It’s been a long time now but I remember my dating days. One of the practices of dating couples is to pause every so often for a DTR. Is that a familiar set of initials for you? I’ve heard it still in use around this place lately. The DTR is the 'Define the Relationship' conversation two people have when they want to describe out loud what they're doing together and what they're future might look like. Defining the relationship you’re in is an important part of taking the next step—a deeper step together.
Our text today describes a ‘define the relationship’ conversation between Jesus and Peter. This story takes place after the resurrection, and Jesus has just had a meal with Peter and some of the others.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
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.
Peter is really one of the great characters in the entire Bible. He’s brave and faithful—but he can also just as quickly show himself to be dimwitted and cowardly. He’s the first guy out of the boat—literally when he walks on water—but in one of the most dramatic scenes toward the end of Jesus’ life, Peter has three chances to acknowledge that he was a follower of Jesus, and three times he denies even knowing him.
Too often Peter speaks and acts before he thinks, which really just makes him just like the rest of us, only more so.
Our passage today comes near the end of John’s story of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples have left their homes and families and lives to follow Jesus around the countryside and into Jerusalem, only to see him arrested, beaten, convicted and executed. He comes back to them after three days, but they’re still traumatized—and who can blame them—they’re still trying to figure out how things got so bad so quickly.
Peter probably feels more lost and wounded and frustrated than the rest of the disciples. All he had ever been was a humble fisherman, until this strange rabbi called him into ministry by saying ‘Follow me’. And now according to Jesus he was supposed to be the human foundation of the Christian church—the community of the faithful—but instead he stood in a public square and showed the world just how little faith he really had. Then he watched his teacher—his master—crucified—and then he had to face him again after the miracle of Easter. This is high drama here. So what does Peter do?
He goes back to work, out into his boat and starts fishing again. In the passage just before our text, Peter and his co-workers went out on the water but had an awful night—they didn’t catch anything, which must have added to their sense of frustration and hopelessness. Jesus calls out to them to try one more time—they didn’t recognize him at first—and they ended up with more fish than they could manage.
As soon as Peter realized who it was, he didn’t hesitate—he jumped back into the water and swam to shore to have breakfast—grilled fish and bread—with Jesus. After they had eaten, Jesus turned to Peter, sitting with the others, and started the real grilling.
‘Peter, do you truly love me more than anything?’
Peter responded saying: ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ And Jesus said: ‘Feed my lambs.’
But Jesus didn’t let it go at that, and so he asked him again:
‘Do you truly love me?’
Again Peter said: ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ And Jesus responded: ‘Take care of my sheep.’
It’s the third time that makes it clear to Peter what was happening. Jesus says to Peter: ‘Do you love me?’
Peter’s heart broke because he knew right then and there that he was getting a chance to make up for blowing three chances to demonstrate his faith—three chances to be the person Jesus seemed to think that he was.
Peter responded by saying: ‘Lord, you know all things—you know that I love you.’ And once again Jesus simply says: ‘Feed my sheep.’
This passage is known by a lot of different names. Mostly it’s some version of the Reinstatement of Peter, or the Restoration of Peter—anything that begins with RE, meaning basically that it’s about a ‘do-over’, a second chance. Peter is being forgiven by Jesus here—forgiven for his faithlessness and denials—and getting another chance to be the person God called him to be.
There are some important things to notice in this story:
First: The ‘Do you love me?’ questions teach us about the values of God’s kingdom. Notice that he doesn’t say ‘Are you sorry?’ or ‘Have you suffered enough?’ or ‘Are you ever going to do that again?’ All Jesus asks of Peter is that one simple thing: Do you love me? In God’s eyes that’s all that really matters. We can haggle over everything as we learn to be a church together, but in the values of the Kingdom the only thing that matters is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind.
Second: Peter doesn’t defend himself. Not that he really has anything to say in his own defense, but he’s known for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and it’s a nice surprise that he doesn’t do it here. Instead, he calls the only character witness he can muster up at that point, Jesus himself. Notice that every time Peter answers, he says ‘You know I love you’… ‘YOU of all people know how much I love you.’ Peter gets three chances to say out loud how much he loves his Lord and Savior—three chances to erase the memory of the way he abandoned Jesus at his crucifixion.
Finally: The response from Jesus to each answer from Peter is the road map for living the life we were meant to live. It’s not enough just to say or sing how much we love God. It’s not enough to be forgiven and restored and cleansed. When Christ reconciles us he reinstates us and sets us aside for a purpose: Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.
The response of the faithful to God’s gift of restoration is service in his name—it’s taking our part in the mission of the church of Jesus Christ and doing the work he called us to do. The mission of the church is to respond to the gift it’s been given by serving the rest of the world. Remember what Jesus said to Peter? Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep. That call is on us now. That call is what defines our relationship with the God who made us and sustains us.
So what do we do about it?
How a church serves is an indication of what it believes—it’s a glimpse into how it understands Christ’s reconciling, restoring work—it’s a heart monitor that measures signs of life. Mission is the fourth pillar of a healthy church, after Fellowship, Worship, and Discipleship.
Mission and service are the mark of an organic church, a church that is growing from the inside out—a church that has looked the Christ in his eyes and said: ‘Lord, you know all things—you know that we love you—imperfectly, in our brokenness, driven by all sorts of distractions. You know that we love you.’
What separates hollow churches from churches that overflow with life, is how we respond to the next line in the scene: Jesus Messiah looks us right back and says: ‘Feed my lambs—take care of my sheep—protect the innocent—house the poor—share my saving gospel with anyone who will listen. How we respond to that is a measure of our pulse as a church—as a community of fellow travellers, trying be faithful as we walk this journey of following Jesus.
None of that happens without a plan, though, and there’s a new plan taking shape here.
On Thursday I met with a representative of Habitat for Humanity here in the UK. We talked over this church’s history with their work—a lot of us who have come here in the last year or two may not know that this church has sent teams to work on projects in Romania, Zambia, Northern Ireland, Poland and Armenia. It’s time that we started doing something like that again.
On Thanksgiving Day we heard from Terry Tennens, the director of the International Justice Mission here in the UK. When we start our Lent Bible Study on the 21st, we’re going to be using a study guide the IJM has created on the biblical call to justice. If you’re interested in learning more about what the Bible says about justice for the weak and the oppressed, come join us for the four Thursday evenings here at the church.
Closer to home, your Church Council has made a decision in faith to devote 10% of this church’s budget to serving other people—to the work of Christ’s mission here and around the world. If you’re interested in playing a part in deciding where some of that support will go, there’s a new missions committee forming this spring when the new Council begins. It’s hard work, but…you know what? That’s it—there is no ‘but’—it’s hard work, but it’s some of the best work you’ll ever do.
This past week we heard a state of the union address—whatever you think about the current administration, you can’t ignore the fact that these last few years have represented an extremely difficult time to be in leadership. If nothing else, this week we were reminded again that it’s so much easier to be in opposition—to snipe from the sidelines—than it is to govern—to lead in challenging times.
What we see in this call to service is the state of a different kind of union. The grilling that Peter got from Jesus is a reminder that our union with Christ grows out of our repentance, and more importantly, out of Christ’s endless capacity to forgive us—to restore us—and to call us into action.
Our part of that union is to hear Christ’s call to go out into the world and serve it with passion and wisdom and joy and faith and love. Not as good people who have earned our jobs, but as people who have been reconciled and restored and reinstated. As we come to the table this morning—as we celebrate Communion—we remember what Christ has done and offers to do in each one of our lives, and also in this community of faith. This meal is partly to remind us that we have some feeding to do. Come to the Table.