3rd Sunday of Easter
“Do you love me … Feed my sheep.”
As we move quickly away from the celebration of Easter Sunday, the Church continues to keep before our eyes the glory of the Risen Christ, and our hope to one day share in His glory and happiness in Heaven, in the risen body. Today’s second reading from the Apocalypse of St. John draws back the veil of Heaven and allows us to glimpse for a moment the myriads of angels and saints as they praise the Triumphant Lamb, risen from the dead, “worthy to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise, … forever and ever!” This is the eternal liturgy of Heaven, of those who have already joined the Triumphal Lamb, but likewise the liturgical praise already here on earth of those who will one day also enjoy the divine beatitude and render God this eternal praise in thanksgiving for His gift of Eternal Life.
But we know all too well that we do not yet enjoy this gift in its fullness as do the saints and angels already in heaven. We still live in a very troubled and suffering world, a world which, for the most part, still does not know the true God and His Son, the Lamb who died and rose to save this world. Faith is clearly not a mark of our age, nor of this world at large. Heaven is not the primary or even a secondary concern of most people in this world. Money, pleasure, comfort, power, these are the goals of the children of this world, today, as in the time of the Lamb who was slain for proclaiming the truth, a truth which the world cannot bear to hear.
This lesson was driven home to the first Pope, Peter, who is warned at the end of today’s Gospel that the servant is not greater than the Master. Jesus told Peter to expect his own crucifixion as the punishment for his love of Christ, a love which he had just professed, and for feeding His sheep out of love for Christ, that is, for following in Christ’s footsteps. Jesus obviously does not say this to Peter to discourage him, for the Gospel adds that this death of Peter was the way in which he would most glorify God, as was the case with his Master! Perhaps, Peter could not see this glorious aspect of His death just then, but we see in the first reading that he soon understood quite well what Christ was teaching him. For after they were whipped by orders of the Jewish High Court, they went forth not bitter and filled with a desire for revenge, but “full of joy that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of the name,” for the sake of their faith in and love for Jesus.
What is it that enables the Christian to imitate Christ, to accept persecution even with joy when it is for the sake of His name, to forgive as he forgave from the Cross, to be grateful to share His cross? What is it, in other words, that alone will enable us to be among the great company saved by the Church, among the blessed who share the never ending meal with the Lamb and sing the praises of the Lamb and the One who is seated on the throne, forever and ever?
The dialogue of Jesus with Peter makes it clear what is necessary for us to triumph over persecution and suffering of every kind, over hatred and the desire for revenge, to find forgiveness even for our enemies: “Peter,” Jesus asks three times, “do you love me,” and when Peter responds yes each time, each time Jesus adds, “then tend and feed my sheep.”
Love of Christ is the key to everything necessary to get to heaven. But this love is not just an emotion, a good feeling, but a desire to imitate Christ, to do the will of the Lord absolutely, without deviation, to obey His commandments (“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15) and to take care of his flock, as Christ wills, for as long as Christ wills, and even to the point of laying down one’s life for the flock, as Christ did. That is what Christ asked of Peter three times in order to drive home this most necessary of all truths, that love of Christ means doing his will, and doing his will means laying down one’s life for His flock, tending, feeding his sheep entrusted to one’s care. Love is the way to Eternal life, and Love means serving Christ in the taking care of his flock.
It’s all too tempting for us, however, to simply write this off as something commanded of Peter alone. After all, he said first, “Peter, do you love me more than these,” and this greater love indicated Peter’s higher office, demanding a greater love. Thus we might be tempted to say that Peter and the other Apostles alone were called to tend the sheep in the Church, but that is only a part of the truth of this commandment, and it cannot stop there. The truth is that we are all called to love Christ in this way, because there is no other way to heaven. And if Peter is called to love Christ more because His office demands it, that does not mean, cannot mean, that we are not asked as well by Christ, do you love me? Love is the only way to heaven, and so we too are asked by Jesus, do you love me, indeed, do you love me more than what the world means by love? Do you love me enough to stretch out your hands and be bound by me, and be led where, without this greater love, you would not go? And likewise he says to all who love him in this greater way, love Him more than others love, to each in his own vocation in the Church, feed my sheep.
Does he not require this of parents, if they love Him, to feed their little ones, his little ones, to feed them with his doctrine and his holy gifts, to lead them toward Heaven as their true home? Is this not tending his flock, feeding his sheep as the result of a greater love, a love that lays down one’s life for Christ and for his sheep?
And does he not require of Christian husbands and wives that they lay down their lives in service to each other? This too is “tending His sheep” is it not, and out of that greater love that the world does not know? Does He not require all his followers, those who obey His command to follow him, to lay down their lives in so many different ways in their daily lives to tend the flock that Christ died for, and even the sheep who have gone astray, and even the sheep who are not yet of his flock? Is it not the “greater love” that tends this flock the greater love of charity, and is this love not lived out in all manner of good works, to lead His little ones to the Shepherd of their souls?
All we have to do is listen to the Gospel with faith, and we will hear the words of Christ directed to Peter speaking to each of us as well. Do you love me…. then tend my sheep. Then we too will be glad to suffer for His name, to lay down our lives for His flock, and then we too shall have a truly firm hope of one day being among those who share that same love forever in His Kingdom singing His praises without end. Amen