It was Our Lord who asked Peter three times, in rather unusual fashion: “Do you love me?” Peter answered three times, “yes – yes – yes.” And with each “yes”, Our Lord gave a command: Feed my lambs, Peter. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. If Peter really did love the Lord, then why did Our Lord ask at all? Does he not “know what is in man?” (John 2:24). Surely the all-knowing God knows, too, our thoughts.
God Tests Peter: Peter’s Denial and Ascent
When Jesus was arrested and his own prophecy regarding Peter was fulfilled, Peter – the Rock (Petra), was left devastated. In fact, scripture tells us that after Peter denied Christ three times,
“…Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
This was a moment of shame for Peter, and one that he would not likely forget. But it is an act of love when Jesus offers him this gift of redemption in the form of a question: “Peter do you love me?” Yes. Yes. Yes. Our Lord draws out of Peter the real truth, the truth about Peter’s identity, and what Peter denied before – beyond the sight of Christ in his shackles – is redeemed in the physical presence of his Risen Lord.
The Testing of Abraham
In another scene, ages before Jesus’ encounter with Peter, we see yet another man, Abraham, being asked to carry his son up the mount to be sacrificed at the Lord’s request. We all know the story – just before the fatal blow, God says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy nor do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” For now I know…Did the Eternal One not know before? Surely he did. But this was a moment for Abraham, not God.
The reason that Our Lord asked Peter about his love, the reason that God tested Abraham – it is not because God lacks knowledge regarding our constitution or our secret thoughts or even the deepest affections of our heart. Rather we are asked, as an Easter People, just like Peter and Abraham, to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and our identity. Are we lovers and trusters of God, or something else? In the case of St. Peter, his denial succeeds a promise: that Peter was a rock, and upon that rock Christ would build his Church. Was that promise still true after Peter’s fearful betrayal? Was the promise that Abraham would be a father to the nations voided after he would presumably give up that child of promise on the sacrificial table? No. Because always God keeps his promises, even when we fail him or even when we shrink back from and do not understand what he is asking of us.
Our Love for God as a Sacrament
These tests are mysterious and yet clarifying. In our greatest weaknesses and wants, Christ stands before us and he asks us to remember something about ourselves. And our remembering certifies the truth: “You know I love you”, we say. Not because God does not know it, but because it is so important for us to say it. In fact, it dignifies us to say it. And our love of God is a sacrament. So is our service, our wants of him, our desires for true happiness. In our bodies we make visible an invisible reality. In her book “These Beautiful Bones”, Emily Stimpson observes that it is the sacramental worldview that makes it possible for us to “convey in words, music, marble, and methods the divine splendor of the world”. And this is precisely what we do when Jesus comes asking us the question. Do you love me? Do you trust me?
When Christ calls and we answer, when we echo back to him what he has been saying from eternity – with our actions and even with our vocal chords – this is when we are most fully alive. Our rejection of God is the un-truth. Our distrust of him is the un-truth. So when he asks us to say what is true, it is not so that we can feed his ego. It is so that we can acknowledge, with and in our bodies, the truth about reality. We bear his image down to our bones. Being in the presence of Christ can do nothing but draw out in deeper measure this profound reality.
When the God-man approaches and he engages with us, in that piercing sort of way – that way that cuts through the façade and all the mistakes we have ever made, and all of our excuses – he draws out of us our true selves. Christ is the mirror of the law – and to each of us he reflects back the reality of who we are in the face of God.