John 21:1-19
'You Know That I Love You'
by Rev. Steen G. Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.

At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.  He revealed himself in this way.  Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee's sons, and two others of his disciples.  Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing."  they said to him, "We also will come with you."  So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?"  They answered him, "No."  So he said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something."  So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.  So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord."  When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.  The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. 

When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.  Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you just caught,"  So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.  Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.  Jesus said to them, "Come, have breakfast."  And none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they realized it was the Lord.  Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

When the had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"  Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."  He then said to Simon Peter a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."  Jesus said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?"  and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.  Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch our your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."  He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.  And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."

David once prayer, Judge me, Lord, for I have walked in my innocence, and hoping in the Lord, I will not be put to shame.  Test me, Lord, and try me, burn pure my reins and my heart" (Ps 26:1-2).  Perhaps it's hard for us to pray this, or even to imagine wanting to pray it.  We usually don't want to invite anyone's judgment, especially not God's.  To know the Lord's judgment is to see things as they truly are.  And most of us know that if the light of absolute truth were to shine on every aspect of our lives, we would most certainly be shown to be in the wrong, at least in some respect.  None of us is perfect.  So, to invite that judgment would also entail a willingness to admit we are wrong, and to have to change.  This is not attractive to us.

But we get a sense from the psalmist's words that he prayed them with a certain confidence.  He was confident because he believed himself innocent and falsely persecuted.  He wanted God's judgment because he wanted God's vindication, as if to say, "You and I both know I am innocent, Lord, so please let everybody else know that I am in the right here, especially my enemies."  It may seem life self-righteousness, but it is not.  There was a real sincerity and even a certain humility in David's heart.  He asked the Lord, "burn pure my reins and my heart."

The heart was understood in the Hebrew worldview to be the center of thought and decision making, while the reins (or kidneys) were understood to be the seat of the emotional life and the subconscious, that part of ourselves that even we do not have total access to.  God does, because he created it. (That is what Ps 139:13 acknowledges: "For thou didst form my inward parts (literally, "my kidneys"), thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb."  Only God has access to the inmost depths of a person, both conscious and unconscious, and so David invited the Lord to probe - and to purify - those hidden recesses of himself.  If there was something that needed to be purified, he sincerely wanted to know.  To invite this kind of scrutiny takes humility and a real willingness to be changed.

In today's gospel, Simon Peter faces a certain kind of scrutiny.  He does not invite this judgment, but Jesus initiates it.  Jesus probes Peter's heart and reins by asking him three times, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  The Gospel tells us that Peter was distressed after being asked the third time.  Maybe part of the reason for his distress was that these three questions reminded him of the three times he had denied the Lord the night before his crucifixion.

Remember that before those three denials, there was also a fool-hardy profession.  At a certain point during the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that where he was now going, they could not follow right away, but only later.  Peter, with his typical impetuosity, said, "Lord, why cannot I follow you now?  I will lay down my life for you? (Jn 13:37).  St. John Henry Newman observed, "We may surmise that his fault was not merely self-deception, but, in a measure, a reserved devotion; that there was one corner (as it were) of his heart, which at that moment was not Christ's; for the more that is the case, the louder men commonly talk ...  When a man half suspects his own honesty, he make loud professions of it."  It's after that foolhardy profession that Our Lord predicted Peter's threefold denial.

Now, in his answering three times that he loves Jesus, Peter is given the opportunity not only to make up for his threefold denial, but also to make up for his prior foolhardy profession of love.  That time, his profession of love was rooted in pride and a false sense of himself.  This time, his profession of love is rooted in his knowledge of his own failure and his knowledge of Christ's forgiveness.  It is rooted in humility and in a sense of being totally known, through and through by Jesus.  Peter answers each question, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  And the third time, he answers, "Lord, you know everything you know that I love you."  This time, he acknowledges that J4sus knows him far better than he knows himself, and he has confidence that Jesus knows that he loves him.  Perhaps he could pray, along with David, "Judge me, Lord . . . Test me, Lord, and try me; burn pure my reins and my heart."