Happy Valentine’s weekend. For some of us, this is a weekend to be endured, gotten through, toughed out. If Romantic Love isn’t a big part of our lives, this weekend just reminds us of what the rest of the world seems to have and we do not. We all should feel some degree of that discontent – because the world of romance and flowers to celebrate love is somewhat missing the point. The stories about St. Valentine had less to do with romantic love than with kindness, compassion, and sincere care for people – a very different kind of love. When we talk about love in church we are talking about much more than hearts and flowers.
1. Love comes as a gift from God. God’s love for us has its origin in the nature of God. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. It comes as a gift.
Both of our stories today start with gifts from God. In Joshua, this is the last part of the exodus story: God saw the suffering under slavery; God sent Moses to be the deliverer; God brought them out of Egypt through the Red or Reed Sea; God fed them in the wilderness and made them one people; and now Joshua is leading them into the land of promise. The parting of the Jordan River for them to cross over is the other bookend, editorially, of the parting of the Reed Sea – a symbol of the end of their journey. And it is all gift. The stones are set up to remind them – it is all gift from the mighty hand of God. GIFT.
In John’s gospel, some of the disciples, still unsure what is going to happen next after the resurrection of Jesus, go fishing because – what do you do in uncertain times? You go back to what you know. So – fishing. They’ve been fishing all night and caught NOTHING. That’s odd enough that we should go “Hmmm…” But they see a man on the shore who says to try the other side of the boat and ….WOW. A full net. Also odd enough that we should go “Hmmm…” They pull on to the shore, and Jesus is there with breakfast. After a long night of nothing – there’s breakfast ready. The story is supposed to nudge us into thinking, “What a gift.” Blessings come from the hand of a generous Lord. GIFT.
We come this morning to a place that we have been gifted. These stones should remind us, as those stones at Gilgal, of the goodness of God. They didn’t just appear here. A previous generation dreamed of this church before the church in their time caught fire. It was built in a year – something of a miracle at any age. This year we will celebrate the 150thAnniversary of the Methodist congregation in Oak Park who founded that first church and then this one. Our children may ask us, “What does that mean? What does this building – these stones—mean?” And our answer should be: God led us here and these stones are a reminder of God’s goodness to us. GIFT.
We’ve done nothing to deserve this place. Much has been provided to us simply as gift. God’s love shows up that way – as a gift.
2. God loves us so much that forgiveness is offered freely. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t accountability – just that the relationship is close enough that it isn’t broken when we mess up. Luckily – because we human beings ALL mess up, and rather regularly.
After breakfast was done, Jesus turned to Peter and asked him, “Do you love me more than these others?” That question is a bit odd, don’t you think? It almost seems to invite a competition on who loves Jesus more? But actually…. At the last supper, that was what Peter said. That even if everyone else fell away, or ran away, that HE would not. This would go in the category of “Famous Last Words…” since Peter did deny knowing Jesus three times in Pilate’s courtyard. EXCEPT that they aren’t Peter’s last words…the story isn’t over.
After breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” and Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him – and Peter answers three times. Enough to make us curious – it seems that Jesus is reversing, undoing Peter’s three denials and giving him instruction on what he is to do. Through this, Peter knows that he is forgiven. Jesus has not given up on him – Jesus wants Peter to be a part of what is to happen. There is more to the story than Peter’s denials. And the rest of the disciples, who ran away, who never entered Pilate’s courtyard after the arrest…there is more for them too.
At the place where this story has taken place, there is a church of course. All of the sites associated with the ministry of Jesus are memorialized with a church. We went inside the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy. We saw the large rock slab that is thought to be the place where Jesus cooked the disciples’ breakfast of fish. It’s a likely spot – a big, relatively flat rock slab. A good place for a fire – drier and more stable than the area along the shore. But we spent more time outside, contemplating the story. “What does loving Jesus mean for me?” Peter is forgiven for his moments of weakness. That’s clear – and that’s good news. Jesus’ love offers forgiveness and the chance to make amends. The chance to change direction – repent, turn around. Peter knows more now – he knows the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death. That gives him courage to DO now what he failed to do before.
