Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sermon for the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul: John 21:15-19

'Do You Love Me?'

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. In the early 1970’s Keith 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. Eventually after a time of struggle and counselling Keith and his wife were divorced, and he faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. He said, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of a 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 which 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 – 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 Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Of all the disciples, Peter was the one who had promised most vehemently to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that Jesus had warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters”, but Peter had protested, Even though all become deserters, I will not” (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” (13:37). We instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve all felt like that. Perhaps we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God seems so real to us, when the Holy Spirit seems so close, when the joy of Jesus floods in and we think, “This is it! From now on, it’s one long cruise to glory!”

But later on that night, harsh reality burst Peter’s bubble. 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, 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.

I find it hard to imagine the conflicting emotions in Peter as the reports of resurrection start to come in. Indeed, the gospels hint that on the Sunday afternoon of Easter Day 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 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 comes this story recorded for us in today’s gospel. 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 – the only other time in the New Testament that the specific word for a charcoal fire is used, and don’t you think that the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to the night in the high priest’s courtyard, the night 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 the weirdest job interview I’ve ever read! 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, to tend his sheep and feed them. And what question does he ask him? It’s not, ‘Show me your resumĂ©, Simon’; it’s not, ‘What’s your track record been so far?’ He doesn’t ask Simon about his strengths or his skills or his successes; he asks him about his heart’s devotion. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses in the Greek language is ‘agapĂ©’, 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.

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 had 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”.

Failure is not the end for us. 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.

And if the answer is “yes”, then Jesus gives an invitation: “Follow me”. Follow him, with no illusion about it being an easy path; it might not lead to death as it did for Peter, but there will be a cross in it somewhere, you can be sure of that. It will be a path that involves serving others: we may not all be pastors and evangelists and shepherds of the sheep, as Peter was, but we’re all called to love our neighbours and share the good news of Jesus.

Do you love him? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions we can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer in the world is the simple word, “Yes”.


RickinVa said...

Nicely done Tim... this is the kind of sermon I think many in the pews need to hear... very nicely done...

Tim Chesterton said...

Thank you, Rick.