If you love Christ

art 02 Goya, St. Peter Repentant, 1823-25How do you know when you’re a grown-up? That’s the question a producer for The Atlantic recently took to the streets.1 Now that I think about it, it seems a lot like the question Jesus asked Peter after breakfast that morning on the beach – “Do you love me?” – not wanting to know how Peter felt about him, I think, as much as how grown-up Peter had become after everything that had happened. Are you grown up now, Peter?

“How much can I trust you, Peter?” he might have been asking. Are you grown-up enough to do what I’ve commissioned you to do? Are you mature enough to continue the work I’ve only begun? And because in the gospels the twelve disciples represent the whole church, and because Peter symbolizes the leaders of the church who must keep the gospel alive for everyone else, Christ keeps asking those questions of us. Of us!

The people on the street had some interesting answers for The Atlantic. You know you’re a grown-up when you start paying a mortgage, when you get your own apartment. Some thought you’re a grown-up when you’re free to make your own decisions and start being responsible for yourself. One person thought you’re a grown up when people are looking to you to provide insight and wisdom.

Other responses left me thinking harder. You’re a grown-up, someone said, when you lose your imagination, when you stop approaching life with the imagination of a child. And here I remember Jesus said that unless you become like a little child, you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:2-4). Does being a grown-up mean losing some essential quality of our relationship with God?

But the response that stands out for me is this one: You know you’re a grown-up when you start thinking about other people’s feelings and needs. When your attention shifts from you to others, when the weight of your concern tips from yourself to your neighbor, to your community, to the human family, then you might get the idea that maybe you’re a grown-up.

Do you love me? Feed my sheep.

When the risen Christ encountered the nascent church, he told them how to get what they needed to sustain and nourish their life. Change your focus, he said, shift your attention and put your net down over here; you’ll get what you’re looking for (John 21:1-6). As grown-ups, as spiritually mature people, we are able to trust that God will provide what is necessary for the life God creates, even when little or nothing about it meets our expectations.

And God does provide all that’s necessary for what God intends. God loves us that much; God values us that much; we are such an essential part of creation, God will continue to organize creation so we have all we need to play our part in it. The question is, are we willing to do the same? Have we grown up enough, are we mature enough, to view our brothers and sisters and all of creation with the same selfless love Jesus modeled for us? Do we value the example of Jesus that much?

When I think of Peter I wonder how ready he was, how really grown up he was. When I remember that he came to the end of his life in a crucifixion much like that of Jesus, I wonder if he was grown up enough to be ready for that. Did he love Christ enough to be ready for even that? Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps, or Nelson Mandela, or Teresa of Calcutta might have been that grown up. But folks like me?

Frankly, I can relate to Peter on that post-resurrection morning on the beach. “I’m going fishing,” he said. After the hallelujahs, I’m going back to what I know, to what’s familiar and comfortable and predictable. I don’t know if I know how to handle life after an encounter with resurrection, but I’ve learned how to handle this life. Maybe I’ll just go back to this life and try to relate to the risen Christ when I can give my attention to it, with as much commitment as I’m able to muster in the moment when I think of it. Maybe I’m grown up just enough for that. And maybe that’s all the risen Christ expects of me or any of us, after all.

Now I’ve got to include a little lesson in New Testament Greek. There are two words for “love” in the story of Jesus and Peter on the beach: philios, a friendship or brotherly love, and agape, the selfless, self-surrendering, self-giving kind of love. Listen to the exchange with those two kinds of love in mind.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said, “Simon,” – notice he’s using Peter’s earlier name, not his new name, Petros, “the rock,” maybe because he wasn’t sure how much of a rock Simon was at that moment – “are you willing to give yourself up completely for me?” And Simon said, “Well, you know I’m your friend, right?” “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon, are you willing to sacrifice yourself, to lay your life aside, for me?” And Simon responded, “Well, gee, we’ll always be friends.” “Take care of my sheep.”

A third time Jesus asked, and maybe by now he realized Simon wasn’t all that grown up after all, “Simon, will you just be my friend?” And Simon, not understanding what Jesus was really asking but only that his ego had been wounded, said, “Lord, you know I’m your friend.” “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus wants that grown-up, selfless, self-surrendering, self-giving kind of love from us. Unless you take up your cross and give up everything you have, he said, you can’t be my disciple (Luke 14:27, 33). But sometimes the best I can do is offer not my whole self but this little part of myself, my friendship. Maybe I’m not grown up enough to lay down my life like Jesus and some others have done.

But I can feed some sheep; I can take care of some sheep. I can tip a little more toward caring for the feelings and needs of others, and allow myself to decrease a bit. Pay attention, in your encounter with others, to what tugs at your heart. It will lead you deeper into your relationship with God. It will lead you deeper into the new life of resurrection. Let it lead you.


notes — 1. Brian Frank, “How Do You Know When You’re a Grown-Up?” The Atlantic, 7 April 2016, theatlantic.com.

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