John 21: 15-19
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him 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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
First sermons are a unique experience a person has with a congregation. As I scan the pews to discern reactions and you all listen in intently to understand just what sort of teachings I plan to bring to this pulpit. In normal conversation we would exchange words back and forth, get to know one another through an our responses to one another. Yet, at the pulpit the message is in a singular direction, our exposition of God’s word consisting mainly of my voice. Yet, from my singular voice and my position at this pulpit, I hope we will walk together through the scriptures and in so doing, truly begin to understand what God has given us through them.
Our scripture for today captures a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus, having died, having been buried, and having risen again, has been with the Disciples several times. This morning, after some fishing, Jesus and Peter are seated together talking over the remains of their breakfast. Jesus looks at Peter and questions him, time and time again. “Peter, do you love me?” The exact form of his question, how he identifies Peter, shifts a time or two, but across its three repetitions Jesus does not waver in the intensity of the question. Twice Peter responds he loves Jesus, twice Jesus asks him to follow through on that love by “tending [Jesus’s] sheep.” Only on the third repetition do we see significant change. Peter despairs over Jesus’ repeated questioning, and Jesus changes his wording. Jesus simultaneously commands Peter to feed Jesus’s sheep, but also foretells his eventual death on an inverted cross decades later.
This exchange, though it barely takes up a paragraph, shows us the moment that Jesus and Peter truly come together again. Peter, as we know, had rejected Jesus before his trial. The triune denial he gave then rebutted by the three declarations of love he makes here. Jesus had been with the disciples for some time, the work of the cross complete, yet the work to bridge the gap between Peter and Jesus, that could only be accomplished by the two speaking together.
The exchange is easy to dismiss as just a callback to Peter’s denial. Jesus, knowing he had been denied three times, asks for Peter to affirm his love three times. That would be a simple quid pro quo. Peter satisfying the damage he had caused between himself and Christ through an equal affirmation. Yet, more than that is happening here. On one hand, relationships are not accounts to be balanced. If we treat loved ones poorly, we cannot just give them good things and cancel out the poor treatment. On the other hand, Jesus does not seem the type to me to take someone’s transgression and treat it flippantly. Jesus must have another reason for asking Peter three times whether or not he loves him.
The answer, at least in part, might be found in how Peter responds. Reading the English of this text, we lose a key difference in what Jesus asks and Peter says. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me,” using the term αγαπη (agape.) This word is the most commonly used in the New Testament. Peter responds each time by changing the word used for. He tells Jesus, time and time again, “I love you,” using the term φιλέω (phileo.) I do not want to overemphasize the difference between these two words (as we often do in the Church,) but the demarcation of one and the other is important.
What Peter does with each repetition of the question is attempt to go beyond what Jesus is asking. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and Peter’s response can be understood to say, “Love you? You’re like family to me!” In a way, his insistence on using a separate word from what Jesus uses is an attempt to demonstrate how intense his feelings really are. He not only loves Jesus, he sees Jesus as someone close to him, he and Jesus are part of the same community. He wants Jesus to know that the love he feels for his savior is not just your run of the mill affection, it transcends any of that. It is the closest and most vital thing he holds within himself.
Jesus, in his response to Peter is therefore not just rehearsing a threefold rebuttal to Peter’s earlier denial, but is asking Peter to understand what he is truly saying in claiming to love Christ in the way he does. To love Jesus so dearly, is to care for the people Jesus cares for. To love Jesus so dearly, is to risk everything to see the work of the Gospel is completed. To love Jesus, it is to live a life completely oriented toward Jesus and with that, toward the cross. For Peter, the termination of his life’s journey was a literal journey from his fishing boat in the sea of Galilee to an inverted crucifix in Rome. What might it look like for us?
We are blessed to live in a country where we do not know persecution. In fact, we live a country where the majority of people in power and in the population still claim, at least in name, to be in the Church. Theoretically then, we have all the means possible to see the world filled with people living a cruciform life. Love for one another should be the dominate sentiment we see expressed. The word of God, pure and life giving, should be on the lips of everyone of us. Yet, that is clearly not the case. The Church shrinks year after year, Christianity becomes more and more divided month after month, and no denomination, not even a single religion, in all of the United States is growing day by day.
Why is that? It would be easy to point fingers at anything and everything but ourselves. However, as you will learn about me, I do not like to point fingers at anyone other than myself and the institutions I am a part of. It is easy to say, “the media,” or “Hollywood,” or any other number of scape goats for our own guilt have led people from the faith. I do not believe that to be the case. The enemy of the Church is not found outside our walls, it is not found in some grand conspiracy or decadent culture. No, it is found much closer to home. It is found in the simple truth that Jesus sits beside us, asks us time and time again, “Do you love me?” And despite our enthusiastic “Yes! More than anything!” We do not follow that claim with action.
The mistake that Peter made in trying to overstate his love for Jesus, is that he was, intentionally or not, trying to show off his love rather than live into it. He loudly stated again and again, “I love you, Jesus!” But did not address the core message of what Jesus was leading him to. The key to Peter’s confession of faith was not that he could say the word love as many times as he had said, “I don’t know him!” But that he could acknowledge what love looks like. Love looks like caring for one’s siblings in Christ. Love is reaching out to your neighbor and making sure they are well. Love is praying for those near and far, but also reaching out and helping in real tangible ways.
When I heard that this church had a food pantry, I was thrilled. This past Thursday I got a chance to see it in action, although, if I’m honest, I got distracted by some office work part way through. It is that sort of initiative that the Church needs to enact everywhere. However, it is not enough in itself. The second that we are ever content that we have done enough good is the moment that we forget the enormity of life’s struggles, and the needs that must be filled to relieve them. I think Jesus uses the image of sheep because you are never done taking care of a sheep, not for its whole life, in the same way we are never done caring for those around us.
I hope that as we spend time together over the next few years, we can get to know one another. More than that though, I hope we can embody Christ’s love to all the world around us. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the hot and the cold. In whatever forms it takes, in whatever ways we can, we are called to tend to the flock which Christ has called his own. The flock of all people, every soul on this earth. We must love Christ, and not only do so with our words, but in our every action. Christ calls us today, asks us to love him with all that is within us, and if we truly wish to say that we do. We must then take a step out from ourselves and care for this broken world. The flock is all around us, let us tend it well. – Amen.