Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, South Hadley, MA
on April 10, 2016
“Do you love me?”
Today, on the third Sunday of Easter, we meet the resurrected Christ on the seashore. This one of my very favorite passages in my very favorite Gospel. I have had many thoughts about it — some related to my call to ministry. This was the Gospel text for my ordination and it’ll be the Gospel text for my installation. I could talk for days about how it relates to my call, sheep, and border collies, but we’ve got quite a few sheep in the texts for next week, including my installation, so for today, I figured we could find a different way in.
You see, this is also the passage that makes me most strongly identify with St. Peter.
Peter, the one who denied Jesus, and here is restored. I can’t help but to notice that Jesus’ love of Peter is never in question. After all, Jesus has told them that no greater love has anyone than to lay down their life for their friends. And Jesus has done that. Jesus loves Peter. That much is never in question. But when I read through the text for this week, I only heard one phrase, echoing down through the ages from that seashore in Israel. “Do you love me?”
What does it mean to love Jesus? And how do we love Jesus, even when we feel like massive failures, as Peter must have? Before this moment, they have seen Jesus alive twice since he was crucified. No one has talked about Peter’s denial. Jesus hasn’t mentioned it, and neither has Peter. But you know that, to Peter, it’s been hanging in the air ever since it happened. Jesus called it at the Last Supper and Peter had vehemently said it would never happen. Then, fearing for his life while Jesus stood on trial, Peter did it. He denied three times that he even knew Jesus.
Anyone who has ever felt like a massive failure must know something about how Peter felt. And now that Jesus has appeared alive, Peter knows that at some point they have to talk about it. Jesus has appeared to them, suddenly, twice now. When will he appear again?
And so they wait. And I know Peter must be anxious, knowing that conversation is coming.
Today, gathered together near the Sea of Tiberius around sunset were Peter and some of the other disciples.
Suddenly, Simon Peter announces, “I’m going fishing.” I get that. Whenever I’m anxious, or at big moments in my life, I have announced, “I’m going running.” We want to do familiar, comforting things in moments like this. We all have our own — activities that makes us feel more like ourselves. So Peter goes fishing. His friends go with him. I assume that they simply wanted to fish, to process, to remember who they are, to reclaim some normalcy, to figure out what to do next. They likely aren’t expecting an encounter with God.
After an entire night of catching nothing, when they’re probably just about to throw in the towel and come back to the shore, they see a figure on the beach. He waves his arm over and shouts, “Hey! Try casting your net to the right side of the boat!”
After being completely unsuccessful all night, and figuring that following this stranger’s advice was worth a shot, they did as he said. Before they knew it, there were so many fish in the net that they couldn’t even haul it in.
And that’s when they knew. When the figure had appeared when it was dawn and the night was over, when their nets were so full that they were about to break, when there was such an abundance of food that they didn’t even know what to do with it, that’s when they knew that God was there. After all, Jesus loved meals so much that he became one.
Wherever Jesus was, there was always more than enough food.
The disciple that Jesus loved said it first. “It is the Lord!”
That’s when Peter loses it. He puts on his clothes and jumps into the Sea of Tiberius, and swims to shore as fast as he can. He has seen Jesus, resurrected, twice now, but they haven’t been alone. Jesus hasn’t said anything about Peter denying him. I think Peter knows that this is his chance to talk to him alone. He jumps in, completely, with both feet, and starts swimming to shore.
We don’t know what happened while Peter and Jesus were alone on the shore together. We don’t know what they said to one another. We don’t know if Peter apologized, or if Jesus brought it up first. We don’t even really know if they even talked about it. What we do know is that when the other disciples arrived, Peter and Jesus had made some breakfast. There was a fire, and there was bread and fish ready. Jesus loves meals and always shows up around mealtime, and there is always enough food for everybody.
This is Peter’s defining moment. This is the moment that he is restored. He knows that he has done wrong, and he swims to shore, not wanting to avoid Jesus, but just wanting to get to him.
After they have a meal together, Jesus and Peter have a chance to talk again.
