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Feed My Sheep: “Love Does Not Have to Be Perfect”

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We are all “a complex mixture of light and shadows”...

If you’re looking for a loaded question, you’ll find it right in the middle of this Sunday’s gospel:

“Do you love me?”

Here, it is more than a yes or no question. It is, in fact, a challenge. Days after Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the apostle who denied Jesus three times was asked three times a question that must have caused him more than a little discomfort.

“Do you love me?”

It’s safe to say, Jesus already knew the answer. He knew Peter’s strengths and weaknesses.

He knew his blunders and mistakes and his sins. But that morning on the Sea of Galilee, he gazed with wisdom and mercy at the flawed figure who would continue the work he began and asked him if he loved him.

When Peter said he did, Jesus gave him this deceptively simple task: “Feed my sheep.”

If Peter had any questions, Christ’s two-word reply would have to suffice:

“Follow me.”

Those words are the same ones Jesus said on that seashore three years earlier, when he first chose his apostles. And now we hear them again—a theme that almost acts as a coda to the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It all comes down to this. Follow me.

In the lectionary cycle, this reading is the last of the post-resurrection accounts we will hear in theSunday gospels this Easter season — and those two words from Jesus are addressed not just to Simon Peter, but to us all.

And at this particular moment, they give us a lot to ponder.

As most of you know, Pope Francis has just published an Apostolic Exhortation, a response to the Synod on the Family. As papal documents go, an Exhortation carries less weight than an encyclical, and it is essentially a letter with the pope’s reflections on what transpired at the Synod. This Exhortation is long, at over 260 pages, with footnotes. I’m working my way through it now, and still have a long way to go. But its title says a lot about what is on the pope’s mind. It’s called “Amoris Laetitia,” which means “The Joy of Love.” Love in marriage, love in the family.

Bishop Ed Sharfenberger in Albany, offered a beautiful response to the Exhortation, which I would advise anyone to follow:

“Jesus meets us wherever we are on life’s journey,” he wrote “and even runs after us when we get lost. He is the model Pastor, going out of His way to be our Way.

He continues: “I am taking my time to do what the Holy Father has asked us all to do and not rush my reading to find what I want to hear, but pray through it to hear what I need to hear. I want to grow and change, not just be told I am right and stay exactly where I am. Otherwise I will never reach others who need me to move to meet them.”

I do want to mention one section of this exhortation that speaks eloquently about that very question Jesus asked Peter. Pope Francis offers a thoughtful dissection of Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthians, and the chapter on love. It should be required reading for anyone who is getting married, anyone who is married, anyone who is struggling with a difficult marriage.

But these words here speak to us all, married and unmarried. They could be addressed to Peter. Or to you and me.

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