Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached on April 18, 2013, in Goodson Chapel for closing convocation at Duke Divinity School.
In this time -- a time called modern, a time when those that bear the name Christian always seem to carry the burden of proof …
In this time when the church seems consumed by scandal and self-doubt …
In this time when those going into the ministry are unsure what that may entail or, indeed, whether they will even have a job after graduating from seminary …
In such a time, it is difficult to avoid a defensive posture when asked why we persist in being Christian.
God knows we try. Let us show you, we seem to say to anyone polite enough to listen, why we think believing in God makes all the difference. Let us show you why participating in worship may be refreshment for the soul. Let us show you why the Christian way of life is good for Christian and non-Christian alike. Let us show you how being a Christian can and should put you on the progressive side of history. Let us show you that our faith does justice, making possible a politics otherwise unavailable. I have no doubt we believe such “showings” to be true, but too often such “showings” are desperate attempts to assure ourselves we know what we are about by calling ourselves Christians.
But then the Lord asks, “Do you love me?” It seems an odd question for Jesus to ask. We can’t help but wonder if some redactor got it wrong. Or perhaps some failure in communication may have taken place; someone must have misheard Jesus’ conversation with Peter. It was probably the person who counted the fish. We are not even sure we can trust John to have gotten it right. The disciples have been with the resurrected Jesus, but they go on fishing? They go back to the ordinary life they had prior to following Jesus? It seems unimaginable.
Moreover, Jesus is not supposed to ask Peter -- or us -- to love him. His job is to love us. In spite of our failures to be faithful disciples, in spite of our confusions about what it means to be Christian, in spite of our prideful presumption that we are our own creator, in spite of our sins, Jesus is supposed to love us.
Is that not the heart of the gospel? -- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” This passage from John seems to have gotten off script; we are to be assured of Jesus’ love for us, and not the other way around.
God’s love of us, moreover, is crucial for what we take to be our fundamental task as Christians. That is, because Jesus first loves us, we must and can love one another. Our love for one another is crucial for our “showings” to the world. Thus, the world, the unbelieving world, often gives us credit as Christians because we at least seem to love and care for one another. Some say, “Look at those Christians. See how they love one another. They may believe some crazy things, but they usually make pretty good neighbors.”
It is even the case that because we have been loved by Jesus, the love Christians show in response is not restricted to other Christians. Again, the unbelieving world notes that God’s love of us makes possible our love of the world. Those Christians love the outcast, the unlovable, the destitute, those ravaged by illness and pain. They even love their enemies. Such a love is surely only possible because they think they have first been loved by God. That is the way it is supposed to work. God loves us, and we love everyone in return.
But in this Gospel passage, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Three times he asks Peter if he loves him. He even asks Peter if he loves him more than his other disciples love Jesus. We are tempted to think Jesus’ question is meant specifically for Peter. Peter and Jesus have had a tangled relationship. Jesus is testing Peter to see if in fact he is a rock on which the church can be built. So there is probably good reason Jesus asks Peter this question three times -- one for each time Peter had denied him. Jesus is giving Peter a chance to “take it back,” so to speak. But surely he wouldn’t ask it of us.
I have no doubt that Peter has a particular role in God’s providential care of creation through the church, but I do not think that means we can restrict Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” as one relevant only to Peter. It is surely right that all that Jesus is and does manifests God’s love for us, but it is no less true that Jesus asks us, as he asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
If you are like me, you would prefer to read the passage as one limited to that particular context in order to excuse yourself from having to answer. How on earth can I answer that question without immediately feeling trite? I suspect I am more ready to believe in Jesus than I am to love him. I am, after all, a theologian.
I fear the education you have received may reproduce a similar effect. Seminaries, at least this seminary, are schools rightly committed to teaching you what the church believes. Those of you who are about to graduate have hopefully been well-formed theologically. You have been prepared to read the Bible as the very word of God. You are prepared to believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah. You are prepared to believe that Jesus is God incarnate, very God and very man. You have been prepared to say “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” while affirming that God is one. You have been prepared to know that not all liturgical orders are created equally.
By the very fact you have endured your education, your formation for the ministry, you have witnessed your willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of Jesus. Upon graduating, most of you will go into some form of ministry. The ministry is no longer a profession of status. You are willing to sacrifice status. You also are not going to make much money. Moreover, you are going to be subject to the omnivorous desires of people who think you have all the time in the world to meet their needs because you do not work for a living. In short, you are already -- or will soon be -- doing everything required by anyone who believes God loves them.
But today Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” I suspect most of us are not prepared to answer that question, because we fear, if we answer honestly, what we may have to say. We are not at all sure we love Jesus. We are not at all sure we even know what such a love entails. What could it possibly mean that Jesus asks us to love him? To ask to be loved suggests a vulnerability that we are not sure Jesus should have. That Jesus might want our love suggests he might even be like us, that is, a human being. We think if Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love for us, he must not need our love. What he needs is our belief that he is who he says he is.
