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The One Question that Matters

The scene is familiar. (John 21:1-19) In the aftermath of Peter’s betrayal and his tears of remorse, he has fished all night and come up empty. The stranger on the shore tells him where to cast the net. In the abundance that follows, Peter recognizes the stranger. He dives into the water and is soaking wet when he comes face-to-face with the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ only asks Peter one question:

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” 

Yet, he asks that question repeatedly – even relentlessly. There is no way for Peter to dodge or hedge:

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

What is remarkable, when you reflect on it, is all of the questions that the Risen Christ doesn’t ask Peter. 

In the face of Peter’s denial, his question isn’t: “How could you do such a thing?”

He doesn’t ask: “Why the hell did you do it?” or “What were you thinking.” 

There is no attempt to guilt Peter with: “Is this the thanks I get – after all I’ve done for you?”

He doesn’t even ask: “Have you learned your lesson?”

There are simply so many questions he doesn’t ask.

In the aftermath of Peter’s abandonment and betrayal, with the vision of Jesus’ suffering that haunts him day and night, after the tears of remorse and the agony of waiting, there is only one question that matters.

“Do you love me?”

That question is the only one that can lead to forgiveness, restore a broken relationship, and begin the process of reconciliation.

The first time the Risen Christ asks the question, Peter is ready. He answers without hesitation, desperate to put his betrayal behind them. “Yes, Lord, I love you.”

The second time he asks the question, Peter is surprised. The pause before he answers is filled with anxiety and the fear that Jesus doubts him. This time, Peter’s answer is more insistent: “Yes, Lord, I love you.”

The third time Jesus asks the question, Peter is beside himself. He is on the verge of panic, desperate for forgiveness when he answers: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Peter, the once arrogant fisherman, has been brought low. The bravado that led him to boasting he was willing to die with Jesus failed to last a single night. The pain of his betrayal and the remorse that followed have devastated Peter. Yet his tears have done their work. His threefold affirmation of love has begun to put his threefold betrayal behind him.

As we reflect on the one question that matters, we learn something about Peter, something about the Risen Christ, and something about ourselves.

From Peter we learn that the call to ministry isn’t a reward for being perfect. The Risen Christ entrusts the sheep to the one who betrayed the shepherd. Peter’s call to ministry – and our own – is born in love and deepened in forgiveness. Ken Wilbur makes the point with startling clarity: when we surrender to transformation, our ego is toast. Our relationship with God and our call to ministry are both grounded in self-honesty and humility. There is no need to posture or pretend. Like Peter, we are called to acknowledge our humanness, to own up to our faults and failures, and to surrender to the healing and redeeming power of God.

The encounter also reveals that Risen Christ doesn’t keep score – watching our every move in order to decide whether we measure up. Peter encounters him as a merciful healer who is generous in extending the transformative power of forgiveness. Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ teaches us that God is rich in compassion – eager to embrace us with mercy, healing, and reconciliation. Being forgiven deepens our capacity to love, and it calls us to extend the love and forgiveness we have received to others.

What we learn about ourselves is that, like Peter, we bring a history of mistakes, failures, and sinfulness to our encounter with the Risen Christ. It is the pain of that reality that opens us to the good news: we aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. With Peter, we learn that life isn’t a worthiness test. It’s a journey of transformation in which forgiveness and healing bathe us in humility and deepen our capacity for love. The one question that matters urges us to join Peter in leaving behind any boastful arrogance and self-conscious efforts to posture and pretend. With that one question, the Risen Christ embraces us with forgiveness and calls us ever deeper into the flow of divine love.

Ultimately, like Peter, each of us is called to answer the one question that matters for ourselves. The Risen Christ doesn’t pose it repeatedly to intimidate us. It’s a gentle reminder that we have a lifetime to respond, and there is no way to dodge or hedge.

Do you love me?

The way we answer that one question – not just with our words but with the actions of our lives – changes everything.

Questions to Ponder

As you reflect on Peter’s experience with the Risen Christ, consider the following questions:

  • When have you – like Peter – experienced the need for forgiveness and reconciliation?
  • What have you learned from being forgiven?
  • In what ways are you being called to extend mercy and forgiveness to others?
  • How do your words and the way you live answer the one question that matters: “Do you love me?”