Have you ever met up with a friend and asked, “How are you doing?” They give you that scripted, socially acceptable response, “I’m fine.” But, you sense that beneath the surface, there is more to their response. So, you ask again, “Really, how are you doing?” Again, the person respond, “I’m fine.” But, there is a little more edge to their tone of voice. And so, bracing for the worst, you courageously ask again one more time, “How are you doing?” Then, that moment comes. Your friend realizes that you have seen past the façade, you have gently pushed past the surface of their lives and there is no turning back. So, after a deep breath and some hesitation, the real story begins to come out.
“Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love.” “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love.”
When Jesus questions Peter that third time, it is that moment where Jesus has seen past the façade, gently pushed past the surface of Peter’s life. There was no turning back, a deep breath, and some hesitation, and the story finally comes out.
It is the story of betrayal and forgiveness, a betrayal that was fresh on Peter’s mind, because it was his betrayal of Jesus that haunted him. No doubt, when Peter and the other disciples sat around the campfire that morning, eating breakfast with Jesus, Peter remembered another campfire. This other campfire was late at night, in the courtyard, outside of the high priest’s house. Jesus had been arrested and Peter followed along to see what was going to happen. But he was afraid and so he didn’t want to get too close. He hung out by the fire with the rest of the crowd. Under the cover of darkness, Peter wanted to remain an anonymous observer, but someone in the crowd recognized Peter, threw the accusation in his face, “You are one of Jesus’ followers.”
Before the rooster crowed, Peter denied Jesus, not just once, but three times. Three years of walking with Jesus, three years of listening to everything that Jesus taught, three years of witnesses the miracles and the healings, three years of Peter’s life disappeared with one sentence, “I don’t know that man,” except that the past never really disappears.
Several days later, Jesus is resurrected and Peter simply can’t bear to look Jesus in the eye. Jesus called Peter a rock. But, seeing Jesus now, Peter feels more like quick sand. Peter can’t bear to think about what he has done, but what haunts him even more is knowing that there is nothing he can do to undo the past. Saying “Sorry” just doesn’t seem like enough.
Then the questions come, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Peter denied Jesus three times, and three times, Jesus asks Peter the question, “Do you love me?” We can see what Jesus is doing. He wants Peter to understand that he is forgiven, and that the forgiveness is complete. Yet, in order for Peter to grasp this good news, Jesus needs to lead Peter deeper into his own life. They need to go beyond the façade, move past the surface. That is why Jesus gently pushes the issue. With each question, Jesus takes Peter deeper and deeper.
I think we all can understand that there is a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will is a young man carrying around both the visible and invisible scars that came from growing up in a household filled with abuse. The biggest scar that Will carried around was his feelings of guilt, that somehow the abuse he suffered as a little boy, was his fault. After extensive therapy, it was Will’s psychiatrist who, having understood what was going on said to Will, “It’s not your fault.” Will promptly replied, “Yeah, I know.” In his head, Will knew the truth, but in his heart, he didn’t. And so, the psychiatrist said it again, “It’s not your fault.” And he kept saying it over and over again, until that moment came when in the depths of his soul, Will finally took hold of the truth, that it wasn’t his fault. So, there is a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge and that is so important for us to think about as we think about God’s forgiveness of us.
There is a difference between being told that you are forgiven and really feeling that forgiveness deep down in your soul. Simply being told that you are forgiven falls under the category of head knowledge. The information is there. We understand what it means, but we just don’t feel it deep down, as evidenced by the fact that we still feel the pain and hurt of our sin. We know that we have sinned again God or that we have sinned against someone else, but we just can’t seem to let go of the guilt that we feel, and from time to time, we still condemn ourselves, as we remember what we have done. Being told that we are forgiven is nice, but forgiveness that remains as head knowledge only gets us so far. We need forgiveness that becomes heart knowledge, a forgiveness that reaches deep down into our soul and, not only washes the sin away, undoes the past, but we need a forgiveness that heals the hurt and guilt associated with that sin.
We all know the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” Perhaps we learned this song when we were young, or we sang it to our children when they were little. So, I know that if we were to go around the sanctuary and ask ourselves the question, “Does Jesus love us? Are we forgiven?” Each one of you would say, “Of course, the Bible tells me so.” In addition to what the Bible tells us, the pastor tells us every week, “In Jesus name, we are forgiven.” But, what happens if we ask, “Does Jesus love us? Are we forgiven?,” a second time, or even a third time.” Would there be that pause, that deep sigh that acknowledges that we have gone past the façade, gently pushed past the surface of our lives in such a way that there is no turning back. Would the true story then come out?
I suspect that there are many of us, if not most of us, who wonder, from time to time, about where we stand with God. The reason I suspect this is because I recognize this in myself. I know my past. I know the things that I wish I hadn’t done, or the things I wish I had done differently. I also know about the missed opportunities I had, to do what God wanted me to do. There were times when God wanted me to be that rock, but I was more like quicksand. I know that I am not the only one who feels this way.
It comes in the unscripted conversations, those moments when, without planning what to say ahead of time, people say things that alert me to the fact that they are wondering about where they stand with God. It comes out in phrases like, “If I’ve been good enough, or have I done enough.” It is also evident when I see people who can’t forgive themselves and so they assume that God could not forgive them either. Our sense of being forgiven, of being loved by God, so often, stops right here. But, deep down, here in our hearts, we have a hard time taking hold of it.
This is when we need to take a walk with Jesus. In the imaginations of our minds we need to walk with Jesus by the sea of Tiberias. We need to listen as Jesus calls us by name and then asks the question that needs to be asked. “Do you love me?” Of course, we will give the scripted, theologically acceptable answer, the answer that comes from here in our heads, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But, then we need to listen as Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?” And again, “Do you love me?” We need to listen to Jesus ask us this question as many times as it takes until we go deeper and deeper into our souls and finally take hold of that love that is already there, that love which Jesus has for us, and that love which we have for Jesus.
When Jesus asked Peter those questions, Jesus already knew that Peter’s love was there. Even Peter knew that his love was there. But, Jesus wanted Peter to really take hold of that love.
Jesus wants us to take hold of that love as well, the love that Jesus has for us, and the love that we have for Jesus. So, let us walk with Jesus and let us listen as he asks, “Do you love me?”