Reverend Mel Baars
Main Post Chapel, Ft. Sam Houston
“Do you love me?”
When I was little, I wasn’t a very good listener. I was always in such a hurry to answer that I hardly ever waited to hear the whole question. This especially drove my father crazy. Maybe some of you understand his frustration. We would get into these round and round cycles of question and answer repetition. He would ask me something a first time, but I would be so eager or so distracted, that I would answer before he even finished. “Mary Ellison,” he would say sternly, “Listen to what I am saying.” So, he would ask again, and, at least most of the time, I would still fail to really hear, even if I was trying a little harder. “Mary Ellison,” he would say exasperated, “Pay attention.” It was normally that third go round when his words actually sunk in, when I comprehended what I was answering.
Most of us are guilty, on occasion, of speaking too soon, of jumping to the answer before we have understood the question fully. Today’s gospel exchange between Peter and Jesus is just this. Jesus asks a question which, in the end, will require Peter to give up everything, even his life, but Peter is in a hurry. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these...” So eager, so ready to answer, Peter doesn’t take time to consider the question. What is Jesus really asking? Do you love me more than these? What does this really mean? More than what? Is Jesus talking about Peter’s friends or his family? Is he talking about Peter’s safety or comfort? Is he talking about his life? “Do you love me more than these.” To what is Peter answering “Yes?” I’m not sure he knows himself, but he wants to say yes so baldy-- Yes, without understanding what yes really means.
I don’t think any of us can blame Peter for his eagerness, perhaps even for trying to assuage the guilt that has been weighing upon him since Jesus’ death. Because, just days before this scene, Jesus predicted that Peter, his rock, would deny him three times. Do you remember their conversation during the Last Supper? Peter asks Jesus where he is about to go. Jesus says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ But, Peter pushes back asking, ‘Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ And, Jesus answers, ‘Will you? Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Words can be cheap, especially when we don’t understand the fullness of their meaning. Of course, Jesus is right about Peter’s lapse of faith. Because of fear and confusion and doubt, Peter denies him, not once but three times. The shame of this failure must be fresh in Peter’s memory.
So back on the beach, Jesus asks the question for a second time. “Simon son of John, (listen to what I am saying to you) do you love me?” But, Peter is still eager. Driven by his need to say, “Yes,” he responds quickly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” We can almost hear Peter’s annoyance growing. He already said “Yes” once. Why ask the question again? But Jesus knows Peter all too well, just as he knows us. He knows human weakness. He knows that our words easily slip off the tongue. He also knows that once the emotion has subsided, words can quickly be forgotten. In this moment when Peter says, “Yes, I love you,” he means it, or he thinks he means it. But, what about tomorrow and the next day and the day after that? What about when fear and doubt creep back into the equation? What about when his love is put to the test, when Peter is forced to face the crucibles of his life, or even, his death? Will he remember this moment on the beach when he said “Yes” and meant it? Will this memory be enough to keep him faithful?
This exchange couldn’t be forgotten, and this is what Jesus was counting on. Peter answered first with eagerness, then with a hint of annoyance, and finally a little hurt. As he answered, Jesus’ words sunk in. Do you love me... well then.. “Feed my lambs...” If you mean what you say.... “tend my sheep...” If you love me... “feed my sheep...” This is what love looks like. There is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that, as a preacher especially, I always hold in the back of my mind, “Preach the gospel every day, but only if necessary use words.” If you really love me, Jesus says, don’t just talk about it. Live like it. Live your life as if loving me makes all the difference. Love is how you catch people. It’s how you spread the good news.
Jesus sees the future, what Peter can’t yet know or understand. He is like a wise father who looks at his young, innocent son, on one hand wanting to preserve his blissful ignorance but on the other hand wanting to prepare him for the storm that is coming. This is such a tender moment. Jesus knows what is next for Peter, the suffering that will transpire and eventually Peter’s death, and all because he has answered, “Yes” to this question. Some suggest that Jesus repeats his question three times to undo, one for one, Peter’s three denials. But, I wonder if he doesn’t ask his question, repeatedly because he wants Peter to comprehend, even if it is through a glass lit dimly, what he has gotten himself into.
We know what is coming next for Peter? “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’” Jesus foretells Peter’s crucifixion. He will not escape unscathed.
In a way though, none of us will escape this life unscathed. As much as this passage is about Peter, an unlikely “rock” who has good days and bad ones too, who is eager to be faithful and yet who struggles with following when fear and doubt cloud his vision, this passage is also about us. It is about the life of every disciple who says Yes to following Jesus, Yes to the perils of loving God and neighbor. Because there are good days and there are bad ones, too. There are times when we tend and feed sheep, when we provide food for a neighbor and her family who are all mourning the loss of a child, when we show up to the hospital to pray with a scared new mother whose baby is sick, when we knit a prayer shawl for a friend whose cancer has come back. This is tending and feeding. And, like Peter, we have other days, too, days that we are not proud of, when our fears and pains and disappointments prevent us from living out our love for Jesus. But no matter what, Jesus comes to us again and again, shepherding us along the way so that we will be ready for whatever may come next.
Jesus offers Peter a secret that morning on the beach. By tending and feeding sheep, by witnessing good news, reaching out to those who need us, by living our lives remembering that we are subject to one another, love can be sustained, even in the darkness. The acts of tending and nurturing each other give us the strength we will need to face our own crucibles, to be prepared for the day when we will reach out our own hands, allowing someone else to fasten our belt and lead us to a place which we may not be ready to go.
Jesus appears to Peter and to us, reminding each of us that all is never lost, no matter how far we have strayed, even if we have lost our way. We have been forgiven and called into ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths not yet trodden, and through perils unknown. But we leave this place with good courage, prepared to tend and feed, no matter where we may go, trusting that God’s hand is leading us all the way.
“Do you love me...” he asks us this question, too. Amen