Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: Do You Love Me?

John 21:1-23
Do You Love Me?
James Sledge                                                                           April 14, 2013

“Do you love me?” Has anyone ever asked you that question? They don’t come much more freighted than this. If you hear this question from a spouse, partner, lover, friend, child, or parent, what thoughts go through your mind as you consider your answer? “Do you love me?” is rarely an innocent question. It is more than a simple query for information.
The question could be manipulative. I could arise from a place of hurt and doubt. It could arise from hope that another will say, “Yes.” But regardless of its origins, almost all such questions assume that love has a shape to it, that it is lived out in some way. Sometimes this subtext is even spoken. “If you loved me, you would…” or “If you loved me you would not…”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” There is plenty of subtext to Jesus’ question. Peter had earlier spoken of his great love, presumably greater than the other disciples, when he professed his willingness to die for Jesus. But in the face of danger, he had folded, had even denied knowing Jesus. Surely “Do you love me?” was a terrible question for Simon Peter.
But this passage is about more than Peter and his restoration. Jesus’ threefold questioning does seem to undo Peter’s threefold denial. But on a larger level, this passage is about the Church and its ministry, about how the Church will live in the world now that Jesus has died and has been raised. In that sense, Jesus’ question to Peter is a question to every follower. “James, Diane, Bill, Mary, Sam, Dawn, do you love me?”
There is a problem here, though. I’m afraid we hear Jesus’ question very differently than Simon Peter does. For Simon, there is really no question that he does love Jesus. Just look at his buffoonish behavior when he realizes who the man on the beach is.
Faith is such a serious, somber business, we often miss the humor of Peter unable to wait for the boat to get to shore, plunging into the water. But not before he takes a moment to make himself presentable by putting some clothes on. I’m sure he looked most presentable, dragging himself out of the water, clothes dripping wet.
We rarely look so foolish as Peter. We don’t plunge headlong into the water. We form committees. We study all options.  Not that Peter’s impulsiveness is always a good thing, but it comes from a different place than much of our religious behavior. Simon is so enamored, so in love with Jesus, that he acts in ways that are ridiculous, and so Jesus’ questions to him are less about whether he loves and more about what shape that love needs to take.
But Jesus isn’t so viscerally real and present to me as he was to Simon Peter. Very often, Jesus is a collection of teachings, a way of living, a call to action, but not someone I can fall in love with, not someone I would make a fool of myself for. And so that question, “Do you love me?” doesn’t touch me as it does Peter. Do I love you? Well I’m not exactly sure. I love your ideas. You’ve got some great points. But love you? I don’t know.

Perhaps that is why John’s gospel gives such an elaborate setup to Jesus’ conversation with Peter. It insists that the risen Christ is still present to the Church, still directing them and providing abundantly, even miraculously for them. Peter and the other disciples continue to experience Jesus in ways that prompt the same devotion and passion that Jesus elicited from them prior to the cross. For Peter, that passion sometimes leads to the sort of foolishness typical of love. And so Jesus must channel it. “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep.”
But if I have not experienced the presence of Jesus, not felt a devotion and passion that leads me into occasional fits of foolishness, channeling passion is not the issue.
On this point I must confess to a rather typical liberal problem of being just a bit embarrassed by the Bible. Resurrection, miraculous feedings and catches of fish, walking on water, stilling storms, turning water into wine; did any of this actually happen? It’s just metaphor that speaks of God’s presence, of Jesus’ connection to God, right? After all, I am an educated, even intellectual Christian. I know better than to take the Bible literally. 
When I counsel couples I’m going to marry, I have them chart their families back a few generations, and we use those charts to look for family patterns that get transmitted from one generation to the next. This charting employs a variety of symbols and types of lines. One of these lines is labeled “cutoff, estrangement.” But the label adds, in parenthesis, “still a strong tie to this person.”
Most of us have seen this sort of thing. There are former spouses who can’t attend their child’s wedding if their ex is there, too. There are estranged siblings who cannot live in the same town. If one moved to town the other would have to move out. They are estranged, yet they still exert tremendous control over one another.
We Presbyterians, especially liberal leaning Presbyterians, fancy ourselves the smart and sophisticated siblings in our Christian family, and at times we’re more than a little embarrassed by some of our simpler, less educated brothers and sisters. But they still exert amazing influence over us. Very often, we define ourselves in response to them. Some of our ways of being Christian are largely knee-jerk reactions motivated by fear that we might be mistaken for our less sophisticated siblings.
Did the risen Jesus walk on the beach that morning, direct the disciples to a miraculous catch of fish, and have fish and bread ready for them when Peter got to shore? Did he calm storms and turn water into wine? And what is it that leads us to say “Yes”  or “No”?
I am struck by the fact that I find it easier to believe in the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe than in many of Jesus’ miracles. I don’t feel the least bit embarrassed or defensive about taking at face value the idea that the entire universe once existed as a singularity with infinite density and infinite temperature, even though the mechanics of such an event are every bit as inconceivable to me as those of resurrection or turning water into wine.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “James, son of Ken, do you love me?” In John’s gospel, Simon hears this question and is deeply wounded by it. But am I? Can I be?
If I cannot, then Jesus’ command to care for his flock isn’t about divine love that I have encountered and experienced that fills me with passion that Jesus calls me to share. It’s just another metaphor about morality, goodness, and kindness. All fine and admirable things, as the vast majority of atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, and faiths of every stripe and creed would agree, but nothing requiring the presence of churches and worship services where we offer our prayers, our adoration, and our praise.
But if Jesus really is risen from the dead… If the Spirit indeed allows me to encounter this risen Christ, to know him and be joined to him… If Jesus really can direct and care for and provide… If I really can love him…

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