I know you are all familiar with that catchy ad campaign years ago for a vanilla ice cream bar coated in milk chocolate. “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” Would you flap your arms and make chicken noises for a whole minute at the top of your lungs? Would you stand on your head with your shirt over your face and recite the alphabet? Would you get up on a table and with dramatic gestures sing the national anthem? They could always find some sucker who was able and willing. The rest of us would probably just smile, knowing we could get six Klondike bars for under three bucks at the nearest grocery store. Not worth losing any self-respect for that. Call them suckers, but the way they see it, a Klondike bar is worth a little bit of silliness or a slight diminishment of one’s status in other people’s eyes. In the end, we would all have had a good laugh and they would have gotten their vanilla ice cream bar coated in milk chocolate for free.
If Jesus were to ask us the question he had asked Peter in the gospel, “Do you love me?,” most of us would not hesitate. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” But first impressions seldom capture the fullness of reality as it truly is or as it is intended. So Jesus had to ask the question again … and yet a third time, until Peter understood better what Jesus really meant. We already know the right answer to the question, so it doesn’t have the same impact. If we simply repeat Peter’s answer, perhaps Jesus would follow up with a couple more questions. “And what are you willing to do to prove that you love me as much as you say you do? How far would you be willing to go?” What would we say in response? Um, I could do the chicken dance on top of the table while standing on my head? In the end, how much silliness would we be willing to display or how much of our precious self-respect would we be willing to surrender to prove that we love the Lord as much as we say we do?
I do not mean to imply that enduring hardship and suffering for love of God and the gospel is nothing more than silliness, or avoidable and unnecessary embarrassment. In the eyes of those who did not believe, as many of the religious leaders and the gawking crowds were at the time immediately following Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the apostles were being plain silly and unreasonable. Stop talking about that man Jesus and we’ll stop harassing you. Quit blaming us for his death and we promise to leave you alone. If that warning isn’t enough, we might have to use some force, like having you thrown in jail and beaten, or sent into exile. It’s not worth the pain and aggravation, so be good little girls and boys, and do as we tell you, and no one gets hurt. Capisce?
But what exactly was the reason behind Jesus’ question to Peter? I’m sure the other apostles knew, and they would have answered exactly as he did. How far would you go out of love for me? Hey Lord, it’s no sweat as long as it doesn’t mean more than going to church on Sunday and putting a couple of bucks in the collection, and occasionally saying grace before meals. It’s “no problem” as long as it doesn’t mean more than admitting I’m Catholic to some of my friends, and making the sign of the cross in public like when I have to take a test or throw a free shot. It’s entirely agreeable as long as it doesn’t mean more than eating fish on Fridays in Lent or avoiding yard work on Sundays, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my pursuit of personal happiness and economic prosperity. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you … most of the time anyway, except most Friday and Saturday nights, especially when I’m with my friends, especially when I’m trying to relax and take my mind off my problems at home or at work, and occasionally when there really is an easier way than the one you would prefer I take. Hey, you know everything, Lord. You know that I love you.
What is so difficult about loving God anyway? It seems admitting to it isn’t difficult for most. Instead, it’s in the actual practice of loving God that we encounter the most trouble. In the history of the church there have been countless men and women from many nations, cultures and social backgrounds from whom the love of God and the gospel have demanded precious more than just being perceived as silly or unreasonable by their peers, more than an experience of unnecessary embarrassment, more than a momentary loss of personal dignity or status. Rather, a great many of them faced the loss of their freedom, their property, their political ties, their families, even their lives out of love for God and the gospel. Even in our day, there are still some who face similar challenges to their faith each day, perhaps not to the point of death, but certainly requiring some degree of sacrifice few of us ever have to face. Unlike the heroes of the early church or those persecuted in far away lands, we live in relative peace among people who believe similarly as we, or at least tolerate the differences that separate us. So the witness to which we are called will probably never rise to the level of heroism that we admire in the lives of the apostles and martyrs of the church. So, what would Jesus mean if he were to ask us “Do you love me?” as he asked Peter?
Here’s a thought. When Jesus asked that question of Peter, “Do you love me?,” he followed up with the same simple instruction three different ways. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” What he told Peter doesn’t sound too difficult or demanding. But it requires a good measure of dedication and self-sacrifice. It reminds us of that other simple instruction we heard repeatedly in the gospel of John in the account of the last supper. “Love one another.” Now Jesus might be suggesting to Peter and to us that we should express our love for him by caring for the sheep of his flock, the community of the baptized who belong to him, especially those who would not respond to our care, those who would reject us or ignore us, and even those who would oppose us. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
During the Easter season, we will occasionally rejoice with members of our faith community and their families who are celebrating sacraments: Baptism, First Eucharist, Confirmation, and Weddings into the summer. By these we celebrate the growth of the body of Christ in the love of God. They are occasions that nourish us with God’s life. Unfortunately, some who claim to love Jesus sometimes find these occasions annoying and irritating. They see no reason for joy in the life-giving experiences of the sheep of God’s flock. The extra ten minutes we spend in church is more often an obstacle to their happiness. Pray for them too. If they cannot rejoice when the sheep of God’s flock are fed and nourished, they must have a better way to show Jesus their love for him, hopefully more than what they are willing to do for a Klondike bar.
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013