On Message

John 21:1-19
David A. Davis
April 10, 2016

It has to have happened to just about everybody. You’re out to dinner with a couple that you have known for quite a while. Maybe they’re married, maybe they’re dating, maybe they’ve just been together for a long time. At some point in the evening a disagreement between the two escalates and the tension can now be cut with the knife from your dinner plate. After a weak effort at mediating and then another good college try of changing the subject, you try to make yourself invisible and focus on the salmon on your plate. They continue to talk like they are the only ones at the table or in the room for that matter. As their discussion morphs from whatever the minor issue was to a full blown analysis of their relationship, you try not to listen and flat out wish you weren’t there. Awkward could be the word. Painful might work. Uncomfortable at the very least. Maybe you weren’t at that table, but you witness a heated discussion that one of your friends is having with his mother? Finding yourself in the middle of two siblings who have different opinions about their father’s long term care? Or the co-worker who tries to go down a certain path with the boss and you know it is not going to end well. Listening in on a conversation that you would rather not hear or be present for. Awkward. Painful. Uncomfortable.

The other disciples must have felt that way after breakfast that morning. It was Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, two of the others, and the Risen Jesus at that breakfast table on the beach. But it was the after breakfast conversation that rapidly became uncomfortable and intimate. Intimate because the other six disciples fade into the background and disappear as Jesus asks Simon Peter the question. As he asks it again and again. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” No one else says a word. How could they? Peter’s denial was public and loud enough for everyone to hear that night by another fire that was burning. They knew what Jesus was up to. It must have been excruciating for the others as the question came a second time and then a third time. That third time when John tells the reader that Peter felt hurt. Some conversations are hard to watch, hard to listen to, hard to read.

Everything that the gospel writer records here points to a unique and specific encounter between Jesus and Peter. The descriptiveness in Jesus’ address — Simon, son of John. The question in triplicate that recalls Peter’s denial (before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times). Peter’s rehabilitation is how the tradition labels it. Then there’s Jesus exhortation, his command, his sending of Peter. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Of course you remember this Peter, the Rock upon whom Christ said he would build his church. After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus ordained Peter as the Rock and gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This intimate breakfast encounter has a future depending on it. Peter’s pastoral identity. And the shepherd metaphor in play here is very specific to Peter and the future of the church.

Right at the end of the conversation, the narrator offers an explanatory note related to the cryptic words of Jesus about fastening your belt and going where you do not wish to go. “He said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” This remarkable dialogue between Jesus and Peter at the end of the Gospel of John has all the marks of a private conversation intended for Jesus and Peter alone and the rest of us get to or have to listen in. A conversation that salvages a relationship, bestows forgiveness without ever mentioning it, and creates a future not just for Peter but for the church. And it ends just the way it began. Not just the conversation but the relationship. It ends just how it started. Jesus said, “Follow me.”

The last words of the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel: “Follow me.” Right here in chapter 21, the brief conversation between Jesus and Peter continues in the verses after the morning reading stopped. According to John, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them… When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’” Jesus pretty much said to Peter, “You let me worry about him. You, you, you follow me.” Follow me. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, the Risen Christ ascends into heaven as the text tells of him giving a blessing. Mark’s Gospel, well, in the shorter ending of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says nothing. And Matthew? That’s the Great Commission. The Risen Jesus, his last words in Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded of you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” The Great Commission. A blessing. And here in John, “Follow me.”

Such a unique encounter. Jesus and Peter and the Lord’s triple play. What’s universal, what’s ordinary, is the discomfort of listening in. And when you do listen in, overhear, eavesdrop, you hear these strands of gospel. You hear notes from Jesus that sound a familiar tune. Yes, follow me. But also tend, feed, love. Lamb. Flock. Sheep. In John that all rings a bell. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10). “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13). “Beloved, let us love another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (I John 4). “‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter said to Jesus, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep…’” And follow me. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. And follow me.

“Follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.” That’s Jesus called the disciples in Matthew and Mark. Jesus called them right off the boat. Here at the end of John, it’s another fishing scene. Quite a fishing scene. The Risen Jesus calls them again. “Come, have breakfast.” But the “follow me” to Peter, it doesn’t come with “I will make you a fisher of people.” The image here, instead of a fisherman, is a shepherd. Instead of hauling in the catch, it’s tending the flock. Tend. Feed. Love. Follow me and I will make you a lover of God’s children. To follow the Risen Jesus is to love. To be the beloved of God, to know God, to abide in God, to follow God, is to love.

At some point in a seminary class in the study of Greek, a student has the opening experience of learning that this exchange between Jesus and Peter involves different Greek words for love. In Greek, love can be agape, phileo, eros. Jesus asks Peter using the word agape. Peter answers with phileo. And the second time it’s the same. Agape and phileo. The third time Jesus switches to phileo and Peter answers with phileo. Then with some interpretive fervor, one digs into the difference between a selfless agape love and more sibling phileo love and a biological eros love. And with a fresh “aha” you turn to contemporary New Testament scholars who squelch the enthusiasm and pour cold water on all kinds of sermon possibilities with the determination that word choice and usage in the ancient language indicate that not much should be made of the variation. It is more stylistic or preference than content. As one scholar concludes, it’s a “meaningless stylistic peculiarity.” Oh well.

At the very least, you and I ought to ponder the word love and its stylistic peculiarities in English. I love Small World coffee. I love the Giants. I love Adele’s music. I love a good mystery novel. I love… I love… I love. Tone, usage, and style matter. When a candidate says, “I love women,” and then says such offensive things. When your co-worker says, “I love black people,” and you know she’s about as bigoted as you can imagine. When someone says, “don’t you just love the work of the Crisis Ministry, they do such great work,” and they don’t give a dime. When someone wears a hat that says, “I love Jesus,” and spouts hate and fear. Tone, usage, and style matter. The repetition, the variation, the exhortation from the lips of Jesus when it comes to love, it can’t be more clear. It is Jesus saying to Peter, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” and to love God, to love me, you have to love God’s people. All God’s people. You have to act on it. You have to work at it. You have to never let up. To be a disciple, to be a Christian, to take the name of Jesus, to follow is to love.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these.’” It’s hard to listen to, hard to read. At least it ought to be. Because if you and I are honest with ourselves, with one another, and with God, there is nothing more clear in the gospel than this, and there is nothing more difficult in the Christian life than this. To follow Jesus is to love.

And before worrying about a candidate, or a co-worker, or a cheapskate, or the guy wearing the hat, before worrying about everyone else… when it comes to loving the way God calls us to love, you and I, we have a long way to go. Every one of us. And the only place to start is to follow him. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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