The Heart’s Bent

There was awkwardness between Jesus and Peter–after all, Peter had denied Jesus three times only a few days before. Yet Jesus did not demand an apology nor suggest Peter avoid such denials in the future. Instead Jesus simply asked: “Do you love me?” During the very brief time between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus could have said and taught many things to Peter. Jesus could have asked many questions to see whether Peter was up to the task of ministry. But he asked only this question: “Do you love me?” Why did Jesus ask this question no less than three times? Why was it so important?

Another perplexing wrinkle to this is the way Jesus responded to Peter’s answer. It is our ordinary expectation that when Peter said “Yes” to Jesus’ question, Jesus would respond, “I love you, too.” But here, each time Peter answered affirmatively, Jesus directed Peter’s attention to ministry: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” Jesus equated Peter’s love of Jesus with Peter’s ministry for Jesus. But what does love have to do with ministry?

In a way, these questions were Peter’s “final exam” before graduation. Peter had finished three years of education from Jesus. He had had supervised ministry on various occasions. He had studied pastoral care by helping Jesus with the sick. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter was the one who had given the right answer: “You are the Christ.” He had explored ethical questions. “How many times do I have to forgive the enemy?” Following this education, Jesus tests Peter with a final exam so simple it had only one question: “Do you love me?”

The same question still has profound implications for every Christian. It points to the ultimate foundation of and reason for all our ministry. We do ministry because we love Jesus. All other reasons derive from here. In the passage, Jesus maps out the whole ministry and discipleship of Peter with this question. Knowing what tribulation was lying ahead of Peter, Jesus was identifying the most crucial source of the strength Peter would need: love. What would qualify Peter for ministry was not his strength of character or his other skills–in fact, we know Peter had more than his share of flaws. What qualified him nevertheless was that his heart was bent toward God.

Our heart’s bent is crucial for Christians as it forms the disposition and direction of our love. The heart is bent toward the object of one’s love. When the heart is bent toward self, it sins. When it is directed toward God and others, it creates holiness in the person. The heart is the place of passion, and out of passion arises unceasing energy. Jesus is now checking and affirming this hidden bent of Peter’s heart before he sending him into the world.

This love of God is the most crucial quality required for ministry today. There are so many published books and manuals on the successful and effective ministry. They try to provide answers to pressing ministry questions: How do you develop a cell group? How do we train disciples? What is the best way to manage church finances and personnel? Of course, knowledge and skills in all these areas are crucial for an effective ministry. However, ministry is not primarily about management but passion and love. Without passion and love, all these other things are incomplete and meaningless. Hence, the goal of Christian education is not to dampen passion, but to refine and embolden it. Theology guides passion, but never replaces it. A cold and heartless theology cannot transform people and society, just as a blind passion cannot lead them properly.

The essence of ministry is love. We attend Christian colleges and seminaries and enter our various fields of ministry in the wider church and world all because we love Jesus and because, through Jesus, we can love also other human beings. Jesus knows that doing ministry is not an easy task. He knows that only in our love of him can we carry the cross. When this love drains out of us, ministry withers, leaving only empty words and the shell of rituals.

What is the goal of your ministry? Having five hundred members in your church? Being a bishop or a moderator of the General Assembly? You may not achieve these goals. Yet what is important is not how successful you are, but in what direction you go. It is ultimately the heart’s bent that God will examine. The rest is up to God’s providence. Some may fail in their success and some may succeed in their failure. What counts is faithfulness to Jesus as our first love. Remember, as with Peter, God did not call us because we are perfect or better than others. We are called by God despite our many defects, mistakes, and limitations. But so long as our heart is bent toward God, God will continue to bless and use us. Our goal is just to carry God’s love flowing from Calvary to the world. As long as we do this, our mission is done.

In this season of graduation, Jesus is asking the same question of us all: “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” Whenever challenges and difficulties confront us in life and in ministry, we will find ourselves hearing this same question again and again and again.

Hak Joon Lee is Associate Professor of Ethics and Community at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and is a member of the Perspectives Board of Editors. This meditation was originally delivered at a baccalaureate chapel service.