The Hard Questions

A Reading from Scripture   John 21:14-19 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death

  1. Since Easter we have been looking at post-resurrection stories. There are about nine examples in the Gospels and Acts that are concerned about the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Some of them are familiar to all of us — the appearance to Thomas, the appearance of Jesus to the two men walking to Emmaus, and next week the earliest appearance as reported by Paul to the churches in Corinth.
    1. What is fascinating about these post-resurrection stories is that everyone is different and not repeated in the Gospels. There are stories in Acts and in 1Cornithians also.
  2. When we looked at the Thomas story, we found that Thomas did not believe unless he saw Jesus in person. Thomas wanted to really see – to touch Jesus so that he would believe that Jesus was alive. Thomas is like many of us! He has heard that Jesus is alive and that the other disciples have met the Risen Christ, but he is not buying it. He wants personal proof of the resurrection—that the Jesus standing in front of him is the same Jesus who was dead just days earlier. Thomas wants to see Jesus, so he can believe!
  3. From Thomas, we learn that experiencing God’s presence is precisely what we need. Whatever language we use to describe our hope for an encounter, the miracle we are after is knowing the presence of God in the daily decisions, the words and deeds, and the inner complexities of our lives. The miracle we want is the miracle that Thomas gets: “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims.
  4. Today, we are working with the fishing and beach barbecue story as reported in the Gospel of John.
  5. The scene with Peter is even more explicit and powerful. Three times Jesus’ asks Peter to confess his love. Three times Peter does, though by the third time he is disheartened, even hurt.
    1. But what Peter does not quite catch in this moment the reader surely does. For the last time Peter was gathered around a charcoal fire was when he was in the high priest’s courtyard and denied his Lord three times.
    1. So, three times Jesus invites Peter to confess, symbolically wiping away the three times Peter denied.
  6. Anyone working or living with children knows that: messages, directions, orders, everything has to be repeated multiple times before anything seems to register.
    1. Has anyone ever taken out the garbage after being asked only once?
    1. How many of your children or grandchildren clean their rooms after one invitation?
    1. How many of you write thank-you notes after only one entry in the “Things to Do” list you make up every day?
  7. But instructions are not the only things we need to hear more than once in order to take them to heart.
    1. All of us who have ever loved or been loved– know that the words “I love you” can never be spoken too often.
    1. For some of us who have weathered the hurts of broken relationships, saying, “I love you,” for the first time again is one of the most frightening things we will ever do.
  8. Saying “I love you” out loud is an important milestone in any relationship — whether you are: whispering it to a new sweetheart, or promising it to a new child, or admitting it to an estranged parent, or offering it to a lonely friend, or revealing it to a rival sibling.
  9. Saying “I love you” once is never enough. It is just the beginning. We must say “I love you” over and over again — we must hear “I love you” repeatedly — before we begin to trust the reality of those words and before we can feel the weight of the love that lies behind them.
  10. In today’s Gospel text, Jesus asks Peter three separate times, “Do you love me?”
    1. In part, we can understand this as the canceling out each one of Peter’s shameful denials of Jesus on the night Jesus was arrested and betrayed.
    1. But Jesus’ persistence demonstrates more than a tit-for-tat scorekeeping of rights and wrongs.
    1. The risen Christ ties each of Peter’s confessions of love for him to a repeated command — “Care for my sheep.”
  11. What took Peter three times to get –and what takes all of us a lifetime to practice – is that Jesus’ question about “loving” and his command about “feeding” are one directive.
    1. Peter didn’t understand immediately the implications of what it means to love Christ. Truly loving Christ means feeding the sheep — it means loving, protecting, caring for all those whom Christ loves. “Peter, do you love me?” — “Then feed my lambs”; “Peter do you love me?” — “Then tend my sheep”; “Peter do you love me?” — “Then feed my sheep.”Loving Christ and loving and tending Christ’s flock is one and the same thing.
  12. The love confessed and the love expressed can take many different forms — and not all of them are pleasant. For every loving moment spent cuddling a new baby, there are an awful lot of equally loving but not so lovely moments spent changing smelly diapers.
    1. Loving a spouse is planning a romantic candlelight dinner for two — and going to the ballet when you would rather watch the Raven’s game (or vice versa).
