“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly 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 truly 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.’” (John 21:15-17)
I don’t know about you, but I used to wonder why Jesus would ask such a question of Peter. Doesn’t God know everything? Then I started to think about how I would answer if Jesus asked me these questions. “Mary Kay, do you love me more than these? Do you truly love me? Do you love me?”
In the play Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife Golde, “Do you love me?” She doesn’t answer the question, calling him foolish and suggesting he has indigestion. But he insists, “Do you love me?”
Golde’s initial answer is classic: “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” Later in the song she contemplates, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” She finally decides that she does love him, and she tells him so.
What if you were in a play, maybe called Savior by the Shore, and in that setting Jesus spoke to you, asking, “Do you love me?” Would your answer be something like Golde’s? Lord, for twenty-five years I’ve cleaned the church, polished silver, taught Sunday school. For thirteen years I’ve been on the board, and now you ask me if I love you?
Jesus’ voice sounds out again, But do you love me?
Again you answer, I’ve read the Bible, stayed awake through boring sermons, served communion and served the donuts. I painted the classrooms and fed the poor, plunged the toilets and visited the sick. Lord, you know I love you!
And Jesus answers, Feed my sheep.
The answer to my questions can be found in verses 18-19: “’I tell you the truth, 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!’”
Follow me! Loving God isn’t about what we do and how long we do it. It isn’t necessarily about always doing the “right” thing or even about using our gifts in the church. Those are important choices we make throughout our Christian lives, but the real way to love God is to follow the Spirit’s leading, to truly know Christ.
Many Christians walk through their spiritual lives like zombies, performing Christian service by rote, like reciting memory verses with no understanding of the verse’s meaning. We “do” for God, instead of seeking to know Him. Well-meaning and hopeful, we plod on through, always working, rarely feeling God’s grace in our lives. And when something happens that doesn’t fit with our ideas on life, we are confused and angry at God for changing the terms.
Friends, I believe Jesus asked Peter this question three times because Peter was such a follower. Peter had his own ideas about what it meant to serve and follow, but Jesus wanted to arrest Peter’s thinking to the truth that God wants his heart and his friendship even more than his service.
Does that let us off the hook when it comes to service? Sorry! We are even more responsible for service, but it comes from a different emphasis in our lives, not “serving” for service’s sake, but because we are loved and we love in return.
Pastor Mary Kay Glunt