Do You Love Me?

 

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Rev. Sarah Buteux
April 14, 2013
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
John 21:1-19

 

“I do not understand the mystery of grace –

only that it meets us where we are

and does not leave us where it found us.”

~ Anne Lamott

 

I was not the world’s best student back when I was in high school.  Actually, truth be told, I was not a very good student at all. I hated going.  I begged my parents to home-school me or at least let me home-school myself. I faked being sick as often as possible.

 

I rarely did my homework. I cut class with such alarming regularity that people just assumed I wasn’t supposed to be there. And even when I was there, I wasn’t exactly all there, if you know what I mean. And yet, in spite of my bad attitude and lax participation, my teachers, to their credit, occasionally still managed to teach me some pretty amazing things.

 

In fact, every now and again there would be one of those magical moments when I didn’t just learn something, I learned something really important; a moment in which a teacher would speak and not just present us with another fact to memorize, but with a Truth – a Truth with a capital “T.”

 

(That sort of things still existed back in my school days.) 

 

They would offer up a Truth that would hit me as if for the first time and truly reshape my way of understanding the world.

 

One such moment I can still recall was in English class sophomore year.  We were reading “The Last of the Wine,” by Mary Renault, a novel about ancient Greece.

 

And Mrs. Gleason - perhaps because she was having trouble getting through to us - put the novel down, crossed her arms, looked out at us all and said: “Look. When someone says, ‘I love you,’ there is only one response they are hoping to hear in return.” 

 

Now I was not just a bad student, I was also a slightly obnoxious one, so as soon as she said this, my mind began to race. 

 

Whenever people utter ultimatums I automatically resist them, but back when I was a teenager I resisted them with all the force I could muster, so I attempted to instantly compile a list of responses one might consider suitable to a declaration of love; responses like: “Wow,” “Gee, thanks,” “I really like you too,” - at which point I realized that she was absolutely right. 

 

In fact, I felt as though she was staring straight into me when she said: “The only acceptable answer, the only response any of us want to hear when we offer up the words, ‘I love you,” to another, is, ‘I love you too.’”

 

I love you too.

 

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus asks Peter repeatedly, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"  And Peter says to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."

 

On the surface it would seem that this exchange would meet with my English teacher’s approval.

 

It sounds as if Jesus and Peter are both saying exactly the same thing, which is why it might seem odd that they would go through this exercise three times: “Do you love me…yes I love you.”  “Do you love me…yes I love you.”  “Do you love me…you know that I love you.”

 

But in Greek, the language in which this story was originally written, when Jesus asks, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" he is using the word agape for love.  “Simon son of John, do you agape me.

 

“Agape” love is a self-sacrificing love. 

 

When Jesus says:  “Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friend,” he is using the word agape. What Jesus is really asking Peter is, “do you love me enough to die for me?”

 

Peter, though, unlike Jesus, responds all three times with the Greek word “Philios, ” and basically says, “Lord, I have great affection for you. You know that I really, really like you.” 

 

Now, anyone who has ever been in love knows how scary it can be, especially in the beginning of a new relationship, to pick the right moment to say, “I love you,” for the first time. 

 

And anyone who has ever gone out on that limb and uttered those three words only to hear something like, oh, I don’t know: “Wow. Gee, thanks. I really like you too,” knows the truth of which my English teacher spoke.  And possibly knows something of the disappointment Jesus must have felt when Peter responded the way that he did.

 

In many ways this is actually a really sad scene, watching as Jesus asks over and over again, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” only to hear Peter respond, “Lord, you know that I like you.”  But if you place this story in the larger context of Easter, then you realize an agape from Peter would most likely have rung hollow at this point in their story, and Peter, more than anyone else, would have known this. 

 

The irony here is that I do not doubt that Peter did love Jesus.  Peter is at times an impulsive and crazy character, prone to lopping off ears or, as in this story, rushing to put all his clothes back on before he jumps into the water. 

 

There is obviously more than tremendous affection here, there is an undeniable and headstrong passion, but Peter is also the one who denied Jesus not once, but three times, the night before his execution, a denial neither one of them could, would, should ever forget. 

 

It hangs in the air between them.

 

They both know all too well the limits of Peter’s love; that if Peter has proven anything it is that he does not yet love Jesus enough to die for him.  So when Peter cries out in response, “Lord you know I have affection for you,” it is as much a confession as a declaration. 

 

To say more, with all that has transpired so recently, would be disingenuous, hypocritical, dishonest, insincere.  And so Peter gives Jesus exactly what he has to give, no more and no less.  He offers him his philios, his friendship.

 

At which point something extraordinary happens. Jesus asks him a third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" But this time Jesus is the one who changes the words. He says “Simon son of John, do you have philios for me…affection for me?”

 

“Do you like me?” 

 

“Are we still friends?”

 

The Bible tells us that, “Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time: "Do you love me?"

