If Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him in order to redeem the three times Peter denied Jesus, how many times would Jesus need to ask us?
Most Bible commentators seem to confirm that the threefold challenge to Peter was designed to parallel his threefold denial. With each question Peter protested, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Denial can take many forms. There is the direct denial as Peter had done when he denied that he knew Jesus and was one of Jesus’ disciples. (Matthew 26:69-75) Then there are more subtle forms of denial such as failing to speak up when our Christian beliefs are challenged or when explicit anti-Christian conduct by others is taking place in our presence.
Jesus did not mince words on this subject. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32-33) While there have been times when I have spoken up to defend my faith, I can think of times when I have not.
The more subtle forms of denial are the times when we have failed to live up to “greatest” commandment. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) This is not a passive love. It involves our inner self (soul and heart); our intellect, thought, reason and will (mind); our action, determination and perseverance (strength).
To help us understand how to love an unseen God in such a complete and total way, Jesus gives us a human illustration in what he describes as the second commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of self, or survival, is one of the first laws of nature. It is instinct. We don’t even have to think about it. The love Jesus is calling us to embrace, however, is to overcome the instinct of putting self first. This is of course consistent with what he said earlier to the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Matthew 16:4)
While I hesitate to think how often I have failed to love according to this standard, God does give us opportunities to love in this way. Last week I was thinking of a friend who has been recovering from back surgery. While I had visited him in the hospital, I had had no contact with him in the two weeks since he had been home. The thought occurred to me (from the Holy Spirit no doubt) that I should call him and offer to bring by a couple of subs so we could have lunch together. He said yes, we had a delightful time catching up with one another, and I had a chance to pray with him for his continued recovery.
While we may never reach perfection in our love of God and the people he puts in our lives, we should still strive for it, so we can say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”