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Do You Love Me in This New World?
John 21:15-19 4-25-21
The Gospel of John opens by dramatically linking Jesus to the very creation of Heaven and Earth.
John 1:1-2 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Such a majestic introduction, but how does his Gospel end?
That’s what John chapter 21 is about.
We all know the famous WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” … which is a good question to keep in mind as we go through each day.
But to answer that we also have to ask WDJD: “What Did Jesus Do?”
When we ask that, we see that Jesus’ mission did not end with his Resurrection.
Yes, Jesus conquered death and died for our sins … but it did not end there – there’s more to the story.
In the weeks following the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples became confused about what to do in the post-Resurrection reality they found themselves in.
That was the disciples’ question in their new world, and ours, too, in our new world.
After some weeks some of them tried to put the hype and hope behind them and just go back to the safe and familiar ways of doing things, but as their unsuccessful night of fishing illustrated, they failed miserably.
There was no going back, and yet they didn’t know how to go forward, either.
How many times have we recently heard that we’re living in “unprecedented times”?
The phrase is so overused that it’s starting to feel meaningless.
But as followers of Jesus, we need to take note and ask what are we called to be in these uncharted waters.
Army Chaplain Major Ivan Arreguin is trained for war and has seen many overseas deployments.
But in April last year, he was given orders he’d never expected: to assist the hospitals overwhelmed by COVID in his own country – in New York City.
He arrived to find an exhausted staff and a system stretched to its limits.
He said doctors and nurses broke down and cried when he walked in the door as they thanked him for coming.
American military deployed to help in our hospitals – yes, COVID has changed everything.
Before the pandemic, about one in ten adults displayed symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder.
But by January of this year, that had increased fourfold to four in ten adults … even more so among millennials and essential workers.
And those issues won’t just disappear after the pandemic wanes: widespread depression and discouragement will be with us for years to come.
There’s also been a fundamental shift in how we interact – just think of how familiar we are with Zoom, an app you may not have even heard of 18-months ago.
I was talking last week with a good friend in Tennessee about his Methodist church.
He said that before the pandemic he maybe got to church every three or four weeks – but because of social media he and his wife haven’t missed a single service since March 22 of last year.
Some of the changes can be disorienting.
So, What Did Jesus Do with his depressed, discouraged and disoriented disciples when they found themselves in a new reality?
First, he traveled to Galilee.
He met them where they were at, on their turf, and then he got them together and shared a meal.
In his post-Resurrection glory, he could have held a mega-rally.
He could have sparked a political insurrection.
He could have demanded his disciples return to Jerusalem to meet with him.
But as we saw last week, in an act of intimate compassion he built a campfire on the beach in Galilee and served a simple breakfast to comfort and reassure seven confused disciples.
And as we just heard from Terry’s reading, it didn’t end there.
Next, Jesus, who seemed to already know every thought of those around him, looked up at Peter and asked, Do you love me?
The question may have shaken Peter a little.
For one thing, the last time a similar question was put to him around a different campfire he denied so much as knowing Jesus at all.
Sure, he’d flinched when faced with the threat of death, but who wouldn’t?
Otherwise, hadn’t Peter faithfully followed Jesus along miles and miles of hot dusty roads and hours and hours of freezing nights?
Hadn’t he helped feed the crowds bread and fish?
Hadn’t he climbed the mountain with Jesus to meet Moses and Elijah?
Why ask such a question when Peter assumed that Jesus already knew the answer?
John 21:15 “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” to which Jesus gave a curious reply, “Feed my sheep”.
But this exchange doesn’t end there.
Maybe Jesus was just not satisfied by Peter’s off-the-cuff response because two more times Jesus repeats the same question:
Do you love me?
The text says that on the third time Peter’s feelings were hurt.
John 21:17 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.”
If we’re paying attention to our bible reading, daily devotions or weekly sermons, we keep hearing some form of that same question, and I wonder if any of us are hurt by its nagging repetition.
