John 21 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered.6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
What does Jesus mean by “more than these?” Who are these “these” whom Jesus is asking Simon about, when he asks, “Do you love me more than these?” Are these “these” the fish, all 153 of them that they have just caught? Or are “these” the other fishermen standing around eating the fresh, roasted fish?
The best commentaries and commentators on this passage say that we can’t be sure, from either the text, the language or the grammar which of these “these” Jesus wants Simon Peter to love second to himself. But when you stop and think about either option, they both have something powerful to say to us.
If by “these” Jesus means the fish, some of us may be wondering, How in the world could anybody love…..fish so much? Those cold, wet, slippery, slimy things flopping around on the beach? But die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool fisherman would ask, “What kind are they?, and how big? Where did you catch them, and what did you use for bait?”
If that sounds to you like some form of brain damage, I won’t take it personally. You’re in the company of many weekend fishing widows and their children who wonder, How is it you can remember so well just what you caught and where, and still you forgot our birthdays? I don’t care if its opening day of trout season, its our anniversary! So I can understand if Simon thought, “Three years ago, on this very beach, Jesus, you said, ‘Follow me and I shall make you fishers of people.’But now you’re saying, ‘Follow me, and I shall make you…. a shepherd?’” Was that a bait-and-switch trick pulled on Fisherman Pete, or was Jesus working him into his calling as a shepherd gently, gradually?
But the question, “Do you love me more than these?” is not just for fishermen. It goes to the heart of everyone’s sense of purpose and identity. What or who is first in our lives? Our jobs, our titles, our professions, our possessions, our politics, our incomes, our class, education, and ethnicity? Our desires and drives? Whatever it is we love so supremely that we define ourselves by it, and fix our identity and our destiny on it, Jesus is asking all of us as well, “Do you love me more than these?”
So this story is not just about how Simon Peter got his calling, from fisher of souls to shepherd of souls. It is about how each and every disciple of Jesus learns and embraces their calling and their identity in Christ: by pondering and answering this question of Jesus, “Do you love me more than these?” whatever our “these” might be. Jesus may not be asking us to give them up. But he is confronting us with the need to put them in order of priority, with himself at the top, if we too will follow him.
People in ministry have to ask this of themselves as well. Have we so wrapped up our identities and self-worth in our positions and our denominations and congregations that they are taking first place ahead of Jesus, and our friendship with him? I say that because of the other possibility, that when Jesus asks, “Do you love me more than these,” by “these” he means the other fisher folk on that beach, the other disciples, other people, in effect, even the church.
So Jesus may be asking Peter, “Do you love me more than…” even these beloved fellow disciples for whom I have demonstrated supremely self-sacrificial love, and for whom I have asked you many times to demonstrate equally supremely self-sacrificial love as well?” Its a love that Peter will demonstrate later on when “you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go,” namely, on a cross like the one Jesus bore.
If Jesus is, as we confess, the presence, the power and the image of God, God’s human face, then he has every right to ask such love of us. He’s not saying anything different from the supreme commandments in the Bible, and the order in which Jesus listed them: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But that brings us to a hard truth, a paradox that goes to the heart of the scandal of the gospel: The love that we need most to give each other, and to receive from each other, is a love that is supremely sacrificial, self-giving, and second. Second, that is, compared to God, and equally with oneself. So if Peter is to do a very good job of feeding Jesus’ flock, and caring for his sheep, he must love them second. And so must we.
Now I’m not talking about love as the world defines it, which is more about wanting and feeling. Wanting and feeling are great experiences, but they are no guides to following Jesus. I’m not talking about the kind of wanting and feeling that the missionary expressed to his wife in the movie, “Hawaii,” when she bore their first child. Her missionary husband spoiled the beautiful moment of joyful wonder with their new-born baby when he got all agitated and said to her, “But now I love you more than God!”
