Do You Love Me?
I’ve been spending some time this week pondering Jesus’ restoration of Peter in John 21. Like the best stories in Scripture, it is one that we have little trouble locating ourselves in. It is a story of failure and forgiveness, of restoration and healing. It is a story that gladdens our hearts with the hope of what might yet be possible despite our many missteps and misdeeds. It is a story portends what love can cost for those who give it and those who receive it.
Jesus has appeared to his disciples post-resurrection. They have gone on something of a fishing expedition. They have settled into a fireside breakfast on the beach. And now Jesus has a few questions for Peter. Actually, only one question asked three times.
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Once for each of Peter’s denials on the night of Jesus’ execution. Once for each, “I don’t know the man!” Once for each expletive-laden betrayal. Once for each failure, once for each painful revealing of just how much of a gap there was between Peter’s breathless declarations of loyalty and his actual behaviour. Once for each time that Peter showed himself to be painfully, pitifully, predictably human.
Do you love me?
Quite a question, that one. It’s a question that exposes us like few others can. And it is the question that haunts so many of our steps. A question that weaves its way through families and friendships and churches and lovers and brothers and sisters and support groups and counseling sessions and awkward first dates and toxic cycles of abuse and dysfunction. A question that comes out all wrong, that expresses itself in angry replies and carefully nurtured misunderstandings and wounded silences. A question that we are afraid to ask, don’t know how to ask, can’t bring ourselves to ask. A question that is often in the back of our minds if not on the tip of our tongues. It is the thing we most long for. To be loved—truly, completely, finally.
And here Jesus asks it of Peter. It’s easy to read this as Jesus engaging in a bit of theatre for Peter’s sake. Peter, I’m going to find out just how devoted you are to me. Or as Jesus gently restoring a friend struggling with shame and disappointment. Three times, for symmetry’s sake. Or as Jesus giving Peter a job to do. Feed my sheep. Or even as Jesus preparing Peter for all that love will require of him. You say you love me, and here’s what it’s going to cost. Each of these readings is entirely logical and makes good sense in context.
But I wonder if Jesus was also simply expressing the human desire to be loved. Is this not demanded by our theology of the incarnation? Could this not be implied by verses like Hebrews 4:15? After all that Jesus had been through—all the rejection and scorn and misplaced expectations, all the hatred and anger and too-small hope, maybe here, at the end and the beginning of it all, he’s sitting by the lake with his friends, and he simply wants to know. Do you love me? Not for who you want me to be, not as an extension of yourself and your projects, not because of how it will reflect on you, not for what you can get out of the deal. Do you actually love me?
We say that Jesus is God and that God is love. I suspect that we usually mean that God is the source and the reason for all love. This is true, and gloriously so. But maybe it also means that God seeks to be loved. That God wants it. Possibly even needs it. Some people get really nervous about saying that God needs anything from his creation. It implies that God lacks something, that God is somehow dependent. It seems to portray a weak God.
Well, ok. I think can live with that. What else could we conclude after watching Jesus hang on that awful cross? How else to make sense of passages like 1 Corinthians 1:27-30 which talk about God choosing the weak and the foolish things of the world to shame the strong and the wise? Is not the entire narrative of Scripture the story of a Lover seeking to be loved in return?
This is not the most natural or familiar reading of John 21, I know. It could even be flat out wrong. But I somehow like the idea of Jesus knowing what it is to want to be seen truly, to be understood, to be accepted. And to be loved.
I am certain what you say here is true. My experience of the Holy Spirit, when it happens, seems to be triggered by just feeling love for the Lord. No words….okay maybe an internalized, “I love you”, now and again but nothing more.
I have never been sure of God responding to me in any other context. I mean I try to believe, to have faith but there is doubt…Is God present in my actions? Is God present in my words?
When I just sit and adore my love, who is my God, He comes. The peace, security and righteous self worth He gives to me are beyond words. They are tears of joy.
And so I go about His business with greater belief that my words and actions are pleasing to His will.
This is beautifully put, Paul. Thank you.
God is so good! I often wonder what Christian culture would look like if everyone who claimed faith spent 5 minutes a day in silent adoration.
Ryan, I’d never thought of this before. I sure do appreciate the idea – that Jesus was expressing the human desire to be loved. It shifts the relationship. It dignifies our humanity, gives us intrinsic value, and calls us to treat the relationship with care.
“It shifts the relationship. It dignifies our humanity, gives us intrinsic value, and calls us to treat the relationship with care.”
Well put, Renita!