It’s a familiar passage. It’s notable that Jesus’ love for Peter is never in question. But Jesus says to him, “Do you love me?” three times. Every time, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He asks him three times — the same number of times that Peter denied him. Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter — he gives Peter a chance to declare his love for Jesus the same number of times that he denied him. He gives Peter a chance to erase it all, even from Peter’s own conscience.
And every time, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” That is how Peter will show his love for Jesus — by feeding his sheep, by taking care of them. Jesus will always love Peter, and he knows it — and he gives Peter the great gift of being able to return that love.
During Easter one year while I was in seminary, I heard one of my professors preach on this. David Jenkins was the head of the program that sent us into various intense settings to be chaplains — we had our choice of serving people in poverty or serving those in a medical setting. It was in his program that I had been sent to the homeless shelter in Marietta, Georgia, an experience that has informed my ministry.
The sermon that he preached that day six years ago changed the way I look at ministry. He talked about Jesus’ words — “Do you love me?” echoing down through the ages to us. “Feed my sheep.” He talked about, in Matthew 25, how we are to treat each person that we serve the way that we would treat Jesus. He called us to imagine a scenario.
“Imagine that you are in your Easter sunrise service in your first call. You are proclaiming the resurrection, when a man, recently widowed, filled with pain, stands up and says what he’s been thinking all along: ‘Pastor, do you love me’?” He doesn’t care about your theology. He doesn’t even care about your politics. He just wants to know what all people want to know of their pastor: “Do you love me?” And Jesus whispers to you, as a first call pastor: “Feed my sheep.”
It’s not just pastors. Each of us is like Peter. We all mess up, over and over again. We’re all inadequate. But despite our inadequacy and our denials, Jesus’ love for us is never in question. We are all welcome at the table. We all meet Jesus over breakfast, at the table, here.
Jesus’ love for us is never in question. But Jesus also calls us to look, even in our failures and inadequacy, to hear the question that the world is asking us in the words of Jesus: “Do you love me?”
Because one of the reasons I love John’s Gospel so much is that the mission of the church is so clear: Christ is God’s love made flesh, and Christ calls us to love one another, and to share that love with the world.
At the end, whom you love is the only thing that matters. John tells us that. Paul tells us that. It doesn’t matter how many people you serve, how many prayers you offer, how perfect your church attendance is. It doesn’t matter how often you fail, either.
Jesus’ love for you is never in question. And he calls to you hear the cry of the people you serve in his words to Peter: “Do you love me?”
You will meet many people in your life inside and outside of these walls. You’ll go to the funerals of dear friends, and you will comfort their loved ones. In their eyes, you will see Jesus’ question: “Do you love me?” And Jesus whispers in your ear: “Feed my sheep.”
You see it with people you work with. You may call them students, or patients, or clients, or tenants or customers. But Jesus calls us to treat them as we would treat him. Because Jesus knows that even the worst among us just want to be loved. He calls us to look into their eyes and hear them ask: “Do you love me?” And he whispers back through the ages: “Feed my sheep.”
You will see a person in need who asks you for help. You will see Jesus’ question in their eyes: “Do you love me?”
“Feed my sheep.”
We come today to have a meal with Jesus, here, at his table. We have all failed, but we are all welcome. None of us is worthy, and yet we all hear “It is the Lord!” We all jump into the sea and come to the shore. We share a meal with Jesus, and we all hear his question.
“Do you love me?”
We share a meal with Jesus, and then we go out into the world. In the eyes of every person we meet, we see Jesus. In every pair of eyes, we see his question: “Do you love me?”
“Feed my sheep.”
Jesus love for us is never in question. We do not feed Jesus’ sheep to earn his love. We feed Jesus’ sheep to show our love, out of pure gratitude, for him.
Just like my professor predicted, I see Jesus’ question in your eyes. And because I am human, you see it in mine, too. “Do you love me?”
Beloved, you are God’s love in the world. You are God’s love because you are so loved by God. And everyone is welcome at breakfast. And when we depart, we hear the world’s question, now and always: “Do you love me?”