Most of Jesus’ words are encouraging and inspiring. But occasionally, he says something that shakes us up. For example, Jesus told us that our righteousness had better not be like that of the Pharisees, or we will not get into heaven (Matthew 5:20). He told us that unless we eat his Body and drink his Blood, we will not have eternal life (John 6:54). Of course Jesus is a God of mercy and love. But today’s Gospel is one of those seemingly harsh messages that make us worry about our eternal happiness. What are we supposed to do with statements like these?
Let’s look at St. Peter. He, the “Rock” of the Church, denied that he even knew Jesus! But rather than scolding Peter or saying, “I am going to deny you before my Father,” Jesus simply asked Peter, “Do you love me?” (John21:15, 16, 17). He knew that Peter felt deep remorse. So Jesus’ question was clearly an invitation to reconciliation.
In a similar way, Jesus knows that we are all weak, that we betray him in one way or another. And he treats us just as he treated Peter. The key to understanding this unsettling passage from the Gospel is this: Where is your heart? Peter loved Jesus. He wanted nothing more than to serve Jesus. He wasn’t a coward. He was just a human being, and human beings can be overcome by fear and temptation at times.
So for Peter, as well as us, this is the important distinction: Are you a sinner who doesn’t know how to love God? Or are you a lover of God who falls into sin? Peter was a lover of God. So were all the other apostles who fled at Jesus’ arrest. They may have failed Jesus at that moment, but Jesus never failed them. And he won’t fail us!