David A. Davis
Sunday, May 6
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“Do you love me more than these?… Feed my lambs… Do you love me?… Tend my sheep… Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” The after-breakfast interrogation of Peter. The three-fold reclamation of Peter intended to balance his denial. The well-worn conversation between Jesus and Peter that takes a favorite place on the shelf of the church’s collection of stories to tell. It was right after that, right after “Feed my sheep,” in these last verses of the gospel of John, that Jesus says to Peter, “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 your belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
And here, in a rare assist to the gospel’s audience, John offers a much needed and appreciated explanatory word. Despite all the other times we’re left wondering what on earth Jesus meant by this or that, here the gospel writer, the gospel editor, the gospel tradition, offers a helpful note. “He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” The Risen Jesus, after breakfast and a conversation filled with love and nurture, Jesus talks to Peter about the end of life, about how he would die. More specifically, that he would die for the sake of the gospel. Scholars unpack the metaphor of being young and growing old, of someone stretching out your hands and being led by the belt to a place you do not want to go… it is believed to be a reference to death in the form of crucifixion. In addition, the reference to a kind of death that would glorify God? Tradition suggests that points to martyrdom, to dying for the faith.
The Risen Jesus transitions to talk about Peter’s death with the phrase “Very truly I tell you.” Jesus says “truly I tell you” all through the gospels. “Very truly I tell you” is all John. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom without being born from above…..Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes the One who sent me, has eternal life….Very truly I tell you, one of you will betray me…..Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times…..Very truly.” So one would expect that a disciples ears, especially ears in John, that a disciples ears would perk up, expect something, know something important was coming when Jesus said, “Very truly.” He says it to announce very important things all through John’s gospel and the only time he says “very truly” in these resurrection appearances is to announce Peter’s death.
Then, somewhat stunningly if you stop and think about it, Jesus says, “Follow me.” “Very truly I tell you, this path of discipleship, this feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep role, this abide in me and I in you, this sending of you out in the world with and for the gospel, it includes your suffering and your death. But….follow me. Death is real. Suffering is inevitable. That’s how it is going to be, at least in this life. I can’t lie about it. But…Follow me. In terms of the here and the now, the powers that be, and those who hate the kingdom and love darkness, when it comes to your breath, your blood, your flesh, it’s not going to end well. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me….still. Very truly I tell you, follow me.”
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” That’s how Jesus puts it in the other gospels. Here in John, it’s a whole lot more personal, less metaphorical, and Peter specific. But gospel readers pretty much forever prefer “Do you love me more than these?…Feed my lambs….Do you love me?…Tend my sheep….Do you love me?…Feed my sheep” It’s a whole lot easier, more appealing to stop right there because the last two “follow me’s” from the Risen Jesus, the last two “follow me’s” in the gospel are really hard.
After hearing all about his own death, Peter turns and sees another disciple, the one referred all through the gospel as the “one whom Jesus loved” following behind them. Maybe Peter was wondering if the death notice was not just for him. Maybe Peter was wondering why he had been singled out for the morning after breakfast grilling. Whatever the reason, Peter finds himself asking what pretty anyone, everyone else would ask. With that question Peter embodies what it means to be human, and becomes a prototype for everyone of who falls into that sinful trap of keeping score and worry about the other guy. Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Lord, him too? Hey, what about him? Is it only me? Lord, what about him. And as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase “The Message”, “Jesus replied, if I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you? You…..follow me.”
“You quit worrying about him and follow me. This is between you and me. Follow me. This isn’t about him right now. This is about you. Follow me! What is it about you, what is it about all of you, arguing about who is greater, asking about who gets to sit on my right or on my left, who gets more, who is favored, who is on the inside and who is on the outside, who is right and who is wrong, who gets into the kingdom of heaven and who doesn’t and where in heaven’s name did you get the idea you could decide anyway! If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me. If it is my will that even him, even her, even them shall receive my blessing and experience grace and know forgiveness and testify to life, what is that to you? If it is my will that at the end of the day, that absolutely everyone will come into my kingdom? What is that to you. It’s not your concern. It’s none of your business. It’s not for you to worry about. You, follow me. Follow me… still.
It was quite after breakfast conversation there around the table. It was a conversation to remember, that after breakfast stroll. Notice the breakfast was meal of fish and bread. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” That’s how John describes it there around the charcoal fire along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus took bread and gave it to them. He took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And he did the same with the fish. Yes, of course, John intends to evoke memories of the Last Supper. Of course you and I are to catch the aroma of the Lord’s Supper. Christ present. A meal shared. Words spoken. It is a eucharistic scene that frames the “do you love me more than these” conversation. The echoes of the Lord’s Supper are whispering as Jesus has that tough conversation with Peter. Those last two “follow me’s”, the tough ones, the follow me… still’s; “do this in remembrance of me.”
Some will remember, I have told it before from here, how years ago one of the members of the congregation (who is now gone to glory), how he would invite me every so often to what he called “a no-agenda lunch.” Then, every time, during lunch, he pull an index card from his pocket that had a list of all the things he wanted to talk to me about. It was a “no agenda lunch” with a 3 by 5 agenda.
This meal, the Lord’s Supper, yes, Jesus had an agenda. Well we don’t call it that. But there is certainly an intention to it. Instituting a meal, an act of celebration, a way to remember and experience his presence, a means of feasting on his promise, the simplest of practices to pass on, to pass forward his grace, table fellowship in his name, a way to taste and see that the Lord is good and to know his forgiveness with every bite and every sip, a collective act to proclaim the Lord’s saving death until he comes again, an offering of a foretaste of glory divine, a nibble of the very kingdom of God. Yes, this Table has an agenda. His agenda.
Part of that agenda, part of his agenda, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, is for you to hear him say “follow me… still.” Even and especially when discipleship comes with a cost, and the call to be faithful requires sacrifice, and the gospel burning in your heart requires tough choices, and passing on faith to you kids is a lot harder than you thought, and you are so tired of your heart being broken, and it seems like “way of the righteous” is doing so well out there these days, and you never thought all his teaching that seemed to simple in church school could be so complicated to figure out and live as an adult, and the challenge to you integrity at work comes more often than you expected, and when you realize all that stuff about costly grace, and the narrow path and taking up your cross, that all that wasn’t just for the saints and the martyrs but for you, and when the whole thing about loving your neighbor and caring for the least of these and turning the other cheek and the first being last, when it seems just so… hard.
Follow me… still. Christ calls us. The Savior calls us. God’s love come all the way down, bids us to follow to a life of forgiveness, and resurrection hope, and undeserved grace, where the Spirit fills us, and guides us, and intercedes for us, and restores us, where Christ himself picks up and dusts us off and sends us again and again and again to work for kingdom that is more like heaven than the one here on earth. The Risen Christ call us to life now and forever with him. For he is our salvation.
Follow me… still and stop keeping tabs or looking around or comparing notes or counting others blessings. At the Table, if just for a moment, just you and him. Christ calls you. Here at this Table, God’s love, God’s promise, God’s embrace, God’s purpose, God’s salvation, God’s life abundant and eternal. It is just for you. Only you.
Jesus said, Follow me… still.
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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