Several years ago, in December, the Bushnell Theatre presented the production “Fiddler on the Roof”. It ran for 8 days. When I heard about it and because I loved this musical, I found someone to go with me. I was able to purchase 3 tickets.
There’s a very tender and moving scene in the play. Tevyev and his wife Golda are being forced to move from their home in Russia. One day Tevyev comes into the house and asks his wife, “Golda, do you love me?”
“Do I what?” she responds.
“Do you love me?”
Golda looks at him and then responds in song: “Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, go inside, go lie down, maybe it’s indigestion.”
Tevyev interrupts and asks the question again, “Golda, do you love me?” Golda sighs as she looked at him and says, “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cows. After 25 years, why talk of love right now?”
Tevyev answers by saying, “Golda, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared, I was shy, I was nervous.”
“So was I,” said Golda.
“But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other, and now I’m asking, “Golda, do you love me?”
“Do I love him?” Golda sighs. “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, 25 years my bed is his! If that’s not love, what is?”
“Then you love me?” Tevyev asks.
“I suppose I do!” she says.
“And I suppose I love you too!” he says. “It doesn’t change a thing, but after 25 years it’s nice to know.”
“Do you love me?” is the same question Jesus is asking Peter in this closing scene of the Gospel of John. It’s interesting to note that this closing scene is cast in the same spot where the first scenes of the gospel took place — on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Once again Peter was back to his old occupation…fishing. But he wasn’t having much fun at it or any success. After spending the entire night fishing, Peter and the other disciples hadn’t caught a thing. No fish.
Throughout that long and frustrating night of fishing, Peter’s thoughts keep flying back to another occasion, another time. He was remembering how Jesus had stood on the shore almost three years ago and said to him: “Come, follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.” Suddenly, John was shaking him and pointing toward the shore. Peter looked toward the shore and saw someone and asked, “Who is it?”
“Can’t you see?” cried John. “It’s the Lord!”
Again, Peter looked toward the shore and it was then that he recognized Jesus. Now, being Peter, impetuous and hasty, he jumps into the water and swims out to meet Jesus. But later, when Peter and Jesus are alone again that Jesus asks that question that breaks Peter’s heart.
“Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?”
It probably caused Peter great distress, to be asked that particular question. He knew he didn’t have a great track record. He knew his actions of cowardice and fear might certainly speak louder than words. But Jesus didn’t ask the question once; no…he asked it three times and each time Peter’s heart broke a bit more.
“Simon, do you love me?” Each time Peter responded by saying: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” And after each response, Jesus commissioned Peter with these words, “Feed my sheep!”
We could spend a good bit of time looking at the reasons behind Jesus’ question, the why behind his asking it three times and the way in which Peter answered. We could do that but I’d rather not. Instead, I’d rather look at the loving way in which Jesus dealt with Peter. Here is where hopes lies – mine hope and yours too. We know that love is something we all talk about. Love is something we romanticize about and that we can never seem to have enough of. It may be as difficult for us to speak of love – love of self, love for another, love for God as it was for Tevyev to ask the question “Do you love me?” and for Golda to answer it, “Yes, I love you.” And it may have been very difficult for Peter to answer that question. His behavior in the courtyard as Christ was being tried, stripped and mocked didn’t speak well of love; where was he when Christ was hung on the cross…well, he was hiding. Jesus knew the pain that Peter was experiencing; he had failed his Lord and his Savior. So a simple “I’ll take your word for it” response to the deeply poignant question, “Do you love me?” wasn’t going to do. There had to a cleansing moment of redemptive healing, an example of what love truly entailed…forgiveness. There had to be another opportunity offered where Peter wouldn’t fail a second time. “Feed my Sheep.” Jesus, in dealing with Peter, doesn’t just take Peter’s word for it; he wants a response, an action, some positive certainty that the message has been heard and understood. And what Christ asks of Peter is also asked of you and me. Put your love into play…make it work, make it real, make it felt, live it out, experience it and see how it is being experienced in the lives of others. Feed my sheep.
Well, for one thing, we have learned through Christ’s life, that love is caring about others. Christ cared about others and now expects his disciples to do the same. Christ teaches Peter how to love someone by moving beyond the past. Peter after all had denied Christ three times. It is reasonable to assume that Peter, at the very least, owed Jesus an apology for those denials, but Christ isn’t looking for apologies.
When our kids do something really stupid, we are more concerned that they learn from their actions and not repeat them than we are to hear a hastily contrived apology. Kids are supposed to make mistakes – that’s what being a child means. They fail, fall, get up and learn another way, a better way to live – all by trial and error. If we see them acting more responsibly because they learned something new in those moments of irresponsibility and the aftermath than we, as parents, relax. We’ve done our job to teach them and they’re doing their job by learning how to act in a more productive and safe way.
In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address one line reminds us what a caring and compassionate man Lincoln was. His address included the words most of us memorized in grade school: “With malice toward none; With charity for all.” On the day the war ended, Lincoln put this idea into practice in Washington. A crowd gathered at the White House and a military band was playing some festive music. Lincoln stood on the balcony of the White House and spoke. Instead of lashing out against the South, he spoke of the horrors of war being over. He spoke of families getting back together. He spoke of a time of peace.
Then he said, “In a few moments I want the band to play and I’m going to tell them what I want them to play.” Of course, the band started gearing up for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This had been the theme song of the North throughout the Civil War. But Lincoln crossed them up. He stood there and said: “The band will now play the theme song of the people we have called our enemy. They are not our enemies any more! We are one people again. I want the band to play ‘Dixie.’ ”
Historians say there was a long, awkward pause. The band didn’t have the music to “Dixie,” but they finally got together and played it. Lincoln knew that the South was not only hurting because of the horrors of the war, but also because of the shame, which accompanies defeat. Sending a clear signal to the South and to the North, Lincoln was telling everyone that there would be no punishment, no retribution. Those who had been defeated by war would be won over with love and compassion. For Peter, the question repeatedly asked and answered was not intended to prove his love with words. It wasn’t about loyalty. Peter already knew that Jesus forgives, even the shortcomings of a weak man. Jesus didn’t ask Peter to answer the question three times, “Simon, Do you love me?” because Christ didn’t believe in Peter’s love. Christ asked Peter to answer three times so Peter could hear his own answer and begin once again to believe that he indeed did love Jesus. His responses, each one, became the means of his own healing. Then Peter would be free to let go of his self-doubt, his shame and guilt and forgive himself. It’s often easier to forgive someone else than it is to forgive our selves.
Easter is the wrapped up gift of God’s love for us…a true offering of patient, caring love. On the cross, Christ gave himself to free us from our doubts, our fears, our shame, our guilt. And our response? Our response is to offer ourselves to others in love and with a forgiving compassion. To wrap others up in the care of God’s compelling love – feed my sheep. It is the truest evidence that the message has gotten through. We are loved and therefore, we can love others in Christ’s name.
God never lets go of us and never gives up on us, so how we can we give up either. There is forgiveness, caring, and healing in God’s love for us. We have this witness – Christ extended his love to a man who had denied him three times; we have the empty cross that shows us once again how far God will go to say, Yes, I love you. Now, go and feed my sheep. Amen.
 The New York Times, published: August 11, 1907 Copyright © The New York Times