Between Knowing and Loving: Serving

John 21:1-19
3rd Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Do you know the commercial where the young couple is sitting in a restaurant and the girl says, “I love you!” with feeling and the guy tries to say it back and cannot get the word “love” out. He stutters, he stumbles, and then the server comes back and asks him if he’d like a beer and he says smoothly, “I’d love one.” While this commercial irritates me because it is one of several which advertise beer by demonstrating that the guy loves his beer more than his companion. However, I do agree that saying “I love you” should really mean something. We often throw the love word around too loosely, as if it means very little. Jesus makes it clear that loving him means being willing to serve.

In the last of our resurrection narratives for the Easter season, the disciples recognize Jesus by his service to them – he helps them catch and cook fish. Just as we have seen in so many of the appearance narratives, the Risen Christ is not immediately recognized or known. He calls Mary by name and she realizes he’s not the gardener. He breaks bread with Cleopas and another and they suddenly know him. He walks through doors and says, “Peace to you” and the disciples know. He says to Thomas, “Touch my hands and my side,” and Thomas then calls him “Lord and God.”

In today story, we see that recognition, knowing is not enough. Peter had failed to love Christ when he got arrested. After promising to follow him, even to death, Peter denied even knowing him three times on the night before Jesus died. So the heart-wrenching scene in this story from John is Jesus’ three-fold question, “Peter, do you love me?”

Hear the narrative and be shaped by the Word of God speaking to you:

NRS John 21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." 6 He said to them, cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 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. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

Have you ever put your clothes on and then jumped into the water? I think Peter was so excited that he was seeing Jesus risen from the dead, that’s what he did. The other disciples stayed in the boat, but Peter was eager to get to the shore and I guess he thought it was more polite to greet Jesus with his clothes on. I’m glad you also wore your clothes today to greet the Lord in worship.

How many of you have eaten fish for breakfast? It was not strange in Jesus’ time to eat fish for breakfast. The disciples were always fishing and Jesus was always helping them when they had trouble with their fishing.

However you spend your time – doing school work, trying to get along with your friends, brothers and sisters without arguing, dealing with challenges at work or at home...I think Jesus comes alongside you to help. Jesus helped the disciples catch 153 fish –more than they needed. But then after breakfast he asked Simon Peter, “Do you love me, Peter?” I can imagine Jesus saying, “Peter, you let me down three times before the cock crowed, just as I predicted you would. You let me down at the worst time. Now I need three reassurances that you can be trusted when you say that you love me. Saying that you love me doesn’t mean much if there nothing behind those words.”

Oh how often do we claim to love, but our actions betray our lack of true commitment. In 1 John 3:18, we hear “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Are you serving those closest to you? Do you watch them closely to see what you can do to help. Golden retrievers pay close attention to the ones they love. Are you smarter than a golden retriever. Pay attention to others. Love in truth and action – those close to you and far away. How many
times have I said I care about the injustice experienced by Florida farm workers, but I did nothing. God may not be calling you today to the march, but God is calling me.

I was flipping through one of the many catalogs of Christian resources that arrive in the mailbox each week and I saw a new book called “The Christian Atheist”. That title caught my attention. “The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist.” That’s what we do much of the time – live as if God doesn’t exist. 1 John says, “We know love by this: that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And if we are not actively building up the disciplines of the Christian life, we will not have strength to love well.

Richard and have been married twenty-five years in July, but we are only beginning to understand what love is. Oh, I’m sure we said it many times, lustily, when we were dating and newly wed, “I love you” but what we really meant was “I want you,” not “I love you.” I want you for what you can do for me.

Jesus is saying to us like he said to Peter, “Do you love me?” And we say, “Of course we do.” We love you for what you can do for us. And he says, “What are you doing to show your love?” He says, “I told you the greatest commandment was to love God and love your neighbor. I showed you what love looks like. It involves sacrificing for others. Feeding, tending, taking care of those whom I love,” That’s what Jesus says.

