“Do You Love Me?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 14, 2017

John 21:1-19


He felt like a complete failure.  Do you know the feeling?  He loved his family more than anything.  He loved playing with toys, making silly faces, reading the same books over and over and over again.  He was usually so patient, but tonight he had had a long, hard week, and he wasn’t feeling well, and when his toddler threw food on the floor and bit him on the leg and wouldn’t stop screaming, he lost his temper and he yelled.  And now the house was finally quiet, and everyone else was asleep, and all he could see in his mind was the look on his baby’s face that had just about broken his heart.

She felt like a complete failure.  Do you know the feeling?  She had been out at dinner on Friday night with her coworkers, and they were having a good time, laughing and blowing off steam from the week.  And then someone made a homophobic joke, and half the table laughed openly, and the other half laughed awkwardly, and she looked at her friend who had just that afternoon been telling her about his new boyfriend and how happy they were together, and she watched his face freeze into an empty-eyed, half-smiling mask that she could tell he had practiced more times than she wanted to think about.  And she wanted to say something, but no words would come out, and so the joke hung there in the air until someone started talking again.  But for the rest of the night, all she could hear was those horrible words and her own silence in the face of them.

He felt like a complete failure.  Do you know the feeling?  Along with many of the disciples of Jesus, after the crucifixion, Simon Peter had returned to his former life in Galilee, putting food on the table by the sweat of his brow, casting nets and hauling them in.  “I am going fishing,” he said to his friends, and they agreed to go along.  Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples clambered into the boat and set out.  They fished all night long, and they caught nothing.  Maybe it was the weather; maybe it was the currents; maybe it was the places where Simon Peter steered the boat that night—but in any case, they drew near to shore again as morning dawned with weary bodies, and hungry bellies, and an empty hold.  And he could feel the reproach in his friends’ eyes, the friends who had looked to him for leadership and found themselves disappointed.

That was not the first time that Simon Peter had failed.  Just a few short days earlier, he had been sitting in the courtyard of the high priest in Jerusalem, warming himself by a charcoal fire.  You remember the story…  Inside the palace, Jesus was being brutally interrogated by the authorities as they tried to fabricate enough evidence to justify condemning him to death.  Outside in the courtyard, three times in rapid succession, people asked Simon Peter whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  And each time, he denied it.  “I am not.”  “I am not.”  “I am not.”  And then the cock crowed.

That was not the first time that Simon Peter had failed, either.  All throughout the gospels, he was an impetuous blunderer who spoke too quickly, acted too rashly, and got it wrong more often than he got it right.  But Jesus had called Simon Peter to follow him for a reason.  And every time Simon Peter failed, Jesus was there to help him find his way back again, and Jesus wasn’t about to stop doing it.  A little thing like death couldn’t stand in the way of that kind of love.

So after that fiasco of a fishing expedition, when Simon Peter and his friends were approaching the shore with a boat full of frustration and failure but empty of fish, Jesus was there on the lakeshore.  “Children, you have no fish, have you?”  “No.”  “Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”

After that fiasco in the high priest’s courtyard on a Jerusalem night, Jesus was there by another charcoal fire on a Galilee morning.  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Three times, once for each denial, Jesus gave Simon Peter the opportunity to profess his love.  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

There was no recrimination, no admonishment, no scolding.  There was no How could you? or Where were you? or Why did you? or Why didn’t you?  There was no finger-wagging, no gotcha, no told-you-so.  There was just tenderness upon tenderness, mercy upon mercy, grace upon grace.  Just grilled bread and roasted fish.  Just Do you love me?  Just Come and have breakfast.  Just Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.

You see, Simon Peter was a failure.  And so am I.  And so are you.  Part and parcel of being human, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, is screwing up, blowing it, making mistakes, botching and bungling and flubbing, choosing unwisely, dropping the ball.  But part and parcel of following Jesus is being given the chance to try again, by the grace of God.

And here’s the thing.  This is not absolution for absolution’s own sake; this is not stand-alone redemption—for Jesus needs you, and so does the world.  As Simon Peter professed his love, Jesus called him again to the work of sharing that love in the world.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Take care of people’s bodies and spirits.  Make sure that they know they are loved, cared about, blessed.  Make sure they have what they need to grow and flourish and thrive.

Just as Jesus had done in earthly life, the Risen Christ linked himself to the welfare of the “least of these,” and he linked the lives of his followers to lifting up all who are downtrodden and making room at the feast for all who are pushed to the margins.  Just as Jesus had done in earthly life, the Risen Christ commissioned them—he co-mission-ed them—he called Simon Peter to his part in living out the love of God on earth.  He freed Simon Peter from the guilt and shame and regret that had held him hostage, and he freed him to be who he was truly called to be:  the rock on which the church was founded.

If you let him, he will do the same for you.

When you realize that you said or did something that caused pain to your child, your sibling, your parent, your friend, listen closely, and you will hear Christ’s voice echoing across the waters to you:  “Do you love me?”

When you move through the world as though discord and violence and scarcity and fear will have the last word, listen closely, and you will hear that fierce and tender voice:  “Do you love me?”

When you get tangled up in the twisted web of racism and sexism and homophobia…

When your body betrays you by stubbornly refusing to do the thing you most want it to do, and you feel like it must somehow be your fault…

When you let the cruel things that someone said about you take root in your soul and grow until you believe that they are true…

When you look at your child, your spouse, your friend, your job, your self, and you no longer recognize what you see…

Whenever regret weighs you down like concrete shoes and holds you back from the life and the work to which you are called, listen closely, and you will hear the voice of the One who knit you together in your mother’s womb, who crafted you in the very image of the Holy, who loves you just as you are and loves you way too much to leave you that way, asking that simple yet all-important question:  “Do you love me?”

And when you say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” then he will take you by the hand and say, “Dear one, beloved child, brave disciple—here is the way.  Follow me.”


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