“Lovest thou Me?”
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: “Lovest thou Me?” And he said unto Him: “Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee.” Jesus said unto him: “Feed My sheep.”
In the Gospel our Saviour asks the Apostle Peter three times: “Lovest thou Me?” Peter replies: “Yea, Lord.” Because his love for the Master is so great, the Lord then commands Peter – and through him all the Apostles and their successors, the bishops – to “feed My sheep.” Christ also asks: “Whom do men say that I am?” And Peter replies: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Saviour then establishes His Church on this confession of faith, promises that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and gives to His Church “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-19).
These deep and solemn passages reveal to us the mystery of Christ’s Church and show us that the authority of this Church is based on both love for Christ and confession of true faith (Orthodoxy means true belief). Many people believe that they have “true faith,” but how many can honestly answer Christ’s question, “Lovest thou Me?” with Peter’s words, “Yea, Lord”?
In his wonderful book, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, the great 19th century missionary bishop, Innocent of Alaska, writes: “What would happen now if Jesus Christ suddenly appeared before us visibly and asked us: ‘My children, do you love Me for what I have done for you? And do you feel in your hearts gratitude to Me?’ Who of us would not say: ‘Yes, Lord, we love and thank Thee’? But if you love Jesus Christ and consider yourself grateful to Him, will you do what he orders you?” Our whole life as Orthodox Christians comes down to this: we must have not only right doctrine, but believing, loving hearts.
A remarkable incident in the book The Way of a Pilgrim makes this very clear. The Pilgrim seeks out a certain confessor known for his compassion. After opening his heart to him, the priest tells him that he has overlooked the gravest fault of all, “that you do not love God.” Surprised by this, the Pilgrim protests, and the priest shows him an examination of conscience he had composed for his own private use:
“If I loved God,” the priest wrote, “I should be continually thinking about Him with heartfelt joy… On the contrary, I much more often and much more eagerly think about earthly things… If one loves another, he thinks of him through-out the day. But I, throughout the day, scarcely set aside even a single hour in which to sink deep down into meditation upon God, to inflame my heart with love of Him… If love for God is recognized by the keeping of His commandments (If ye love Me, keep My commandments, says our Lord Jesus Christ), and I not only do not keep them, but even make little attempt to do so, – then in absolute truth the conclusion follows that I do not love God.”
Realizing with horror that he, too, does not love God as he should, the Pilgrim asks for a remedy to this problem and receives in response these wise words: “You see, dear brother, the cause of not loving God is want of belief, and want of belief is caused by lack of conviction, and the cause of that is failure to seek holy and true knowledge… In a word, if you don’t believe, you can’t love; if you are not convinced, you can’t believe; and in order to reach conviction you must get a full and exact knowledge of the matter before you. By meditation, by the study of God’s Word and noting your experience, you must arouse in your soul a thirst and a longing… Ah, dear brother, how much disaster we meet with just because we are lazy! Love usually grows with knowledge, and the greater the depth and extent of the knowledge the more love there will be, the more easily the heart will soften and lay itself open to the love of God.”
May Christ’s question – lovest thou Me? – echo loudly down through the centuries and sound clearly in our cold and unbelieving hearts today, piercing us with the realization of who we are and what we are, of how little we know and understand and love. May we be inspired to seek greater knowledge of Christ and His Church, so that our hearts will be inflamed with sincere love, enabling us to follow Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven, responding to His question with a firm and true, Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. Amen.