“Do you love me?”
The question cannot be avoided. The question certainly cannot be avoided by those in the ministry. For, as I think you will discover, the ministry is a playground of manipulative games derived from distrust and envy that too often produces lives of destructive self-hate. If you do not love Jesus, you will find it almost impossible to survive your calling. That God first loved us is true, but that love is designed to make us -- and I use this description recognizing its danger -- fall in love with Jesus. The Father desires that those whom the Son calls to be his disciples be made, through the work of the Holy Spirit, unembarrassed lovers of Jesus.
To fall in love with Jesus is frightening. You have, I suspect, fallen in and out of love a number of times. Falling in love has the frightening effect of one’s losing control of oneself, with the result that you end up making one disastrous decision after another. So along the way, we develop self-protective strategies to avoid the costs if we are again tempted to fall in love.
Yet Jesus asks you, Jesus tempts you, Jesus means to seduce you to fall in love with him -- not for his sake, but for your sake and the sake of his sheep. There are interesting resonances between this passage from John’s Gospel and the passage from Acts. In both passages, we learn that to love the Lord requires dispossession, losing control.
The Lord asks Peter, “Do you love me?” The Lord asks Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” Both questions have a disorienting effect, and both encounters are calls to ministry. What might these passages teach us about the ministry to which we have been called? What does our love look like to the Lord?
It is crucial to note that Jesus does not ask Peter to tend and feed Peter’s sheep. The people Peter is to feed and tend, the people you are to serve, are not yours. They belong to Jesus. This is why the Lord says to Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” and not, “Why are you persecuting them?” His love binds us to him, and our love of him therefore binds us to one another.
Thus, to serve the Lord means to lose oneself -- a disorienting, frightening and even embarrassing prospect. It will mean losing control of our lives -- which may sometimes feel like you are losing control of your ministry. And so, from time to time, you will need someone like Ananias, another one of God’s servants, to remind you that you are not your own; you are an instrument whom God has chosen to serve and feed his sheep.
But what does such love look like? It will mean finding joy in the work you’ve been given. Though it is often tiresome, your work is characterized by joy because we cannot imagine anything better than serving the One we love. For to love Jesus is to be so overwhelmed by his life that we no longer think we must choose between love of ourselves, love of others and love of God. The beauty of ministry is the holiness that comes from laboring in love. It is hard work, to be sure, but it is the work of salvation.
But be careful. Please note I am not recommending that you “try” to love Jesus. “Trying” can be an indication of our continuing attempt to love Jesus on our own terms, and it is often a response to misconceptions about the kinds of feelings we must have if we are “really” in love.
Reduced to feeling, love becomes a narcissistic fantasy, and ministry becomes tyranny. I began by observing we are often tempted to prove the validity of our faith by showing the world how good and beneficial we are to society. There is no doubt our Christian witness to the world is important. But when that witness is burdened by “proof,” it is no longer a witness to love.
The work of love is not about proof; it is about Jesus. The Scripture for today assures us that our work is to love and serve the Lord by serving his sheep. That’s it. It is his work, through the Holy Spirit, to draw people unto himself. Like the disciples in the passage from John, our job is to listen and cast our net when and how he instructs. But only the Lord can provide the fish. Like Ananias in the passage from Acts, we must obey despite our fears, for it is the Lord’s work to change our hearts, just as he changed the heart of Paul.
So when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he is not suggesting that Peter should try harder. Rather, his question is meant to help Peter discover the love that has already possessed his life. The Lord knew both Peter and Paul would die a martyr’s death. He knew their love of him would lead to their dying as he had died, so that he might be glorified. He knew that such a death is possible only when one has been possessed by divine love. And he knew divine love has conquered death.
But what does such love look like for you as you leave this place? Such love is that which will possess you Sunday after Sunday as you lead God’s people in adoration of the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
To love Jesus means week after week you look forward to engaging the Scripture in preparation to preach God’s word for God’s people. To love Jesus means people will see, even when you have celebrated the Eucharist a thousand times, that you are overwhelmed by what God is doing through you at the altar. For in this meal, this great meal of love and thanksgiving, we discover what it means to be in love with Jesus.
That is finally what the time you have spent in seminary is about -- that is, to help you love Jesus. If we are ardent lovers of Jesus, I think we will find we need no longer take a defensive posture toward the world. The world, distrustful that anyone can be trusted to be loved, is dying to know who might be worthy of its love.
“Do you love me?”
Hopefully, we can say with Peter, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” With our belts fastened, let us follow him wherever he leads. And may your love of Jesus be manifest in the tending of his sheep.