Acts of the Apostle 25:13b-21
Many readers will be familiar with the musical ‘Fidler on the Roof’. In this show two of the principal characters, Tevye and Golde, sing one duet. The song is Do you Love me. Tevye who is married to Golde asks her, after these many years of marriage, “do you love me?”. At first, she resists even answering; but he keeps asking and she then answers that for 25 years she has looked after him, cared for the family and done so many things, but she does not use the words he longs to hear. So, he asks again, and she replies, ‘I’m your wife’ and goes on to speak about the many aspects of their relationship – still stressing the actions she does for him – like being with him, sharing intimacy together etc. Finally, after he persists, she says the word ‘love’.
In the end they both sing that saying they love each other may not change the way they are together nor affect the many actions they do for each other, but it is ‘nice to know’.
Jesus and Peter might be said to have a similar dialogue. Jesus wishes to reassure Peter that he In close to him, that he and Peter will share a bond of no less than love itself and that Peter for his part only need to assent to this. We read this text in English, and so the word ‘love’ seems to be used equally by Jesus and Peter. But in fact, Jesus and Peter are using different words for ‘love’. Indeed, Peter cannot bring himself to use the same deep and intimate word for ‘love’ that Jesus is using, preferring instead to use a ‘softer’ word. Finally, it is Jesus who changes his terminology and uses Peter’s language so as to reach a point of unity and communion between them.
And the ‘assent’ that Jesus is seeking is one of the heart – not just an assent of mind and will. This is so that Peter may be a true leader for the people – for leadership in the vision of Jesus – requires not just competence, or energy and availability, true as they are, but it requires relational commitment to the people. For Jesus to be a leader is t be a person with a heartfelt love for others and someone who lives only to serve. This often also entails a sacrifice of self for others.
What is more, Peter is being asked to now care for a flock that has become more sedentary and settled. That is, as this text unfolds, we see it reflects the life of a Christian community that has lived in the light of the resurrection for many generations already and who are at home with the Spirit’s influence in their lives. The church in the Johannine vision is more established and requiring more attention to its internal needs. Peter is being asked to exercise a ‘pastoral’ role and not only a missionary one (more suited to the evangelising mission of the early church). Thus, we see in the scene the movement from fishing (missionary work) to a commitment of ongoing pastoral care (and thus the symbolic image of the church as a flock needing care and nourishment i.e., ‘feed my sheep’).
This balance of the church missionary, and the church pastoral is one we live to this day. Whether we serve the Lord in missionary outreach or in pastoral care of the community itself, let our actions always be a response to his call ‘Do you love me?”. Let us take consolation too in the reality that all our service will find its nourishment in the Eucharist – as does Peter in today’s meal on the beach with Jesus.
Fr. Denis Travers, C.P., is one of the consulters of Holy Spirit Province. He is also the parish priest of St. Pauls and superior of the monastery at Urrbrae, SA.