Questions from Jesus: Do You Love Me?
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Questions from Jesus: Do You Love Me?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 22, 2019
I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, "I shall never be moved."
7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:
9 "What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!"
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."
16 A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."
17 He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.
My family has a lot of birds. Chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows and finches, jays and doves all frequent our backyard. My husband tends to multiple birdfeeders and keeps the birdbath clean and full. He buys the fancy birdseed from the fancy birdseed place because he only wants the best for our birds.
But they aren’t really our birds. They don’t have names. They don’t come when we call. I couldn’t tell you if the same birds are there each day or not. I don’t know these birds, and they don’t know me.
Being the wild birds that they are, they can’t rightly be said to belong to anyone but God. And yet, we care for them, or, to give credit where it’s due, Jason cares for them. They are well feed and well-tended. And they don’t even belong to us.
John and his family wanted to volunteer with the non-profit my husband works for, A Little Help. The organization connects neighbors to fight isolation among older adults and help them thrive in their homes. John’s family volunteered to help a man name Fred who needed a new antenna for his radio. Fred loved listening to classical music, but the station had upgraded its signal, and his antenna needed to be upgraded to receive the signal. John’s family came to Fred’s home and helped him buy and install the new antenna.
In the course of conversation, John revealed that caring for Fred in this way was uniquely meaningful. John’s mother, who had recently died, was a great lover of classical music. John recalled his mother always had the classical station playing on the radio in their home. Fred didn’t belong to John and his family. They weren’t related. They weren’t friends. But John took care of Fred because he loved his mother. He tended to a sheep who loves classical music because that was his mother’s flock.
Charles worked in a soup kitchen in Pontiac, MI. He had taken up the post out of desperation, in a way. His wife of 47 years had died, and he needed a way to fill his time, something to get him out of the house and interacting with other people. He talked with the people who came through the line to be served, and he began to realize that many of them shared the same need. They lacked a high school diploma, and they didn’t have a way to study for and take the GED exam.
Charles’s wife had been a third-grade schoolteacher. She loved teaching, and she loved her kids. At times, Charles had resented how his wife had poured herself into teaching. They didn’t have children of their own, and Charles didn’t know how to relate to kids. He’d been an engineer by trade and didn’t know the first thing about education.
But as he thought about these adults who were unable to complete their basic education, he thought about his wife. These could have been her students. She would be so sad to see how they were limited by their need for a GED. She would want him to do something.
So Charles went about researching and developing a GED program for the center that ran the soup kitchen. And it eventually became the official GED program for the City of Pontiac. Hundreds of people received the support and access they needed to get their GEDs.
These people didn’t belong to Charles. In fact, they couldn’t have been more different from him. For some, English was their second language. They were from different ethnic backgrounds. They had different values.
But Charles did what he could to feed them and shepherd them, because they were his wife’s flock, and he loved her. So he loved the sheep she loved.
The Namaqua Unitarian Universalist Church here in Loveland is taking exceptional steps to care for people who absolutely don’t belong to them. They have set up the Immigrant Freedom Fund, which raises money to bond people out of the immigration detention center in Aurora, liberating them from conditions that are allegedly sub-standard and restoring them to their families and communities while their legal cases are processed. These people are not part of their congregation. They are not citizens of our country. They are not family members or friends. They do not belong to us. But folks who contribute to the Immigrant Freedom Fund are taking care of people who don’t belong to them.
Caring for things that don’t belong to us is a theme repeated throughout scripture. In Genesis, God creates humankind to care for God’s new creation. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul commissions the Ephesian elders to shepherd the church of God. God doesn’t give us the creation. It doesn’t belong to us. But we’re still supposed to take care of it. Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians that the church is all theirs, so they should keep it nice. It is God’s church, but they are expected to make sure it is well cared for.
Tacked on to the end of John’s gospel, after all the drama of the resurrection is over and done with, there is this very strange and structured dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The words themselves are symbolic and evocative. Jesus calls Peter “Simon, son of John,” harkening back to the first time they met, when Jesus used this address and gave him the nickname Peter. Peter is given the opportunity to express his love for Jesus three times, mirroring, and perhaps redeeming, his threefold denial of Jesus before the crucifixion.
