Sunday, 22 April 2007

Sermon for Easter 3 Year C

Easter 3 (2007) Year C RCL Principal

‘Do you love me’

There are two ways in which we could interpret Jesus’ question to Peter from our Gospel this morning ‘Do you love me more than these?’

Firstly Jesus might be asking Peter, as many translations seem to suggest. ‘Peter, do you love me more than the others here do?’ Perhaps asking him if he is able to bear the responsibility placed on him when Jesus said ‘You will be called Peter (which means ‘rock’) and on this rock I will build my Church’.

Secondly Jesus might be asking ‘do you love me more than these other things in your life’ – following on from the fishing (which had been Simon Peter’s livelihood before following Jesus) and in which much of his life would have been invested. In this way Jesus might well be asking ‘do you love me more than security, peace, a safe living, home, perhaps even family and friends – do you love me more than any of these things?’

Both translations are valid. The Greek word is not terribly clear. And I think, in the way that scripture often does, there is a point to this. I think it is a question that is meant to mean both things. Is your love for me greater than anything else? Does your love for me strive to be greater than anyone else’s love for me, and greater than your love for any thing else in the world?’

Now if you remember to the sermon I preached on this reading three years ago (and I would be amazed if you did, I had to look it up myself) then you would remember that I used the phrase ‘firmly but gracefully’ to describe this passage where Jesus asks Peter three times about his alliegance. Firmly because it is a challenge, ‘do you love me’, gracefully because it was, as many call it, the re-instatement of Peter after failing Christ by denying him when challenged as to whether Peter knew Jesus after Jesus had been arrested. These three questions give Peter the opportunity to, as it were, ‘make up’ for the denials he had previously made.

But it was a hard challenge to face, and we are told that by the third time of asking Peter was quite upset. Now bearing in mind what had happened at Jesus’ arrest and betrayal I can’t see much justification for the fact that ‘Peter felt hurt’ as it says in our translation. It can only be that there was something more going on in this questioning than what we read from reading the passage, Peter was being challenged by Jesus on a deeper level than the questions we see recorded here.

And to me, it is a reminder that challenge is a very real part of our Christian life. It is a challenge to live up to the standards which our faith demands, living lives which show Jesus’ way of doing things, bringing (as St Paul says in the letter to the Romans) ‘every thought captive to Christ. It is a challenge facing up to the ridicule, persecution, misunderstanding, scepticism and sometimes just plain apathy of others towards our faith.

But more than anything it is a challenge when we stand before Christ and hear the question for ourselves.

Do you love me more than these?

Do you love Christ more than anything else? Could you say that you love Christ more than anyone else here in this fellowship today? Is this what our faith, our church attendance, our part in the life of this Christian community is all about? Do we love Jesus?

It’s a good question to ask at this time in the parish year when our annual meeting follows this service, when we again consider the ways in which we seek to reach out in Christ’s name to our community, when we again consider our part in the life of this Church.

It is a challenge – and one which applies equally as much to me as to anyone else listening here. Is my love for Christ limited by my love of anything else? I think for most of us, the honest answer will be yes. We find ourselves distracted by the world we live in, the lives we lead, the things, and indeed the people, we consider precious and valuable.

But, like Peter, our calling is to love Christ more than these.

Now if I had a few hours I would go into detail about an excellent book written by the Theologian Miroslav Volf called ‘Free of Charge’ which explains why participating in God’s way of loving, giving and forgiving makes it possible for us to love one another in a way which far outstrips any love we can give, and that God’s love gives us the appropriate tools with which to grapple with the world and things in it that draw our attention.

But I won’t do that, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to get to grips with this issue, but want to re-iterate that Jesus calling us to love him more than anything else, and to love him above all others, is not a recipe for detaching ourselves from others, or for neglect of family and friends, but on the contrary enhances and transforms those relationships.

But there is plenty to learn about this encounter with Peter which can challenge and encourage us.

Firstly, the most important thing to note is that, obvious as it may seem, this is an encounter with the risen Jesus. Peter’s life, one which had been very recently filled with fear, and had involved him going back, at least to a certain degree, to the life he had before becoming a disciple, is transformed as he meets Jesus again. This is our challenge too, to meet Jesus – to be open to his life, his influence, his transformation in our own lives.

We encounter Christ in our prayer lives; which needs to be worked at, in reading scripture; which needs to be a daily discipline, in worship; which should be a regular feature of our lives, and in so many unexpected places in our lives. But in order to encounter the risen Jesus we need to be open to him and allow him in to our lives.

Secondly from this encounter we see forgiveness. Jesus brings Peter on from the guilt and pain of his denials to a new relationship with him, a relationship with responsibility, new life, and a new level of commitment and grace filled living.

Which leads onto my third point, that it didn’t end with Jesus forgiving Peter. Again it may seem an obvious point, but in response to Peter’s statement that he did love Jesus he is given a task to do – feed my sheep.

It is like that in our own Christian lives. It doesn’t all grind to a halt when we say we are Christians – our responsibility, and indeed God’s work in us – doesn’t start and finish with a commitment to Christ and with our forgiveness.

The purpose of Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter was to draw him onwards to where God wanted him to be. It was not just to make him feel better or to make him feel a part of the ‘Jesus club’ where membership has its privileges!

It’s the same in our wider Christian lives – we find ourselves caught between assurance of our salvation, and the absolute nature of what Jesus has done for us in dying on the cross an rising to new life, and the need to grow in that faith, to be drawn towards holiness, which is known as ‘sanctification’. So Paul can write to the Phillipians ‘continue to work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling.’ (Phil 2.12) – it is not that we haven’t been saved, but that our salvation leads us on to something, as our lives are changed, as the hymn says, from glory to glory – glory in the salvation wrought for us, to glory in lives filled with Christ.

So when Jesus asks if we love him, we can be encouraged because if we respond ‘yes’ he will begin to lead us to the places where he knows we should be, doing the things he knows we should be doing, and growing in the faith which he provides and the fullness of life which comes only through Him.

May our Church be a place where we can say ‘we love you lord, do with us as you will’ Amen.

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