In the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we find a gut-wrenching encounter between Jesus and Peter that defines the essence of Peter’s mission. To make this encounter unforgettable, Jesus takes Peter to the point of deep distress as he asks him not once, but three times, “Do you love me?”
It is hard to imagine what this must have been like for Peter. I have a natural expectation that if my wife looked intently at me and asked, “Do you love me?”, I would answer, and all would be fine. But if she looked at me again and asked the same question, I would start to worry. If, after my second response, she continued to look me dead in the eyes—without acknowledgement of my insistence that I did love her—I would be deeply grieved and concerned about our relationship. I would wonder what I had done, where her line of questioning was leading, where I had failed her.
Peter must have felt the same anxiety, as Jesus continued to gaze at him and solemnly repeat for a third time “Feed my sheep.”
Through this exchange Jesus, in an unforgettable way, defines what it means for Peter to love him. After this encounter, Peter’s purpose and mission are burned into his soul with perfect clarity. He must feed Jesus’ sheep, giving them what they need to know the Lord—and to love him with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
This might have been one of the most intense of their encounters, but Jesus had already made this point to his disciples on many prior occasions. Jesus consistently emphasized that if we love him, we must be dedicated to serving others. The love we give to others in his name is love for Jesus Himself—and the love we withhold from others is love withheld from our Lord himself. Serious stuff.
Closing out the Gospel of Matthew, we have in Jesus’ last words the same admonition leveled directly at all of us. Here Jesus says to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
It seems pretty clear. If we love him, we will bring people to him. We will make disciples. We will feed His sheep.
The challenge is that we have a million excuses for why we don’t do this. Time is a big one. Second to time are our doubts and fears about our own abilities—as when Moses complained to God, “I am not equipped for this.” God’s response then is the same now: “I didn’t ask you if you were able; I told you to go.” Of course He knows that He will equip us. The very last words of Matthew’s Gospel reveal His final promise: “I am with you always.” We are simply to obey, and he will do the rest.
This obedience is the hallmark of every saint. Every saint, I dare say without exception, accomplished far more than they could have ever imagined. All of them had life-changing encounters with Christ and an intimacy with him that so many today long to have. Is this your own longing?