 

"Lord you know everything;” says Peter, “you know the affection I bear for you." 

“You know that I like you.”

“You know we are still friends.”

 

Jesus brings the question down to Peter’s level.  He lowers the standard of love from agape to philios, a standard Peter can finally live up to.

 

So why is Peter hurt? 

 

I used to think it was because he thought Jesus kept asking him the same question over and over again as if he didn’t believe him, until I realized that Peter was probably hurt more by the realization that Jesus did... believe him that is…believe him and understand him more than he understood himself. By which I mean that Jesus knows exactly how much Peter loves him, and they both know that Jesus deserves better.  They both know that Jesus loved Peter enough to die for him and loves him enough to die for him even still, whereas Peter, well, Peter still has a long way to go.

 

The only acceptable answer,

the only response any of us want to hear when we offer up the words,

‘I love you,” to another, is,

‘I love you too.’

 

Peter couldn’t say those words just yet, at least not with same fervor that Jesus could, but there is good news here in this story all the same, for Peter and for us, because Jesus was willing to take Peter’s philios for all it was worth. 

 

He didn’t demand something Peter couldn’t give, but accepted Peter’s love for exactly what it was and upon this peculiar rock built his church, just as he said he would.  Jesus did not compel Peter to love him more.

 

He did not reject him for failing to live up to a higher standard. He simply acknowledged Peter’s level of commitment and sent him out to work for the kingdom – “to feed his is sheep” - just as he was.

 

And the good news for you and for me is that Jesus is willing to do the same for us as well. The Lord does not compel us anymore than he compelled Peter.  We are not forced to love God anymore than we want to or anymore than we are ready to. 

 

But the beauty is that each little bit of ourselves that we do give over to the Lord is received by him and transformed by his love into something greater.  I mean think about it: if he can build the whole Christian church out of one man’s limited and self conscious friendship, imagine what he can do with us, even now? If we, like Peter, can give him our affection, he can take our philios, and with time transform it into agape. We have only to open the door and let him in.

 

I’m not saying that the Lord is an exception to my English teacher’s claim, as I’m sure he would love to hear us respond to his love with all the love we can give, but he is extraordinary in his response to all of us.  God does not stop loving us, even if we have only the slightest bit of love to give him in return.

 

What God does do, is take the love we are willing to offer for all it is worth, and then does all he can to lead us into an ever-deepening relationship with him in hopes of transforming not just us but all the world.

 

We are called to go forth, just as Peter did, to feed his lambs and tend his sheep by offering that same love to one another; a love that accepts the other just as they are with every hope of helping them become something more.

 

That is the good news of today’s gospel passage, but it is not the only news I want to leave you with this morning.  Before I close, I would just like to say a few words about the love we offer one another.

 

Our reading today teaches us that God is patient and generous in his love, for which we should be deeply grateful. But I can’t help thinking that God is so patient, at least in part, because God can afford to be. After all, he has all eternity to wait for us to finally get it.

 

Unfortunately, we don’t always have that same luxury with regard to one another.

 

Although I dearly wish it were not so, more and more I think we all know that those we love can be taken from us at any time.

 

Not only that, for all that we love our friends and our family, our parents and our children, our partners, our brothers and our sisters with that first love Jesus asked for, that deep and abiding agape love, the truth is that in our day to day interactions with each another, we don’t always treat one another as if that were the case.

 

In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we are often hardest on those we love the most. We withhold our love and approval from one another, not because it isn’t there, but because in the midst of our own hurt or frustration or immaturity, we just aren’t always ready or able to express it. 

 

And so I would encourage you all this morning to come right out and say, “I love you,” when you feel it. Say, “I Love you,” to your family, your friends, and even your fellow members here.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t be real or you should never get angry or fight.  By all means, express your aggravation and your disappointment.

 

Argue, get fed up, even yell is you need to, but try as best as you can to never hang up the phone or leave a meeting or let a conversation end without making the effort to express that for all your frustration with one another, you still regard each other as absolutely precious.

 

God can and will wait for us to come to a point of perfect love for as long as need be, but we don’t always get that opportunity with one another.

 

So please, in your day-to-day interactions, dare to keep saying, “I love you.” Don’t be afraid. And when you are blessed to hear those three words from another, if it is true, please don’t ever pass up the opportunity to say, “You know what? I love you too.”

 

Let us pray: Lord, we stand before you as we are, no more and no less.  We pray that you would come and meet us right where we are, that you would receive our love and our commitment, whatever that may be, and that you will work within our hearts to draw us closer to you. 

 

We thank you that you are a gracious and patient God, and that you desire our affection so deeply. Help us to know deep in our hearts that you love us as we are, but let that love inspire us ever onward to greater acts of love and devotion that we might be shaped by our gratitude for your grace and in turn reshape this world that you love so much. Amen.