And what did Jesus say about the flock of one hundred sheep? If one is lost, leave the 99 and go find and help that one. Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. But we cannot tend every lost sheep and feed every hungry person in the world, Lord. No, we can’t, but God puts some of them in our neighborhoods so we’d better think about tending our neighbors. And God often put a burden on us about some who are far away and we had better pay attention to them too.

Okay, so what about the reactionary relationships of our lives, where there is already injury and bitterness. How do we tend those sheep? Just like a loving parent counts to ten in order to calm down and avoid abusive words or actions with a child. If you’re out of control, remove yourself from the intensity. The best way to love someone with whom you are angry is to limit your time with that person because you will not be able to love well, except with some emotional distance. Pray for the person, and if you cannot pray pure prayers for the person (if anger rages) then pray for yourself to have a pure heart. Pray that forgiveness for that person will fill your heart as fully as you have been forgiven. This is hard work, but fruitful.

Peter knows Christ. Peter says he loves Christ, but Christ calls him to follow him in serving, in feeding, in tending the sheep. I love the way the 1998 Catechism of the Presbyterian Church invites us to think about the needy: The hungry need bread, the homeless need a roof, the oppressed need justice, and the lonely need fellowship. At the same time - on another and deeper level - the hopeless need hope, sinners need forgiveness, and the world needs the gospel. On this level no one is excluded, and all the needy are one. Our mission as the church is to bring hope to a desperate world by declaring God’s undying love – as one beggar tells another where to find bread. That’s our calling to serve the needy.

While caring for some of the neediest people on earth Mother Teresa entered one hovel where she confronted children with hollow eyes and emaciated parents. They hadn’t eaten in days. Mother Teresa had brought to the family a small portion of rice. When she presented the rice to the mother, the mother divided it into two equal parts, and then rose to leave the room. “Where are you going?” she asked. The woman answered “Next door they are hungry also.” Sometimes the most desperate people have the most compassion. Those with the lowest income give
the highest percentage of their income to charity.

There are three qualities that for me define the kind of service Christ calls us to exercise in order to demonstrate our love. Three words which begin with “C”

The first is compassion. This requires having a heart that is soft toward others, a heart that cares. You have to notice people and have the desire to help. If you are a person who never notices a person is struggling, if you have a hard time putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, if you tend to think people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they should just get with the program, then pray for compassion. Compassion means literally, “suffering with” It is part of the discipline of caring – thinking about the suffering of others enough to suffer along
with them.

The second quality is control, self-control because tending to people is messy. Most of the mess is created by our lack of self-control. Control your impulses. Control your appetite – your appetite for self-satisfaction. Control your temper. Control your tongue, for it is like a fire, the book of James tells us. Control your selfishness which leads you away from loving service to others. There’s not time for every thing you want to do, if you are doing everything Christ calls you to do. Matthew 25 tells us every time we care for someone in need, we are doing it for Christ. Self-control also means not rushing forward too fast in any relationship, promising beyond our capacity to give. Some of us might be strong in compassion or strong in self-control but perhaps we are weak in contrition.

The third attribute needed for being a loving servant of Christ is contrition, being truly sorry for our sin. Peter denied Christ three times and then he heard the cock crow and he went out and wept bitterly. When have you wept over your sin? When have you really cared that you personally have wounded someone deeply? What’s worse, you may not even know how badly you wounded them. You probably think they should just get over it. If I hurt you or routinely irritate you, if I lie to you, if I break my promise to you, if I refuse to serve you, if I am unkind or impatient or critical of you, then I do not love you as I should. Period. And every week in the prayer of confession, we do not even begin to scratch the surface of confessing what we need to confess for the way we treat one another. “If we think that we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 1 John1:8

We may be able to recognize Jesus Christ. We may know at some level who he is, but until we grow in serving others with compassion, control, and contrition, do we begin to truly love Christ. Christ did not say tend your sheep, but tend my sheep – that flock includes but goes beyond our own nuclear family, our own church, community, and country. All those lambs lost in the woods of pleasure-seeking self-absorption, and all those sheep hungry for food and hungry for hope belong to Christ. And we are called to care.

Lord, fill us with compassion, help us harness self-control, and make us contrite, so we may truly love you by serving others generously.