Do you love me? (A sermon on John 21:15-29)


As you know, this may well be the last Sermon I give from this pulpit, and will most certainly be the last sermon I give here in my current position as Acting Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill, which may help explain why I’ve taken the unprecedented step of disregarding the scheduled Gospel reading for the day!

Yes, some of you may decide to walk out (or switch off) at this point. Who would believe that I could be such a maverick in this final fling, after thirty years of faithful adherence to the common lectionary, but, yes, the inner rebel has finally emerged, and I’ve given ‘doubting Thomas’ the flick this year.

Yes, this Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, is the Sunday were every year we are given the reading from the Gospel of John, chapter twenty – the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ – and, to be quite honest with you, I’m sick of him.

It’s not that I dislike the man – honestly. In fact, I feel a real affection for him, and yet I truly don’t understand why, where our readings are normally scheduled in a three-yearly cycle, we get this reading, not every three years but every single year!

I truly don’t understand it. Even the Christmas and Easter readings differ from year to year. Why is the story about Thomas so important?

I can only assume that Thomas’ ‘doubting’ is something that has been so close to the heart of the Christian community over the centuries that we feel a need to keep coming back to this story again and again, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting that doubt is a bad thing, but is it really such a key thing in the life of the Christian church that we have to keep readdressing it like clockwork every year at this time – a time when you might think we would be busy proclaiming the resurrection?

Perhaps it is that important, and if you were looking forward to finding strength in your doubts today, or affirmation of your doubts, now is the time to make a hasty exit (or switch Facebook or YouTube channels, as the case may be) and avail yourself of any number of other churches where there’s a less rebellious priest in the pulpit!

At any rate, instead of focusing on the Gospel of John, chapter 20, I’ve made the radical move of focusing instead on the following chapter – John, chapter 21, which doesn’t find its way into the lectionary at all this year, so I’m not stealing anybody else’s sermon. This reading just happens to be a personal favourite, and one that I’ve found to be particularly helpful to me at the moment. It’s the passage that deals with the reconciliation between the resurrected Jesus and his best friend, Peter.

I appreciate that Jesus doesn’t use the term ‘best friend’ with regards to Peter, and some might argue that John (often referred to as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’) should be given that title. Some might even argue that Mary Magdalene or some others might be equally worthy of that title. Even so, I think the dialogue between Jesus and Peter itself points to the deep and profound nature of their friendship.

I’m beginning from verse 15 of John chapter twenty-one.

 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.”

16 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.”

17 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. 18 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.” 19 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)

We are familiar enough, I think, with the history of the relationship between Jesus and Peter so as to make full sense of this dialogue. Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?”, and it doesn’t escape us, any more than it would have escaped Peter, that this three-fold question from Jesus paralleled Peter’s three-fold betrayal.

It was just after they had shared the last supper together that Peter had said to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33), to which Jesus had replied, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:34)

And indeed, Peter did deny Him:

  • A slave-girl says, “This man also was with him”, but Peter replies, “Woman, I do not know him.” (Luke 22:57)
  • A nameless man says, “You also are one of them”, but Peter said, “Man, I am not.” (Luke 22:58)
  • “Still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.”” (Luke 22:59-50)

That sad story ends with Jesus turning and looking at Peter, and Peter running away and weeping bitterly. (Luke 22:61-62)

We don’t know exactly how long the gap was between Peter’s betrayal and this meeting on the beach where reconciliation took place. We know that it was at least ten days, and it could have been significantly longer. We know too that this was by no means the first time Peter had seen Jesus again after the resurrection.

Often that is the way reconciliation works. Often it takes time. We want things to be fixed up quickly and to put the pain of the past behind us, but it doesn’t always work that way. Genuine reconciliation can take time.

‘Do you love me?’, Jesus asks Peter? ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

It is significant, I think, that it is Jesus – the one who was betrayed – who takes the lead in initiating reconciliation. I don’t know whether it could have worked the other way around – if Peter had been the one to initiate the conversation – “Hey, Jesus, I know I betrayed you three times but I want you to know that I still love you”.

Maybe it can never work that way? It’s hard to know. In this case, at any rate, Jesus controls the process, and every act of betrayal is countered with an affirmation of love – “Yes, I love you”, “Yes, I love you”, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”

What Jesus said next, as recorded in John, chapter 21, verse 18, was unexpected, I think, and it’s this verse that really drew me to the passage today.

You might have expected Jesus to conclude this intimate moment of reconciliation with Peter by saying something like, “let’s have a hug!”, or even “have you got any beer?” Instead, Peter receives from Jesus something far more solemn:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were young 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)

We are told that Jesus gave this to Peter as a prophecy as an indication of exactly how Peter was going to die (John 21:19) but you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was hardly the time! Why would you want to juxtapose all these intimate expressions of love with images of violence and death?

