"Just One Question"

I Peter 5:1-4

John 21:15-25

These Sundays after Easter the gospel lessons continue to remind us of the resurrection. And we probably need the reminders because it’s so easy to forget during the week, isn’t it?

Even in the spring, it’s easy to forget that God is doing a new thing, renewing all creation.

And it’s easy to forget that this new life is still a possibility for each of us.

With the pressure of work, the demands of home life, the despair brought on by each newscast, and everything else that clamors for our attention it’s easy to forget the life-giving power of God.

Listening to the radio while driving over here this morning, I heard yet again people talking about the sense of powerlessness that many feel in the face of climate change—or as they called it, “slow motion planetary destruction.” They also talked about the sense of powerlessness that people feel over the migrant crisis—and how both climate change and human migration will start to interact, only making matters worse.

It’s easy to forget the ways in which God gives us power—the ability to act.

It’s easy to forget that these hectic and uncertain days in which we live are filled with importance and meaning. What we are doing as people of faith and as a community of faith matters. We need reminders of the resurrection power behind our actions.

So in this Easter season we begin our worship by repeating the ancient affirmation: “Christ is risen!” It’s a small reminder.

And we continue to hear stories of resurrection.

This morning we heard the final story from the gospel of John.

The last chapter of John’s gospel is generally regarded as an epilogue, a later addition to a book that originally concluded with chapter 20. The opening verses tell of the followers of Jesus who, after the resurrection, followed Peter’s lead and went fishing. They returned to the life that they knew. Fishing is what they did before this Jesus wandered into their lives a few years earlier.

While out on the boat their eyes are opened and they see that the one who calls to them from the shore is the risen Christ. Coming ashore they are greeted by Jesus, who gives them bread and fish. The Gospel tells us, almost matter-of-factly, “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

The resurrection appearances in John’s gospel might surprise us with their simplicity. The risen Jesus talks with a grieving woman, assures a doubting man, and eats breakfast with some weary followers. Such simple acts were the foundation of Jesus’ ministry. In everyday actions he revealed the love of God to those who encountered him.

We keep telling those stories in our time so that we, too, might catch glimpses of God’s love for us, for others, and, really for all creation. And in this way we might begin to see that in everyday actions—both small and great—we bring God’s love and power into the world today.

Now with breakfast over, with the coals of the fire beginning to cool, Jesus turns to Simon Peter.

Many of you will remember the story of Peter. But I’m always happy when there are some in the congregation who don’t know stories such as this, who are hearing it in all its surprising wonder for the first time.

As John tells the story in the first chapter to this Gospel, Simon is one of the first people to hear of Jesus. It was his brother, Andrew, who came to him and said, “We have found the Christ.” And when Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, Jesus took a look at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You shall be called Peter”—from the Greek word for “rock.”

Peter, of course, was anything but that. He was impetuous and impulsive. And he caved under pressure—although, admittedly, the pressure was great.

Remember—that morning after breakfast on the beach wasn’t the first time Peter stood around a fire.

When we read the story of the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Gospel of John, we learn that in the dark of night, while Jesus was facing his accusers, some people had made a charcoal fire and were standing around warming themselves. Peter was standing there around the fire.

And the questions start to come.

A woman asks him, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?

And Peter says, “I am not.”

A second time others ask him the same question and receive the same denial: “I am not.”

Finally, someone asks, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with Jesus when he was arrested?” And for a third time Peter denies any connection with the One who had called him from his fishing nets, the One who had given him a new name, the One whom he had followed for three years.

And now, some time later, this Jesus whom Peter denied knowing stands with him around the dying coals of that breakfast fire.

And the questions start to come.

Really, just one question.

But it is asked by Jesus, who was so good at asking the right questions to the right person.

Jesus addresses Peter by the name he had before Jesus called him to follow, asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others?” How does your love rate, Peter? On a scale of one to twelve, where does it fall?

What a question for anyone to have to answer! How do you measure up compared to those around you?

Recently I’ve been reading Dag Hammarskjöld’s mystically dense and puzzling Markings. Writing about the kind of comparisons and rankings that we are prone to make, he asks himself: “Why should you be [better than most people]?” And he concludes that there is no “better or worse,” no grounds for such judgments, for we are all the same: “Either you are what you can be, or you are not—like other people.”

