“Do You Love Me?” (a sermon on John 21:1-19)

I once heard Keith Miller talk about the failure of his marriage and the devastating effect it had upon his ministry as a Christian speaker, writer, and conference leader. You’ve probably never heard of Keith, but in the early 1970’s he wrote a superb book called The Taste of New Wine, in which he told the story of his encounter with Christ and his experience of the grace of God. This was followed by other books, and he began to travel and speak at Christian conferences and retreats. He was involved in the ‘Faith Alive’ movement which was a mission movement amongst lay people in the Episcopal Church in the USA. As an intelligent and committed Christian layman, Keith was a huge gift to the church and God used him to bring many people closer to Christ – including me.

But there was a price to pay, and ironically, the man who had often encouraged people to slow down and take time to love their families found that he was unable to do that himself. He had his first extra-marital affair in 1974, and eventually in 1976, after a time of struggle and counselling, Keith and his wife were divorced. He faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. Many years later, I heard him say, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of Christian ministry in the future, it would only be through the grace of God and not through any expertise or strength of my own, because I had none. I felt I had nothing left to offer to God”.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? I wonder if you’ve experienced some spectacular failure in your Christian life that has left you thinking, “Well, that’s the last God’s ever going to want to see of me!” Or perhaps it hasn’t been anything really spectacular at all – just a sense that God couldn’t really use you, because you don’t measure up to your idea of what a really good Christian ought to be.

If you’ve ever felt like that, then you can understand how Simon Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of all the disciples, Simon Peter was the one who had promised most strongly to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus had warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters”, but Peter had protested, “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:27, 29). John tells us that Peter said, ‘“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times”’ (John 13:37-38).

I think some of us instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve felt like there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for Jesus. Maybe we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God has seemed so real to us, when the Holy Spirit has seemed so close, when the joy of Jesus has come flooding in. Maybe at that moment we found ourselves thinking, “This is it! It’s me and God together, and nothing can stop us now!”

I don’t know whether Peter honestly felt that, deep in his heart. Maybe he did, or maybe he just liked to sound confident in order to impress the others. But whether he really felt it or not, later on that night harsh reality broke in for him, and he discovered that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.

Oh, he was brave at first! When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him as the guards led him to the high priest’s house. He even went into the courtyard and stood there for a while with the servants and the others; John’s Gospel tells us that they were warming themselves around a charcoal fire. But there, Peter’s courage ran out. When he was confronted and accused of being a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times to save his own skin. And then he ran away.

So I find it easy to imagine the conflicting emotions in Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday, as the reports of meetings with the risen Jesus start to come in. The gospels actually hint that on the Sunday afternoon Jesus appeared privately to Peter, although no one has ever recorded the details of that meeting. But I would guess that Peter probably felt the same way that Keith Miller did, after his marriage fell apart because of his own sinful choices and compulsive busyness: “If I’m ever going to have any sort of ministry after this, it can only be because of grace, not through any expertise or strength of my own”. In fact, I would be surprised if the idea of grace even entered Peter’s head at all. I expect he thought he was finished, plain and simple.

And so we come to the story recorded for us in today’s gospel. We don’t know exactly when it happened; it would have been some time in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, but the exact chronology wasn’t important to John.

In the story, some of the disciples have gone fishing on the lake, but they’ve caught nothing all night. In the morning as they come in to shore someone is standing on the beach, and he calls and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they catch a huge amount of fish – a hundred and fifty-three, says John, but the net wasn’t torn. Peter swims to shore, convinced that it’s Jesus, and so it turns out. Jesus is standing on the beach beside a charcoal fire. This is the only time in the New Testament that the specific word for a charcoal fire is used other than that earlier story of how the servants stood around the charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard, and don’t you think that the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to that night – that painful, awful night – when he had denied Jesus three times? And then Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. ‘Simon’ is his original name; ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’, but the rock has turned out to be not quite so rocky after all.

This is a very strange conversation! Jesus is about to give Simon Peter a commission to be a shepherd of his people; he’s about to tell him to feed his lambs and look after his sheep. And what question does he ask him? It’s not, ‘Show me your resume, Simon’; it’s not, ‘How many wild animals have you run away from?’ It’s not ‘How many churches have you led into growth?’ It’s not ‘What’s your record of resisting temptation?’ No – he doesn’t ask Simon about his strengths or his skills or his successes or failures; he asks him about his heart’s devotion to him. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16, 17)

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses for love in the Greek language is ‘agapé’; this is not a feeling love, but an action love, the sacrificial love Jesus showed by giving himself on the cross. But when Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, the Greek word John uses for love is ‘phileo’ – a lesser word, more about friendship than committed and sacrificial love. Of course, Jesus and Peter would have been speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don’t know what the exact nuances were, but we can guess that Peter is feeling a lot less self-confident now. “Lord, you know everything”, he says to Jesus – and we can guess what he means. Lord, you know what I did; you know how weak I am. I can’t pretend to be anything other than the failure that I am.

But Jesus is not finished with Peter. Peter was always an enthusiastic follower, the sort of guy who volunteered for all the jobs without looking in his calendar, the sort of guy who would always speak up, even if his brain wasn’t quite in gear yet. And Jesus warmed to that, I’m sure. Jesus loved the enthusiasm and wholeheartedness of Peter’s discipleship.

But now Peter has another priceless qualification – an awareness of both the true cost of discipleship, and of his own weakness. He now knows that following Jesus can cost you your life, and he now knows that he should be careful about promising what he can’t deliver. And Jesus is quite up front with him about where this path is going to lead; he tells him quite plainly that the day is going to come when he, Peter, will also be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then Jesus says to him again, “Follow me” (v.19).