Even so, my reading of this verse has, for as long as I can remember, been heavily influenced by the wisdom of the late Henri Nouwen, who saw this prophecy to Peter as being archetypal of the growth into maturity of every follower of Jesus: when you are young you dress yourself and go where you want, but when you are old you stretch out your hands, and someone else leads you where you do not want to go’

Henri Nouwen, for any who aren’t familiar with him, was a Dutch Catholic priest and spiritual writer, and a man who struggled greatly in his life. He struggled with his sexuality, with his friendships, and with the exact form of his vocation.

For Nouwen, this image given to us in John, chapter twenty one, is the path set for every true believer. When we are young, we do our own thing, we have our own plans, we nurture our own visions and ambitions. As we get older, we loosen our grip on the hopes we had for ourselves, and ultimately, in faith, we stretch out our hands and allow others to lead us to places where we do not want to go.

This, of course, is where I find myself today – stretching out my hands and allowing others to drag me off to places where I do not want to go. I don’t want to lose my church community any more than I wanted to lose my wife and children. I don’t want to lose my home or my vocation, and if I had it my own way, I would cling on to all of these things.

Even so, I believe Nouwen is right in pointing to the words of Jesus in this instance.  This is not the way for the disciple of Christ. When you are young you dress yourself and you follow your own dreams and your own ambitions. Following Jesus means being wiling to let go of all of that and be led instead into places I don’t want to go.

Of course, it’s not as if I haven’t been to places that I didn’t want to go already.

  • Despite what some may think, I had no desire initially to go to Syria in 2013 where I was surrounded by misery and death and bombs going off.
  • I didn’t want to go to Manus Island either, to be almost drowned in a dingy, bouncing between coral reefs, while being pursued by the local navy.
  • I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem in 2004, to see my friend, Morde Vanunu, released from prison, only to be mobbed and almost killed in a riot.
  • And when it comes to my thirty years here of ministry here in Dulwich Hill, did I really ever want to be led into so many of the things we’ve done here?

I thought I’d conclude today by sharing a few of those experiences here in Dulwich Hill that I never expected to have, and generally didn’t want to have. I thought I’d limit myself to three experiences out of many thousands, otherwise I’d be here all day. These three though are amongst the most memorable for me.

The first incident happened in our youth centre, which was where we saw so much joy and sadness and so many miracles and also so crime and death, and on this particular occasion there was a threat of real violence (which was not uncommon).

We had a female youth worker managing the centre that day and she had to ask one of the young boys to leave. I don’t remember what the boy had done wrong, and I don’t think it was all that serious as he was only banned for the day, but the problem was that his father found out, and his dad was a local thug who I didn’t know well but who I did know had some bad connections in what was then a bad neighbourhood.

The dad stood for a while out on the street in front of our Youth Centre, loudly threatening our youth worker and all the kids who were with her, and saying that he was going to return in a little while with some of his mates and they were going to teach us all a lesson. I asked our youth worker to call the police and explain what was going on, which she did, and meanwhile I got all the kids (I think there were between 20 and 30 of them)  inside and shut the door where they played pool.

Half an hour later the father hadn’t returned, which was god, but the police hadn’t shown up either, so things were still tense. Then one of the Samoan boys got on his phone, and a few minutes later came over and told me not to sweat. Within ten minutes a series of small cars showed up. Perhaps the cars weren’t really that small, but what I remember is that the size of the Islander boys who emptied themselves out of the cars looked like they could not have possibly fitted inside of them.

Within about 10 minutes we had a group of enormous young Islander men – at least a dozen of them, all milling about in front of our Youth Centre, like a football team in search of a playing field. Most of them were Christians too, as it turned out, and one of them had a guitar, and it didn’t take long before they were singing choruses together on the street. I still have a photo of this that I treasure.

The father and his gang never showed (or it they did, they didn’t make themselves obvious) and neither did the police. I enquired down at the Local Area Command the following day why the police hadn’t responded and was told that they had showed up but couldn’t see a problem. In other words, they saw a dozen or so enormous Islander men on the street and decided to keep driving. All’s well it ends well.

The second incident that stands out in my memory regarded one of the people our church put up in one of our flats. Years ago, before development work was done, we had two small flats alongside the rectory, and I had another room at the back of the rectory that was referred to as ‘the rehab room’, and we had different people stay in those flats and in that room over the years, and it was a real gift to be able to offer that service to so many in need, but in some cases it got us into real trouble too.

I don’t want to identify the person who caused us the most trouble as a resident in one of those flats but suffice it to say that we had to get the police involved on a number of occasions, due to criminal activity on the part of our guests, and this normally resulted in the guest moving on. On one occasion though we found we were dealing with someone who had experience in knowing how not to get evicted from places where they wanted to say, and this person caused us a lot of grief.

