I’ve read that groceries were introduced into Walmarts with the idea that, once consumers were in the door, — say for bread or milk — they would, before they knew what was happening, wander into dry goods to purchase towels, DVD’s, and cat toys. Seems to be working.
Not long ago, I passed an enormous display of Valentine’s Day cards and gifts, and decided, while I was thinking of it, to send a card to my Mother. And then I thought of my sister. My Mom had mentioned that one of my nephews had given her a bad week, so I thought, why not send her a Valentine’s Day card? I’d done it before, somewhere in the last century.
I should explain that I do not come from a demonstrative clan. My family is of Volga German stock. We migrated to the steppes of southern Russia, looking for the good times there, before we discovered how wonderful life could be on the high plains of Western Kansas, once your sod house has been built to hold out the winter wind. As a group, we Volga Germans do not tend to hold hands, embrace, or say, "I love you" in public. Indeed, we’re so undemonstrative that I’ve often wondered how we manage to reproduce. Fortunately, this is not my responsibility.
But knowing that my sister had had a rough week, I wrote something in my Charlie Brown valentine card about wanting to do better at keeping in touch. I also wrote, "I love you."
About a week later, I called my Mother. She mentioned her Valentine’s Day card, and I wondered aloud whether or not my sister had received hers. "Yes! She called. Couldn’t speak because she was bawling."
"Bawling? Why was she bawling?"
"That’s what I said. What are you bawling about now?"
I should add that Volga Germans also don’t think there is much to cry about, not unless the Tartars have run off with your children or a tornado has swept away the farm. Anything short of that we call "bawling," and we see little reason for it.
"She was bawling because you wrote that you loved her."
This is where humor should give way to shame. Why couldn’t I have told her that earlier, more often, in person? I wonder if Saint Peter felt the same sense of chagrin, being asked, three times, by the resurrected Christ, "Do you love me?" (Jn 21: 15-17)
All four of our gospels are discipleship manuals. They exist, not so much to record facts about Jesus as to teach us what it means to follow him. The dialogue of love between Jesus and Peter closes the Fourth Gospel, a work that could just as well be called "The Gospel of Intimacy." Why? Because its author, knowing that three gospels had already been penned, in an effort to explain why this one should have a hearing, tells us that comes from one who was an intimate of the Lord, one whom the Lord loved. We should listen and learn, because this witness speaks from the depths of intimacy. It is the disciple "whom Jesus loved," who "testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true" (Jn 21:24)
When this gospel was composed, Peter was already the revered and martyred first leader of the Church. That’s why there is a bit of competition in this gospel between him and the Beloved Disciple. For example, at the Last Supper, Peter had to ask the Beloved Disciple to question Jesus about the identity of the Betrayer (Jn 13:22-25). Come Easter, Peter and the Beloved Disciple both raced to the tomb. Peter entered and "saw the burial cloths" (Jn 20:6) but the Beloved Disciple did more. He "saw and believed" (Jn 20:8). And it’s the Beloved Disciple who recognized the resurrected Jesus on the shore. He told Peter, "It is the Lord" (Jn 21:7).
This gospel isn’t anti-Petrine or anti-authoritarian. It simply insists that true knowledge of the Lord, true life with the Lord, comes from intimacy. And, as even Peter learns before this gospel closes, intimacy must be expressed. Sometimes, you need to say, "I love you."
Peter must speak his love. It cannot remain silent. It is the witness of this love that will feed the sheep. And for Saint John, Christ is the Word of the Father. He himself, in his flesh and his fellowship, is the living expression of the Father’s love. In Jesus, the Father speaks. The Beloved of the Father becomes the very means by which God says to the world, says to us, "I love you."
Many people today report themselves to be "spiritual" rather than "religious." Those are our times, and surely we religious folk bear a great deal of responsibility for that. We fail to make religious life something compelling, expressive, inviting. Somehow, we need to convince our contemporaries that simply being "spiritual" is a bit like keeping one’s love to one’s self.
Love must be expressed. Love should fall on its knees in adoration. Love wants to belt out an old gospel hymn. Love needs to cross itself, and sprinkle a bit of Holy Water here and there. Love holds out its hands to receive the Living Bread, the Word Made Flesh.
Peter learns his lesson well. He deeply repents that moment when, warming himself by the fire in High Priest’s courtyard, he refused to confess his love for Christ (Jn 18:15-27). Now Peter plainly tells Jesus that he loves him, and the sound of that love will echo from Judea to Rome. It’s still sounding, some two millennia later.
Acts 5: 27-32, 40B-41 Revelation 5: 11-14 John 21: 1-19