“True Love” By Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church, 4-14-13 Based upon John 21:1-19; James 2:14-26 For the first two weeks of the Easter season, Luke’s account of the resurrection of Jesus invited us to consider the difficulty which the first disciples had, and we ourselves still often have, in coming to terms with the truth of the proclamation that Christ was and is risen. According to Luke, the big name disciples were skeptical of the women’s story about angels and empty tombs, and the lesser known followers of Jesus, like Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, did not know what to think until Jesus broke bread with them and opened their eyes. But not all of the post-resurrection stories in Scripture focus on seeing and believing. As we just heard in the gospel reading from John, even after the disciples did see the risen Christ and believed the miraculous had occurred, they still had to figure out what difference that belief was supposed to make in their lives; they had to figure out what it meant to be disciples not of Jesus of Nazareth, but of the risen Christ. I think of this as “the 12(b) (6) test of discipleship” because even though I haven’t practiced law for 16 years, as a former litigator, my mind still processes some things in terms of legal motions. A 12(b) (6) legal motion is one that a person or company being sued in federal court can file in response to a complaint, which effectively says, “Everything you say about me is true. So what?” Today’s lesson begins after the resurrection, after Jesus appeared to his disciples in a closed room and allowed the disciple known as doubting Thomas to touch his wounds. It takes place, in other words, after everything about the resurrection was believed to be true by Jesus’ followers. But someone still needed to ask the “So what?” part of the question; and this time, amazingly enough it was not the disciples who did so. It was Jesus himself. Days or weeks after all the excitement, and seventy miles away from the tomb, Jesus showed up on a beach in Galilee one morning to ask his own version of the “So what?” question of his most devoted and most devastated disciple, Peter. But since he asked the question at a fish fry and not in a court of law, it sounded a little different. “Simon, son of John,” Jesus asked, “do you love me?” It’s a haunting question, even after so many centuries have past. But before we get to it and to Peter’s response, I want us to spend some time considering the story that leads up to that big moment because the epilogue of the Gospel of John which records Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ is rich with all kinds of detail. As I already mentioned, the story takes place in Galilee, at some unspecified time after the resurrection. No one really knows why the disciples -- Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two others-- were there. One might think after Jesus appeared to Thomas so dramatically by walking through a locked door that the disciples would never want to leave that room again in hopes of another visit. You know the way that ball players won’t change their socks or eat certain foods or do anything different after they’ve started a winning streak? Well an encounter with the risen Christ surely beats the excitement of a home run! I would have thought that after his visit with Thomas, they would have ordered a bunch of take-out, hunkered down and just stared at the walls while praying ceaselessly for another glimpse of Jesus in his full supernatural glory. © Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, 4-14-13; all rights reserved. Page 1. But maybe they had to leave Galilee because they were scared of the authorities, or maybe they were just overwhelmed and wanted the comforts of the familiar Galilean country side and the smell of the sea to enable them to rest and regroup. In any case, by the time we enter the story, they have traveled 70 miles and settled in by the sea as if they had no plans to go anywhere else. They aren’t acting like those who are wondering what difference the resurrection makes. They are acting like those who have already decided that the resurrection does not make a practical difference because the risen Christ is no longer with them. When Peter announces that he’s going fishing, the others decide to join him. Here’s another bit of detail which provokes more questions than it answers. It’s impossible to tell from John’s account whether Peter has himself seen the risen Christ at this stage of the story. We know that Mary Magdalene has, and Thomas, and some other disciples whom John did not identify by name, who were with Thomas in Jerusalem. We know that Peter saw the empty tomb. But whether he went fishing because he was depressed after the high of seeing the risen Christ in Jerusalem, or depressed because at that point he was the only one of them still left who had not seen him, we don’t know. Even if Peter did catch a glimpse of Jesus in Jerusalem, it isn’t hard to imagine what Peter must have been feeling. The last time Peter was with Jesus before his death was in the upper room during the last Supper, when Peter pledged that he would lay down his life for Jesus. Then Peter went out and instead of doing that, he denied Jesus three times to save his own life. So as thrilled and relieved as he must have been to know that Jesus was alive again, Peter’s positive emotions must also have been tempered by the shame and guilt he felt in betraying Jesus. Those feelings then became mixed with frustration when Peter discovered that he couldn’t even catch a few fish to make himself feel better. He was a fisherman by trade, for goodness sake! If he couldn’t follow Jesus around the countryside anymore, he should have been able to return to what he knew best and resume the life he had had before Jesus asked him to abandon his nets in favor of following him. But now even fishing wouldn’t work. Then to make matters still worse, some know-it-all shouts from the beach, “Did you try throwing your net to the other side?” as if he’s never fished in his life. The whole situation was intolerable and miserable on multiple levels. