[Saul] asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. - Acts 9
Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?", because they knew it was Jesus. - John 21
[Jesus] said to [Peter} the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." - John 21
As a new person - brand new, actually - came into the life of our extended family yesterday, I've found myself thinking about what those first few moments in the wide world might be like for a newborn person. Since we will probably never know the exact nature of those first thoughts, I've let my imagination take hold. Please bear with me.
I picture those first impressions as being, among other possible feelings, pretty frightening. Warmth, evening-like and comforting dark, and safe enclosure suddenly give way to light, wide-openness, and something like cold. Yes, birthing rooms have become friendlier to newborns than perhaps they once were, but still... It has to be a great shock. Even basic nourishment, a given in the womb, now becomes an urgent concern, with nothing but a loud cry to tell the world of the first pangs of hunger.
And I dare to imagine that, if words were possible, the first ones would be, "Do you love me?" "Will I be safe and tenderly cared for here in this bewildering world?"
Jesus has returned, resurrected, to his friends. John's Gospel tells of his third appearance among them. They are gathered - maybe huddled is a better word - by the lakeshore. Peter, the disciple who betrayed Jesus three times in Jesus' time of trial, decides to do what many people who are confused about what to do next have decided; he goes fishing. His equally confused friends join him. Maybe the familiar task will ease their sorrow and confusion.
Peter and his friends fail badly at fishing, until a stranger on the shore gives them some advice. Suddenly, their nets are full, almost to the point of tearing. They return to the shore, discover who the stranger is, and Jesus invites them to breakfast. What follows is one of the most tender moments in all of Scripture.
Three times, once for each betrayal before the cross, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. Not just once, but three times. Surely, we can understand why Jesus might not be certain of this love. Few of us, I imagine have escaped moments like this, when we turn to someone we love, at the end of a difficult day, and asked for such assurance. When I do this, I can usually only get away with asking once.
Jesus asks for the same assurance, not unlike the way a bewildered newborn might wonder if he or she can trust that the new faces around him or her will really love them, will really help the child to 'feed the sheep' that are one's own self and the others in the flock he or she has just joined.
Both John's Gospel and the reading from the Book of Acts, quoted above, share the question, "Who are you?" The circumstances are quite different, but the uncertainty is a common thread in both questions. We are not as certain as we would like to be, either of God's love for us, or that of those with whom we share our time and space in living.
"Who are these people, and will they love me as I need to be loved?" This might just be our very first question. It is surely one we ask again and again. It seems as if even God, who is both all-powerful and, as shown by Jesus the Christ, completely vulnerable to our human frailty, has this question in mind about us. Jesus himself dares ask this.
How shall we answer God, and what does that reply look like as we live in a Creation shaped by just that love, waiting to be made real for all of God's children? The answer is the same one we give to the new child, ready to live a beautiful life and wondering if others will join us.
It's the right question, and the answer changes the world - for a newborn, for us, and for Godself.