Peter is quick with an answer. But it is a guarded answer. Comparing himself to no one, being only what he can be, Peter says: “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus says in response to Peter's affirmation of love. If you love me, show love towards those whom I love. Seek the well-being of those who are following me. Act in ways that will build up the community of the faithful. And reach out beyond that small community recognizing that I have other sheep who are not of this fold.

In the United Church of Christ, we’re comfortable with that. Our faith is more about covenant than creed, more about how we act toward each other and our neighbors than what we say about Jesus. We understand that loving God whom we cannot see is about loving those human beings whom we can see.

With Peter, we have heard the call to show love to those whom God loves.

Question answered. That’s that.

“Simon,” Jesus says.

Just one question: “Do you love me?”

Like a child who keeps asking “Why?” to each explanation that you give, Jesus asks the same question.

Do you love me?

That’s one of those nagging questions that no one really knows how to answer. What do we say? What does it mean to love the source of all love?

One person writes: “I need God… to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” If we need God to help us love, what does that say about our love for God?

The question of God's love for us is settled.

The question of our love for God is more up in the air.

And when Simon Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus gives him a new charge, similar to the first: “Tend my sheep.”

This is the same Jesus who once said, “I am the good shepherd”–as we heard two Sundays ago.

Now that the shepherd is leaving, those everyday, prosaic tasks of feeding and tending—of caring in loving-kindness—are handed on to others.

And when Peter answers for a second time, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus only has one further question.

Simon—do you love me?

Hurt and exasperated, Peter says: “You know everything. You know I love you.”

You see what John is getting at here, don’t you?

Three times Peter denied that he even knew the Jesus who had been arrested and hauled off to be tried.

Three times Peter tells of his love.

Three times all of Peter’s failings are made painfully obvious.

Three times all his doubt and denial are accepted and forgiven.

Three times—in spite of his past—he is given a new calling.

In the risen Christ we see the One who will not let our past—or our present—get in the way of the future that God is making in us and through us. “Following Christ” means that we will move forward after failure, we will not let all that separates us from God and one another keep us from seeking still to love others as we have been loved.

We are not asked to believe statements about Jesus. We are invited to follow. We are called to love. The shepherd puts us to the task of feeding the sheep, tending the lambs, doing those things that bring life to the world and that promote the well-being of creation.

At this point Jesus says what might be the most frightening words in the gospel. “In truth I tell you: when you are old you will stretch out your arms and a stranger will bind you fast and carry you where you have no wish to go.”

Yes, you might have sensed that the words Jesus uses—stretch out your arms, a stranger will bind you fast—are technical words used to describe crucifixion. But that’s not what I think is frightening. What disturbs me is that Jesus tells Peter about his own future.

The hand lettered sign above a fortune teller's booth reads: “I promise I won’t tell you you’re going to die.”

We don’t know the future—and isn’t that a good thing? We’re scared enough of it as it is—without knowing.

The future for each of us is unknown—which is why we are called to follow in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made know to us, in the present—which has been called “the moment of freedom from past and future. In that freedom we can live lives of love although we do not know what even the next hour holds for us.

And suddenly there is yet one more question.

Peter looks around and sees another disciple. He asks: “What about him?”

So many people are all wrapped up in what somebody else is doing. We’re all encouraged to calculate how we stack up against someone else.

We look at neighbors, church members: what are they doing?

We look at others and wonder why our lives aren't like theirs.

What about him? Peter asks.

And Jesus replies: “What's it to you?” This is your life. Follow me.

Jesus keeps saying “Follow me” not only because there are always people who haven’t heard, but also because every time we turn our heads, we forget. Like easily distracted children, our attention rapidly wanders.

Each of us needs to be reminded: the Christian life is about what you do with your life, not about what someone else is doing with theirs.

The distractions are many. And so the risen Christ keeps asking the question. We keep hearing the resurrection question: do you love me? Do you love me?

And we keep hearing the call: follow me.

With a life that shows my love to others, Jesus says, “Follow me.”