Think of all we have done, all the time we’ve given, all the money we’ve committed.
Isn’t it plain that we love Jesus?
But Jesus won’t leave it at that – Jesus persists with his question.
Even if we’ve proven our love in previous times, how are we – personally and as a church – to live our love of Christ in these, new times?
Looking back over the previous twenty chapters, we realize that the entire Gospel has been directed to this moment and this persistent question.
Do you really love me?
In fact, the previous chapter ended this way:
John 20:30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.
While we’ve been taught to think of belief as head stuff, in Jesus’ time belief was more encompassing than that.
It was your heart, your passion, your life-compass, what you would sacrifice for … what we think of as love.
So, it comes down to our choice.
Jesus’ incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection and forgiveness of sins have all been unearned gifts.
As a matter of fact, that breath you just took is an unearned gift from God.
So, our love of Jesus is revealed in how we respond to his gifts in every encounter of our life … especially right now in the midst of the chaos, pain and uncertainty in these, yes, unprecedented times.
The death of over 560,000 Americans because of COVID, has shaken me into realizing that we cannot take a single day of life for granted.
We are alive today by chance and by grace.
Did you notice that Jesus didn’t say “feed my sheep” until after he’d had the campfire time with his disciples?
They couldn’t go into their new world running on empty … they first needed to reconnect with the Lord.
Maybe you’re feeling disconnected from this new world, or maybe you need to clear the brain fog some are complaining about, or maybe to step back from the confusions and fears and feel God’s presence again.
We’ve talked about many ways to do this but today I just want to lift up one simple way to become more present to God.
You are alive today – that’s grace.
So, make a practice of beginning each day, beginning each meal, beginning your night’s sleep by speaking directly to God and saying “Thank you for this day and thank you for being with me through it”.
I say it a lot – and slowly the reality of being alive today as a gift sinks in.
I’ll share that I’ve grown much more appreciative of life, more aware of God’s presence, and less critical of others’ flaws and my own mistakes by remembering that I am alive by the grace of God.
It won’t always be so … but today I have that gift and have a choice of what to do with it.
Then, Jesus asks again, Do you really love me? and if we say yes, then he again says feed my sheep.
But what does that look like?
Another part of the social landscape that is evolving is the lowest levels of church participation in over a century – and it’s continuing a rapid decline.
So, at the very time people traditionally have turned to churches for direction, strength and encouragement, they actually are turning away.
For the first time since Gallup began tracking religious life, fewer than half of Americans now claim affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque.
This decline crosses all generations and all denominations but is disproportionally high among millennials and mainline Protestants.
So, where are people going to find faith?
First off, remember that you may be the only Bible most of your friends will ever read.
They may learn forgiveness, generosity and tolerance by what they observe in you.
It is contagious.
I remember going first thing in the morning to a City office twenty-some years ago, I think to get a building permit.
I remember walking into this small office and finding everyone was smiling and joyful.
I was shocked to find this in a City office, but I quickly realized that it was emanating from the two women who were working behind the counter.
They were getting everyone’s day off to a good start by their joyful, encouraging attitudes.
I remember going home and telling Vivienne about it and saying to her, “Those two women are Christians” – I could just feel it.
Unfortunately, in today’s polarized political church world people don’t say that about Christians very much anymore … but you can be part of the change.
It’s needed more than ever in our stressed-out world today.
Another way you can feed Jesus’ sheep is to encourage them back into in-person worship.
As we begin to return to some in-person worship, it will take intentional effort on all of our parts to encourage people back to church.
Some people have just gotten out of the habit of coming to church, but they need to be with people worshiping together and caring for one another in person.
Help them, encourage them to take that step.
So, it just feels that I should leave you with the question: what else might it mean for you (and for us as a church) to feed Jesus’ sheep in this new world?
Pray that, live that – hear it as Jesus’ personal question to you: Do you love me? Go feed my sheep.