    1. A loving friend gives you a comfortable place for coffee and conversation, but it also means being there for him or her at 2 a.m. when you are needed.
  13. Tending sheep and loving Christ is sometimes messy, inconvenient, upsetting, and uncomfortable.
    1. It takes more than simply good intentions to make the kind of loving commitment Jesus was trying to get Peter to admit to — it takes habits.  
    1. As anyone who raises livestock knows, caring for livestock is a daily, scheduled process. My steers are very demanding when it is feeding time. They do not care about the weather or my schedule. They let me know and my neighbors know that it is feeding time. Feeding the steers becomes a habit. A necessary habit.
  14. So, let us move to the essence of the message that Jesus is imparting to Peter and to us. Establishing faith and love as a habit of living takes commitmentto the “three R’s”: Repetition, Routine and Reinforcement.
  15. Repetition: Jesus repeated his question to Peter three times — not out of doubt or because of Peter’s denseness, but in order to strengthen the power of his words. With each “Do you love me,” the meaning and inferences behind this query seeped more deeply into Peter’s heart.
    1. There is another phrase children use to describe something they have committed to memory — through repetition, we “learn by heart.”
    1. All those prayers, those actions, those responses to life that we “learn by heart” through constant repetition become a part of our heart. “I love you” — “Our Father …” — “Praise God” — “God bless you.”
    1. All these phrases represent repeated expressions of love and faith in our lives — and they are no less powerful for having been repeated so often and so well that they are “learned by heart.”
  16. Routine: Routines need not be mindless acts; indeed, routines rightly performed are mindful acts.
    1. We all have our personal rising routines: we get up, brush our teeth, take a shower, walk the dog, make the coffee, read the paper, or do some version of this routine.
    1. Consistency is comforting and settles our systems before we launch into another busy, hectic day.
    1. We need faith-routines to give us stability when everything else around us seems to be shifting.
    1. All faith routines need not be as formal as going to church or receiving communion.
    1. A habit routine might be breathing a prayer of thanksgiving every time you enter into your home.
    1. It might be looking for your church’s steeple as you come down Dover Road.
    1. Reviewing the Scripture that was used on Sunday or having a daily time of reading and praying. 
  17. Reinforcement: It is so hard to stay on a diet when you hit one of those “weight plateaus” — where no matter how good you are, how many salads you eat, your scales refuse to budge.
    1. We need periodic positive reinforcement to keep the habits of our faith renewed and refreshed.
    1. This is why we need to hear “I love you,” as often as we need to say it.
    1. Practiced faithfully, a life with a fixed habit for God will create its own reinforcement.
    1. Well-loved and well-tended sheep respond devotedly to their shepherd. Loving Christ, living a life faithfully, tending to Christ’s business becomes a reflex habit – all the time. –
  18. Finally, as I close, I would like to share with you the April 30th reflection by Oswald Chambers from his book My Utmost for His Highest.
    1. Love is not premeditated– it is spontaneous; that is, it bursts forth in extraordinary ways. There is nothing of precise certainty in Paul’s description of love.
    1. We cannot predetermine our thoughts and actions by saying, “Now I will never think any evil thoughts, and I will believe everything that Jesus would have me to believe.”
    1. No, the characteristic of love is spontaneity. We don’t deliberately set the statements of Jesus before us as our standard, but when His Spirit is having His way with us, we live according to His standard without even realizing it.
    1. And when we look back, we are amazed at how unconcerned we have been over our emotions, which is the very evidence that real spontaneous love was there. The nature of everything involved in the life of God in us is only discerned when we have been through it and it is in our past.
    1. The fountains from which love flows are in God, not in us. It is absurd to think that the love of God is naturally in our hearts, as a result of our own nature. God’s love is there only because it “has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:5).
    1. If we try to prove to God how much we love God, it is a sure sign that we really don’t love Him. The evidence of our love for Him is the absolute spontaneity of our love, which flows naturally from His nature within us.
    1. And when we look back, we will not be able to determine why we did certain things, but we can know that we did them according to the spontaneous nature of His love in us.
    1. The life of God exhibits itself in this spontaneous way because the fountains of His love are in the Holy Spirit.[1]

Thanks be to God:


[1] Spontaneous Love | My Utmost For His Highest