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to anymore. But then that catch, that astonishing catch of one hundred and fifty-three fish after catching nothing all night happened, and changed everything. A tour guide in Galilee told me once that there were 153 species of fish known to the people in the Mediterranean in Jesus’ day; so the catch was supposed to be a symbolic foreshadowing of how Jesus came for all types of people. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it’s clear from the text that the miraculous catch was enough to enable John, Peter and the others to realize that the man on the beach must be Jesus. And that’s all it took for Peter, impulsive as always, to jump into in the water and splash his way toward Jesus as fast as he could. Jesus offered everyone a fish breakfast, and then invited Peter for a little walk on the beach. “Simon Johnson, do you love me more than these?” he asked. As soon as Peter heard Jesus call © Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, 4-14-13; all rights reserved. Page 2. him by his real name, instead of his nickname Rocky, he knew Jesus was serious. “Yes Lord, you know that I do” he answered quickly, wanting to make clear after his past mistake that whatever the “these” were that Jesus was referring to -- his nets, his fish, the other disciples– he was finally ready to put God first. “Feed my lambs” Jesus responded. Jesus asked him two more times as they walked, “Do you love me?”, giving Peter three opportunities to redeem his three past denials, and making him feel even worse about them in the process. “Yes Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” Peter protested by the third inquiry. “Then tend and feed my sheep,” Jesus answered. There is so much implied but left unspoken in this exchange. Jesus’ questions are reminiscent of the “still small” but questioning voice of God which called out to the dejected prophet Elijah when he was hiding out in a cave asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “What are you doing here fishing, Peter?” Jesus implicitly asked. As I mentioned in the beginning, Jesus’ questions also present a 12(b)(6) motion: “You say that you love me. Even if that is true, what difference does your love make Peter? If you’re just going to run away and go fishing like you did before you met me, what difference does my resurrection make? If you truly love me, if you truly believe in me, then show me. Answer the ‘So what?’ question by doing something! Feed my sheep. Follow me!” But in the midst of these implicit challenges, Jesus also offered implied mercy. “Peter, I know what you did, and I forgive you. Pledge your love to me three times so that you can finally accept that I am not here to judge you, but to give you new life.” Peter’s answers then respond to all Jesus’ unspoken words with unspoken confessions of his own: “Yes Lord I love you and am so sorry I didn’t have the courage to stay with you. Yes Lord, I love you and don’t know what to do with myself now that you aren’t around. Yes Lord, I love you and so badly want another chance to do you proud. Your resurrection does make a difference to me. Tell me what you want from me and I will do it.” Anglican priest and scholar N.T. Wright has observed that in each of the post-resurrection visitation stories in the New Testament, Jesus meets individual disciples and calls them to embrace something new. For Thomas, it is a new kind of faith based on belief, not empirical evidence. For the followers on the road to Emmaus, it is a new kind of sight. For Paul, later on the road to Damascus, it is a new basis for hope. And for Peter, it is a new kind of love.1 Peter is called to the kind of love that Jesus embodied and shared, a love which is expressed in the selfless service of others, defined by mercy, compassion and forgiveness, and grounded in the courage which comes from believing that the resurrection is real and changes everything. “Follow me” Jesus said after Peter’s three-fold pledge of love. “Feed my sheep, tend after them, and know that in so doing, you will find neither personal glory nor comfort. The time will come when you will keep your promise to give your life for me, Peter. But for now, give your life by caring for my children. Love me by loving others.” The Presbyterian Church has always incorporated this lesson into its understanding of faith. We cannot say that we love God if we do not love and care for others, for as theologian Paul 1 Wright, N.T., Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins Pub., 2008), 72-73. © Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, 4-14-13; all rights reserved. Page 3. Tillich put it “There is no love which does not become help.”2 For some Christian traditions, the resurrection is all about individual salvation. If you love God, if you love Jesus and believe that he died and was raised, then you are saved. The rest– being kind to others, working for justice and peace– those activities are good in the right context, but the truly important measure of faith is what is known as the vertical relationship between a human being and God. Our tradition, in contrast, has always maintained that you cannot have a vertical relationship without having a horizontal one too. If you love God, if you love Jesus