by Ellen Sims
text: John 21:1-19
This morning I’m aiming for simple, a sermon that’s simple but, I hope, not simplistic. Eastertide offers us heady theology and mystifying stories within our rich, post-resurrection scriptures. Today my take on our Gospel lection will be pretty straightforward. Although I’d enjoy sharing, for instance, why scholars think this last chapter of John was a later addition to that Gospel, I’ll leave that for another day. And although I’d love to venture an explanation for the reason the Sea of Galilee is here called the Sea of Tiberius, I’ll leave it to the folks in the “First Light” class to speculate about the political context for this allusion to Tiberius. And in the interest of keeping things simple, I am actually happy to dodge one of the details in this symbol-laden Gospel: it’s the (literally) oddly precise number of 153 fish the disciples caught—-because it seems no one has provided a satisfactory explanation for its strange specificity. So yeah, let’s just acknowledge and jump over that detail.
In fact, in today’s sermon I’m jumping all the way to the end of this story, just a few verses short of the very end of this gospel, and I’m asking you to hear Jesus asking you the final question in all the Gospels, a question the writer poses to the reader, the Jesus question that just may represent the ultimate meaning and measure of the Christian faith: “Do you love me?”
In the most theologically complex Gospel, it all comes down to this: “Do you love Jesus?”
One simple question. And it’s easy to respond quickly, as Peter did, with, “Lord, you know I love you.” But what can loving Jesus possibly mean to us when, unlike Peter, we have never met the founder of our faith? And what does loving Jesus mean to those persuaded by scholars that the Gospels were not dictated by God to men named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but instead developed within Jesus communities at least a generation after he walked the earth? What does loving Jesus mean to students of the Bible who notice that Mark’s Jesus differs a bit from Matthew’s and Luke’s and quite a bit from John’s portrait? And that Paul’s letters, so formative for Christian theology, were written by a man who never knew Jesus? So which Jesus do we love and follow? As scholars within the Jesus Seminar humanized the historical Jesus, he became, for many, myself included, less spiritualized — but even more approachable and worthy of emulating and increasingly, well, more loving and beloved.
In the context of John’s final bit of narrative, Jesus asks the impetuous Peter, with a line that sounds as if it came straight from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “But Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter three times immediately protests, “Yes, Lord . . . Yes, Lord . . . Yes, YOU KNOW I love you.”
Now in this moment, let’s be like Tevye’s wife Golde and mull it over: “Do I love him?
We have heard Peter’s answer: “Yes, Lord, YOU KNOW I love you.” Some of you might have even, just a few years ago, sung liltingly, “Oh, How I Love Jesus” from an old Baptist hymnal. “Oh, how I love Jesus, oh, how I love Jesus, oh, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”
We know the “right” answer. But really . . . how does one love someone who lived 2000 years ago?
And what about the hurdles some face from encounters with other Jesus lovers who’ve misrepresented him? I am thinking about the way some self-proclaimed Jesus followers have scorned LGBTQ persons IN THE NAME OF JESUS. Or the way some clergy have sexually abused children and adults and used their authority to keep their victims silent. Or the way patriarchal Christianity has used women’s gifts and dedication to the church without granting women equality within the church. It’s hard to keep loving Jesus when his representatives misrepresent him. Many of us have felt beaten up by Jesus when in fact we’ve been beaten up by Jesus’s Church gone rogue.
I could give other reasons I sometimes pull back and take a very unsentimental, even critical look at Jesus of Nazareth.
But I continue to return to a fundamental (not fundamentalist) LOVE for the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. And it is that joined reality and it is the very act of love that Jesus demonstrated and expected of his followers that draw me back to him again and again. What other quality and aim and action is worth giving my life to? As Paul said in I Corinthians 13: without love, “I am nothing.” And “the greatest” of all things “is love.” Jesus didn’t discover love. But he lived it so clearly that (as best I understand it through the layers of culture and time) I truly want to love as he did. I fail. But I want to try.
John’s final story of the risen Christ calls us to his kind of love. To love HIM is to love in his way. If we can love those Jesus loved (the outcasts and the poor and the misfits and the sick and the widows and children and the tax collectors and even our enemies) then we will usher in God’s kin*dom. You see, Jesus was not just talking about developing sweet relationships with people close to us. He was talking about a total ethic and economy and worldview that lifted up the downtrodden and rearranged the pecking order to put the first last and the last first. His love ethic was not about sentiment; it was about justice.
“Do you love me, Peter? Then feed by lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” To following in the Way of Jesus joins compassion and justice, emotion and action: “Love me,” he said, “and do justice.”
Jesus’s injunction to LOVE is not something that just makes us feel all warm inside; it challenges us to get outside our comfort zones. The love Jesus inspires goes beyond sweet sentiment to systemic and persistent and insistent changes. Yet it remains peaceful and collaborative. Many of us have seen passionate do-gooders set off on a high-minded crusade only to run roughshod over others in their path whom they are ostensibly trying to help. The compassionate love of Christ Jesus keeps us from simply using people for our aims, helping us join with others toward mutual work toward justice that brings God’s kin*dom ever closer.
It’s that simple and that hard: Jesus followers are to love with our hearts, with our deeds. In fact, Jesus’s last words in the Gospel account of his life reveal that he is asking for our love, not our belief. John’s Gospel does not close with a creed, does not articulate Jesus’s theology, does not put words in his mouth about what to believe about him, about God, about heaven or hell. He’s talking about authentic, healthy, loving relationships that sometimes require some uncomfortable conversations to maintain. That means if you’re averse to conflict, you may miss out on personal growth and deeper relationships. Think of Jesus’s examination of Peter in front of the others during that meal of fish and bread reminiscent of the last supper they’d shared when he afterward blessed the bread and wine. Jesus grills poor Peter about his love and devotion! But it’s a chance for Peter to declare his fidelity three times (matching Peter’s three previous denials of Jesus) and for Jesus to say to all those gathered, it’s NOT the words you say or don’t say to or about me: it’s how you treat the sheep and lambs. It’s not your fidelity to creed; it’s your love of neighbor and the least of these.
“Love me. And love all that God loves,” he asks. That’s the bottom line, friends. But Christianity over the centuries keeps trying to become a transmitter of doctrines.
Can we love someone we’ve never met? What does it mean to love this enigmatic figure upon whom we layer so much of OUR stuff? Will we ever be able to tease out the man who’s the object of Christian devotion (that is, the historical Jesus) from the sometimes anachronistic, synthesized pictures of him? How do we love and follow someone who was a REAL historical person but about whom we really know so little?
Sometimes Jesus becomes for me a placeholder for my loftiest and lovingest aspirations. I know I’m filling in lots of blanks. But I think we do that even in real flesh and blood relationships. We balance, in healthy relationships, honest assessment of the people we love and aspirational expectations of their best selves.
I love Jesus because of his love for me. And because he teaches me how to love others. He teaches me love. He loves me into loving the world. And his compelling story insists that God loved the world.
What I love most about Jesus is his love of God, which hymn writer William Flanders expresses in one of his hymns for progressive Christians who have deconstructed a more naïve Christology. I especially appreciate this line:
“No it’s not that he’s all wise that exalts him in my eyes.
It’s his need for God, my same need for God, that can fade, but never dies.” (1)
Here’s HOW we can love him across the centuries and despite the tangled stories and in the company of others who see him somewhat differently: We love Jesus as one in love with God and God’s children. We love Jesus by loving those God loves, who are the ones he loved. We love Jesus by following his example of feeding the lambs, tending the sheep, feeding the sheep.