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In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks Peter repeatedly, “Do you love me?” Peter grows increasingly agitated as he answers again and again, “You know that I love you.” I can imagine his exasperation as he answers for the third time, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
This passage calls to mind a scene from just a few chapters before (Jn 18) when, fearing for his own life as the world seemed to crumble around him in the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion, Peter denied any association with Jesus three times.
“You are not one of his disciples are you?”
“I am not.”
“Do you love me?”
“You know that I love you.”
Peter’s predicament is a relatable one. Who among us hasn’t shrunk from our convictions out of fear? Who hasn’t wished we could just commit to a life of love once and bypass all of the messy work of constantly committing and recommitting?
For better or for worse, to live a life committed to love requires continual commitment and discernment. The human condition is one of dynamism, and our yes to life, to love, to justice, to God must be a daily practice. Sometimes – often – it will be an exasperated yes. We will throw our yes into the dark and listen for the echo back signaling that it was received, but we will find we have to wait, and that our answers may not come in the form we would expect.
Today, humanity grieves its own splintering, and the senseless loss of exquisite human life. Though there are many ways that the pandemic has brought people together – the proliferation of mutual aid efforts, the single-pointed focus of the global community of scientists, to name a few – it would be foolish to imagine that it would wash away all of our divisions. Even tragedy does not allow us to bypass the messy work of constantly committing and recommitting to love.
It was predictable that the racism rotting the core of U.S. American culture would pervade the pandemic, too. When early reports that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting African Americans began to make the news, I was hardly surprised. When I heard that, in the midst of the pandemic, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, was murdered while jogging in Georgia by two white men, I was hardly surprised. When I learned that George Floyd had been brutally suffocated by a police officer kneeling on his neck, captured on tape saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” I was hardly surprised.
I was hardly surprised, but I was many other things: troubled, exasperated, heartbroken, angry, numb, frightened, complacent, indignant.
“Do you love me?”
Jesus’s question does not come to us in a vacuum. “Yes,” we might answer, from a place of our ideals, but the gritty reality of life will continue to confront us with this question over and over again, demanding an answer. “Yes,” we might say, but sometimes our actions will betray us and we’ll end up looking more like Peter on Good Friday, denying Jesus three times before we hear the cock crow and we can see clearly our missteps. “Yes,” we might say today, and then tomorrow another black person will needlessly die in America and we will be confronted with our choice of how to respond.
The good, if somewhat sobering, news is that the question doesn’t stop asking itself. Every day, in every moment, we have the opportunity to say yes and to bear out our yes in our actions as best we can.
Whether the reach of racism in recent days comes to you as a surprise or as a foregone conclusion - whether you are navigating the trauma of yet another person who looks like you being senselessly killed, constantly negotiating the particularities of your own marginality and privilege, or only just beginning to peek behind the gauzy but constricting veil of whiteness - in this very moment you have the opportunity to say yes to love. Where that yes will lead you I cannot say, though I wish I could. But it is your yes. And it will take a world’s worth of people mustering the courage to live into their yes, however tentatively and imperfectly, to begin to heal this festering and necrotizing wound.
"Do you love me?" Let us pray that we, individually and collectively, have the grace to respond yes.
Anna Robertson, Campus Minister for Retreats