SCRIPTURE – John 21:15-25
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!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
“Do You Love Me More than These?”
May 29, 2011
I talked last week about Luke’s affinity for food because he sets so many of his stories in the context of a meal, but to be fair, John has his own tales from the buffet line. Today’s passage comes right after one of those, in which the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples while they are fishing and guides them to a jackpot catch. Then he calls them all together around a charcoal fire and breaks bread with them, making himself known to them over a meal.
That leads into our scripture today, which focuses on the disciple Peter. To understand the significance of this repetitive conversation, you have to remember Peter’s history and his last appearance in John’s gospel. Peter was initially called by Jesus and showed great enthusiasm for following him. Peter’s path of faith is marked by great strides forward. Peter is the one who declares that Jesus is the Messiah; Peter is the one who dares to step out of the boat and walk on the water toward Jesus; Peter is the one who says at the Last Supper, “Even if everyone else may flee, I will never desert you.” Peter was a man of great faith, to whom Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
Well, you have to wonder if Peter lost those keys and locked himself out based on his moments of blinding humanity. Peter’s great strides are matched by his stupendous stumbles. It is to Peter that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” after Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the plan to be crucified. It is Peter who begins to sink into the water and has to be rescued by Jesus when he begins to doubt Jesus’ power. And it is Peter who claims not to know Jesus after Jesus is arrested and taken to the Jewish council for interrogation.
That story in John 18 is the last time we heard about Peter, and feels like it could be the last time anyone will ever hear about Peter. John 18 says, “Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in. ‘You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?’ she asked Peter. He replied, ‘I am not.’ It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. So they asked him, ‘You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?’ He denied it, saying, ‘I am not.’ One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, ‘Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?’ Again Peter denied it.”
The famous three-fold denial. It’s tempting to bash Peter and disparage him for not living up to his promise. Didn’t he say he would never desert Jesus? What kind of person would say that and then deny even knowing Jesus? But I’m not ready to string Peter up by his thumbs just yet, because I know I’m just as guilty of violating my own promises. When our young people make their confession of faith and are baptized, they promise to do things like resist temptation, be faithful in their worship attendance and readily share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. How well do any of us fulfill those promises? Peter’s denial is more well-known – as if the event itself weren’t bad enough, it’s recorded in all four gospels, just so we don’t miss it. But we’ve all promised things to God on which we haven’t delivered. In our moments of faith and our moments of doubt, we are no different than Peter.
After his shameful denial around a charcoal fire, Peter does show up again, in chapter 21 around another charcoal fire. Only this time he’s not being asked if he knows Jesus, but if he loves him. This is the first time Jesus and Peter have met since the denial, but Jesus doesn’t upbraid him for his past failures. Instead, he asks him about his present and future commitment. This three-fold expression of Peter’s love for Jesus effectively cancels out Peter’s three-fold denial. And Jesus does it in a way that his purpose is unmistakable.
How often do you hear your full name said out loud? I’m not talking about those times as a kid when you knew you were in real trouble. When’s the last time you’ve heard your full name spoken? For me, it was probably my ordination. We say people’s full names when they are baptized, sometimes when they are married. So it usually only happens in the most important occasions, ones marked by life-changing promises. When Jesus first called the disciples, he said their full name. In John’s first chapter, upon meeting a new disciple, Jesus says, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” When Jesus called Peter, he used his full name.
And now, as these two steal a quiet moment away from the others, Jesus says once again, “Simon, son of John.” You see, Peter is being called again to do Jesus’ work. Never mind that Peter’s already been called to do this and failed. Never mind that Peter revoked his promise. Jesus is once again calling his name.
How often in this world do we get second or third chances? Have we ever had someone break a promise to us and we say, “That’s OK, try again”? We live in an ungracious world, were late payments are met with steep penalties and broken promises lead to rejection. And here at the end of John’s gospel we have two portrayals of disciples who are known more for what they did wrong than what they did right: Thomas and his doubts and Peter and his denial. And yet, Jesus calls their names.
No matter how many times we break our promises, intentionally and unintentionally, no matter how many times we don’t resist temptation or aren’t faithful in our worship, Jesus still looks at us and calls us by name. When Jesus was asked by a disciple how many times a person should be forgiven – the disciple who asked that question, incidentally, was our friend Peter – Jesus said seventy times seventy times. No matter how far we run, no matter how far we fall, Jesus never stops calling our name.
And what he calls us to do is to take the love and forgiveness we have received and share it. After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room, he said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one other.” In other words, Jesus is saying that if you love me, you will show it by how you feed my sheep and tend my flock.
Jesus had to know the difficulty of what he’s instructing Peter to do. This command sounds great when huddled around a warm fire on the beach, but it becomes a lot more challenging when you are actually dealing with the sheep. Being in relationship with Jesus means we must love his sheep, even when the sheep aren’t particularly loveable. How do you love the sheep who gets on your nerves, the sheep who is so needy, the sheep who doesn’t know when to stop baa-ing, the sheep who broke their promise to you? How do you love those sheep? You remember that Jesus also called them by name. They are not your sheep; they are Jesus’ sheep. We are simply the shepherds.
Jesus follows up this command by repeating once again his original call to Peter: “Follow me.” Ironically, Peter will be following Jesus into the same kind of death Jesus suffered. Tradition holds that Peter was also martyred by crucifixion and requested to be crucified upside down because he didn’t deserve to die in the same manner as his Messiah. Jesus alludes to Peter’s martyrdom when talks about how someone will “stretch out your hands,” presumably to nail them to a cross.
But then that statement is followed up by this short passage about “the disciple who Jesus loved,” which most authorities presume was John. Peter asks about what will happen to John, which is a bit of Peter’s humanity creeping back into to spoil the moment. You see, John and Peter have had a running rivalry all during this gospel. Both were a part of Jesus’ inner circle, but John always seemed to get the upper hand. While Peter fled after Jesus’ arrest, John was at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother. John outraced Peter to the empty tomb and was the first one to express belief that the resurrection was true. And now Peter’s jealousy gets the best of him and he asks Jesus, “So I’m going to die for you. What about that guy?”
Ah yes. No matter how noble our efforts, we can’t stop comparing ourselves to the next person. We always want to know who gets what and why and then we judge the fairness of that outcome. But Jesus sets Peter straight by saying, “What happens to him is not your concern. He has his call. You have your call. Your job is not to worry about someone else’s call; your job is to faithful to your own call.”
We are ALL called to lay down our lives for Christ. Some people are called to die for Christ. Some are called to live for Christ. Some are called to serve in faraway places. Some are called to serve right where they are. Some are called to serve in the ministry; some are called to serve at a soup kitchen; some are called to serve communion. There are a thousand other ways to lay down our lives for Christ besides martyrdom. The issue isn’t who’s called to do what and which one is better. The issue is responding faithfully when our name is called.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Tend my flock. Follow me. How are you doing with that? How well are you living out your baptismal promises? A life of faith has its ups and downs, doesn’t it? That’s OK. Because there’s another meal that’s been prepared. Listen. Can you hear it? Jesus is calling your name. “Follow me.”