Psalm 103:1-18, John 21:15-19
May 7, 2017
I’ve heard it said that this three-fold question to Peter really didn’t correspond to his three-fold denial of Jesus in the courtyard after his arrest. “That’s just a coincidence!” Well, I say “nonsense!” I think it had everything to do with that denial! I think Peter was devastated by that incident. No matter how great it was that Jesus had returned, that denial still weighed on his mind and his heart.
Sometimes we forget how close together these stories in the Bible are. We often look at them separately, and we tend to see them as separate stories, stories that are not all that much interconnected. Well, I think they are more connected than we even imagine. At the very least, they are often much closer together time-wise than we think! And because of that, I think many of the feelings and emotions of the characters in them carry over from story to story. It just makes sense.
This story we read today took place only days after the time Peter denied Jesus! If you remember, when that happened, when the cock crowed, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” And since Jesus had predicted it, Peter knew that he was aware of what he did! And I think there’s no doubt that Jesus was confronting him with that denial when he met the disciples by the lake.
If we’re still not sure about that, look again at what happened when Jesus asked Peter that “third time,” “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” John tells us that, “Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the third time.” I’ll bet he was! I’ll bet the memories of that terrible night were flooding his mind! I’ll bet the guilt he had carried with him since then was palpable! And he was grieved because Jesus used his old name, “Simon.” No longer was he Peter, “the Rock.” The rock had crumbled! And remember, this whole thing took place in front of the other disciples!
So, this story in John 21 is more than just a story of reunion. It’s more than just the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples as leaders in his ongoing ministry. This is a story about reconciliation and redemption!
God knows our hearts! We say that every week in our “Prayer of Confession.” I always like to have that in there. Because it’s true! God knows our hearts! As I’ve often said, when we’ve done something wrong, we sometimes think – or we hope – that God “didn’t notice.” But of course he does! God knows! And he knows the guilt we feel along with whatever it is! That’s a big part of the whole idea of confession! God knows our hearts!
More than that, though, God knows when our hearts our hurting. He knows when we are grieving! He knows when we are brokenhearted! And he wants us to talk to him about it! Because I truly believe that God grieves along with us. He hurts when we hurt. If you’re a parent, you know what that’s like. When your kids are hurting, you hurt, too! Don’t you? It’s the same with God.
So this is a story of redemption and restoration. And notice that it’s centered around the word “Love.” That’s the question Jesus asked Peter. “Do you love me?” I once heard an explanation of that question in this story. The speaker said that Jesus was asking Peter about his love in three ways. “Do you love me more than these?” he asked, meaning “Do you love me more than you love these?” Is your love for me greater than your love for anyone else?
That’s one way of seeing this. “Do you love me more than these?” may also have meant “Do you love me more than these people love me?” In other words, is your love for me greater than theirs? In both cases, Jesus is asking about the extent, the magnitude, of Peter’s love.
There’s a third way of seeing this. Jesus may have been referring to more than just the men gathered there. He may have been looking around at the trappings of the fishing trade, the boats, the nets, the other things they used to make their living. And he may have been asking, “Do you love me more than these things?” In other words, “Do you love me more than you love your way of life?”
That actually makes some sense, because he was just about to ask Peter to do something different with his life! Remember, Peter had just told the others, “I’m going fishing,” which very likely meant, “I’m going back to fishing!” Jesus was about to tell him that he would be going down a different road. And he was about to tell him how it was all going to end up. That’s this whole business of, “When you are old others will lead you where you do not want to go.”
So the question is “Do you love me?” And “How much do you love me?” The last observation I’d like to make here is about the increasing responsibility that came in each of Jesus’ challenges to Peter. With each answer Peter gave, Jesus called him to a further responsibility in his kingdom. The first response of “Feed my lambs” could suggest the role of being a “shepherd’s helper,” perhaps a lesser role in the new ministry. But by the last question, Jesus is challenging him to take the roll of an actual shepherd of the flock. You see, there was not just a sense of dedication in Peter’s love. There is an ever increasing responsibility.
I think it’s the same with us. God calls us to an ever increasing responsibility in his kingdom. He wants us to move forward in our faith and our dedication to him. He wants us to grow in our love for him. “Love” is all-important to God. Jesus called loving God the “Greatest Commandment.” “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
God indeed knows our hearts. And it’s our hearts that he wants to touch! And he wants that to be the center of our lives of faith. Think about it. When we really put ourselves into something, it is said that we do it “whole-heartedly!” You know that expression. And it’s about our hearts!
So, with all that in mind, what about us? What do we need to do? Well, I think we need to take this from being the “impersonal readers” of a story, to asking the question of ourselves. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” That’s a good place to start! That indeed is the center of our faith!
So those are the words I want to be ringing in your heads throughout the day today. I want you to think about Jesus. I want you to picture Jesus. I want you to hear him asking you, “Do you love me?” And I want you to think about what loving him calls you to do and to be.
Eternal God, we thank you for your call on our lives. We love because you first loved us. Help us to know of that love, and to share that love, with you and with others. Continue to teach us to be the kind of people you want us to be. For this we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.