Do you love me? (A sermon on John 21:15-19)

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”” (John 21:15-19)

It’s the third Sunday in Eastertide, and so we find ourselves back on the beach with Peter and the remaining eleven Apostles.

Easter is the defining event of the Christian faith and so it makes sense that on these Sundays following Easter we deal each year with the same familiar Biblical texts that encapsulate our core beliefs and values.

Easter Day is our celebration of hope – the hope of resurrection and our hope for the victory of light over darkness. On the Sunday after the resurrection we focus on faith as seen in the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas. This week – the third Sunday of Easter – our theme is love; the love of Jesus and the love of Peter for Jesus – as played out in this scene on the beach.

I don’t know if you have a favourite Easter story or favourite Easter image. I think when it comes to warm and sentimental Biblical images, Christmas tends to have something of a monopoly – images of the baby on the manger, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men …

When it comes to Easter, Christian art has focused almost exclusively on the cross rather than the resurrection, which is understandable perhaps, but leaves us with a bit of a dearth of warm and winsome Easter images. For me, this story from John’s Gospel, with Jesus asking Peter if he loves Him, and Peter swearing passionately that indeed he does love Jesus, fills that gap. The curious thing is that the passage seems to have originally been no more than an appendix to the Gospel narrative!

I heard one commentator refer to this story in John chapter twenty-one as the ‘encore’ to John’s Gospel, and indeed, if you read the end of the preceding chapter, you’ll see that it’s quite clear that the author was concluding the story there:

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

End of story, applause, the author takes a bow, walks off stage and then, as the applause continues, walks back on and says, ‘ok, just one more story’.

In truth though, it’s not likely that this story was added in response to the adulation of the crowd. The end of chapter twenty-one itself suggests that there was some confusion in the early church over whether Jesus had said to the Apostle Peter that the Apostle John was going to live to see Him return. This supplementary story was clearly designed, at least in part, to put that controversy to rest by pointing out that this was not exactly what Jesus had said. I wonder too though if this story wasn’t also included to resolve certain controversies surrounding Peter, who strikes me as the most elusive figure in the history of the early church.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but I think that if you were reading through the New Testament for the first time and had just finished the four Gospels, and had no idea as to what followed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles or what was said in the various letters that filled out the book, I think you’d be justified in assuming that Peter would feature pretty strongly in just about all of it.

“Upon this rock I will build my church” says Jesus of Peter (Matthew 16:18), and on the basis of that powerful commission our Catholic sisters and brothers have always designated Peter as the first Pope.

Peter was first amongst the Apostles – surely? Did not Jesus Himself made that clear? Peter was the rock upon which the church would be built, the hinge upon which it would swing! The only problem with this is that the history of the early church, as recorded in the rest of the New Testament, doesn’t really bear this out!

When it comes to church leadership, it seems that James, the earthly brother of Jesus, seems to have been the official head of the church in Jerusalem, and when it comes to leadership within the churches outside of Israel, there can be no doubt at all that the leading figure there wasn’t Peter but Saint Paul!

What happened to Peter? He was obviously active, and he did indeed contribute a few letters that are included near the end of the New Testament. Even so, in these early records Peter does not shine forth as the rock upon which the early church was built. He seems to be more in the background most of the time. What happened?

Was Peter involved in some controversy that forced him to pull back from taking a leading role in public ministry, or did he die early on?

Of course, those who know the ‘Quo Vadis’ story know that tradition has Peter meeting Jesus on the road to Rome where the early church was being persecuted, after which Peter follows Jesus back to Rome to suffer martyrdom with his sisters and brothers. Even so, most historians would consider this as a ripping yarn rather than real history. The truth is, we really don’t know what happened to Peter!

The other really perplexing thing about Peter is the question of what happened to the story of his initial meeting with Jesus after the resurrection.

St Paul says of Jesus in his first letter to the church at Corinth, that he first appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5). Clearly this was well known in the early church – that Peter was the first of the male Apostles to meet with Jesus after the resurrection – and yet we have no surviving written record of this meeting. What happened to it?

I think it’s generally assumed that this is what is missing at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

If you’re familiar with Mark’s Gospel, you’ll know that it is unique amongst the Gospel narratives in that it has no resurrection story at all – at least, not in its current form – or rather, that it has two or three different resurrection narratives in its current form.

Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the four Gospels written, and with the oldest versions of that oldest Gospel story that we have, they end surprisingly abruptly.

After Jesus’ female disciples discover the empty tomb, we are told: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.(Mark 16:8) THE END

This is hardly likely to be the way Mark intended to end his story about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The general assumption is that the original ending to Mark’s Gospel has been lost.

In its place you’ll find some other early resurrection narratives. They generally find a place in our versions of the New Testament as footnotes. Even so, the general assumption amongst scholars is that the original ending of the Gospel has been lost, and most of us assume that this original ending must have included the story about that early meeting between the resurrected Jesus and Peter.

It’s mysterious! How could such an important Gospel narrative get lost? Did something really embarrassing happen in that first meeting between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection, such that Peter (or some of his influential supporters) made sure that this story was left out when the Gospel was reproduced? That’s hardly likely, is it, as you couldn’t get much more embarrassing than what is included!

Did Peter perhaps get involved in another scandal of sorts, such that the bulk of the early church decided not to distribute some of the early stories that included Peter? That doesn’t sound likely either, does it?

The problem is that it’s hard to come up with any plausible explanation as to why anyone would want to deliberately lose the original ending of Mark’s Gospel. All we do know is that Mark has no ending whereas John apparently has two endings, and I think it is quite plausible that this extra ending in John, which was quite possibly published half a century after Mark’s Gospel, is there in part to make up for what had gone missing.

Now, you’ll have to forgive me if this sermon has thus far sounded like a lecture on Biblical literary criticism. I appreciate that while those of us who have been studying the Bible all our lives do get interested in all these questions about which Gospel was published first and why some bits are included and others are left out. I appreciate too though that if you’ve tuned in because you’re grieving and you’re searching for spiritual strength and peace, this sort of discussion about the dating of manuscripts and the construction of narratives can seem pretty dry. If that’s you, my request is that you bear with me just a little longer.

The point I want to make is that if the first of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the original group of twelve disciples takes place with Peter, isn’t it interesting that the last chapter of the last of the Gospels written also deals with a post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and Peter.

I think this is Peter’s epitaph, given to us by his friend, John. Whatever happened to Peter during those years when he stepped back from centre-stage in the early church, this is how the Gospel writer wanted him to be remembered.

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

It’s an intense and beautiful yet painful dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Repeating the question three times was an obvious allusion to the three times that Peter had denied knowing Jesus, just prior to the crucifixion. Jesus surely intended Peter to see that connection and the fact that Peter gets emotional the third time he is asked, confirms that Peter doesn’t miss the point.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s affirmations of love with the words I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you. Perhaps that dialogue of forgiveness and reconciliation was what took place in their first post-resurrection meeting. What Jesus does here is rather to commission Peter again. He appoints Peter once again to the role of tending and feeding the sheep – of extending the love he has for Jesus to the members of the community of faith who need that love.

And then we get that chilling prophecy:

when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.(John 21:18)

And John adds, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” (John 21;19)

Despite, John’s comments, it’s not exactly clear what kind of death is being referred to here, except that it would not have been a natural death. When Jesus says someone else will dress youdoes He mean that Peter will be dressed in animal skins before being fed to the lions, or does the image of him stretching out his hands simply mean that his hands will be tied as he’s led towards the block?

Either way, the image is chilling, and I can never read it without remembering Henri Nouwen’s reflection on this prophecy – that the fate of Peter is really the fate of every follower of Jesus. Nouwen believed that this image encapsulated the path towards spiritual maturity – a process wherein we increasingly stretch out our hands and submit ourselves to Jesus, who leads us into places where we do not want to go.

For Peter, as for Jesus Himself, this path of suffering is the flipside of his love. Jesus suffers because He loves us. Peter likewise will suffer because he loves Jesus.

Do you love me, Peter? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Yes, Lord. You know that I love you. You know that I love you.

This is Peter’s epitaph. These are the last words written in the last Gospel about a man about whom so much is said but about whom much is also left unsaid. The final word on Peter is given to the Gospel writer John. Peter was a man who loved Jesus.

Let this be our epitaph too. Whatever else they say of us – that we struggled, that we failed, that we displayed all the weakness known to the human condition – let this be said of us too, that in the end we loved Him.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 5th of May, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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