The dialogue between Jesus and Peter that I examined in the first part of this letter is not the only time that Jesus questions Peter with the hope of revealing something to him. For anyone who is actively seeking Christ in his spiritual life should be acquainted with this kind of dialogue with the Lord, the difference being that it can sometimes seem, unlike Peter’s experience, that Jesus never gives us answers, only more questions. The infusion of God’s wisdom in us can have this effect, especially as we allow it to sink into the bloodstream of our souls and literally change our lives. Like Mary in the Gospel of Luke who “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we are invited by the Holy Spirit, yes, to be aware of the presence of God in a practical way, but more than this we are to be caught up in the mystical working of the Spirit, constantly pondering the works and mercy of God in our hearts. This is the kind of contemplation that sets Christian spirituality apart from the traditions of other religions; our experiences in contemplation do not arise out of our own experiences within us but originate totally without us, that is, outside of our own experience, and the fruits which are borne from our spirituality come completely from the goodness of God and not from our own pious inclinations or feelings. This grace, being that it builds on nature, must be accepted by us and thus the works of God may be made manifest through our cooperation with this grace. More often than not, these experiences of grace and of the Lord working in us are the result of or will follow one of these question-and-answer sessions with the Lord wherein he will ask us one of two essential questions: the first, as we already saw, is “Who do you say that I am?” That is, “Do you trust me? Do you really believe that I am who you say I am? To whose opinion of me will you listen?” The second, which will we will now encounter, is “Do you love me?”
As I have often written in other places, there are many ideas presented in scripture that are foundational to our ministry as servants of the Word. The absolute foundation must be our identity as sons and daughters of God the Father, adopted by grace and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Another foundational concept in the life of service and discernment is beautifully presented in this encounter between Jesus and Peter in the Gospel of John, 21:15-17:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
In this brief conversation, Jesus reveals his desire for Peter’s service to his flock, undoubtedly to the Church proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples had now been travelling with Jesus for a long time, listening to him preach, and allowing him to show, by deed and word, the way his disciples should tend his flock once he had left them. More than this, during their time together Jesus was teaching his followers how to love their neighbors, and how to do so with the heart of a servant.
At the center of Jesus’ questions to Peter is this love. “Peter do you love me?” Our blessed Lord proposes the same question three times in direct succession, even causing Peter to become distressed as if, perhaps, the Lord does not believe his love to be genuine, and so Jesus asks again just to be sure. It is critical to take note that Jesus does not ask Peter this question three times because it is he who needs the confirmation of Peter’s love. Rather, Christ asks Peter this question for the sake of Peter’s realization that he does in fact love the Lord and will do whatever he asks because at the heart of our profession of belief and love in Christ Jesus is the call to service, the call to lay down our lives, and to follow Christ. This is why, after each profession of love, Jesus gives Peter his vocation: take care of my flock! Lay down your life for me and for the Church which you are to build in my name! Be the source of unity for my people and have faith.
So often, in my own prayer life, the question-and-answer sessions with Jesus culminates in a dead end with seemingly no progress made. Like Peter, I become bereft because I do not see the point to the constant questioning of the Lord, but this is a result of only one thing: my own ignorance of what Jesus is actually asking me! When we surrender to Jesus, “Lord you know everything,” then we can see what Christ is up to: he is trying to show us that he is the way, the truth, and the life. I encourage you to pray for the grace to have a heart which is quiet enough to discern which question Jesus is really asking: “Who do you say that I am?” or “Do you love me?” In the case of Peter, the answer to each question yielded untold graces; in one instance, he was entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven and, in the other, was entrusted with care of the flock of Christ, to which we all belong.
Christ calls each of us out of our selves, out of our daily lives and into his service, which is essentially the service of his gospel and his Church. When Jesus calls, when Christ questions, discern which question he is asking and then respond with all your heart! Let your answer to God’s call be, like Mary, a constant “yes,” always ready to act in word and deed but even more willing to ponder, with a spirit of contemplation, all of these things in your heart so that when Jesus looks you in the eyes and says “Feed my sheep,” you might know what he means and faithfully follow the Good Shepherd through the pastures of salvation.
In this third part of this letter, I will discuss John XXIII and the providence of God. To be continued.