HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
May 22, 2016
John 21: 15-19 (CEB)
When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
18I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”
By now, you all have gotten to know Mary Ellen and Owen just a little bit. Mary Ellen just had her eleventh birthday this past week, although she looks much older than eleven, and sometimes she likes to act like she’s older too. But it so many ways, she is still just a little girl. For one thing, like every elementary-aged child (and also middle and high schoolers), Ken and I have to stay on Mary Ellen pretty constantly about keeping her room clean. Sometimes, Mary Ellen will decide on her own that she wants to clean her room, but usually she has to be asked or prompted. The conversation typically goes something like this: Mary Ellen will come to us asking if she can go outside to play with so and so, or if we can go to the mall so she can shop, or to the Y so she can swim. We tell her she can’t go anywhere until she cleans her room. She’ll disappear into her room for about 3-5 minutes, and then reappear, declaring, “I’m done! My room’s clean.” Now a few years ago at this point, Ken or I would go to inspect Mary Ellen’s room and find that it was still a mess: clothes scattered all over the floor, trash littering every visible surface, and an un-made bed. We’d point out what still needed to be done, and set her back to work. This cycle would continue until Ken and I were satisfied that Mary Ellen’s room was, indeed, clean.
Now, over time, Ken and I have both learned that we have to say to Mary Ellen from the get-go that she has to “really” clean her room, not just pile everything into the closet or scoot it under the bed. Because that used to be how she cleaned her room. And so she would come to tell us her room was clean, we would look in, agree, and send her on her merry way, only to open her closet door a day or two later and find ourselves buried under a mound of toys and clothes. So now events proceed in this way: Mary Ellen is instructed to go clean her room. Mary Ellen goes to her room and begins working. Sometime later, she emerges announcing that her room is clean. Ken or I will then begin a series of questions, “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Did you just shove everything under the bed?” “No.” “In the closet?” “No.” “Did you make your bed?” “Yes.” “Did you put your clean clothes away?” “Oh.” And Mary Ellen turns around and heads back to her room. That cycle continues until we are satisfied she has done everything, and we go inspect, just to make sure. In short, Mary Ellen has to exhibit to us in every way possible that her room is satisfactorily clean.
So we come to this morning’s reading from the end of John’s gospel. This passage from John depicts a conversation between Jesus and Peter some time after Jesus’ resurrection, but before Christ’s ascension. So on this particular occasion, Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples beside the Sea of Tiberius. Where we pick up today, the meal is finished, and Jesus begins this conversation with Peter. You can almost imagine moment. The disciples might be sort of clearing the meal; cleaning the dishes, putting out the fire, and so on, and Jesus, in the midst of the activity turns to Peter and says something like, “Let’s go for a walk. I want to talk to you.” So they start off down the beach, kicking sand beneath their feet, scanning the shore in front of them for shells and sea creatures.
Who knows how long they walked; maybe only a short distance, just out of hearing range of the other disciples, or maybe a longer way. Then, Jesus speaks. And as Christ begins this conversation, he addresses Peter by his given name, “Simon son of John.” Peter has followed Christ closely for three years; they have done nearly everything together. But now, there is no friendly familiarity. Gone is Peter’s special name from Christ, meaning “the rock.” It kind of makes you wonder if there was a sound of disappointment in Jesus’ voice. But Jesus goes on, “Do you love me more than these?” We don’t know who “these” refers to, but it really doesn’t matter. The first part of the question is enough in and of itself. Perhaps you all have experienced this in your own life; when someone asks you if you love them, the implication is that you don’t love them, or that your love is somehow inadequate in their eyes. If the question is asked, it sends the message that your love does not fulfill their needs or expectations. This is a question that hurts as much by what is implied as by what is actually said. And we can appropriately guess, I think, that Peter was probably hurt. We can only imagine then how Peter must have felt as Christ then repeated the question a second, and then even a third time! And really, it’s not too difficult to see the exasperation in Peter’s response, “Lord! (How could you?!?) You know that I love you!”
Of course, Jesus’ three-fold questioning of Peter exactly corresponds to Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in the hours after his arrest. If we had been denied by our friend in that way, we might be asking the same question as Jesus. But the thing is, Jesus doesn’t need to ask Peter how he really feels about him; as Peter points out, “You know!” Jesus does know. But Jesus isn’t asking because he needs to know. Jesus isn’t even asking Peter if he loves him because after denying Christ three times, Peter needs to prove his love to Christ. We don’t ever have to prove anything to our Lord, and there is nothing we can do to earn Christ’s love or forgiveness of us. It is always grace. No, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he loves him because Peter’s got something to prove to Christ. The reason Christ repeats this very difficult question to Peter is revealed in Christ’s instruction following each of Peter’s response.
“Feed my lambs.”
“Take care of my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Jesus is not asking Peter if he loves him because Peter needs to make up for anything or prove anything to Jesus. Christ is asking this question because he wants Peter to know that love has to be shown. Much like Ken and I need Mary Ellen to show us that her room is clean, not just tell us that it’s clean, Christ needs Peter to show his love. And Christ needs us to show our love, too! It’s great for us to go to worship and be involved in our churches, but equally important to the time we spend in church, is the time we spend outside the church showing Christ’s love! Love of God, love of Christ Jesus our Savior, cannot be separated from a love that is expressed and shared with our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies; all humanity!
But here’s what’s even more amazing about this exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter’s past doesn’t matter. It is insignificant that there was a time when Peter, in essence, failed to show love to Christ. Despite Peter’s mistakes, despite Peter’s multiple denials, Christ forgives Peter, and by way of forgiveness, he gives Peter a job to do. “Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.” Christ instructs, even calls Peter, to continue Christ’s own work; feeding and caring for Christ’s flock. One writer reflecting on this passage says this, “If you are going to do any single, solitary thing as a follower and servant of Jesus, this is what it’s built on. Somewhere, deep down inside, there is a love for Jesus, and though (goodness knows) you’ve let him down enough times, he wants to find that love, to give you a chance to express it, to heal the hurts and failures of the past, and give you new work to do.”
So here’s where this matters for us. When we say that we love Jesus, are our words believable? Are they backed up by action in our lives as we seek to love and care for others? Without having to ask, can someone look at our lives and proclaim, “Clair loves Jesus! Or David loves Jesus! Or Suzanne loves Jesus!”? Following Christ means that we go where Christ would go, we do what Christ would do. It means that we care for, forgive, and love others, even (and especially!) those that are hardest to love. We can’t just put down roots in our church buildings and sing praises to Christ every week about how “O How I Love Jesus!” We have to be out beyond the walls, doing stuff, loving people! Indeed, this will take us to places we cannot imagine, but think of what it means if we can really live out the love of Christ. We are, all of us, here because we have experienced the love of Christ in our lives; because someone, or maybe several someones have done what Christ asked of them, feeding lambs, caring for sheep, showing Christ’s love. What if we are the people who now share that same love in such a way that others know and experience the love of Christ in their lives (maybe even for the first time?)!
Jesus asks, “Do you love me more than these?…[then] Feed my lambs.”
“Do you love me?…Take care of my sheep.”
“Do you love me?”…Feed my sheep.”
Do you love Christ? Let’s take this challenge: let’s, all of us, everyday, share the love of Christ with all that we meet! Let’s be people who live the kind of life where that question doesn’t even have to be asked.