Do You Love Me?
April 14, 2013—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
When I was in my mid-thirties I hit a wall of substantial burn-out. I’ve talked about that time in my life with you and I talk about it with young pastors who are learning the benefits of self-care. The church I was serving at the time was full of wonderful, caring people who seem to be responding to the work we were doing. The church was growing in number and growing in its missional outreach. But I was exhausted and overextended. I was preaching, teaching a Sunday School class, leading youth programs in the evening and a Sunday night worship service after that. I directed a capital campaign for the church that lasted several long months. And there were the usual weddings and funerals that come with this work. One day I went home and collapsed and said, “I quit. I can’t do this anymore.” I call this “the time I left the ministry but didn’t tell anyone about it.”
Several things happened during those days. I could not bear to be in my office for some reason—it seemed oppressive. I would go to work in the morning and take things out of my office and work on them on a pew in the sanctuary or I would go outside and sit under a tree. I scheduled lunch meetings with church members so I could leave the office. I visited home bound members in the afternoon. I visited one older friend so many times one week that she asked if she was dying, if there was bad news her children and I were keeping from her. I told her I was burned out and tired and visiting her made me happy. She patted my hand and said, “You come to see my anytime you need to be cheered up and I’ll do my best.”
The trustees had their monthly meeting and one of the members observed that the parsonage trim needed painting. We had depleted most of our maintenance funds so I volunteered, “I was a house painter during seminary days and I’ll paint the parsonage if you will get the paint donated.” I knew that I could call this church work and it would get me out of the office for awhile in the afternoons.
Painting is quiet work. No one comes around to bother you for fear of being asked to help. Up on the ladder I was scraping, caulking and thinking, praying and asking myself if I could go on living into this call to ministry. I pondered other careers, like teaching school or raising organic zucchini and selling it at a road side stand. I was gifted at growing zucchini but I couldn’t give it away so that seemed like a flawed idea. Lots of things went through my head but I knew that something had to change.
I was running away from the call of God on my life. One day up on that ladder, praying, I heard an Inner Voice in my mind, and the Inner Voice asked, “Do you still love me?”
I responded, “Yes, Lord, I still love you.”
The Voice said, “I’ll help you find your way back.” And I have learned to trust that Inner Voice. I’m still here today because of that trust.
Life takes a toll on us and we gravitate toward the comfort of the familiar, especially those places where we see immediate gratification, like visiting homebound folks, painting or fishing.
Life has taken a toll on the disciples and they find themselves back in the boat in the familiar waters of the Galilee. And as usual in the Gospels they are not catching fish; they never catch fish without Jesus’ help. The disciples have experienced the tension of Holy Week—the emotional high of their entry into Jerusalem, the extraordinary Passover, Jesus’ intense time of prayer in the garden, betrayal, arrest, a mock trial, a mob shouting for crucifixion, the gruesome death, and the stories of resurrection and the appearance of Jesus behind locked doors. No wonder Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” No wonder the others followed him.
But Jesus appears on the bank of the Galilee and he calls out to them with familiar fishing advice. One of the disciples recognizes Jesus and the impulsive Peter got so excited he jumped into the sea and went ashore toward Jesus. They all shared a meal together over a campfire.
Then Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Do you love me more than these?” Maybe he meant, “Do you still love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times, the same number of times Peter denied knowing Jesus before the crucifixion. It is interesting that the author uses the Greek verb agapao (agape) in the first two questions and in the last one he uses phileo. It’s likely that he uses them interchangeably but together they describe the full relationship between Jesus and Peter. “Do you love me, Peter? Do you love the kingdom, the great purpose of the One who sent me? Do you love me, Peter? Do you love one who named you Peter and called you friend, the one who lifted you out of troubled waters and embarrassing situations? Do you still love me even though you denied knowing me and have returned to fishing?”
Peter responds almost in anger and indignity that Jesus would feel a need to ask this question, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The question comes to us as one of the most compelling questions of the Bible. Have we not all heard this question during those moments of quiet and honest prayer?
We have such frivolous and shallow notions of love in our culture that we might miss how compelling this question of Jesus really is. We use the notion of love to sell things like perfume and Subarus. It’s the love of Madison Avenue advertising and it pales in the presence of Jesus’ question about love that is heart rending and transformational.
Jesus is asking Peter if he is willing to love him in a way that sacrifices something, lays down a life, gives up security and selfish motives and selfish concerns for the sake of another. Peter is being called to love sacrificially, and after professing his love adamantly, Jesus reminds him that real sacrifice is down the road, in the form of loss of freedom and possible persecution. “Will you love me then, Peter?” Jesus asks us, “Will you love me when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to do so?”
When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he is asking him to move beyond himself, beyond his guilt and shame. As Jesus asks that same question of us, he is asking us to move beyond ourselves and into the world. We forget that discipleship is not about us and we get stuck in our self-concerns or we cannot move beyond places of regret or guilt.
Garrison Keilor writes about Larry, a resident of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. Larry got saved 12 times at the Lutheran Church, an all-time record for a church that never gave altar calls. There wasn’t even an organ playing, “Just As I Am” in the background. Regardless of that, between 1953 and 1961 Larry Sorenson came forward 12 times, weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, once to the shock of the pastor who had just delivered a very dry stewardship sermon.
But now the pastor needed to put his arm around this Larry, pray with him and be sure he had a way to get home safely. Keilor writes, “Even the fundamentalists got tired of Larry. God didn’t mean for you to feel guilty all your life. There comes a time when you should dry your tears, join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof. But Larry just kept repenting and repenting.” (Leaving Home, p. 182)
“Peter, you will never really love me until you let go of your guilt and the weight that holds you back. Then you can take up the shepherd’s staff and feed the lost and hungry lambs of this world.” ‘Feed my sheep, Peter”
Peter would remember when they were up on that hillside, teaching and healing until it grew late in the day. Thousands of people were there—there were people as far as your eyes could see. And Jesus turned to the disciples and asked the unthinkable. He asked them to feed the people for they were hungry. Jesus’ heart was full of love and concern for they were to him like sheep without a shepherd. “You give them something to eat,” he said. He didn’t say, “Give them something to eat if their children are making passing grades in school.” Jesus would never say something ridiculous like that.
Today, Jesus meets us here again and he asks, “Do you love me?” And we answer that question in two ways: with words of affirmation and witness in here and with actions of compassion and justice out there.
It is good to come here to hear again the compelling love of God call on our lives. We hear it and we are moved in our hearts and we are moved out to feed the hungry and shepherdless lambs of this world.
Jesus meets us here today and asks, “Do you love me?”
We respond, “Yes, Lord, you know that we love you. Yes, Lord, we will feed your sheep.”