Sermon from 1st May 2022 (Easter 3)

John 21:15-19 (EHV)

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I care about you.”

Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.”

16 A second time Jesus asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

He said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I care about you.”

Jesus told him, “Be a shepherd for my sheep.”

17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you care about me?”

Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you care about me?” He answered, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I care about you.”

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. 18 “Amen, Amen, I tell you: When you were young, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie you and carry you where you do not want to go.”

19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, he told him, “Follow me.”

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may be assured of your love for us, and that we may also assure those around us of our love, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some of you may remember a well-known musical named ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. It’s the story of a Jewish man, his wife, and their three daughters (all of whom are approaching marrying age) who live in Russia, and how they cope with the many challenges to their life and faith.

The father, Tevye, has been busy negotiating husbands for his daughters, and he turns to his wife Golde, and asks: “Do you love me?”

She replies: “Do I what?”

Unperturbed, he asks again, “Do you love me?”

She replies, “Do I love you?

With our daughters getting married

And this trouble in the town

You’re upset, you’re worn out

Go inside, go lie down!

Maybe it’s indigestion!”

But he really wants to know, so he says: “Golde, I’m asking you a question… Do you love me?”

She says “You’re a fool!”

He says “I know… But do you love me?”

She responds: “Do I love you?

For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes,

Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,

Given you children, milked your cow,

After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”

Then Tevye says: “Golde, the first time I met you

Was on our wedding day

I was scared.”

She says: “I was shy.”

He says: “‘I was nervous.”

She says: “So was I.”

He goes on to say: “But my father and my mother

Said we’d learn to love each other

And now I’m asking, Golde,

Do you love me?”

She answers: “I’m your wife!”

He says “I know… But do you love me?”

Golde, thinking about it, asks: “Do I love him?

For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him

Fought him, starved with him

Twenty-five years my bed is his

If that’s not love, what is?”

With this glimmer of hope, Tevye asks: “Then you love me?”

At last, she says: “I suppose I do!”

Happily, he says to her: “Then I suppose I love you too!”

Together they sing: “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years…it’s nice to know!”

Now, I hope none of you needed to wait twenty-five years before someone says they love you, but the question “Do you love me?” is an important one. We all need to hear and experience love from people close to us. The reassurance of love is even more important after a strain in that relationship makes you question the other person’s love.

Unfortunately, some people get offended by the question: ‘Do you love me?’ They might think their love is under question or under scrutiny. Yet, we shouldn’t ignore the fact the other person might need an assurance of our love, so it’s still important to answer.

Another problem is, this question about someone’s love can also be used to manipulate or abuse. For example, a boy might ask his girlfriend if she loves him, and if so, he might require her love to be expressed a certain way which breaks the 6th Commandment about adultery. While true love can be expressed in many other ways, for too many people, sexual intimacy is the only ‘love’ they’re after.

Children and parents, or husbands and wives, might also question each other’s when we don’t get what we want from them. We might challenge each other, using ‘love’ as blackmail, suggesting: “If you love me, then you’ll give me what I want!’ even though true love knows it should deny that selfish demand.

In a similar way, the teachings and practices of the Church have often been challenged, because some people consider these things to be ‘unloving’. Accordingly, because they don’t want to labelled as ‘unloving’, many pastors and people have said ‘yes’ when they should have said ‘no’ and ‘no’ when they should have said ‘yes’.

Today we hear Jesus ask this same question ‘Do you love me?’ to Peter right in front of the other six disciples.

Now, we might wonder why Jesus felt the need for this question. Why did Jesus feel the need to be reassured of Peter’s love? After all, most of the apostles abandoned Jesus at the time of his arrest and crucifixion, so why single Peter out?

But then we remember Peter was the one who had publicly denied Jesus – not just once, but three times. Jesus is aware of this, but since Jesus rarely does things just to satisfy himself and his own personal needs, he must be doing this for Peter’s benefit as well as the disciples.

It shouldn’t surprise us Peter was utterly ashamed of his denial. He’d sworn to never abandon Jesus, but he had. He not only abandoned Jesus, but he denied even knowing him. After learning so much from Jesus, Peter had let him down at the worst of times.

So, Jesus asks Peter ‘Do you love me more than these?’

Now, what or who ‘these’ are, we’re not sure. It could be Jesus was asking if Peter loved Jesus more than the other disciples loved Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was asking if Peter loved Jesus more than Peter loved the other disciples. Maybe Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than fishing and all the other things he used to do.

But how would you answer such a question?

Do you love Jesus more than everyone else? Do you love Jesus more than you love your husband, wife, siblings, children, or parents? Do you love Jesus more than all your precious belongings and the things you take pleasure in? And if you’re ever bold enough or courageous enough to say ‘yes’ to these questions, how would you show that love? Perhaps you’d discover your own love for Jesus would also be under question!

