April 26, 2015   |   John 21: 15-19   |   Rev. Nancy Talbot –

One day when our children were quite young we were driving home after Sunday service when our eldest started asking why we go to church every week.  From our position in the front seat of the car we gently began to talk about church and our Christian faith why we follow Jesus.  There was a pause in the conversation and that was when our youngest, Joel who was about 3 at the time and sitting in the back with his older brother piped up and said “I follow balls.”

From an early age Joel has had a fixation with balls of every kind:  soccer balls and baseballs, golfballs and rugby balls.  So when he heard his parents talking about what they are most passionate about in life, it only stands to reason that in the fullness of his three year old self he would want to share with us what he was most passionate about.  Some people follow balls, others follow Jesus.  Some people manage to do both.  We’re hoping maybe our son will be one of them.

After three weeks of resurrection accounts we are finally reaching the end of the story of Jesus as John tells it in his gospel and what does it all come down to?  It all comes down to love.

Last week we ended our story of the Risen Christ on the beach gathered around a fire, the disciples sharing a meal of bread and fish.  Today we pick up the action at the point when the breakfast is over and Jesus has signalled to Peter.  He wants to have a word with him.

Now you can imagine the intensity of this scene.  The last time Jesus had a heart to heart with Peter, not long before he was crucified, Peter vowed to follow him to the end and we all know how that went.  Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus that fateful night. And now here they are again face to face and three times Jesus asks  “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me more than these? Do you love me, Peter?  Simon son of John do you love me? ”

What seems unclear to Peter, but obvious to us is that the Risen Christ is offering forgiveness and grace, three times denied, three times forgiven, leaving no doubt in our minds.  There is nothing we can ever say or do to put us beyond the love of God.  If Peter can be forgiven after all he has done and left undone, surely we too are worthy of love and grace.

So all the while Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him what’s he’s really doing is showing how deep his love for Peter is.  It doesn’t matter that you ran away in my hour of greatest need.  It doesn’t matter that you betrayed me.  It doesn’t matter that your courage is small and your doubt is large.  I love you Peter, no matter what.
It’s not Jesus love for Peter that’s in question here although Peter seems to doubt that is true.  What’s at issue is Peter’s love for Jesus.  And you’ll notice how exasperated Peter gets when Jesus keeps repeating the question over and over again.  He feels hurt that Jesus would question his undying love.  Of course he loves him.  He always has and he always will, why does he even have to ask?

Some of you might remember the scene from Fiddler on the Roof when after 25 years of marriage, Tevye asks Golde: Do you love me? and she becomes offended.  What do you mean do I love you?  For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house and milked your cows.  What do you mean do I love you now?

Those of you who have been in relationships for 25 years or more and even those of us who have only hit the 10 or 20 year mark might recognize this moment in which our partners begin to wonder, or we begin to wonder,  do you really love me after all these years?  We think that it’s a given that it’s obvious our love is true, but every now and then it seems we need to show each other that we do.

And this seems to be the crux of the matter between Peter and Jesus.  Peter says that he loves the Lord but he doesn’t always act as if he does.  Jesus doesn’t want Peter just to say he loves him he wants him to demonstrate it too.

One of the interesting things about this passage is that in greek there are four different words for love: eros, storge, philio and agape.  Eros is romantic love, storge is familial love, philio is friendship and agape is selfless or unconditional love.

The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, the greek translation uses the word agape.  That is when he adds the phrase “more than these?”  He’s asking here about unconditional, primary love.  Do you love me above all of your possessions, your friends, and your ability to work.  I one time heard this is expressed as a question about whether you love the giver of gifts or the gifts of the giver?

But the third time the question is asked the word philio or friendship is used, referring to a more on par or relational love.  As if Jesus is saying you and me Peter we are companions, fellow travellers, sharing in the work we are about.  It’s not enough that you should devote yourself to me, love and worship me as if I were some kind of idol, if you really love me, you need to be my friend, more my partner than my devotee.  You and me, we need to work together.  And so he gives to Peter the same job he has taken on himself, the job of shepherd who tends the sheep.

If you love me Peter, feed my sheep.  If you really love me, feed my sheep.  If you love me more than these, Peter feed my sheep.  That is what it means to follow me.  It means to do as I have done, to love with a wide and open heart just as I have loved.

The expression of love Jesus seeks from Peter is not just a feeling or a spoken word, the love that he desires is active in its care for others and our world.

But if we think this love is just about being nice to one another, a warm fuzzy lamb and rainbow kind of love as Barbara Brown Taylor would say, we might need to take a closer look at the next part of the story.  Because that’s when Jesus hints at the kind of death awaiting Peter when he takes on this caring love.  That’s when we’re reminded that this kind of sheep feeding, caring love isn’t just done beside still waters or in pastures that are green.  Sometimes it’s extreme shepherding we’re called to, the kind of sheep feeding that can take us into places we’d rather not choose to go.

And often that is what following Jesus is about.  It’s about not having a choice about where we go and what we do, because when our love for Jesus and his way is strong like Peter’s, when our love for the sheep is as strong as his, we can’t stop ourselves from going where he companions us to go, even when the way is dangerous and scary.

Lately Joel has taken to carrying his soccer ball to school.  I allow him to kick it down the road of our townhouse complex as long as he watches carefully for cars.  But when we get out to the street I insist that he hold it tightly with two hands.  I worry that he loves that ball so much he’ll run after it right out into traffic and that will be the end of him and the ball.  When you love something that much it can cause you to become self-forgetful to the point of putting yourself at risk.

Jerald Dennis who is a survivor of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia said that when he became infected with the virus the thing he needed more than anything was love. Stories about Ebola are not as prevalent now as they were last year but I’m sure we can all remember hearing about the doctors and nurses who contracted the virus themselves and then spoke of their desire to return to the work they loved.  First responders, peacekeepers, environmental activists and activists of all kinds regularly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of what they love. But not all of us all called to that kind of life-threatening care.

The sheep feeding that many of us do, the extreme shepherding we engage in is more likely to take the form of daring to get outside our comfort zone by serving among those we don’t know or whose experience is unfamiliar to us; or risking our reputations for doing what we know is right.  Sometimes in this day and age it can be just admitting we are followers of Jesus.  That alone can take you into conversations you might not rather have.  For some of us going down to First United or the Lookout Shelter or risking to talk to someone we don’t know or helping a stranger is how we love in daring ways.  For others it’s being honest with our partners and our children risking relationships for the sake of a greater love.

In other gospel accounts the word that comes to the disciples at the end of the story is a commission to preach the good news, to baptize, to heal and to make disciples of all people.  In John’s gospel the commission is to follow and to feed not because it’s what we’ve been told or asked to do, but because it’s how we show our love.  And when our love is deep and wide, we can’t help but follow where we’re sent.