and believe in the resurrection, then you must take care of God’s children because that is the only way to follow Christ. We weren’t saved by Jesus so that we could all kick back, relax and go fishing until it is time for us to go to heaven. We were saved so that with God’s help, we can dwell in God’s love in the new creation Christ began, and through our service enable others to do the same as well. Take one look at the announcements in the bulletin today, and it’s clear that this church has taken Peter’s lesson, as well as the exhortation we heard from the Letter of James this morning to heart. We thrive on opportunities to feed and tend to God’s sheep here. We do more in mission in this church than some churches twice our size. But according to David Kinnaman’s new best seller, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters, we are increasingly the minority in doing so.3 The impression that most non-Christians today have of Christians is not that we are loving, self-sacrificing shepherds, just the opposite. For 3 years the Barna Group surveyed 18-29 year-olds in the nation who self-identified as non-Christians. When they were asked to describe what they thought of Christians or Christianity, the three most common adjectives used by 85- 91% of the young people surveyed for the book were “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “anti-homosexual,” followed fairly closely by “out of touch with reality” and “insensitive to others.” In other words, the overwhelming perception of those surveyed was that Christians do not walk the talk. We say we love Jesus but do not follow Jesus; we are willing to feed or tend some of the sheep, but would happily sacrifice others. Consequently whenever Christians do follow Jesus’ teachings, like when the new Pope Francis washed the feet of those in a youth detention center, instead of saying, “Yup, those crazy Christians are always doing stuff like that” people seem genuinely surprised and delighted by the behavior. But even then, thanks to Christian bad behavior, the positive impressions don’t last. In the case of Francis, for example, many Christians responded to his service by publically condemning him for washing the feet of women and Muslims. Is it any wonder then that “loving” did not make the top of the survey participants’ adjective list? We aren’t Catholic of course, but we are Christians called to be the visible body of Christ in the world. So we should be concerned about what others are learning about Jesus’ love through the Church universal. But what more can we, just one small church do to change the opinion of all the unChristians out there? Maybe not a lot; but in addition to modeling through example the importance of caring for others, which we already do well, I can think of two others things that 2 Tillich, Paul, “Love is Stronger than Death” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 173. 3 Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... And Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 28. © Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, 4-14-13; all rights reserved. Page 4. might make a difference. The first is to make it clearer to others and to ourselves when we feed and tend the sheep why we are doing it. We don’t love others out of a sense of basic moral duty or a sense of spiritual superiority; we don’t do it because we’re trying to earn our salvation or because we have guilty consciences over of our abundant blessing. We care for others because we love God more than anyone or anything else; we care for others because we understand through Jesus Christ how far God was willing to go to show us that we are loved despite all our flaws and failing. We care for others because that love makes all the difference in the world. Another thing we can do is to make it clear in public policy discussions with colleagues, as well as with the powers-that-be in the legislature, that even in tough and uncertain times we cannot allow the poor, the needy, the broken and rejected to be cast aside to fend for themselves as if what happens to them is their problem and not our own. They are our problem because they are our flock. Jesus gave them to us because he knew that if we didn’t speak on their behalf, no one would. Presbyterians traditionally have not been terribly comfortable with being publically vocal about our faith in either of these ways. We don’t want to profess our faith, we just want to feed others; we don’t want to advocate against systemic injustice, we just want to serve individually. But as Jesus told Peter, following Christ sometimes requires stepping outside of our zones of comfort and familiarity. We can’t hang out in Galilee forever if we want to remain close to the risen Christ. There are millions of people in our nation who are convinced that even if Jesus was a real, all that he taught and all that he did does not make any difference anymore, or at least not a positive difference. There are millions of people convinced that Christians are little more than hypocrites and haters. We have an opportunity to surprise them by showing them another kind of Christianity, one grounded in compassion, commitment and above all in love. Our example and our advocacy can make a difference, not just in the lives of the people we feed and clothe, but also in the lives of the people who go through each day with “So what?” written on their hearts. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. He already knows us well and knows that we do. But with the help of the forgiving and empowering grace of God, let us answer him anyway by showing him and our world all the many ways that we do. Amen © Rev. Elizabeth D. McLean, 4-14-13; all rights reserved. Page 5.