Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jesus Asks: Do you love Me? (John 21:17)

This is the 25th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to the present prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament.

Q: Do you love Me? (John 21:17)

I love the way Jesus loves his fishermen disciples in this story: Appearing to them after the long haul of their work night with good company and good smells of toasty bread and fish and campfire. They didn't even talk until they'd eaten their beach breakfast. 

The metaphor latent in the scene was doing all the talking-- the simple meal sustaining them like it had the five thousand, the net of 153 fish overflowing beyond their imaginations. Jesus was still with them preforming practical miracles that open gates to otherworldly miracles.

After breakfast, Jesus addresses Peter, using his birth name, "Simon Son of John," perhaps a gentle jab at him for returning to swiftly to his old place and old ways. 

"Do you love me more than these?" (John 21:15)

Peter had been so sure he was all in the night before the crucifixion. He loved Jesus the most, more than any of the disciples, more than that pesky "other disciple" who had dubbed himself the "one Jesus loved." Peter loved Jesus enough to chop off ears and perhaps to go to a cross himself before he'd let the Romans lay a hand on the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Well, he had said as much. And he believed what he said, he believed that wild passion he felt for Jesus. 

But in the end, he just roostered out. He denied loving, following and even knowing Jesus before the day dawned. 

With this kind of failure under his belt, with this kind of brutal blow to not just his ego, but to his confidence to discern his own heart, Peter was confronted with the peerless darker depths of his soul. It was too much to peer into. So he just reset himself back to factory standards, back to the old way of life (and this even after the resurrected Jesus appeared to him twice!) He went back to his trade and to all he'd left, what little of a life it was, before he first met the man who had him at

"Come, follow Me." 

So. Does Peter still find it in his heart to love, to dare say he loves Jesus?

"Yes, Lord," Peter replied, "You know I love you." (v. 15)

Peter dares not declare a love surpassing that of the others this time.

"Then feed my lambs." Jesus told him. (v. 15)

Peter is silent. Perhaps he was thinking, I'm a fisherman, that's all. I can't fish for men, I can't feed lambs spiritually or otherwise. I'm good for nothing but this earthly trade.

Or maybe he was too deep in the regret, the emotional shadow lands of shame and despair, to really hear Jesus.

Or maybe he was simply trying to figure out who the lambs were.

Then Jesus repeated the question:"Simon, son of John," (v. 16)

In repeating Peter's given name, his old moniker, the familiar title and all the baggage (and fish) that come with being Simon son of John, it seems Jesus was trying to rile up that old spark.

"do you love me?"

Again, Peter answers in his deflated tone.

"Yes, Lord, you know I love you."

How could he not?

"Then take care of my sheep."

It's as if Jesus would really like to see love in action that very moment. Why are you still sitting here? Wipe the fish grease off your beard and get out of here, Peter. Find my lambs. Find my sheep. Consider this your last day at work. Consider this your send-off brunch. Embark on your new vocation. You've been promoted, so why are you still at the same old desk? Your job is not as a lover of Jesus who feeds and cares for my sheep.

Peter must have still stuck to his sandy spot. His heart was sinking in too. But Jesus proceeded to rub sand in the wound. 

A third time he asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (v. 17)

This time it stung enough that Peter's deflation took on an edge of agitation.

"Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you!"

In this, I read Peter saying, Lord you know in my heart I loved you as best I could. I thought that my love would go the distance for you, but it didn't. My feelings weren't strong enough to overcome my fears and doubts when it mattered most. But do I love you like a brother, mentor, father and friend? Yes, as much as I know how. As much as I can muster. But what good is that love-- when it falters at the crucial moment? What good am I as a disciple? How can I love when I feel so unworthy of love?

Jesus is unflinching. 

"Then feed my sheep."

Now that Peter is fully present in the conversation, Jesus continues:

"I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don't want to go." (v. 18)

Here John the narrator, revealing his on-going rivalry with Peter, jumps in with his own smug commentary that Jesus was foreshadowing Peter's death on a cross... and death to which youthful Peter thought he'd be willing to follow Jesus. But I think John's interjection distracts from the deeper message in Jesus' depiction of human development. 

I've never paid too much attention to these last lines of Jesus' mini sermon to Peter because the trio of questions is so powerful. But this time around, verse 18 started to dovetail with thoughts I've been reading in Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 

If you are young in life or simply young in following Jesus, there's so much freedom. It may not be apparent because you've never tasted bondage or because your appetite for new things is so expansive that your desire to fly outpaces your life's ample leash, but essentially, when we are young our journey is largely an exploration of ourselves, our identity, our likes and dislikes, our allegiances and foes. In short, our focus is on our selves in relation to others. Take Peter's constant need to see how he stacked up to "the other disciple, the disciple Jesus loved," and John's reciprocal fetish with hinting at his superiority throughout his gospel. 

At the opposite end of life, nearer to death, we all become dependents again, even at the mercy of others who may dress us and lead us and possibly lead us where we do not wish to go. 

Jesus doesn't in so many words address that big swath of life between youthful self-absorption and end of life dependence. 

Perhaps this is because the middle years could look much like the youthful ones if one never matures or comes into the selfless purpose God has for them. Alternately, the middle years could swing too quickly to the defeated mood Simon, son of John had succumbed to, a life assigned by others, by culture and necessity. Going through the motions, wearing the uniform, going where you don't particularly want to go, but in the direction of least resistance at any rate.

What Jesus does say:

"Follow Me." (v. 19)

opens up a whole New Testament of possibility for what Rohr calls the "second half of life."

There is another possibility after all. Peter (and we) may be done with the exhilarating but immature impulse of his former days. But he is not relegated to hauling fish for the rest of his life.

After all, there are lambs now. Many of these lambs are just as bold and reckless and self-absorbed and weak and fragile as Peter was. And Jesus thinks Peter is just the guy to feed them.

And there are sheep now. There are others like the new-old Peter at the precipice of a new kind of being. He's grown, but not near death. He and the other disciples, they've been shepherded for a while. There is some collective wisdom among them, they hear and know their shepherd's voice. And yet, how easily can the flock be led astray from following Him.

"Take care of my sheep."

Sometimes caring for our spiritual peers is a spiritual endeavor. Sometimes it's time for fervent prayers sent up to heaven, binding and loosing prayers. Sometimes it's time to be a safe place for tearful confessions, or give them ourselves. Sometimes it's time to offer encouraging words as a balm to the soul or a resonant nudge toward a deeper calling. Sometimes harder, but honest, words need to be delivered. 

Other times, Jesus urges "Feed my sheep" and this means an impromptu brunch on the beach. Opening our homes, watching our neighbors' children, dropping off a meal. There's a decidedly human aspect to Jesus' last recorded post-resurrection appearance.

In the end, I'm still trying to see through the beach fog to see and follow Jesus. I'm trying to follow him as he leads me out of my youthful zeal and at times my premature sense that I'm on the way to the grave. There's an activeness to love that's revealed in Jesus caring for others. Others may be in a different stage in life, yet Jesus doesn't show disdain. Others may come from a different culture, class, place of privilege or lack of privilege. Jesus seemed comfortable enough in his own skin to serve others in theirs. And he served both life-giving words and life-giving physical sustenance. 

So, I love and follow Jesus through the pages of scripture and the pages of life. I receive the feeding and shepherding of other Jesus-lover-followers and I endeavor to do the same.

Next week: A new series of questions! When have you felt God's presence most acutely?

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