Do You Love Me? A Sermon

First, a reading from Scripture:
‘When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”’
John 21:15-19




“Do you love me?”

It’s a loaded question. When, in life, does anyone ask another “Do you love me?” without some kind of agenda behind the asking. Ostensibly, in a healthy relationship, it would be apparent that one person loves another. We only ask “do you love me?” when the point needs clarification, when there is doubt. And so it is in Jesus and Peter’s relationship. On the morning Jesus was seized by the Roman authorities, and brought to his death, Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed, as Jesus had predicted would happen. So it’s understandable there might be some tension in the relationship.

As Jesus approaches his disciples while they’re fishing, in John 21:1-14, Peter exhibits no lack of enthusiasm toward Jesus. He even jumps out of the boat to meet him! Interestingly, he puts on more clothes before jumping in the water (v. 7), which seems counter-intuitive. But in any case, he rushes in the direction of the resurrected Christ, even while there exists between him and his Lord a lingering aroma of betrayal. This will soon be dealt with, as the two meet face to face.

Something that eluded my notice the first few times I heard this story, and which is totally absent from English translations of the passage, is that Peter isn’t quite answering Jesus’ question. When Jesus asks whether Peter loves him, and Peter responds “of course I love you,” they aren’t saying the same thing. Jesus asks Peter whether Peter loves him, in the Greek “agapao”, which denotes a sort of unconditional love that comes from God. Peter responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” using the term “phileo”, which refers to a more friendly sort of love, or positive regard. Indeed, when Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him with the unconditional, unwavering love of God, Peter responds, “Yes Jesus, you know I’m quite fond of you.” Yet even so, Jesus replies, “then feed my lambs.”

And so, Jesus asks again, using Peter’s first given name, “Simon, son of John, do you love me with the unconditional love that comes from God?” And Peter responds, “Of course Jesus, I like you a lot.” Again, he evades the question. And again, Jesus replies, “then tend my sheep.”

And the next turn, depending on your point of view, is either heartbreaking, or gracious and hopeful. Or perhaps both. This third time, Jesus asks Peter a question Peter can answer: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” this time using the word "phileo". “Peter, do you love me with what limited, human love you can provide?” Here, the text adds the sobering detail that Peter is hurt by the question. Perhaps because he knows he has failed to offer what the Lord has asked of him, so the Lord changed the question. Jesus changed his standard to accommodate Peter’s weakness, and Peter is grieved for it.

Perhaps we can relate to this. We are grateful when God offers mercy and forgiveness, when God takes what little we have to offer, yet we also mourn for how imperfectly we love and serve God. We wish we could be worthier of the call. When God asks me, “Jordan, do you love me?” and all I can respond with is: “God, I’m trying the best I can to love you.”

But can we ever love God with God’s own “agape” love? Like the miraculous catch of fish in verses 1 through 14, the ability to love as God loves is a miraculous provision from Godself. 1 John reminds us that, since God is love, all love comes from God, and our ability to love stems from how God loved us first. If it weren’t for God’s initiating love, we would not be able to love each other. This is not to say, of course, that those who do not profess Christ are incapable of love; indeed, God’s love is a gift sewn into the very seams of all creation, which was itself a product of pure creativity and love. The ability of all humans to love comes from God. Yet we love imperfectly, because we are still learning to love. Peter, even after three years of intense intimacy with our Lord, still loved imperfectly, still denied Jesus when the time came to prove his devotion.

After each of Peter’s responses, Jesus impels Peter to feed his flock, to tend them, to take care of Jesus’ beloved ones here on earth. Jesus asks Peter to funnel whatever limited, imperfect love he can provide into the care of people.

To love Jesus, it turns out, is to love those most in need of love here and now. This echoes the sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25, wherein Jesus asserts that if we are to serve him, we must serve the most vulnerable among us: the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, the “least of these”. And to betray and neglect those most in need of our help is to betray and neglect Christ himself.

So how can we, as a church, or as a society, express our love toward God, limited and imperfect as it might be? Within this interaction with Peter, Jesus supplies the answer: feed the sheep. Tend the flock. Take care of those most in need of help.

Will we deny Christ, like Peter? Most of us assume we would not, but what we might be failing to recognize is that we have the opportunity to accept or deny Christ in our very moment. Christ is on our doorstep, knocking, asking to be let in. He is a refugee child from a war-torn country, in need of shelter. He is an immigrant mother, desperately trying to build a better life for her family. He is the trans teen who has been kicked out of her home and needs the embrace of a loving community.

Indeed, we may love imperfectly, and there is grace for our imperfection, but Jesus calls us to greater love, greater inclusion, greater provision for the needy and vulnerable, always. The imperfection of our love is not an excuse to stand idly by while others suffer. If we love the Lord, we must tend his sheep. And when we come up short, when we stumble in our execution as is bound to happen, the God who is love is faithful to provide. Just as we have been fed, and provided for out of God’s divine generosity, so must we extend this impulse to all who hunger and thirst, for they are blessed.

Amen.

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