In today’s Gospel, Jesus forgives Peter for denying him three times by asking him three times if Peter loves him. Again, Peter does not quite grasp the teaching, for after the third request of “Do you love me?” Peter is distressed, and with an impatient tone said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17).
Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter is not just about the repentance of Peter’s denial but the true nature of discipleship. To be disciples of Jesus is to love one another as Jesus loves us. Peter is called to repentance not for himself but to love others, to serve others. After each affirmation of love by Peter Jesus responds with: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
I have written often that love is best defined by St Thomas Aquinas as willing the good of the other as other. This is expressed vividly in Jesus’ imagery to Peter. If we say we love Jesus like Peter did, we will feed and tend the lambs and sheep of his flock. We will forgive, take care of, nourish, empower, support, guide and accompany one another. This means we will also love those who hate us, those who seek to persecute us, and love our enemies as ourselves.
Loving is a free gift of sharing the love we have received from Jesus and giving it away, person to person, expecting nothing in return. We do not love to get, but love to freely give without cost. The expression of our love will be different for each of us because Jesus commissions each of us to serve his lambs and sheep in a different ways.
Ultimately, what Jesus sends us to do is to enter into and build relationships with people. We begin relationships first and foremost by allowing the love of Jesus to flow through us, by loving the person as they are and where they are, just as Jesus has done with us. Jesus does not define us by our worst mistakes, Jesus loves us more than we can ever mess up, and Jesus loves us more than we can ever imagine. Are we ready to go into this week, day by day, encounter by encounter, online and in person, willing to do the same? Willing to feed Jesus’ lambs, willing to tend his sheep, and willing to feed his sheep?