a simple record of that; perhaps the questioning is a literary device constructed by the evangelist in order to mark Peter's renewed commitment to the Risen Christ as adequate to offset his denials and justify his leadership role in the nascent Church; perhaps there were three questions, or perhaps Peter heard this question in his heart dozens of times as he encountered Jesus after the resurrection (or maybe both of these are true!), but however the historical details shake out, I know that like most people I heard these questions as a test posed by Jesus to Peter, or to myself. Until last week that is.

In living with this text for those few days and sensing a climax to what I had been experiencing during Easter, I began to see instead what Jesus was doing with these questions, and testing Peter was not what he was about, at least not in the common sense. Instead he is attempting to move Peter past the denials on the night of his arrest, serious as those were, and put Peter in touch with the deeper truth, the truth which is more foundational for him than his fear, his self-centeredness, his drive for self-preservation and the like. It is a way of rehabilitating Peter and commissioning him for something more as well. It put him in touch with the truth which is life for him, the truth of his bond with Jesus which is deeper even than Peter's denials because God dwells within us, and because "Nothing can separate us from the love of God". At the same time the questions move Peter from his own certainty in himself (and about himself!) and an attitude of (perhaps defensive) self-assertion to a more secure place altogether: the point of humble submission to Jesus' knowledge of who Peter is, Jesus' certainty about Peter's capacities and constitution, Jesus' judgment of the nature, worth, and measure of his life and his plan FOR that life.

The element I was not paying enough (or appropriate) attention to was Jesus's commissioning of Peter and the way this commissioning functions in Peter's life. If I attended to these statements at all it was as a reward for answering correctly, "Yes, Lord, I love you!" In my mind I read the text this way: "Answer the question correctly, Peter, and Jesus will entrust you with great responsibility. Answer incorrectly, and he will not!" Now, there is a seed of truth in this --- Jesus entrusts those who love him with a great deal --- but Jesus's commissioning is not a reward for the right answers. It is instead a way of creating a future, for Peter, for the Church, for Jesus' life here among us. It is the way Jesus forgives, and it is an effective forgiveness which changes who Peter is in less essential ways and also builds on who Peter is most deeply and essentially, and so too then, the way Peter sees himself. It is a challenging forgiveness which empowers Peter to see himself as Jesus does, trust himself as Jesus does, embrace and live up to the vocation Jesus knows him to have and makes him, with God's grace, to be capable of.

These questions put to Peter by Jesus function similarly to Jesus' parables. They create a new future by allowing the one hearing and responding to them to opt for reality as Jesus defines it. Far from simply testing Peter, they are meant to encourage him -- though by challenging him to measure up to what is deepest in himself, what is truest and most real. In monastic life this is what it means to be addressed as one's true self and to heal and transcend his false self. Rather than questioning whether Peter loves him, Jesus uses these questions to remind Peter of the truth of his loving union with Jesus just as they remind him that this is the reality God sees in us beyond the sin, selfishness, fear, cowardice, etc which so often marks our lives.

It is significant then that when Jesus poses his question the first two times he uses the appropriate grammatical form of agape --- that quality of love which transcends all individual expressions of it, that form of love which is the principle of unity and wholeness in all forms or qualities of love (eros, bios, philia, etc), that form which points directly to God and the Spirit which inspires it within us. Only once Jesus has reminded Peter twice of this deep ground of all love and heard Peter's affirmations, does he ask him the third time if he loves him in the more particular form of philia. Peter is reconciled with Jesus. In dialogue with Jesus he comes to certainty about who he really is, and what moves him most deeply. He affirms himself and he affirms who Jesus is for him.

As a result or consequence (NOT as a reward!) Peter is commissioned to "feed my sheep". In accepting this commission he accepts his truest identity; in accepting his truest identity he experiences and accepts this commission. And this Peter will do because above all he has recommitted himself to loving, that is, to acting on what is truest and most real within himself in ways which will naturally affirm what is truest and most real in others.