Happy Mother’s Day!

May 9, 2010

The Questioning God

Part 5—Do you love me?

John 21:1-17

Introduction: When Peter failed, Jesus asked him just one question.  It is The Big Question that God asks each of us. 

          Many of you recognize that sketch—it is the story of the resurrected Jesus meeting seven of his disciples on Lake Galilee after they had fished all night.  Here’s the story:

John 21:1-17 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called 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 Simon Peter climbed aboard 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 truly 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 truly 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.

To understand what’s happening, we need to know the back-story; it starts with Peter’s Big Failure.


1. Peter’s Big Failure: denial, deceit, and desertion.

          On the last night of Jesus’ life, He was sharing a final meal with His men.  After the meal, He warned them: 

Matthew 26:31-32 “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ”‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

It’s an amazing statement.  Jesus told them that before the night was over, they would all fall away and forsake Him.  It must have stunned them—they would never think of leaving Jesus—but He just predicted that all of them would.  But what’s really remarkable is Jesus’ response.  Rather than scolding them (“How could you?”), or rejecting them (“I’m through with you!”), or threatening them (“You better not!”), Jesus jumps ahead to after the resurrection and says He’ll meet them in Galilee.  It’s as though He is saying, “You are going to fail tonight—all of you—and fail miserably.  But I still want you on my team.  Don’t quit—meet me in Galilee.”

          Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is to boldly announce, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”  (Matthew 26:33)  Peter evidently thought he was more devoted than the others, more committed, more loyal.  Jesus said, “Peter, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”  (Matthew 26:34)  But Peter insisted, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”  And all the other disciples said the same.  (Matthew 26:35)

          Of course, you know what happened.  Only hours later, Jesus was arrested, and all the disciples fled.  Peter and John followed at a distance to see what would happen.  While the two of them were waiting outside in the courtyard, a servant girl recognized Peter: “You were with Jesus.”  Peter denied it, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. 

Near the gateway another girl recognized him, “This fellow was with Jesus.”  This time Peter denied it with an oath, “I swear to God that I don’t know the man.”

Later, someone else said, “You are one of them; your accent gives you away.”  This time Peter cursed and said, “I don’t know the man.”  Immediately a rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter, and Peter fled into the night weeping.

On the scale of failures, this one is right up there near the top.  All of the disciples failed—not just Peter—but what made his failure so spectacular was his promise, his insistence that he would never do such a thing, even if all the others did.  He claimed that he was more devoted.  Like the sketch said, “We all have our moments; Peter just had his with a little more flourish!”

Jesus was crucified and three days later raised from the dead, and appeared to His men as He promised.  Remember, He told them that He would meet them in Galilee, so that is where we find them in this story in John 21, back home on the lake, heading out to fish.

          Bible scholars are divided on the nature of this fishing trip.  Some of them believe that Peter and the others were simply killing time waiting for Jesus, or were just trying to put some food on the table while they waited.  If they’re right, this was just an innocent fishing trip, a group of guys doing what they knew to do while they waited for Jesus to show up.

But other scholars think Peter was going back to his old job and giving up on being an apostle.  When Jesus called Peter to be a follower, Peter was a commercial fisherman on Lake Galilee.  Peter had left that job to become an apostle, one of Jesus’ full-time men.  Peter was now abandoning his post as an apostle, and was going back to fishing for a living. 

Which is true: was it an innocent way to pass the time, or another desertion?  We can’t know for sure.  But given the discouragement Peter felt about his failure, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was thinking of giving up and going back to his old life.  So what was Peter’s big failure?  Denial, deceit and desertion.

Enter Jesus.  When we run, He pursues us.  When we want to quit and give up, He won’t let us go.  He comes after us. My tendency is to write people off; Jesus pursues them.  He tracks Peter down at the lake and asks him the Big Question.


2. Jesus’ Big Question: do you love Me? 

          After the miraculous catch of fish, the disciples realize it is Jesus, and they make for shore.  Impulsive Peter is the first to Jesus.  He doesn’t want to wait for the boat to get to shore; he dives in and swims.  Notice that even though he was still smarting from his failure, he didn’t hesitate to come to Jesus.  What does that tell you about Jesus, and His relationship with Peter?  Ashamed as he was, Peter wasn’t afraid to face Jesus; in fact, he seems eager to face Him.  Peter, who had watched Jesus confront other failures, must have expected grace.  And that’s what he received.

          As they sat around the fire, Jesus started the conversation with a question.  What was it?  “Peter, do you love me more than these?”  What was the “more than these?” 

