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“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
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
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
Tillich, Paul, “Love is Stronger than Death” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 173.
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.
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