Getting back to Peter, he doesn’t necessarily answer the last part of the question, but simply gives an affirmative answer: ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’

Although, what doesn’t always come out through our English translations is Peter responds with a different word for ‘love’ than Jesus. Instead of the deep affection and cherishing word for love (agape) which Jesus is asking about, Peter answers he loves Jesus with a different word for love (phileo), which is closer to ‘liking’ someone as a friend.

Jesus tells Peter to tend his sheep and asks again: ‘Do you love me?’

Peter may have been getting more uncomfortable by this time, but answers the same way as before, ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’

Jesus says: ‘Shepherd my sheep.’

A third time Jesus asks Peter ‘Do you love me?’ But this time Jesus uses the same friendship word for love Peter’s been using.

By this time Peter was upset he had to answer a third time. Although not specifically mentioned in our text, the fact Jesus asked a third time would have clearly reminded Peter he had denied Jesus three times.

Jesus would have known Peter was ashamed and troubled by his three denials, so therefore it may have been for Peter’s benefit that he now publicly confesses his love for Jesus three times. Peter answers ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’

Jesus says: ‘Feed my sheep.’

Now that Peter was restored and reconciled with Jesus, he says to him: ‘Follow me.’

Jesus purposely did this in front of the other disciples because they too needed to witness the reconciliation and restoration of Peter to Jesus.

They would have been aware of Peter’s denial. News of broken trust and strains in relationships always travels fast. Rumours and gossip about Peter’s denial would have damaged his standing among them. Yet now the other disciples witness this reconciliation. Peter’s place among them is once more graciously secure.

As a result of this restoration among the disciples, Peter follows Jesus. This time he’ll follow Jesus all the way to the cross and won’t deny Jesus again. Tradition tells us Peter was later crucified upside down for bearing witness to Jesus.

Now, many of us would also like to say we also love Jesus, but notice how Jesus says our love for him is to be expressed. The tending and the feeding of his sheep is the way we show our love for Jesus.

Even though Jesus could directly rule and care for his flock, which is the Church, as our Good Shepherd, he instead chose to send flawed and imperfect humans like Peter to minister to his people in his place.

The food his servants are to feed God’s people with, is God’s Word. Sometimes God’s Word will be combined with water in Holy Baptism, or God’s Word might be combined with bread and wine in Holy Communion. Other times God’s Word of challenge, comfort, direction, or forgiveness will be enough to feed your hungry souls.

These ‘ministers’ of God’s grace are called pastors in our church, which is the Latin word for shepherd. Pastors are sent by Jesus to tend and care for the sheep, the people of God whom he places in their care. They’re not to act on their own or by their own authority, but they’re servants working under the authority of Jesus, sent with a mission to feed the people of God with God’s Word.

Even though pastors may do this publicly, you too can feed God’s people in your own private lives. For example, parents may feed their children with God’s Word. After all, how are your children to know you love Jesus? Your children will know you love Jesus when you teach them about Jesus and nourish them with God’s Word in your devotions and prayers. Husbands and wives may also share your love for Jesus when you remind each other of God’s Words of guidance, promise, and comfort. Feeding people around you with the forgiveness of Jesus also feeds them with a precious food which nourishes their need for love, reconciliation, and restoration.

Unfortunately, there are times some of Jesus’ shepherds or teachers might fail Jesus or his people. Your spouse, siblings, church members, and friends, may also fail you in their love. Once they’ve let you down by their lack of love, it can be hard to love them, or be loved by them, again.

You see, once love is broken, trust is also broken. While you may have the grace to forgive them, this doesn’t always mean you automatically trust them again. Like Jesus, you may need to repeatedly hear and experience their love before you can believe and trust their love once more.

Similarly, it’s important for you to reassure those around you of your love in word and action because they may need to hear and experience it again and again.

In regard to your own relationship with Jesus, who of you can ever say you haven’t let him down? You too, like Peter, have denied him, run away from him, rebelled against him, and failed to pass on his love or share his Word of grace and forgiveness with those around you. Just like Peter, you too may need to repeat your confession of love and faithfulness – not just for Jesus’ benefit, but also for your own benefit and the benefit of those around you.

In this case, you confess your love for him every time you stop from your busy schedules to hear God’s Word. You confess your love for him when you’re honest with yourself and confess your sins and failures to love. You confess your love for him when you make your confession of faith in our Triune God. You confess your love for him when you’re fed with his holy body and blood. You confess your love for him when you repeatedly forgive those around you. You confess your love for him when you teach the young and build each other up in faith.

In this exchange of love between Jesus and Peter, who in his own pride and weakness failed his Lord, Jesus restores Peter’s relationship with himself and his flock. Similarly, our own sins and failures make us feel unworthy to love and serve God or his people. But Jesus continues to comfort his pastors and people of his own love and forgiveness. He graciously gives us another chance to receive and pass on his love.

Jesus doesn’t want to lose any of you. He still loves and feeds you through his faithful pastors. He still nourishes you with his holy Word and Sacraments. He still forgives you. He still loves you…

…so that the love and peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will continue to guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.