"_______, do you love me?"

April 30, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon John 21:1-19

In the day-by-day life of the church, this gathering of believers in the risen Christ, Easter has come and gone. Like all high moments throughout a year, we have celebrated and moved on. In the days to come, several of our "young" adults will climb the steps and receive a diploma, the culmination of several years of work. Of course, the next day commences another chapter in their lives - down on ground floor.

Likewise, many couples we know will soon stand before a minister, make commitments, and hear, "I now pronounce you husband and wife..." When the celebrations fade, though, the long, hard work of crafting a relationship begins. In a similar vein, several of us will complete projects, close business deals, start new jobs ... the list of high moments is endless. May there be many of them! Of course, the day after is just another day. Life goes on.

That's the situation behind this morning's gospel lesson, a circumstance we all face. The glory of Easter has come and gone. Now we live in "the day after." Sometimes the echo of this great joy has hardly had a chance to finish reverberating before something seeks to snatch it away. Witness the events in Oklahoma City the week after Easter. Isn't it strange that three days after we celebrated Christ rising "on the third day," this senseless act of violence took place.

Easter has come and gone. We might want to remember that the first Easter Sunday was not as festive and joyful as we make it today. Oh, it was a wonderful happening, to be sure, but the disciples didn't exactly know what to make of it then. Recall that after they heard the good news, they locked themselves indoors in fear. You better believe that if there'd been television back then, they would've been as glued to the tube as many of us were on Wednesday, May 19th, trying to make sense out of it all. In the midst of their fear, though, Jesus entered with a word of "Peace" and a Spirit breath of God's fresh air. In many ways, that moment was their "Easter." May those who have experienced the darkness of that Oklahoma Wednesday experience such an "Easter."

But Easter Sunday comes and then is gone. The gospel story for this morning is for "the day after," the job search after graduation, when the honeymoon is over, the time when life's "nitty-gritty-ness" sets in. This is the ground we travel most of our days, isn't it? Jesus walks this territory with us, also. He did with those first disciples. They were back at work catching fish, you might recall. The routine had returned. Life goes on. One of life's lessons is that some days there's a good catch, and other days there's not. Unhappy are those unable to balance themselves between the two.

Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the others were at the end of one of those "bad fish" days, or should we say nights. In the early morning light, Jesus entered. Oh, these guys weren't locked in a room out of fear any more, but they still needed the presence of Jesus. And there he was, only they didn't recognize him. Isn't that how it often is with us. Jesus is present in our day-by-day affairs - we just can't quite see him.

On the beach, this stranger in the eyes of the disciples instructs them to try again, to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Instead of questioning the wisdom of this back-seat fisherman on the beach, they do as he says. Wonder of wonders, he knew what he was talking about. The net is so heavy with fish they struggle to haul it in. One eye is opened. The beloved disciple, who is never named in John's gospel, recognizes Jesus. "It is the Lord!" Peter rubs his eyes and responds impulsively, jumping in and swimming to shore. It is a rather humorous scene. The fellows in the boat don't bother to finish pulling in the net, they just start rowing. Who cares about the fish flapping away in the early morning sun?

Jesus waits on the shore, cooking. "Come and have breakfast," he invites. In a strange sort of way this beach becomes an upper room. In the same peculiar sort of way our day-to-day lives become upper rooms, where Jesus feeds us and washes our feet. Easter is not reserved for some special, high and holy day. It's really intended for every day, even "bad fish" or "bad hair" days. Remember that.

Now we come to that part of the story which we each need to hear personally. Jesus turned to Peter, after they'd finished the meal, and asked him a very simple question - not once, but three times. No doubt, there's alot going on here. After all, leading up to the crucifixion, Peter had denied he even knew Jesus - not once, but three times. That was Peter's worst hour, when the dark part of his personality gained the upper hand. We all have such dark sides, you know. We're all recovering sinners. We're all, every day of our lives, in need of God's amazing grace. Just like Peter.

However, when Jesus repeatedly asked Peter his simple question, I don't think he was trying to nail our brother in the faith with overwhelming guilt. "Remember the cock crowing, Peter?" ... "Recall all your faults, my bumbling disciple?" No, I don't believe that was Jesus' intent with Peter, nor is it his purpose today with us. We're the ones who have a hard time with forgiveness, especially forgiving ourselves, and putting the past behind us.

I believe Jesus' question to Peter, and to us, is intended to restore our focus, our sense of direction for this day-by-day time, the after graduation, after honeymoon, after project, after big deal, after new beginning, after Easter time. The question is very simple, as elementary and unpretentious as what a child might ask. Those are the hardest questions to answer, you know. "Why does that man have only one arm?" "How does the baby get inside Mommy's tummy?" "Who was the first person ever?" "Will you die someday?" "What happens when you die?" Simple questions, about which adults still wonder, but have been socialized not to ask so directly or indiscreetly.

With child-like simplicity, Jesus asks the question which we all need to answer. I encourage you this day to insert your own name instead of Peter's. The question is not intended to provoke shame over what you haven't done or been. It's repetition is not meant to frustrate, just like a child's continual "why?" - which operates in the realm of getting a parent's full attention. Jesus wants your attention, fully. "_____, do you love me?," our Lord asks.

That's about as primary a question as one can ask. It's fitting that John should bring his gospel to a close with such a question. The good news is God's answer to our simple question, "Do you love me?" In 20 chapters John has sought to reveal the answer expressed in Jesus Christ. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will have eternal life." The last chapter of the gospel belongs to us. In response to this awesome love of God, Jesus asks: "Do you love me?" The chapters of our lives reveal the answer. Our "day-afters" become our gospel.

The word "evangelism" (evangel - good news) may frighten us because we see it as something outside of our experience. We entrust it to persons who know all about it, who are experienced in it. However, we each have a gospel story. The chapters of our good news, our response to that simple question, "Do you love me?," are being written every day. "Evangelism" is merely opening up the book of our life such that another person can see and be attracted to the same good news that powers our days. We don't have to be an expert at it, just real.

Now, next week has been designated as "Invite a friend to our house" Sunday. I encourage you to do just that. Don't make it any more complex than it is. I'm sure you know persons who don't have a church home. All you need do is invite them to come as your guest. Be real with them. You don't have to have all sorts of lofty answers to questions they may not be asking. All you have to do is open some of your own book. "Why do you come to church?" "What is so meaningful about your relationship with God?" "Do you love me, or are you just trying to fill your church with warm bodies?"

Ah, that last one gets to the heart of it, doesn't it? When Jesus asked Peter his simple question, he followed it up each time with a statement about sheep. "Feed, take care of my lambs." You know he wasn't talking animal husbandry here, don't you? No doubt he was turning Peter toward his upcoming task as a church leader. The command is not just for Peter, though. It's our vocation as well. These so-called lambs are persons God loves so much that Jesus calls them "mine."

"Evangelism", "Inviting a friend to church," is not about increasing numbers, but about loving persons whom God loves - loving them enough that we dare to share the present chapter in our own gospel story. "This is my story," we sing. "Do you love ... to tell it?"

1995Peter L. Haynes

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