Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, 2019

Berett Steffen

                The Gospel reading for this morning is one of those readings where you really have to put some serious thought into what you’re going to preach about, because there’s a lot going on. You have Jesus’ final appearance in the Gospel of John. You have the disciples going fishing but catching nothing, then, at Jesus’ direction, catching so many fish they can’t even haul their net into the boat. You have Jesus feeding his disciples. And finally, you have the interrogation of Peter, where Jesus asks him three times, “do you love me?” While you could write a good sermon about any of these things, it’s the last one that interests me the most: the three questions. And like most things in the Bible, it’s interesting to me because it’s not immediately clear what the purpose of the questioning is.

                Well, I can tell you that the questioning is not because Jesus is trying to be difficult. It’s actually a gradual undoing of Peter’s sin. It’s leading him to true repentance and absolution. How’s that, you ask? Because Peter denied Jesus three times. While Jesus was on trial, Peter stood outside the courtroom in the cold, in an apparent gesture of solidarity and friendship. But when the time came to confess his faith, fear got the better of him and he denied that he even knew Jesus at all. At the end of the day, it seems that Peter walked the walk, but he wasn’t able to talk the talk. And, interestingly enough, talking the talk was the important part. Jesus says, “whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” Failing to confess Jesus has serious consequences. If you shirk your confession, Jesus promises that he will also shirk his. Refusing to confess your faith is equivalent to refusing the faith itself. So, it looks like Judas and Peter are really in the same club; each are traitors; each unfaithful.

                But there is a significant difference between the two: Judas was a sellout, to the chief priests and more importantly to the devil. And when he realized what he’d done—that he’d had a major role in the Lord’s death—he tried to make things right, not by asking for forgiveness, but by giving back the blood money. He essentially tried to buy his salvation. When that didn’t work, he fell into a deep depression and killed himself. The devil had Judas under his thumb, and he died as he lived—with no faith, no confession, and no hope.

                But Peter is not a sellout. He doesn’t try to buy salvation. If you remember our Good Friday readings, after he denied Jesus the third time, he heard the rooster crow, just like Jesus said it would, and when he heard it, he wept. But instead of running to the cold embrace of death, like Judas, he comes running back to the Lord. Or rather, swimming. In today’s reading, he doesn’t even wait for the boat to get to shore before he throws himself into the sea. Peter’s faith is still very much alive.

But it’s not over yet; Peter might have felt sorry for his betrayal, but he hasn’t yet arrived at true repentance and absolution. Sin is a poison, and the poison needs to be extracted. This is the purpose of the questioning.

Unfortunately, the questioning doesn’t translate into English very well, so it’s hard to see what’s going on right away. It says that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the third time, “do you love me?” It looks to us English speakers like Peter is just upset because Jesus keeps asking him the same question over and over, but that’s not exactly right. The problem is, while English has only one word for love, Greek has upwards of four. And in this passage, two words for love are being used; one by Jesus, the other by Peter. And they mean very different things.

                The word for love that Jesus uses is “agape.” This is the highest form of love. Agape love is a love that’s totally unselfish; it’s a love that gives everything it has to the other person and withholds nothing. This kind of love is God’s love. It’s the love that God has for man, and man for God (through faith). So, when Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you ‘agape’ me?” he’s also asking, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you have faith?” Now, you would expect Peter to answer, “yes, Lord, you know that I ‘agape’ you,” but he doesn’t. Instead, Peter uses a different word for love, which is “phileo.” “Phileo” love is like brotherly love. It’s the kind of love you have for your friends and siblings. This is not the same as “agape” love. Not even close. So, Peter isn’t really giving a good answer here. It’s a bit like asking “do you love me” and getting the reply, “yeah, I like you.” It’s just not quite there.

                And this is why Jesus’ last question hits Peter so hard. The final time, Jesus doesn’t ask, “Simon, do you ‘agape’ me?” but “Simon, son of Jonah, do you ‘phileo’ me?” He uses Peter’s word against him. Now Peter sees what Jesus is getting at. Jesus was asking him if he had faith, which he answered in the affirmative. But now, Jesus is asking if Peter really loves him as a brother. No doubt Peter remembered Jesus’ previous teaching: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother…” The will of the Father is that we confess our faith before God and men, and with this final, devastating question, Peter realizes that he’s fallen far short of glory. But instead of crying about it, he doubles down and says “Lord, you know all things; You know that I ‘phileo’ you.” “You know that I am your brother.” Despite his betrayal, and despite his sin, Peter is absolutely certain that, because Christ loves him and called him to be a disciple, that even his infidelity is forgivable. And he’s absolutely right. I’m reminded of a certain man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Here, I can imagine Peter saying, “Lord, I love you. Help my un-love.”

                So, Peter is absolved, and given charge as a shepherd over the Lord’s flock—but along with this comes an ominous oracle: that if Peter is really going to follow Jesus, he won’t die peacefully in his sleep, but he’ll stretch out his hands and be carried away against his will. If Peter is going to follow Jesus, he will have to literally take up his cross. As the story goes, not 40 years later, Peter will be crucified in Rome, and according to legend, he’ll request to be crucified upside-down, since he felt that he wasn’t worthy to die in the same way as his Lord.

                The story of Peter’s fall from grace, his reinstatement, and his death is also our story. It’s for good reason that the confession in Divine Service setting 1 says, “we have not loved you with our whole heart.” How can we? Our hearts are full of sin and have nothing good in them at all. But at the same time, no Christian in their right mind would ever say, “I don’t love Jesus.” This is the paradox of the human condition. We don’t love him, but we do. Only through faith are we able to double down, like Peter, and say, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Because we do love him, but only because he first loved us, and by his love and the gift of faith, we’ve been given new hearts. This is what we confess in the liturgy, and this is what we confess before the whole world. And we will suffer for this confession, because the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh hate it. Following Jesus isn’t painless. But the sufferings of this life are an easy burden to bear, when we see them in the light of glory. The hope of eternal life eclipses all misery; and the love of God has such a strong hold on us that even though we sin continually, his forgiveness is always and forever unconditional. And this peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds safely in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.