Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Challenge of Love

September 26, 2010

John 21:15-19

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Love

In preparing to do weddings I have learned a few things. One is that it’s hard to counsel with couples before they get married because they don’t really listen. Most couples are convinced they have a relationship that is deeper and more loving than everybody else in the history of relationships and there is nothing they need to hear. But I try to impart a few words of wisdom – not that I am an expert on words of wisdom when it comes to marriage.

One couple came to see me some years ago and I offered the young man some advice – when it comes to the wedding you probably aren’t interested in the details, are you. No, he said. So I told him that when his fiancée asks what he thinks about flowers or anything related to the wedding just to say I’m happy with whatever you want to do. Because she’s really not interested in his opinion when she asks what he thinks; she wants to know he is in agreement with her. I asked him if he understood what I was telling him. Yes, he said. They came back to see me a week or so later and as soon as they walked into the office I could tell things weren’t going well. When I asked them how things were going she started crying. So I looked at him and asked what did you do? He looked clueless, of course, but finally said they were in a store looking at stemware. He had no idea what stemware was. She had seen a nice piece of stemware, held it up and asked him, what do you think of this? I knew then what had happened. I said, you forgot what I told you, didn’t you? You actually told her your opinion, didn’t you? What did I tell you not to do? He still didn’t seem to understand. He said, I just said, that doesn’t look like it will hold much ice tea, and she started crying. I said, you’re getting married! Quit thinking!

It’s instructive to remember that even when two people love each other deeply; even when two people love each other so much they pledge their lives to one another; even when two people want to be together for a lifetime, there is still a challenge to love. Love doesn’t rule out the fact that there will be bumps in the road of life or guarantee there won’t be some conflict along the way.

This morning, continuing with our theme of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, we come to The Challenge of Love. As we have moved through our first year together I have based most of my messages on a few themes, and one of those themes has been the theme of love. That, of course, is a no-brainer since love is the foundation of all the work of God. But the sad truth is that not all churches communicate a spirit of love. Many people see churches as places of harsh judgmentalism and condemnation.

For our Scripture text this morning we look at this passage near the end of John’s gospel, where Jesus asks Peter three times the question, Do you love me?

It’s a rather uncomfortable passage to read, actually, because we can sense Peter’s discomfort. The fact that Jesus asks Peter this question three times is a painful reminder of Peter’s three denials not many days prior to this encounter.

In verse 15 Jesus asks Peter the first time – Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these? What’s very interesting about that question is what we don’t see in English. The English language has only one word for love, but Greek has four words for love – storge, which is a love you would find among family members; philia, which is a love between friends (as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love); eros, which is a love deeper than friends and can also be a physical love; and agape, which is a divine love, a sacrificial love, the very deepest form of love.

The word Jesus uses the first time he puts the question to Peter is agape – Peter do you love me in the deepest way possible? Do you love me with all your heart, soul, and mind? Are you willing to sacrifice for me? These are the implications of agape love. But in his response Peter uses the word philia. Lord, you’re a good friend, but… In verse 16, Jesus again asks Simon son of John, do you truly love me? Once again Jesus uses the word agape and Peter uses the word philia. In verse 17, when Jesus asks the third time he uses the word philia, and Peter for the third time uses the word philia.

Peter could have argued that he had given up a lot to follow Jesus and he could have made a good case that he had done his best under difficult circumstances to be an effective disciple. He doesn’t argue with Jesus, he simply says, yes, Lord, you know that I love you. But there was something holding Peter back from a full embrace of love. Jesus was asking Peter if he could love in the deepest way possible, but Peter hedges somewhat, and replies by limiting his love to a level of friendship. A good friendship, no doubt, but not the full embrace of love that Jesus was asking of Peter.

The hesitation we sense in Peter is not unlike the hesitation we sometimes find in ourselves when it comes to love. It’s just safer and easier to keep love at a safe distance, because love asks so much of us.

Maybe that’s why Peter had returned to fishing in this pasage, which wasn’t really wrong, but it wasn’t the task to which he was called. Jesus had come to Peter to give him a recommissioning. When he asks Peter, do you truly love me more than these, in verse 15, he may be referring to the tools of the fisherman. Peter, are you willing to step away from something you know very well, something that represents security in a monetary sense? Are you willing to step into the uncertainty of the work to which you are called?

One of the things love does is to call us into uncertainty. When two people are married, they have no idea of all that is ahead – thank goodness! What would we do if we knew all the challenges that were ahead? But love asks us to commit to one another in spite of all that comes, and that is what Jesus asks of Peter.

Each time Peter responds, Jesus gives him a task – feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep. Love is more than a feeling or an emotional state – love is an action, and here is where we find the greatest challenge of love. It is easy to love in a greeting card sense; that is, to love when it is easy. It is easy to say the words; it is easy to love those who love us, to love those who are kind to us, and to love those who are friends and family. But what Jesus asks is to love even those who hate and despise and use us. In the Sermon On the Mount Jesus simply says, if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:46).

Jesus pushes Peter by telling him to act upon his love – he asks Peter to do something. Each time Peter responds that he loves Jesus, Jesus tells him to take care of his sheep.

Love means taking care of people. Jesus says it in the most basic way of helping that we know – feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Jesus is probably talking about a spiritual feeding but I believe it’s also a physical feeding as well. We are called not just to minister to the spiritual needs of people but to the physical needs as well. The Outreach Committee is working hard on the auction they will host on November 10th. The proceeds of that auction will provide for the physical needs of a lot of people. The point Jesus is impressing upon Peter is this – if we fail to minister to the whole person – the physical as well as the spiritual – we are limiting love.

Love for God that does not translate into that kind of love for people is not really love for God. The book of I John makes this connection over and over, until John finally says If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (I John 4:20-21). As one writer says, our capacity to love God cannot be great than our capacity to love others.

Jesus was demonstrating great trust in Peter. In spite of Peter’s failure of denying Jesus, Peter is being restored. Jesus trusted him to serve again. He trusted his words and actions would be one and the same. We live in a rather schizophrenic society. It is a society that likes the idea of love, but is also a society that tears people apart. There is not much redemptive love in our society, but that is the love that Jesus offers to Peter, and it is the love to which we are called.

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