There’s a story in the Acts of Peter, an apocryphal book that was not included in the Bible, of Peter fleeing from Rome and crucifixion at the hands of the Roman. Outside the city, he meets the risen Lord. In the Latin translation, Peter asks Jesus, “Quo vadis?” and Jesus replies, "Rōmam eō iterum crucifīgī." (I am going to Rome to be crucified again.) Peter then decides to return to Rome and his ministry there, and ends up being crucified upside down. That story reiterates that the risen Christ gives courage and strength for this journey – not matter where it leads. Peter, bold and brave and occasionally reckless, needs the guidance of the risen Jesus to follow. Again.
Those words, Quo Vadis, occur as a question at least seven times in Jerome’s Vulgate, which was the Latin translation of the Bible written beginning in 382 CE (or AD). The church, which was making up the way as they went along, had a strong yearning to know which way the risen Christ was headed so that they could move in that path as well. Forgiveness, second chances, and new direction were a part of the journey. Lucky for Peter and the disciples – and lucky for us.
3. Love for Jesus is measured by love for others. If you love me – feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep. It isn’t a person relationship. It’s a commitment. It’s a responsibility.
Peter can’t just keep saying, “I love you. I really love you. I love you more than life itself…” like a bad Valentine’s Day card. Love for Jesus means continuing the ministry that he began…feeding the hungry, healing the sick, setting free bondage, speaking truth to power, working for justice for the vulnerable, and taking care of people who seem to be ignored by the systems of power.
We see what Jesus means again in the 25th chapter of Matthew, where at the Last Judgement people are divided into sheep and goats. The sheep are those who have shown love for others. The goats didn’t see, or didn’t feel responsible for the need that was around. Because for Jesus, there is no reconciliation without accountability. Jesus wants to reconcile with Peter – but Peter needs to understand what that love means. It means FOLLOWING Jesus – it means SERVING others.
The paths are different. Peter hears that his path will end in execution by the Romans. The Beloved Disciple’s path will lead a different direction. But each disciple has to follow their own path. And for each person who chooses to follow Jesus, loving and serving others is the way of the journey. How that looks, and where it leads is different – but the direction is the same.
The way is hard. Loving others demands a lot of us. And we fail – we fall, as Peter did sometimes. But we, accustomed to a lot fewer struggles than the first century, need to remember what “HARD” really means. Some of you have heard this story…my first appointment was two years and was hard. Most of the members of the two churches I served hadn’t ever heard of a female pastor, much less met one. The church needed to change enough for new people to begin to come – but they were resistant to change – and I knew, but they didn’t, that the Cabinet was going to let them die if they didn’t begin to welcome the new people moving in the area. There’s more… but it was hard. And one day when I was praying fairly loudly in the sanctuary, pouring out my anguish and frustration, I just fell on my knees at the altar after crying out, “God. Please help me see the way ahead. How can I do this – it’s so hard?” And it was one of the few times that I heard an audible answer from God. “How would you like to go for 40 years in the wilderness?” God had put my trials in perspective. It was still hard – but not 40 years in the wilderness hard.
In the making of “Harriet,” the story of Harriet Tubman, actress Cynthia Erivo had an exhausting time. Filmed in rainy rural Virginia, “Erivo was required to leap off bridges, swim rivers, wade through bogs, gallop through forests, climb cliffs and much more – all in cumbersome 19th century costume,” and add the sweep of emotions she portrays to that active list. They had a saying on set – if anything got difficult they would compare it to HTH – Harriet Tubman hard. “So if it wasn’t Harriet Tubman hard, it was fine,” and they would get through it. And it was hard – but not Harriet Tubman hard.[i]
The journey WILL be hard in spots. Loving Jesus means loving others and that isn’t an easy business. Right now, take a moment and put yourself in Peter’s place. Jesus, who has given you many gifts, including forgiveness, turns to you and asks, “Do you love me?” (Turn around the room and point…) You need to know what love means before you answer that question. It isn’t hearts and flowers and words of undying loyalty. Peter tried that once and he would tell us that it didn’t cut it in hard times. No – this is really a different question. “Do you love me enough to follow me, no matter where the road leads?” Do you love me enough to go places you don’t want to go and where it costs you something – maybe a lot? To leave behind things that are important to you, to try things you would prefer not to, and reimagine who you are in the world in order to follow me?
“Do you love me enough to feed my sheep?”