Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Ecumenical Lenten Service

MACCA Lenten Service
John 21:15-17

Preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Massillon OH

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, when the pastors got together to plan out these Lenten services, they decided we should all preach about one of our favorite stories about Jesus.  I wasn’t able to attend that meeting, which is how I ended up both hosting and preaching this year.  But I do love love this idea of identifying stories we love about Jesus.  Just sort of not tied to anything, apropos of nothing, tell me a story you love about Jesus.

And this one we just heard—with Peter and Jesus standing on the shore after the resurrection—this is one of my all-time favorites.  Sure, it’s out of order to be talking about what happened after the resurrection when we’re still in Lent.  But I’m an out of order kind of priest.  But no matter the order, this is still one of my favorite stories about Jesus.  Because it’s the story I need—every day.

Okay.  So, as I said, this story comes after the resurrection.  Jesus has just met the disciples on the beach, and he cooked breakfast for them.  Which, to me, is just a fascinating detail!  And then after he feeds them, Jesus has a conversation with Simon, aka Peter.  Jesus asks him, “Do you love me more than these?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”

Again, Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”

And again, Jesus says to him, “Do you love me?”  Peter feels hurt because Jesus has now asked him the same question three times.  And Peter says, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Three times Jesus prompts the profession of love from Peter.  And three times Peter answers that he loves Jesus.  Notice, that three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus.  And what is the opposite of affirming something?  Denying, right?  Just next week, while Jesus is on trial before Pilate, Peter will stand in the courtyard outside.  And three times someone will ask Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples.  And all three times, Peter will deny knowing him.  Three times Peter denies Jesus; then the rooster crows.

And in this reading we just heard—which happens after all of that—Jesus comes to Peter, and redeems this triple denial.  Here, Jesus seeks out Peter, and leads him to redemption.  Jesus comes to Peter and brings him back to life.  Why do I say that?  Brings him back to life?

Well, take a moment to put yourself in Peter’s place.  Imagine how devastated he is by now.  Think back to Peter’s bold claim that all the others might fall away, but  “I will lay down my life for you.”  And Jesus tells Peter, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.  And, then, he does.  There in that courtyard, on the night Jesus is on trial, after insisting he would lay down his life for Jesus, Peter is outside the building, lying to escape laying down his life for Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three times.

Any of us who did what Peter had done would feel we were beyond redemption.  We would think there is no chance to be forgiven for that kind of denial, at that most important moment.  Even hearing Jesus himself say “you’re forgiven” is not enough.  But three times?  Is that enough?  Jesus sends Peter a strong message with the three questions.  He doesn’t yell at him.  Doesn’t embarrass him in front of the others.  Doesn’t make him feel bad.  Doesn’t even ask him if he is sorry for what he has done.  

Jesus asks Peter if he loves him; then tells Peter to feed and tend his sheep.  Three times he asks him the same question, and Peter gets it right all three times.  

Except, not really . . . Jesus does not ask Peter the same question all three times.

As you have probably heard, the Greek language has more than one word for love.  Eight, in fact.  But in English, love is love, and the context is the only thing that can give us more information.  In Greek, the three main kinds of love are eros, philios, and agape.  You can get a sense of their meaning by how we bring them into English.  Eros gives us erotic love, maybe we could say romantic love.  Philios gives us brotherly love, love for our neighbor—as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.  And then agape is usually thought of as the perfect selfless love, the kind of love God has for us.  Agape love is what we see in John 3:16, where God so loved the world—unconditionally—the kind of love that would give God’s only son.

So, here’s the big thing:  the first two times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape love me?  Do you love me perfectly with a selfless love?  Would you lay down your life for me?”  But Peter responds with, “Lord, you know that I philos love you.  I love you like a brother.  I love you as my friend.”  The first two questions and responses are the same.  “Do you love me selflessly, like God loves?”  “Lord,  I love you as my brother.”  That’s the first two times.

But the third time Jesus asks the question, the third time he changes it.  This time, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he loves him with that perfect love, that agape love, the love that would lay down one’s life, would never deny or abandon him.  No, the third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philios love me?  Do you love me as a brother, a companion, a friend?”  And Peter’s response is the same as the first two times.  Peter says, “Lord, I love you as my brother.” 

Jesus, in this third question, comes to meet Peter where he is.  He does not ask Peter to become perfect.  And, he does not keep asking until Peter makes a promise Peter knows he cannot keep.  It’s not as though, after the resurrection, Peter suddenly becomes able to live up to his promise to lay down his life for Jesus.  Amazingly, what seems to have changed in Peter is his ability to see himself as he really is.  He no longer claims to love perfectly.  He no longer claims to love as God loves.  What Peter tells Jesus is that he is able to love Jesus as a brother, a friend, a neighbor.  And that’s where Jesus meets him:  where Peter is.  Where Peter lives.  Where Peter knows himself to be.

And that is why I so very much love this particular story about Jesus.  Because he meets Peter where he is.  And rather than demanding that Peter change, Jesus changes.  Finally, Peter knows he cannot come to meet Jesus where Jesus is.  So instead, Jesus comes to meet Peter where he is.
We all make lofty promises to God about how selfless we will be.  About how we’re willing to change our ways, and lay down our lives, and love God perfectly.  And, of course, it’s only a matter of time until the rooster crows for you and for me.  And what is God’s response to us?

Does Jesus cast us aside?  Throw us out?  Insist on a perfection we can never achieve?  No.  Never.  God is always turning toward us.  Jesus is always walking beside us, exactly as we are.  Jesus did not give up on Peter, and Jesus will not give up on you.  Jesus always meets us where we are.  Thanks be to God.


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