          It could have been that Jesus swept his hand toward the boat and the nets.  “Do you love me more than fishing, more than your old life?” 

          More likely, Jesus swept his hand toward the other men in the circle.  “Do you still think you love me more than these men do?”  Remember, Peter had publicly declared that even if all of them fell away, he never would.  Basically, he had declared that he loved Jesus more than they did.  “Do you love me more than these, Peter?”  And Peter said, “Lord you know that I love you.”  No more bragging, no more boasting that he loved the most.  Just a simple, “You know that I love you.”

          Three times Peter had publicly denied Jesus.  So three times, Jesus publicly asks Peter the same question: “Do you love Me?”  And that’s the only question He asks. 

          If it was me, I would have had lots of other questions.  “Peter, why did you deny me?  Why did you lie to those people? And what the stink are you doing back here fishing?  Why did you desert your post?”  Isn’t this what we do when someone fails?  We grill them.  We want reasons, explanations for what they did.  “What were you thinking?  Why would you do that?”  I’d have lots of questions.

          But Jesus had only one question: do you love me?  “Do you love me, Peter? If you love me, we can still be partners.  If you love me, we can still work together; I can still use you…if you love me.” 

          That’s the Big Question.  Do you love Jesus?  It’s always the Big Question.  It’s the Big Question when we succeed, and it’s the Big Question when we fail.  It’s always the Big Question because Jesus said that loving God is the most important commandment to obey, the most important thing to do in the whole world.  So Jesus skipped all the little stuff, and when straight to the Big Question: do you love Me?

          Have you failed?  Are you ashamed to face Jesus, afraid of what He’ll ask you?  He’s going to ask you one question: do you love Me?  That’s the Big Question; let’s take a look at Peter’s cautious answer.


3. Peter’s cautious answer: “Lord, I like you.”

When Jesus asked, “Do you love me more than these?” He used the verb agapao; the noun form is agape.  It is the highest word for love, the word that is used most often of God’s love for us.  It describes a love of self-sacrifice, of giving, of doing what is best for another no matter what it costs you.  “Peter, do you agapao me?  Do you love me with this deeply committed love?”

          Peter responded, “Lord, you know I love you.”  But he used the verb, phileo, a humbler word for love.  This was the word used to describe warm and tender affection of friends, a love that is based on affinity.  For our purposes, we might use the words “love” and “like”.

          Now in other places in this gospel, John seems to use the words interchangeably, and because of that, some scholars find no significance in the fact that Jesus and Peter used different words for love.  But I tend to agree with many scholars who think that the choice of words was deliberate and meaningful.

          Jesus asked Peter for the most committed and devoted love possible: agape.  Peter had already promised such love, and failed miserably to deliver on his promise.  He’s understandably gun-shy.  Does he love Jesus?  Absolutely!  Is he willing to make an extravagant declaration of his love?  No—been there, done that and did a belly flop.  Jesus asked for agape, but Peter, fresh from his failure, offers phileo.   “Do you love me, Peter?”  “Lord, I really like you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus said.

          Jesus then repeated the question a second time, “Peter, do you love me?  Do you agapao me?”  And Peter repeats his answer, “Lord you know that I love you.  You know I phileo you.  I really like you.”   “Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

          The third time, Jesus asked, “Peter do you love me?”  But this time, Jesus used Peter’s word.  He used phileo.  “Peter, do you phileo me?  Do you really like me?”  And it says that Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “do you really like me?”  “Lord, you know all things.  You know that I really like you.”  “Feed my sheep.”

          When Peter, still stinging from his own failure, was unable to promise the love Jesus asked for, Jesus simply accepted the love that Peter was able to give.  Jesus accepts our love when it’s imperfect.

          The Great Commandment is to love the Lord your God with what?  All your heart and soul and mind and strength.  All of it!  Do you ever love God with less?  Regularly!  And what does He do?  He accepts our love even when it’s imperfect.  He could reject our love as unworthy—which it is.  He could dismiss us as unfit—which we are.  Instead, He accepts our love just as it is: incomplete but genuine.

          Incomplete but genuine: is that a good way to describe your love for God?  It is for mine!  I really love Him.  But my love is far from what it could be or should be.  It’s almost always less than all my heart and soul and mind and strength.  But God in His grace takes what I offer and starts there.  Amazing grace.

