May 5, 2019, I Know – But Do You Love Me? (John 20:19-31) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000134
I hope that you have all seen the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” because it’s wonderful. If you haven’t, you should. If you have, you probably remember a song that Tevye, the hero of the story, sings with his wife, Golde. The story is set in 1905 in Russia, when the Czar, Nicholas, was making life very hard for the Jews. Besides that, Golde and Tevye are trying to find husbands for their three unmarried daughters, who have minds and ideas of their own. And one day, in the middle of all that stress and chaos, Tevye comes in to ask his wife a question.
Tevye: Golde – I’m asking you a question. Do you love me?
Golde: You’re a fool!
Tevye: I know. But do you love me?
Golde: Do I love you?
For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Tevye: … My father and my father said we’d learn to love each other.
So, now I’m asking, Golde…Do you love me?
Golde: I’m your wife!
Tevye: I know. But do you love me?
Today we read from the very last chapter of John’s gospel. And we get to listen in to a private conversation between Jesus and Peter. This is the third time since the Resurrection that Jesus has revealed himself to his disciples, more than alive and way more than well. Peter and six of the disciples have gone out fishing. It was Peter’s idea, as usual. And when they head back to land in the morning, without a single fish to show for their hard night’s work, they see Jesus on the beach cooking breakfast for them. John has shared with us the conversation that happens after breakfast. And like Tevye in the song, Jesus is asking Peter a question: “Do you love me?” Today I want to look closely at what was being said, as well as what was not being said, in the few words of this important conversation.
When this breakfast takes place, Jesus has already been with Peter and the others, on two occasions. Jesus’ very first words to them after the Resurrection were, “Peace be with you.” He breathed his Spirit into them; he breathed his Spirit into Peter. He commissioned them all to be his representatives in the world, giving them authority to be forgivers of sins. In those first encounters with his disciples, there is nothing Jesus says or does that would make you think he still had a score to settle with anybody. When he had cried out on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing?” he was praying for his own cowardly disciples as well as the Scribes and Pharisees and soldiers and all the rest of us.
Peter had been forgiven. On Jesus side, there was no unsettled business between them. In Isaiah, God says, “I am the God who forgives your transgressions, and I do this because of who I am. I will not remember your sins.” And in Psalm 103, David wrote, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of our sins, who could stand?” From time to time, we all need a reminder that God is not Santa, making a list and checking it twice. I say all this because we can be sure that Jesus did not ask those three questions because he wanted to rub Peter’s nose in the mess he had made, or even because he wanted to give Peter a chance to make up for his sin. It’s not as if the questions are a sort of punishment, like writing “I will be a good boy” fifty times on the blackboard.
Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” three times. The commentaries will all point out that just as Jesus asks his question three times, so too Peter had denied Jesus three times. And that is true. The idea is generally that Jesus is giving Peter a chance to sort of clear the air after his spectacular failure. My study Bible says in the footnotes to these verses, “Peter has denied Jesus three times; now Jesus asks him three times to reaffirm his love for him.” We can be sure that Peter, for his part, was still struggling with the shame of having been a coward and a traitor. Because John tells us that when Jesus asked Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” Peter felt sad, and he said, “You know everything. (In other words, “You know how bad I messed up.”) You know I love you.”
It would have been impossible for Peter, being a human being, not to still have feelings of shame and remorse for what he had done, even if he knew that Jesus had forgiven everything – which he had. Being a human being, we can be sure Peter still looked backward at his past failures some times. We all do that. But talking to Peter after breakfast on that day, Jesus wasn’t looking backward. Jesus wasn’t talking about Peter’s past at all. He was talking about Peter’s present and future. He had appointed Peter, long before, to be the rock on which his church would be established. Peter was first in line to take over where Jesus was leaving off. And that meant Peter was destined to be the head servant, the head foot-washer, the first to feed and comfort and heal the sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd. It was to Peter, the head servant among all God’s servants, that Jesus had given the keys that would set his people free from their sins. Peter had a job to do. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.”
Jesus was about to leave Peter. He was about to leave this man who had walked and talked and eaten with him for three years, who had failed at least as often as he had succeeded. Peter was the only disciple who stepped out onto the waves to walk to Jesus (although he promptly sank because he gave in to fear.) When most of Jesus’ followers were turning their backs on Jesus, it was Peter who spoke up, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.” Inspired by the Spirit, it was Peter who proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
But then again, it was Peter who rebuked Jesus when he tried to teach them about his suffering and death. When Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan!” it was Peter he was talking about. It was Peter who made a fool of himself on the mount of Transfiguration. It was Peter who argued with Jesus when Jesus tried to wash his feet. It was Peter who bragged that even if everybody else betrayed Jesus, he certainly wouldn’t. “Oh, no, not me. I would never.” Peter’s life was as much a jumble of good, bad, ugly and stupid, as yours or mine is. But all that mattered in those last days was that bond of love. “I’m asking you a question.” Jesus said to Peter, “Do you love me?”
In the end, “Do you love me?” is the one important question we ask of one another. “Owe no one anything,” Paul wrote, “except to love one another, because love fulfills the whole law.” Love is our one and only debt – to God, and to each other. Most of you have probably heard that Fr. Ed LaCombe’s wife Carolyn passed away unexpectedly this past Tuesday. In the obituary, it says, as it so often does, that Carolyn entered into eternal glory “surrounded by members of her family.” That little phrase holds so much weight; it gives so much comfort. At the moment of death, lots of things suddenly become totally unimportant: possessions, successes and failures, appearances, grudges, regrets, pride and shame. Only the presence of those who love us matters: our family, our close friends, our God. When we are by the bedside of people we love in the last moments of their life, do we require them to explain why they did or didn’t do something they should have done or should not have done? Do we demand an account for their failures? Or do we hold their hand? Do we assure them that they are loved, and that nothing else in the whole world matters at that moment? Because that is the truth.
Yesterday the Vestry met for a retreat, and the focus of our discussion was our personal relationship to God. We considered some questions about our faith: When did we first know who God is and what he is like? Who were the people that helped us understand God better, or that modeled the love of God to us? And how do we experience God in our daily lives now? Little or none of that has to do with following rules and doing good deeds. But it all has to do with coming to know that we are loved. And with learning how to love in return. Just as Jesus asked Peter, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” He asks us that, not because he wants to point out our failures, not because he wants us to prove our commitment, and to make amends for failing him. He asks because he already loved us first. And because in the end, love is the one thing that matters.