So what’s it like for us ordinary, fallible human beings – who have let the Lord down, not once but many times – what’s it like for us to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Nowadays our encounters with Jesus tend not to be as dramatic as in those early days after his resurrection. We don’t live in that forty-day period when Jesus was still walking the earth in a physical resurrected body, inviting people to touch his wounds and to watch him as he ate and drank in their presence.

And yet, the New Testament does tell us that a meeting with the risen Lord is still possible for us, in a spiritual or mystical sense. Paul talks in dynamic language about it: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ (Philippians 3:10). He even talks of us being ‘in’ Christ, and Christ being ‘in’ us, and he prays for the Christians in Ephesus ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). This will happen, he says, as we are ‘strengthened in (our) inner being with power through (God’s) Spirit’ (Ephesians 3:16).

So what’s this like? Well, of course, it goes without saying that it’s a joyful thing. We read in today’s gospel of these poor tired disciples who’ve been fishing all night long, and then, completely unexpectedly, on the advice of a stranger, they suddenly have a bumper catch of fish. Maybe something like that has happened to us, too. Maybe we were starting to get interested in Jesus, and we started reading his story in the gospels. Maybe some command of his spoke vividly to us, and we thought, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before! I’m going to try that out”. So we did – we ‘cast our nets to the right side of the boat’, so to speak – and to our surprise it worked out well; perhaps a relationship was healed, or we found strength to do something we’d never been able to do before. We were amazed and excited, joyful and fearful. We thought, “Wow – I’m playing poker, not solitaire! There really is someone else out there getting involved in my life!” And this realization wasn’t just scary; it was a joyful thing too.

We see that joy and excitement quite clearly in this gospel reading. When Peter realizes that it’s the Lord standing there on the lakeshore beside the fire, he can’t help himself – he leaves his companions in the boat to look after the fish, while he jumps in the water and swims ashore as fast as he can! How like Peter! But we shouldn’t imagine the others didn’t feel the same way; they may not have been a demonstrative as Peter, but they must have felt their hearts leap for joy too, when they saw the Lord they loved.

But it’s not just about joy; it’s also about honesty, because an encounter with the risen Lord is also an encounter with our own true selves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we will be unable to have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord unless we are willing to reveal our true selves to him – or rather, that the genuineness and depth of the encounter will depend on how genuine we are prepared to be with him. “Lord, you know the whole story; you know I’m your friend, but you know I’ve failed you too. I can’t hide anything from you”.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? God wants to have a relationship with me – with the real ‘me’, not the fake persona I create in order to impress the people around me. This is not rocket science! The Old Testament people knew it well; they wrote psalms asking God to curse their enemies, or complaining about how God had abandoned them, or lamenting their own wickedness. They were not putting on masks and pretending to be holier than they really were. No – their prayers are the prayers of people who know that God sees the secrets of our hearts: ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden’.

That’s what we need. No alcoholic can make any progress through the Alcoholics Anonymous program until they’re willing to start with Step One: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable’. You never get past that awareness; week by week you go to the meeting and start by saying, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Imagine if our liturgy asked us to do that each time we gathered together; “My name is Tim and I’m a sinner”.

Oh, right – it does! “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves”. Trouble is, it’s too easy for those words to roll off our tongue. Truly meeting with the risen Jesus – truly following him each day – will confront us as never before with the reality of our own weaknesses and failures. The good news, of course, is that those weaknesses and failures are not news to him. He already knew Peter would deny him three times, and he loved him anyway.

So the risen Jesus meets with Peter on the shores of the lake, reminds him of that threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and then asks him again three times, “Do you love me?” Despite his failures, Jesus gives Peter a new job description: “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16), “Feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus has already described himself in John’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd; now he invites Peter, the failure, to share with him in that shepherding ministry. And at the end of the paragraph, after warning him about the price he will pay, he says to him again, as he did when he first called him, “Follow me” (v.19).

That’s the third thing about an encounter with the risen Lord: if it’s real, it will lead to a deeper life of discipleship, of following Jesus. In other words, we will be asking Jesus each day to teach us to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. And we will do this, knowing that there will be a price to pay: not everyone in our life will be jumping for joy because we are following Jesus, and some of them will let us know about it, in no uncertain terms. We may not have Peter’s experience of paying with our lives for our allegiance to Jesus, but there will be a cross for us to carry too, make no mistake about that. And we will accept that cross joyfully, because we know it’s worth it; as Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

So yes, it is possible for us – even today, even though we have failed the Lord many times – it is possible for us to know the risen Lord as he lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. He knows very well that we have failed him and let him down, but this need not disqualify us. Failure was not the end for Simon Peter, and failure is not the end for us either. After all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus takes his failures and makes them his fellow-workers!

So don’t count yourself out. Don’t say, “Because I’ve done this or that, I’ve disqualified myself and Jesus could never want to have anything to do with me or use me to serve others”. Don’t say, “I don’t have any qualifications he could use”. Jesus knows all about your failures and he isn’t asking you about your qualifications. He has one simple question he wants to ask you: “Do you love me?” If the answer to that is “yes”, then we’re in business.

Do you love him? Are you his friend? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions any of us can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer we could possibly pray this morning may Peter’s prayer of total honesty: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I am your friend”. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s an honest answer, and with that honesty, we’re back on the road to a genuine relationship with the risen Lord.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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