The Word Among Us

Easter 2014 Issue

Do You Love Me?

Why does Jesus ask us this question?

Do You Love Me?: Why does Jesus ask us this question?

Scripture tells us that Jesus didn’t just reveal himself to people like Mary Magdalene and the Emmaus disciples—people who were on their own and locked in their grief. It tells us that he appeared to all eleven apostles as a group, to a few apostles on a fishing boat, and to more than five hundred followers at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). These must have been joyous, happy occasions, a combination family reunions and miraculous revelations of God’s power and redemption.

But in the midst of joyous events like these, Jesus still went in search of the confused and the dispirited. For instance, he invited Thomas to probe the wounds of his crucifixion and urged him to believe (John 20:27). And on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, he asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” as a way of overcoming Peter’s guilt for having denied him three times (21:15). Again, these personal encounters have much to teach us about how we can meet Jesus during this Easter season.

Both of these stories show us how deeply Jesus loved his disciples—not just as a group but each of them individually. They also show us how Jesus’ love has the power to pull down barriers in our lives and bring us closer to him.

Love Overcomes Doubt. The barrier for Thomas was his doubt and refusal to believe. Because he hadn’t been with the disciples the first time Jesus appeared to them, all Thomas had was their word that Jesus had risen from the dead. But that wasn’t enough for him. He had to see Jesus for himself. He had to touch his wounds to know for sure.

Jesus didn’t mind Thomas’ reluctance. He loved Thomas enough to agree to his request. He loved him enough to allow himself to be probed and prodded—just so that this doubting disciple could find his faith again. And that love, that desire to reach out in this personal way, melted Thomas’ heart and moved him to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

For his part, Thomas clearly loved Jesus. He had followed him from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. Throughout his public ministry, he stuck with Jesus through thick and thin. He was even willing to die alongside him (John 11:16). When Thomas saw the risen Lord, he saw that Jesus wasn’t just Lord and God; he was Thomas’ Lord and God. Seeing Jesus and hearing his humble invitation to feel his wounds awakened that love in Thomas’ heart and moved him to cry out in faith.

Likewise, Jesus knows how much you love him, even in the midst of your own questions and doubts. In fact, he sees your love more clearly than you do. He knows that you long for his presence. He knows how much you want to be right with him and with everyone else. All he asks is that you try to fix your heart on him, and that love will well up within you—a love that is strong enough to restore you, sustain you, and move you into the world as his ambassador.

Love Overcomes Guilt. Jesus drew the same kind of love out of Peter when he talked with him on the shore (John 21:15-19). Three times, he asked Peter, “Do you love me?”—once for each time that Peter had denied him. And each time Peter answered, “Yes.” Jesus didn’t ask why Peter had abandoned him. He didn’t rebuke this chief apostle for his weak faith. He didn’t enter into a long conversation about what Peter had done wrong and how he could avoid it in the future. All he did was tell Peter to go out and take care of his “sheep.” He just told him to get back to work! All was forgiven. It was as if it had never happened in the first place.

This is the kind of love that Jesus wants us to experience as well, especially when we feel as if we have failed him. Of course, these encounters can happen at any time, but they take on a special importance when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confessing our sins, we find great relief in knowing that Jesus doesn’t hold our failings over us. He never condemns us for our past faults. Rather, he takes the time to address our needs, our fears, our doubts, and our moments of weakness. And then simply and gently, he wipes it all away so that we can continue on the path that he has marked out for us.

We should not feel like failures. In ways both big and small, we will all betray Jesus at one time or another. We will all turn away from him. And that means we will all feel guilty for what we have done. But Jesus doesn’t want us to stay trapped in our guilt or weighed down by our sins. He wants to lift us up and fill us with his love so that we can feel confident enough to go out and help build his Church.

Love Is the Last Word. As much as Jesus’ love for these two disciples helped draw them to deeper faith, something else happened as well: Jesus drew love out of them. He didn’t command Thomas to believe in him. He didn’t force him to say, “My Lord and my God.” All he said was “Touch me.” Neither did he try to convince Peter of his love for the wayward fisherman. All he asked was, “Do you love me?” Of course, Jesus knew the answer. He just wanted Peter to realize it as well! Yes, Peter was trying to follow his Master. Yes, he wanted to please him and serve him. He may have let fear overtake him at Jesus’ arrest, but that one instance couldn’t overcome all the love for Jesus in Peter’s heart.

In these tender, heartfelt encounters, Jesus showed both Thomas and Peter that love is greater than sin—both Jesus’ love for them and their love for Jesus. Both these apostles learned that sin is never the last word. Love is always the last word!

Love Raises Our Sights. Some commentators think that by going fishing, Peter was returning to his old life before he met Jesus. They say that Peter had given up on himself and decided he wasn’t cut out to be a “fisher of men.” All he could do was catch fish. Others, however, caution against reading too much into this scene. Peter was a fisherman, they say, and he needed to support himself and his family.

Still, no matter how we interpret the opening of this story, its conclusion is clear: Jesus sought out Peter and reaffirmed his calling to be shepherd of the flock. He made it clear that Peter wasn’t disqualified as an apostle. He still had enough confidence in Peter to entrust him with the role of feeding his sheep—even to the point of laying down his life for them (John 21:18-19). In his guilt and shame over having denied the Lord, Peter may have retreated to the margins, but Jesus didn’t let him stay there.

Likewise with Thomas, Jesus welcomed him back with open arms. He didn’t rebuke him or take away his calling. He treated him just the same as he did all the other apostles, calling him to deeper faith and calling his attention to all those who would come to believe, not because they saw Jesus but because of Thomas’ own testimony as an apostle and evangelist (John 20:29).

It’s amazing how doubt and guilt can cause us to lower our expectations and turn our focus inward. Our past failures, along with our weaknesses, can move us to pay more attention to our small challenges and miss out on how much the world needs to hear the good news that we have to share.

Too much self-focus can even lead us to overemphasize our quest for holiness. It seems that Jesus was telling Peter to go out and serve—to feed his sheep. The same goes for us. Seek to be as holy as your heavenly Father. Try to stop sinning. But don’t let your personal shortcomings keep you from serving your family, your parish, and the needy.

The Surprise of Easter. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus doesn’t wait for us to make ourselves worthy—or perfect. He rushes to our side and pours his love into our hearts. He never wearies of coming to us, healing us, and showing us his love and his holiness. Day after day, week after week, year after year, Jesus never tires of drawing us out of the margins and the shadows so that we can walk in his light. May we never tire of looking for his revelation and inviting him to be with us!