Sunday, April 18, 2010
Do You Love Me? A Sermon on John 21:1-19
“Do you love me?”
There are so many ways to ask that particular question.
There is the tentative, newly-in-love lover… holding his breath, hardly able to ask for fear he’ll wither up and die if the response is not what he’s hoping for.
There is the angry, betrayed lover… wondering what has happened to this love, what has happened to this relationship, demanding to know what to expect next.
There is the playful child, trying to distract mommy or daddy from those tasks that seem so very interesting and important to them.
There is the friend making a request that they know may push at the boundaries of friendship—a room for a couple of months, a loan, a job.
There is the parent, fearful, perhaps pushing at the boundaries of their own pride and dignity, asking the now grown child what they can do to help now that the caretaking shoe is on the other foot.
“Do you love me?”
The composers of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” put these words in the mouth of the protagonist, Tevye. His world has just been turned upside down by his daughters breaking age-old tradition by choosing their own husbands, rather than allowing the matchmaker to find them spouses. His daughters say, “I love him, Papa.” Tevye turns to his wife Golde—they were brought together by the matchmaker, after all—and he asks her: Do you love me? To which she responds, “Do I what?”
“Do you love me?”
These words are in Jesus’ mouth this morning, in this third successive week of resurrection appearances by Jesus courtesy of gospel of John. It’s odd to find ourselves back in John’s gospel, because, do you remember how last week’s reading ended? As if it were really, really the ending of the gospel? John wrote (and we read),
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. ~ John 20:30-31
That sure sounds like the end of the gospel to me: Cut, print, it’s a wrap! But, intriguingly, there’s more—another chapter beyond that chapter with a pretty final-sounding ending. It’s as if John suddenly remembered something so vitally important, he said to himself—oh, I can’t leave this out, I just can’t. Whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with Simon Peter. And so another chapter begins. “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias [that is, the Sea of Galilee]; and he showed himself in this way.” After all the excitement and confusion of Easter morning—Mary and Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved—and then the further excitement and tension of Easter evening—the disciples minus Thomas, frightened and hiding out—and all the tension and doubt of the appearance one week later—Thomas, and his declaration, “My Lord and my God!”—well, it’s as if it’s all just a little too much for the disciples. Any of you who have ever been a witness or participant in a major life transition knows at least a bit what this feels like. After the birth, or after the death. After the wedding, or after the separation and divorce. Sometimes, you just need to do something that feels normal again. Simon Peter announces, “I’m going fishing.”
Peter. Peter, whose biography reads, in part, “Said to Jesus, ‘I will lay down my life for you,’ only hours before he denied three separate times that he even knew Jesus.” Peter whose head and heart must be filled with the most fascinating and difficult maelstrom of memory and regret, elation and hope. Peter tells the others, That’s it. I’ve had enough of whatever this is and has been. I’m going back to something I know, and know well. I am going fishing. And the other disciples, hard pressed to come up with a better idea, tag along.
Except, you don’t really tag along fishing. You don’t just go along for the ride. And, unlike our experience with fishing poles and streams, you don’t have much opportunity to relax and daydream while waiting for that nibble. Fishing with nets on the Sea of Galilee is something that requires serious concentration, and even more serious strength. It requires well-coordinated team effort.
Peter and company set out in a boat, fully aware of all the above—after all, this is what they do, or did, in the days before Jesus beckoned them along the Way. But their efforts, their teamwork, their patience, their strength—all is for naught, apparently, because they don’t notice even the slightest ripple on the water all that long night.
Night on the Sea of Galilee. What do the disciples do that long night while the fish are not swimming into their nets? Do they need to be silent so as not to scare away the fish? And if they are silent, are they all lost in thoughts that are pretty much identical? Or can they simply not stop themselves from murmuring to one another, again, all the events of the past weeks? Are they too lost in quiet conversation to notice a silver fin when it does slip quickly through the water?
Morning comes, at last, and with the light they can see that a man is standing on the beach. Once again, just as before, they don’t know him. They don’t recognize him. The risen Jesus is different. They don’t understand that it’s Jesus, not until his explicit instructions on where to cast their net yields a staggering bounty of fish. And then they see, and then Simon Peter—the one who was trying to get away from it all to begin with, the one who, perhaps, had the best reason to want to get away—Peter jumps into the sea to swim, as fast as he can, to Jesus’ side.
“Do you love me?” It’s later now. They’ve eaten a breakfast of bread and barbecued fish, and the hard work of waiting and then hauling is making them, perhaps, drowse in the warm morning sun. And Jesus asks Peter—or Simon, as he calls him, harkening back to the early days, when they were just beginning to know one another—he asks, “Do you love me?”
And Simon Peter, perhaps grateful to have the opportunity to say it, and say it to Jesus’ face, says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” It’s a relief, after all that denial and obfuscation and hanging out and hiding out. It’s a relief to be able to say it, to be able to make it plain: I love you. “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says. And we might assume that he would be satisfied.
But Jesus is not satisfied, because he asks again. Now Jesus sounds a little like that tentative, fearful lover, as if he’s saying, “Really? Do you really love me?” And Peter replies, again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep,” Jesus says. Is he satisfied now?
Evidently, not. Jesus needs to ask one more time. Peter feels hurt, we are told. But Jesus asks anyway. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” You know, Peter replies. You know. You know everything. Of course I love you. And Jesus nods, Yes, I know. Now. “Feed my sheep.”
Do you love me? What is this strange exchange all about? Is it about Jesus’ need? Or is it, maybe, about Peter’s need? Peter is given an opportunity to affirm his love for Jesus once for each time he denied it before. And along with the opportunity—to heal the breach, to unring the bell, to un-say the words (even though we can never really un-say the words), he is given his commission, his call. It’s as if Jesus is saying, alright Peter, now that we’re past that—now that you and I have no more unfinished business—it’s no longer about us. It’s about them. Feed them. Tend them. You know what to do.
This odd epilogue chapter seems to want to say something about the leadership of the early church. It seems to want to place that leadership squarely in the hands of Simon Peter, even at the same time it acknowledges his frailty, his humanity, all the things people might ponder when considering who they want as their leader.
But in the end it’s not about Simon Peter. In the end, it’s about the flock whose care has been given into his hands. It’s about their call. It’s about our call. It has been said (by Rob Bell) that the church is at its best when it gives itself away. So a chapter of John’s gospel whose point is to tell us who Jesus left in charge ends up being, instead, about the church’s responsibility towards God’s people. And that is where the Easter message comes home to you and to me.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Blessing is always instrumental. (Thanks again, Rob Bell!) When God blesses us, it is never so that the blessing will end there: as if God says, I’ll bless this one, but not that one. That’s not how it works. If we are blessed by God, whether with faith or fortune or gifts or gratitude, the intention is that we become a conduit through which the blessing flows. Peter receives this immeasurable blessing of being able to affirm his love for the Lord he denied. He receives his assurance of pardon. But the blessing isn’t supposed to end with Peter. It’s supposed to equip him to bless others. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.
We are so deeply blessed, here, in this place: with an ancestry of strong, resourceful forbearers, with active and involved members who are willing and able to serve in all capacities, with a love for music and a passion to share it, with a tradition of raising up pastoral leadership from within our midst, with a gorgeous and functional physical plant, with the thriving ministries of our counseling center and our Pre-School, with endowments—the treasure of those who came before us… and the list doesn’t stop there. We are so deeply blessed. But the blessing cannot and should not and does not stop with us. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. That is the call to every one of us: that the blessing of God should flow through us to a world that is hungry, for bread and for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Painting: "Pentecost" by Alexander Sadoyan.