A Burning Question
I remember it well, as if it was yesterday, yet it was May 1972. We had gone to see the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical that would have a lasting impact on me. As the house lights went down in a small theatre in Spokane, Washington, I was drawn into the story of Teyve, the Dairy man and his family.
I was unmarried then, so the role of Yenta, the matchmaker intrigued me. However, it was the burning question that Tevye asked his wife Golde that has lingered in my mind. “Do you love me?” he asked her, to which she aghast replied, “Do I what?”
His repeated question brought forth a list of ways in which she tried to prove her love for him. “For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow…if that’s not love, what is?” After the back-and-forth banter they come to the conclusion, “then you love me?” to which the other replies, “I suppose I do.”
“Do you love me?” is the universal and forever question. Books, plays, songs, and movies have spun tales of love lost and found through the passage of time. The Gospels too are full of stories, parables of God’s love for humankind.
What stands out for me, is the breakfast by the sea of Tiberius in John 21:15-19. It is a post Resurrection scene when Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter’s spontaneous reply is, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Peter had denied Jesus three times during his passion, so Jesus now asks Peter to reaffirm his faith. The emphasis here is on Peter’s love and obedience to the risen Christ. Jesus commissions Peter to “feed my sheep.” Jesus is asking for agape, (Greek) unconditional love.
When Peter responds, he expresses phileo, brotherly love. Jesus’ reiterated question moves Peter from phileo to agape love. In stretching Peter, Jesus attempts to make him understand his new role, as shepherd of God’s people, not an ordinary fisherman. He was being called upon to glorify God by spreading the Gospel.
Peter’s weaknesses and failings were obliterated in the fire of God’s love. If he felt the shame of his betrayal of Jesus, it was washed away with mercy and forgiveness.
The test of love is action. Am I willing to be an ambassador for Christ? Of the twelve apostles, only John died of natural causes, the rest were martyred. Tradition has it that St. Peter was crucified upside down!
There are many people who have given up their lives for love of God, like the eight Jesuit missionaries who are recognized as Canadian martyrs – St. Rene Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Lalande, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Noel Chabanel, St. Charles Granier, and St. Gabriel Lalemant.
Visiting the Martyrs’ shrine in Midland, Ontario reminds one of the sacrifices these brave men of God made to spread the Gospel message among the Hurons.
Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while saying Mass, all because he loved God in the poor who were being illtreated. Thousands have sacrificed their lives for their faith. Bishop Robert Barron says that, “The ultimate test of discipleship is our willingness to abandon our egos and be carried by a power greater than ourselves.” I see that power as God’s love propelling us forward to act in love on our daily walk.
The National Catholic Register of March 2, 2021 has an article about Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, who fought for the rights of Christians and others, and was sadly assassinated 10 years ago. A devout Catholic, he ignored the death threats he received saying, “I am a disciple of Christ, I will never abandon my country and my people.”
In a video recorded for release in case he was killed, Shahbaz Bhatti clearly states, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his life for us. I know what is the meaning of (the) cross, and am following of his cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.” He definitely answered Jesus’ question by giving up his life for love of God.
Like the apostle Peter, we are all called to provide spiritual nourishment to help others grow. The call is not easy. Christianity is about our relationship with Jesus. Do I love him enough to feed his sheep that may entail suffering? Thomas Merton reminds us that “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone, we find it with another.” The other is Jesus.
I now find myself singing and reflecting on the Carey Landry hymn:
“Do you really love me? Jesus said to Peter,
Do you really love me? Jesus said again.
Lord you know I love you, Peter said with joy,
Then feed my lambs, he said, Peter feed my sheep.”
Rooted in Christ, I have stepped into his circle of unending love.