April 10, 2016, Do You Love Me More Than These? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Sometimes, at the end of a particularly hectic and confusing day, I feel like one of those snow globes that have a little scene inside a glass dome, where you shake them up and watch the flakes swirl around and around until they finally settle down. When Carroll asks me what I’m thinking at times like that, I just tell him I’m snow-globing, waiting for the dust to settle.
After the Resurrection, I can only imagine the disciples were doing some big-time snow-globing, as they tried to put the pieces of their lives back together. There’s that old expression, “the only certainties on this earth are death and taxes” – well, the disciples were coming to terms with the strange fact that even death wasn’t so much of a certainty as they thought. They had no idea where there lives were going now that their three years of travel with Jesus had come to such a dramatic and unexpected end.
So it was only natural that they fell back on what they knew, what felt safe, and familiar. “I’m going fishing,” Peter said. James and John, and Thomas, and Nathanael, and two others of the disciples, went with him.
And Jesus met them there by the sea, in the very same place where he had first met them one morning three years before. The place goes by a bunch of different names in the gospels: sometimes it’s called the Sea of Galilee, sometimes the Lake of Tiberias, or the Sea of Tiberias, and sometimes it’s called the Sea of Gennesaret, but it’s all the same old body of water. And on that morning, Peter, tired after a long frustrating night of fishing, had been on the beach washing out his nets. Jesus was there, too, teaching, and a very large crowd had gathered, so Jesus had climbed into Peter’s boat and asked Peter to bring him out a little way into the water so the crowds could hear him.
After he had finished teaching, Jesus told Peter to cast his nets back into the water. Peter was pretty skeptical, not to mention he must have been exhausted and probably really ready to go home and get some sleep. He didn’t even really know who this strange teacher was. But he did as Jesus asked him to, and we all remember what happened – they pulled in so many fish their nets were breaking. That was how the first four disciples came to believe that Jesus was a man of God. That was the moment they decided to follow him.
And then three years later, in today’s reading, history repeated itself.
The disciples took their gear and went out and fished all night long, but they didn’t catch a single fish. And as morning broke, they saw a man standing on the beach. But they didn’t recognize him yet. And the man called to them, “Children, have you caught anything?” When they told him, “Nope,” he called out to them: “Cast your net on the right side, and you’ll find some.”
And just as it had happened on that morning three years before, as soon as they cast their nets into the water there were so many fish they couldn’t handle them all. And suddenly they knew the man was Jesus. John knew first, and he cried out, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, Peter the impetuous, tucked up his robes and threw himself into the sea, leaving the others to struggle in to land with the load of fish on their own.
It was deja vu all over again, but a lot had happened since that first meeting on the beach. It was the same place, the same time of day, the same fishing boats and nets, the same smells and sounds, even the same miraculous catch of fish, but the world had been changed forever. Even Jesus, in his resurrected body, was somehow different; John says that they knew it was Jesus, but no one dared to ask him. Their whole world had changed, and those men, those followers of Jesus, would never be the same again no matter how hard they tried to hold onto what was familiar.
After they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Peter a question. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” It’s kind of a puzzling question, because it could mean several different things. Is Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me more than your friends love me?” We can be sure that that’s not what Jesus is asking, because he would be asking Peter to make a judgment he was not able to make. Only God himself could see into the hearts of each man. If anyone were to compare the love the disciples had for Jesus, it could only be Jesus himself.
But Jesus could also have been asking Peter, “Do you love me more than you love your friends?” Peter would have known, would have known his whole life, that his first love was always meant to be the Lord. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be asking Peter about that either.
Instead, what Jesus seems to be asking Peter is this: “Do you love me more than you love these – these things of your old, familiar life – do you love me more than these boats, than these nets, these waves, these fish, even these companions? Do you love me enough to leave it, all of it, behind? Do you love me enough to follow me?”
Remember when Peter first met Jesus over a full net of fish, when he and his brother and his friends first decided to follow this amazing teacher, Jesus told them, “I’m going to make you fishers of men.” It was a big thing, then, to leave their boats and their livelihoods behind, for a time, but it still sounded familiar.
But here on the beach, Jesus was asking Peter for something more. In fact, he was asking for everything. “Do you love me more than everything you have always thought of as your life? Follow me. You will never again be Peter the fisherman; I’m calling you to be Peter the Shepherd. I’m entrusting my flock to you. I’m calling you to feed my lambs. I’m calling you to tend my sheep.”
It is a scary thing to face changes in our lives. It is a scary thing to let go of those things that are familiar to us. It is a scary thing to make a new beginning. I think for most of us, God first spoke to us through the familiar things in our lives: we met him in our families; in the familiar routines of church-going, for many of us; and as we grew older, in our work.
But at some point, we all experience times of change – we all go through times of being uprooted from the familiar – and not just once, but many times in our lives. It happened when we grew up and left home; when we went off to college or moved away on our own and suddenly we realized that our relationship with our parents and our friends and our old selves would never be the same again. It happens every time we face a loss – the death of a person we loved, who was part of our very selves; or the pain and betrayal of a failed marriage or the end of a friendship. It happens when we retire, or when our children leave home, and we suddenly wonder if we even know who we are after all these years. It happens when we face the physical losses and limitations of growing older, when our vision weakens, when our bodies fail us.
At those times, Jesus is there for us in our uprootedness. “Child, do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than the people and places and things and abilities that have always defined you? Do you love me enough to let go and follow me?” When everything inside us is just aching to hold on to the familiar, to go back to when we were younger, to cling to the world we knew, the only way forward is love. Because Jesus brings us through hard times, but he never leaves us at a dead end. He always calls us on, to follow him. He will never leave us or forsake us; he is with us always, even to the end of the ages.
Jesus said to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” He knew that for Peter, the way forward was going to lead not only to ministry, but in the end, to martyrdom. And he said to him, “Follow me.”
I’m talking about hard things, things that we don’t like to even think about, things that the world fights against with all its might and main. Media, entertainment, advertising, the whole world system is all about hanging on to our youth and resisting change and covering up the pain of the losses we can’t avoid. The world tries to sanitize death with beautiful funeral homes and nice green cemeteries. The world replaces broken relationships like burnt-out light bulbs. And when people can’t escape the progression of time any longer the world tucks them safely away in nursing homes where they don’t have to see them. They call it the circle of life, but what they really mean is the circle of death, and the world is terrified of it; because for the world, when you come to the end, that’s it. You’re done.
But all that belongs to the old world that is fading away in the light of the resurrection. The good news of the gospel of Jesus is that there is a way forward, there is a future for us, even if it leads through loss and change and death. We follow him, knowing that he walked the whole way before us, so that we could follow him all the way through. But it starts with letting go.
It’s what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples: “If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you are willing to lose your life, for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, you’ll save it.”
Jesus asks us, “Do you love me more than these?” More than your own plans? More than your traditions? More than your comfort? More than your possessions? More than your abilities? More than life as you have always known it?” And he says, “Follow me.”
But our love isn’t a matter of feelings, or of understanding. Those things will fail us. Our feelings change from day to day. And our understanding will always fall short. We love Jesus in the act of following him. We love one step at a time. We choose love now. And now. And now.
We love by letting go of our old plans and assumptions and our security, and as we choose love, we receive new life from his hands.