But the heart of the exchange is the connection between loving Jesus and caring for his sheep. Note that Jesus never says, “Since you love me so much, I’m giving you my flock.” He commands Peter to care for something that doesn’t belong to him, to feed and shepherd the sheep that belong to Jesus.
One of the last questions Jesus asks in scripture is “Do you love me?” In and of itself, that is not an easy question to answer. Love is a complex matter. Especially when it comes to loving Jesus.
According to scripture, love has little to do with feelings. It isn’t an emotion, really. Love is a verb. It is something you do. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God’s love is repeatedly connected to God’s action. The choosing of a people. Bringing them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Sending prophets. All of these are enactments of God’s love.
The Apostle Paul doesn’t talk about how love feels. He talks about what love does and doesn’t do. Love does patient and kind things. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Love rejoices in truth.
For Jesus, love is sacrifice. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” All throughout scripture, love is linked inextricably with action.
So when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he’s not trying to find out how Peter feels about him. He is trying to find out what Peter will do for him. Peter knows Jesus knows the answer to this question, and he even gets hurt by the repeated query. But Jesus wants to make it clear that love comes with responsibility. Love demands we not only love with our words, but also with our actions. And love demands we don’t just care for the person we love; we also must care for the things they love. And so, when Peter answers, with greater and greater intensity, in the affirmative, Jesus tells him what that love needs to do: feed his sheep; care for his flock; take care of things that don’t belong to him.
Most of us learn, from our elders or from life experience, to take care of the things that belong to us. We clean our houses and mow our lawns and wash our cars. We make our kids clean their rooms. We take care of the people who belong to us – our children and parents, our church members, our friends. We know almost instinctively that we have a responsibility to care for other people like us, other people in our tribe, other people who share our values.
But the idea of taking care of people and things that belong to someone else is not quite as ingrained. It’s one thing to fill up birdfeeders and birdbaths. It’s quite another thing to take on responsibility for maintaining someone else’s flock of sheep.
Some Christians would limit Jesus’ flock to those who know him and follow him. There are plenty of churches here and around the world who believe that to love Jesus is to tend to the needs of Christians, or those who might become Christians.
But Jesus never placed such limits on his flock. He promised a day when there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” He came to care for stray sheep, those outside the bounds of the flock. He came to love, to lay down his life, for all the children of God, all the creatures of the earth, the whole creation groaning for redemption.
The flock Jesus demands Peter to care for, then, is limitless. The responsibility placed on Peter, and on all of us who love Jesus, is profound.
Loving Jesus, then, looks nothing like a sentimental Hallmark movie or heartwarming bromance. It looks like forgiveness and restoration and liberation. It looks like kindness and honesty. It looks like sacrifice and solidarity. With everyone and everything God loves. With everyone and everything.
This sounds impossible. And it probably is. That is why Jesus asks the question not once, or even twice, but three times. Jesus asks if we love him every time we deny him, every time we fail to love him, every time we fail to care for what he loves. And we can keep saying yes, and keep being told to care for something that doesn’t belong to us. And we can try to love again. That is grace.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. We want to. We try to. We probably aren’t great at it all the time. But yes. We are here because we love Jesus. When we feed his lambs at the Community Kitchen and shepherd his sheep in Sunday School and Art Hub Camp. We love Jesus when we nourish strangers with hospitality and when we tend to the needs of homeless youth. We love Jesus in every act of kindness, in every sacrifice we make for another, in every way we care for God’s good creation. We don’t do it perfectly or all the time. But every time we take care of those people and things that do not belong to us but belong to God, those people and things God loves, we are saying, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Maybe that looks like feeding wild birds, or volunteering to help a neighbor in need, or creating opportunities for people who lack them, or releasing people from captivity. Love takes many forms. How will we feed the sheep and shepherd the flock of Jesus? How will we love him today?
The Apostle Paul tells us that “love never ends.” We can love Jesus endlessly. His flock has no boundaries. That is a great responsibility. But it is also a joy and a privilege.
Let us care for people and things that don’t belong to us. Let us love Jesus with our love for his people, his creatures, his creation.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.