“A bell’s not a bell ’til you ring it,
A song’s not a song ’til you sing it.
Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay,
Love isn’t love ’til you give it away!”
Brother Matt Schaefer, C.PP.S.
These lyrics from The Sound of Music may sound sentimental (they’re supposed to!), but they contain a truth about the nature of love that is vital not only to a healthy human life but to a faithful and generative Christian life. A lesson about such love is found in today’s Gospel.
Jesus appears to the disciples during an unsuccessful fishing attempt. He enables them to catch an abundance of fish. The lesson here: on our own we can do nothing. Then Jesus questions Peter three times regarding his love for Jesus. Despite Peter’s distress over the repeated questioning, Jesus is neither doubting Peter’s love nor chastising him for his past failures. Instead Jesus’s purpose behind this encounter with Peter seems to be threefold.
First, he is offering Peter reconciliation. Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. Even though the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the disciples before, Peter must have still harbored shame and disappointment over his weakness. Here he is given the opportunity to profess his love for Jesus three times to counter his three denials. His mistakes are now truly forgiven.
Second, Jesus is giving Peter a mission to carry on the work of Jesus, to care for and nourish the people, physically and spiritually. Jesus is also giving Peter the responsibility to tend the sheep, giving him authority over the emerging Church—a demonstration of the completeness of his reconciliation.
The third purpose of this encounter is not just for Peter’s sake—it is for everyone. Jesus is showing that real love is more than just a sentiment or a declaration. When someone truly loves, he is changed as a person. Real love compels us to share that love, not only with those whom we love, but with the whole world. If love doesn’t change us, what is its purpose? If we keep our love for Jesus to ourselves, are we truly following him? To participate in the work of bringing people to God, we must allow our love for Jesus to overflow from our hearts to shape, to color, to enfold, and to transform the world around us.