Do You Love Me?

Easter 3        April 10, 2016

John 21:1-19

Quite an embarrassment of riches in today’s readings: two long readings about the call of the two most important apostles. It is tempting to try to speak about both. But that would mean spreading ourselves too thin. So I will be robbing Paul to pay Peter this morning, and concentrate on the gospel reading. It is the third story of the resurrected Christ in the gospel of John, so let’s complete the series.

Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we went with Mary early to the tomb, to find it empty and to meet Jesus in the garden. Last week we waited with the disciples in the locked upper room, when Jesus appeared among them, spoke peace to them, and breathed the Holy Spirit onto them – and then returned a week later to appear to Thomas.

And now we find ourselves with the disciples back in Galilee. Whatever may have happened in those first encounters with Jesus, they have clearly not yet found their way forward. They have returned home from Jerusalem, and they seem to be putting in time, at loose ends, waiting for some sign or help or direction as to what they are supposed to do now. As they wait, desperate for something to do, they return to what they know. You can just hear Peter “I’m goin’ fishin’”; and the other disciples, “Yep, we’ll come too.”

Yet even that seems pointless. Out in the middle of the night with the creaking of the oars and the lapping of the waves, straining at the nets – Peter had stripped down for the work – they catch nothing. And then, as the first light creeps over the lake, they catch a glimpse through the mists of a figure on the shore, and a voice carried over the waters to try the other side.

And suddenly it seems they have entered the dream time. Remember, we spoke about this on Easter Sunday. Just as with Mary in the garden on the first Easter morning, there is something unreal and yet more than real about this scene by the lake. Every detail stands out with clarity: the soft shifting shapes of mist, the cold splash of water, the crunch of the hull being pulled up on the beach, the rough weight of a net bursting with fish, the crackling of the fire and the smell of woodsmoke and sizzling fish. Yet they move through this hyperreal landscape with a dreamlike certainly. Few words are spoken; they don’t have to ask if it is the Lord, or remark on his presence. They are simply there with him, follow naturally his quiet invitation to eat, receive his gentle words of welcome and love. They have entered the dream time of God’s new beginnings; but this time they find it in the midst of their everyday lives as fisherman, they find their lives and identity overtaken and transformed by the new reality of Christ’s risen presence.

And then as they rest silent and content and fulfilled in his presence, there comes that wonderful, intimate exchange between Jesus and Peter. Three times, in that lazy, stuffed, contented after-breakfast stillness, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.

What is that about? I was reading a reflection on this this week by a colleague and friend, who points out that that simple question, “Do you love me?” can mean all kinds of things, depending on how and when it is being said, by whom and to whom, with what tone or background:

“Do you love me? (of course you do)
Do you love me? (I want to hear you say it)
Do you love me? (I suspect that you do not)
Do you love me? (I wonder if you know what that means)”
[Rob Warren, “Simon Peter in the School of Love”]

Such an important and loaded question. So much subtext. What is Jesus doing by asking Peter?

First of all the repetition is striking. Jesus asks him three times. And of course, there is an echo here of the three times that Peter denied Jesus after his arrest. By asking three times, Jesus is giving him the chance to cancel out each of those three betrayals, to make it good again.
Do you love me? (I forgive you.)
Do you love me? (You really do, Peter, and you have the right to say so.)
Do you love me? (All is well between us.)

And then there is a detail, lost in translation, but clearly significant to John. As he writes this scene in Greek, he uses two different Greek words for love. Jesus uses a form of the word agape, a word you will have heard: it is that word the New Testament uses to speak of the particular nature of Christian love, love that is selfless, that looks to build the other up. But when Peter replies, he uses the more general and normal word for love, one that means “I really like you” or “I feel friendship for you.” A better translation of our passage would try to echo this difference:
“Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know I care for you.”
“Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know I care for you.”
You’d think Peter might just catch on by this point, but apparently he just can’t bring the agape word to his lips.
In the end it is Jesus who changes the question:
“Peter, do you care for me?” “Lord, you know I care for you.”

What is going on here? My friend Rob suggests that we have to think of Peter as sitting at the Master’s feet in the school of love – much as we saw Thomas last week in the school of faith. In these questions, Jesus is trying to draw Peter deeper into the meaning of love. Peter does not pass this test – not yet, but he will in time. And so the subtext to the questions might read:
Do you love me? (Do you share the full, selfless love I have for you?)
Do you love me? (I’m not sure you understand yet what that means.)
Do you care for me? (That will do for now; you will grow into this in time.)

Because Jesus’s questions do not just look to the past, to Peter’s betrayal, in order to put that right; they look also and especially to the future. It is a call that begins to wake him from the dream time, and place him back in the world. And so, after each of Peter’s answers, the call comes to take that love and give it to others: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Peter is being called, called into Jesus’s service, called to his new vocation as chief pastor of the flock that Jesus leaves behind. The whole passage ends with an echo of the first words they heard from Jesus, when first he called them from their nets: “Follow me.” We have circled back to the beginning again, but the call is different this time, because of what they have seen and heard, because they have come to share something of the love that Jesus shared with them. And so the subtext becomes:
Do you love me? (Then share that love with others.)
Do you love me? (Care for those who need that love.)
Do you love me? (This is not a dream. This is not just about you and me. Wake up and go back into the world.)

And what about us, what do we say to this question? Surely this is not a question that stays on the page, addressed once upon a time to Peter and only to him. It is, one might almost say, the central question for each one of us in our faith. If you want to reduce Christian faith to its basics, you could do worse than to forget everything else, and just let Jesus ask you this one question. Can you hear the question; can you hear it coming from Jesus himself; can you hear him speak it to you, with your name? Say it to yourself, say it with your name instead of Peter’s. _______, do you love me?

And of course we answer, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. That’s why I’m here, after all. You know that I love and admire you.”

Yet the question comes again, “Do you love me?” What is he asking this time. “Do you really understand the love I am calling you to? Can you really share the love I modelled for you, can you love with the love I brought to this world?”

And we answer, a little less sure of ourselves, “yes, Lord, I think so. I want to learn to love like that. That is why I am here.”

Now hear the question a third time, know that he wants to go still deeper. “________, do you love me?” Do we even know what to answer this time, do we even know what he is asking? “Do you love me? Yes? Then what are you going to do about it?”