ILL: Some of you know that I’m a dog person.  I love dogs…just about all dogs, but my dog in particular.  Our dog’s name is Lucy.  She’s a black lab and border collie mix, and she’s smart and happy and pretty, and she’s very fast!  She runs with us every morning—we jog, while she tears around at full speed.  She’s a great dog.  I love Lucy!

Sometimes my love for Lucy bugs my kids.  “Do we have to take Lucy on vacation, Dad?  She’s so much trouble.”  And they’re right.  In the car, she jumps up on the bench seat and snuggles in beside them, crowding and frustrating them.  And when we stop, she goes crazy wanting to get out of the car.  And of course, then someone has to walk her, and let her do her number, and give her water.  She is a nuisance, but I love Lucy.

Sometimes my love for Lucy bugs Laina.  One day we went on a walk.  We live in the country, and there were no cars on our country road, so I let Lucy off the leash, and let her run.  She loves to run.  Laina loves Lucy too, but Laina is afraid she’ll get hit, so she begged me to put her back on the leash.  But I let her run.  I’m a nuisance sometimes, but Laina loves me!  Do you see a theme developing here?

I love Lucy even though she’s often a nuisance.  Sometimes she barks in the middle of the night and wakes me up because she heard a critter outside.  She is so friendly that sometimes she jumps up on guests when they arrive at our house.  Occasionally she welcomes someone by sniffing their name badge.  She runs through the tulies, and then the ticks drop off in the house.  She’s a nuisance, but I love her.  There are things I would like Lucy to do that she’ll probably never do, but I love her anyway.

And that’s what Jesus did for Peter.  He simply accepted Peter right where he was—with his incomplete love and all his failures.  And that’s what Jesus does for us.  Jesus accepts our love, even when it’s imperfect.  And then He restores us.


4. Jesus’ gracious response: He restores Peter.

          Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”  Once for each denial.  Once for each failure.  And each time Peter answered, even though his answer was less than what Jesus asked, Jesus told him to get back in the saddle.

  • Feed my lambs.
  • Take care of my sheep.
  • Feed my sheep.

Jesus had called Peter to be a leader, and now He was restoring Peter to that position of leadership.  “Do you love Me?  Then feed my sheep.  Do what I called you to do.  Get back in the saddle and get back to work.  We have a world to change, and I still expect you to help Me!”  Jesus restores us when we fail.

ILL: During my freshman year in college, we invited Wendell Wallace to be our speaker for inspiration week.  Wendell was a black pastor of a huge multi-racial congregation in Portland, called Maranatha.  He was a terrific speaker, and was a flaming Pentecostal, and my little Bible college was anti-pentecostal, so Wendell created a huge stir. 

In fact, for one of his meetings, he asked everyone to bring a small electrical appliance from their dorm rooms.  There were hair dryers, and popcorn poppers, and hot plates, and radios, and irons, and lamps…anything that could be plugged in was brought and placed on the stage.  Wendell’s message was from 1 Kings 18, when Elijah had a showdown with the prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven.  He told us that without the power of God, we were as useless as all these electrical appliances without electricity.  “Let the fire fall!” he kept shouting.  And he invited us to come forward to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  All the students were flooding forward and all the faculty were standing in the back with their arms crossed and their faces frowning.  Woohoo!

One of our professors, Dr. Alger Fitch, professor of New Testament, disagreed deeply with Wendell’s theology, but loved him personally.  In fact, these two struck up an unlikely friendship: the white, buttoned-down, anti-charismatic Bible college professor, and the black, let the fire fall, charismatic pastor.  Dr. Fitch would drive to Portland and go to church at Maranatha.  Monday in class he would tell us that he didn’t see any miracles, but oh boy, he loved the worship and he loved Wendell’s preaching, and he would tell us what Wendell said.

Then tragedy struck.  Wendell had an affair with a woman in his church.  He resigned in disgrace, his wife divorced him, and Wendell and his new wife left town.  He moved to California where he got a job packing hod for a masonry company.  This one time nationally famous and sought after preacher just disappeared.  All those Pentecostal churches and leaders that had celebrated him, all those groups that had hosted him and sought him out—they all disappeared too.  No one went after Wendell Wallace.

Except Alger Fitch.  Dr. Fitch, who didn’t even agree with Wendell’s theology, found out where Wendell was living, got in his car and drove to California, found Wendell and told him that he was too valuable to God to be lost and forgotten.  They talked and prayed, and Wendell ended up moving to Eugene, where he took classes from Dr. Fitch, got healed and restored, and after several years, began to pastor again—this time a wiser and more humble man

That’s what Jesus did for Peter, and will do for you.   The question is: do you love me?