A Sermon Preached on the 3rd Sunday of Easter
Sunday 5th May 2019
Canon Simon Butler
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16 A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17 He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
During this service two children, Rafferty & Beatrix, were baptised.
This passage was the part of the Bible read at my ordination to the priesthood, so it has a special resonance for me. Its extra resonance is that my father is called John, so when Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” I get a particular shiver in my spine. It as if Jesus is speaking very directly to me. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Being asked if we love Jesus is something rather intimate for many of us. It may not be language that we feel entirely comfortable using. Perhaps we are able to talk about the love of God and how we know and experience that, but ask us whether we love God or, perhaps given his humanity, whether we love Jesus, it becomes rather more challenging. C S Lewis once said that, “on the whole, Chris’s love for us is a much safer subject to talk about than our love for him.” And yet, if you remember, here is one of the commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind…” These are words whose meaning parents and godparents are being asked to teach and show to Rafferty and Beatrix today: to love God, to love Jesus Christ.
For some of us, saying “I love you” is a challenge in the first place. They are not words that we find easy to say. And maybe they shouldn’t trip off the tongue too easily, either. Such profound words can be cheapened to the superficial. “Love you, mwah, mwah…with all the sincerity of Made in Chelsea.” We would rather show our love rather than talk about it. When we prepare couples for marriage here our facilitators talk about the different “Languages of Love”. Not everyone receives love in the same way – some like to receive gifts, some like to spend quality time, some want words of affirmation, some seek acts of service, some need physical touch. All of these are different ways we receive love. It’s interesting to notice how many of these Jesus offers to the disciples after his resurrection. Time, touch, words of affirmation, the gift of a miraculous catch of fish, cooking breakfast on the beach. All the languages of love are expressed here. Just as before his death he had given love to those around him in all of these ways, now after his resurrection he does the same.
But Jesus is asking Peter to speak his love. That is the language of love that Jesus is seeking to be expressed to him. Now it could be that we consider Jesus a bit too needy in this passage. He seeks affirmation of love, and then (perhaps even worse), he seeks to ask Peter if he loves Jesus more than these. Is Jesus a little too self-obsessed here. I don’t think so. We need to remember that three times, Peter himself spoke words not of love, but of denial. “I do not know the man!” he cried, before going out and bitterly weeping. Now Jesus invites him to undo what has been done: do you love me Peter? Do you love me more than these? Ernest Hemingway tells a story about an advert in a Spanish newspaper: “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Wednesday. All is forgiven. Love, Papa” That Wednesday the authorities had to muster a whole squad of police to contain the eight hundred Pacos who had turned up at the Hotel Montana! Peter, like those countless Pacos, is looking for restoration and forgiveness.
Part of what Jesus is doing here you see is not seeking more love as if he were deeply insecure, he’s undoing the past. He’s offering a forgiveness that Peter needs but cannot ask for.
Peter’s answer is interesting. Pause for a potentially interesting linguistic observation. When Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ him, he’s using two of the four Greek words for love. Twice Jesus asks if he has Peter’s agapē, his self-giving love. Twice Peter replies that Jesus has Peter’s philos, his friendly love. The third time, Jesus asks Peter if he has his philos, Peter’s friendly love, and Peter is sad because Jesus has asked for philos. Now this could mean nothing at all, but in the context, this change of meaning might mean something about the way in which we learn to love again. Perhaps Peter is a bit wary of declaring his love to Jesus. Perhaps he fears he might get a telling off, as if Jesus might respond by saying “then why the hell did you abandon me at my greatest moment of need?” Perhaps in the end Jesus is coming down to Peter’s level, giving up on him a bit, which is why Peter is sad.
But maybe there’s grace here too. Maybe Peter is being given time to grow in grace and spiritual maturity. Maybe, as Jesus entrusts the flock to Peter – “Feed my sheep, Feed my lambs” – he is being given time to grow. Peter is restored here. The past is moved on from. But the most extraordinary thing about this passage is that, despite Peter’s apparent hedging, he is still given the responsibility of caring for the flock. Perhaps that’s part of what resurrection means.
I’m glad of that when I hear those spine-tingling words, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” I cannot imagine what Jesus makes of me and I am sure than one of the reasons why I find this an enormously challenging verse of scripture is because my life, and I’m sure yours too, are littered with failures in my attempts to follow Jesus. And yet, even if I struggle to say, “Lord, you know I love you”, even so I am invited to do his work, to follow him, to love like him, to give myself like he does for me.
And you, parents and godparents of Beatrix and Rafferty, perhaps you think that this morning. Perhaps you look around this church and you imagine that you are not sure how you fit into this company of Christian people. Perhaps you wonder what the words you are invited to say on behalf of your children actually mean. Perhaps you see this moment as an important rite of passage in these two young lives, and little more than that. Maybe you just have the vaguest idea of what Jesus means when he says, “Follow me”. Well, whether that’s true or not, here in this passage there is a question from JEsus for all who say words of allegiance to him, as you do this morning. “N, N, N, N, do you love me?” Let that question of Jesus rest with you for a moment. “Do you love me?” Because, however strongly you are able to express that answer of Peter’s if at all, “you know that I love you”, Jesus starts there with you. And he entrusts to you today, responsibility for feeding these two little sheep. He starts where you are, he offers you his Easter presence, and in the language of love that you understand, and he asks you to “follow him” for the sake of Rafferty and Beatrix. And to teach them, through their own failure and their own ability to love, what it means to follow Jesus.
And, if you do wonder how you fit into this company of Christian people, or the wider Christian church into whose life we welcome your children today, then let me let you into a secret. We are all as mixed up and confused as you are. We are like Peter, serial deniers of Jesus Christ. We are not here because we are morally-superior (moral superiority is in its own way one of the greatest denials of Jesus); we are not here because we have got it right. We are here because we have glimpsed the power of forgiveness, the significance of restoration and the power of the risen Jesus to change lives, and through changed lives to change the world. We, like Peter, fail again and again, and yet, as we hear the same question as he did, “do you love me?”, we rise and falteringly say, “you know I love you”. And he says the same words to us, “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me”.
Perhaps Maya Angelou captures that well in her famous poem, Still I rise. It says something about what it means to be restored by the love of God and the power he gives us.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
“do you love me?”, says the Lord.
How do we respond?