He’s right to remember that he should love God first, his wife and family second. But he’s wrong in thinking that his wonderful, rapturous feelings of gratitude and joy and, yes, love for his wife and newborn baby means that he loves God any less. I so wanted to grab him by the collar and say, “Just enjoy the moment! Its a gift of God. And if you want to show your love for God, then tell your wife how much you love her, give her a kiss, make her lunch or do whatever else she and the baby need right now.” But how do you talk to someone on the other side of a movie screen?
Feelings come and go and have lives of their own. So, lets not get caught up always checking our emotional temperatures to figure out how much we love Jesus. Check instead our calendars, our choices, and our checkbooks. Check with the people around us and ask if they see in us love for Jesus, and love from Jesus.
Because Jesus gave Peter one way to show his love for him: by loving his people. That’s one reasy why I believe that if we love each other second, after Jesus, then we’ll actually love each other better than if we loved each other first. We will love others not just to please them, nor for them to please us, but in order to please God. And we will know ourselves accountable to God for the ways in which we love others. Such second place love loves people in God, through God, by God’s power and love, for God’s sake, for God’s honor, for God’s will, and not for their approval, not for our own needs, our own security, or our own ego. For how easily our own suspect and subtle motives can creep in and make our love for others something clingy and controling, possessive or permissive, rather than empowering. That’s what struck me when I heard a love song entitled, “You are my religion,” by the group Firehouse.
“You are my religion, you took me in and saved my soul…believe in me as I believe in you….” are the words.
What terrible burdens to put on anyone else. And may God spare us from having any such hopes, fears and expectations of divine powers laid on us in the name of love. With second place love we love each other for the human beings that we are, rather than for the heroes and saviors that we want. Because we already have Jesus.
That kind of supreme but secondary love is what we committed ourselves to in our church’s vision statement, when we said, “As followers of Christ, Emmanuel Mennonite Church commits to….nurturing community.” By nurturing community, I take that to mean “nurturing people and our relationships.” In other words, love. How do we love each other supremely, sacrificially, but still second, after Jesus? Let me count the ways: The first commitment of our vision statement is “worshiping God.” So we put him first. As for “nurturing community,” we have our Deacons’ Fund for mutual aid; our congregational ministries, especially Christian Education which is needing a couple of people yet for the nursery through 8th grade position; small groups; more time for fellowship during some adult Christian Education hours.
This morning I’d like to highlight a development with our deacon care groups. All of us members and regular attendees are enrolled in a deacon care group list and calling tree for communication. That means that there is a deacon of this church who every so often is praying for you on his or her list. If you come up front to share a prayer request some time, don’t be surprised if your deacon later on calls you and asks, “How is it going with that matter you mentioned last Sunday?” because that’s what the deacons committed themselves to doing this year.
As pastor I try to do that as much as I can, too. But in a growing church like ours, the pastor alone cannot be all or do all by way of “nurturing community.” We said in our vision statement that we commit to nurturing community, not that “we commit the pastor to nurturing community.” That’s in my job description. But it doesn’t say, “singlehandedly.”
Today this year’s new deacon care group list and calling tree is in your mailboxes. I suggest putting that list in our Bibles, with our journals or our devotional guides, so that we can pull it out and pray for people, in our list, yes, but anyone else, too. As we look over the names in our group, something might jog our memory: “Oh yeah, so-and-so has a procedure this week,” or “Its been a year since so-and-so’s mother passed away. Not only will I pray for him or her, I’ll give them a call or send an email.” That’s one way to love people and “nurture community.”
God knows, we aren’t getting enough of such love in the world, not the unqualified, unconditional love that we need.Such love is the trump card of the church’s witness. Were many of us not effectively loved into the Christian life by loving shepherds, such as family members, mentors, Sunday School teachers, deacons or pastors? Even if we believed because the Christian faith made supreme intellectual sense to us, I would bet my bottom dollar that it is love that keeps us in the fold. It is the love of God coming through his people and for all people, however imperfectly. Its also the love that loves others as a way of loving Christ first.