In John 21:1-19 we read that Jesus showed Himself again to the apostles.The account provides us with a reminder that while Jesus is among us, risen from the dead, we do not see Him. He must manifest Himself. The resurrection appearances are different from the rest of life. The Lord is not present in the same way at all times. In fact, seeing Jesus is not the norm, then or now.
The Lord's resurrection appearances are often connected with food and eating. Here Jesus laid out fish and bread for their breakfast--is it a reminder of the multiplication miracle and metaphor for Eucharist? Clearly it demonstrates God's Providence--Jesus provides food. Feeding is a fundamental image of loving; a nursing mother is the iconic expression of that truth. The child literally consumes the mother, even as the Believer consumes Jesus in bread and wine at eucharist. It is a mystery, but a very mundane and ordinary mystery. To love is to feed another.
"Do you love me?" Jesus asked Peter. Once, then again and again...
Is Jesus letting Peter balance the books for the triple betrayal? Is it a solemn ritual establishing Peter as chief shepherd? Probably both. Can it serve as a metaphor for the larger church; including you and I? Yes. in John's Gospel there are always levels of meaning. Like Peter, we betray Jesus, yet He entrusts us with an apostolic ministry!
Do you love me? Jesus asks us.
"Yes we love you!" we correctly respond. We know the right answer, so we say it: "Yes, we love you Jesus!" But it is the answer of unreflective piety.
The second question gives us pause. It invites us to ponder. Repeating the question confronts our hearts, "do I really love Jesus?" The second time the answer is more humble, even tentative. "Yes, I love you, or hope I do."
Then the third time... Peter was hurt to be asked a third time. What caused the pain? Was he hurt because he thought Jesus doubted, or was he hurting because he felt the love deeply---with all it entails? The third response is the authentic response.
"I love you. I really love you. I love you so much it hurts!"
So each of us is also invited into a level of personal relationship far beyond the safety of religion. It snatches out of the business of "going to heaven?" and places us in a face to face encounter with Jesus, who proceeds to turn our world upside down.
"Yes I love you Lord" receives no promise of salvation. It is not an invitation to intimate encounter or mystical bliss. This is rather unexpected really, especially when I think of the way most Christians view Jesus. Loving Jesus becomes not an end but a starting place! "If you love me feed my sheep."
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He loves His sheep. Why would we think that loving Him would ever be a 'one on one' relationship? If the Lord "lays down His life for the sheep" why would we think He then abandons them to provide us spiritual peace and comfort, or private salvation? What most of us think about responding to Jesus may be unbiblical, even if it is rather appealing to the western individualism which blinds us to so much in the Middle Eastern language of the Gospel (and bible).
One confusion in our society is the idea that my personal relationship with Jesus is not related to others. I hear it all the time from people who prefer churchless Christianity. It is currently almost viewed as noble to love Jesus and disdain the church these days. The sinners inside the church are somehow seen as justification to abandon the church; as if the world had no sin... "Me and Jesus are good" people say to me regularly, as they live lives in isolation assuming that they love Jesus so He is satisfied.... Peter is told each time: if you love Me then love others. To love Jesus is to feed and care for the sheep. Feed them. Watch over them. Lead and guard them. And let's be clear, the sheep are the church and the sheep are Israel.
Loving the invisible Jesus can be a fantasy. Feeding and tending the flock is completely real. Like a nursing mother we give our own selves to them--our time and energy. They consume us. It costs us. It makes us weary. It is the role of the church as defined by Jesus!
As Jesus promised, Peter lost control of his life. So have we. It is a strange blessing. Jesus loves us beyond our imaging. Jesus wants us to love Him, but He knows the best way to love Him is by loving others. We are called to a life of sacrifice in imitation of the One Who was sacrificed for us. At least in this reading, the Good Shepherd wants us to feed and tend the sheep. This is why outreach matters. It is what Jesus wants from those who love Him.