In the middle of this dilemma I received a late-night visit from Ray Hawkins, who was one of the most colourful characters I’ve ever known and who was, amongst other things, one of Australia’s greatest Elvis impersonators.

I knew Ray through Morna Molesworth, who some will remember as a beloved member of this parish and who sadly did a lengthy prison term during her years with us here as well, and I only mention that to indicate that she herself had some very colourful connections in her life, and Ray was, I suspect, the most colourful of all!

Ray showed up at about midnight and invited himself in. I offered him a drink and we had a quiet beer and talked trivia for a while, and then Ray asked me whether he could bring his mate in. I said, “You’ve got a friend waiting in the car!?” It was mid-winter at the time. Ray said, “Oh, he’s OK, but can I bring him in?” I said, “of course!”

Moments later Ray reappeared at the door with a guy who had the soma-type of a gorilla – short, with enormous trunk and arms – who was looking at the ground, and muttering, and it was immediately obvious that this guy had a mental illness.

Ray said, “Dave, this is Nick. Nick is a debt-collector. He’s a very good debt-collector. Nick has come to have a word to that person you have living in your church flat next door that you’re trying to get rid of”.

I had no idea what to do, except to offer both Nick and Ray another drink. Meanwhile, Ange called me into the kitchen and told me in no uncertain terms that, in her opinion, I should not utilize the services of Nick, the debt-collector.

I eventually returned to the lounge room where both men were enjoying their drinks – Ray quietly humming Elvis tunes and Nick looking at the ground, chuckling to himself. I said to Ray, “brother, I really appreciate you trying to help us but I’ve got the police involved and I’ve got other government departments involved, and I really think we’ve got this one covered.”

Ray paused for a while, then looked back at me and said, “I suppose a clean broom sweeps best, doesn’t it, Dave?” I said, “Yeah, Ray – a clean broom, a clean broom”

Ray then put Nick back on his leash and went home. Ray died shortly after that night in mysterious circumstances, but I can only remember him as a lovely man at heart and one who, in his own way, did his best to serve Christ’s church.

Now, I know I’m already well over the time allowed for the regular sermon, but what are you going to do – fire me? I want to share one more memory.

In truth, the most vivid memory I have of the last thirty years here in Dulwich Hill, and the most wonderful memory is of our church barbeques in the early 90’s.

It wasn’t really the food and drink I remember, of course, though I do recall once making the mistake of supplying free beer (at my own expense) at one of those barbeques, and at the following Parish Council meeting it was ruled that I should not do that again.  We were a rough lot, in some ways, but those people were the greatest group of human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

I can still see their faces – not only when I think of our barbeques. of course, but when I look out at the church pews on a Sunday morning.

I can still see them sitting there – Bob and Glen Thomas, Rashed and Margaret Saleeb, Marge Yarham (who used to ring me up late at night sometimes after she’d had too much to drink and tell me how much she loved me), Jean George, Madge Aspinall, Inis Dalgarno, Jan’s mum, Theresa, and, of course, Richard Smith, who used to play the organ for us, often with my darling Veronica sitting at his side and helping him with the music sheets, back when she was still a toddler. Veronica is in her 30’s now, but it still all seems like yesterday.

Then there were our Sri Lankan friends – Kumar, Heddy, and her husband Nihal, who died of pneumonia while still in his thirties, and I remember sitting with him all night in the hospital as he died, and then being in hospital myself the following week with the same illness.

There were Bill and Ena Pattison, dear John Thurling, Alf Davies, Ruth Paddle, Elvie Boehme, and all the old girls we used to bring up by car to the Youth Centre every Friday morning for what was colloquially referred to as the ‘stitch and bitch’ session.

I mention those names but I can see other faces in my memory whose names I can no longer remember, whether by virtue of my own advancing age or as a result of the number of hits I’ve taken to the head, I do not know.

So often I so wish I could go back there. Those great souls were my mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and I loved them all. I still sense their presence with me – a part of that great cloud of witnesses who stand with us in worship in this place. I’ve sensed them celebrating the Eucharist here with me every week!

So often I wish I could go back, but we can’t go back. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on” as the great Persian mystic, Omar Khayyam, wrote a thousand years ago, and we must move on too – arms outstretched, being led to places where we do not want to go – because that’s where Jesus needs us to go.

We don’t know what the future holds. It’s hard enough coming to terms with our regrets over the past without having to deal with our fears for the unknown future, Even so, we look forward together to the day when all the saints will from their labors rest, and when we, together with all those who’ve gone before us, cast our crowns before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise. Until that great day comes though, the Lord only requires of us that we answer Him one simple question: “do you love me?”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 19th of April 2020.

 

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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