Reading for the Third Sunday of Easter:
After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Master, you know I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
He then asked a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Master, you know I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Shepherd my sheep.’
Then he said it a third time: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ so he answered, ‘Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’
Jesus has been abandoned, betrayed by his all his male followers. (The women, strangely, stood by him and helped bury him). Now his women followers, who had not abandoned him, found his tomb empty. Two disciples — one who is Simon Peter, another who is either John the Son of Zebedee or Mary Magdalene — have found his tomb empty. I believe God has some important things to say to us in these verses.
Notice with me a few things.
First, notice that the disciples did not recognize who Jesus was. I view this as significant for a number of reasons. There are some things about this I would point out in a funeral sermon — about the resurrection body and the new life folks enter. But I think there is also a significance for people, like many I have spoken to, who say, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard God speak to me,” or “I don’t think God speaks today,” or “How can so-and-so say they hear God’s voice? That sounds crazy.”
The truth is that God is always with us, wherever we are, and through his Spirit that breathes life into every creature, God is always speaking to us and guiding us. I know a lot of people who say, “I came back to God.” The truth of Scripture is you never left God. Always ever, God is with us, speaking to us.
The question is not “Is God with you?” Or “Is God speaking?” The question is, “Do you recognize God and are you listening?”
You see, God in Jesus came seeking out these men and women who followed him who had lost their way and were so stricken by failure and grief that they could not hear or recognize God’s voice.
How many times in life do people who do not even believe in God say, “I just had this feeling…” about a choice they made and, if they listened to that feeling, are thankful they did — and sometimes when they didn’t, say they see now they should have? God was speaking to them though they did not recognize it.
‘Do you love me?’
Second, notice with me that what Jesus asks is not “Will you do this for me?” but “Do you love me?”
So many times, we get it so wrong. As one of your two pastors, I have to confess to you all that I get it wrong all the time myself. We get caught up in “Is God calling me to make this decision or that?” or “What does God want me to do with my life?” or “How can I serve in the church or community?”
Don’t get me wrong. These are important questions. These are good questions. We need to ask them. However, I am as guilty as anyone else of having so many times made them my focus and forgotten the point.
You see, the point — what God is more concerned about — is not which decision you make, what job you take, what school you go to, where you live, who you date or settle down with, of if you lead or serve somewhere. What God is saying to you and me is, “Do you love me more than these other things in your life?”
God made each of us with an emptiness in our lives that will only be filled when we welcome God in our life as Savior, Friend, Lover, Brother — as the one we love before all others. If we have that, God will grant us guidance and peace, joy and hope — no matter if we make the wrong step, end up in the wrong school, find ourselves in the wrong relationship or job or church. But if we don’t have this, God could place us in all the right places and it would not matter — for the peace, wisdom, intimacy, healing, love, joy we need will not be there and we will be empty shells.
Choosing to love God
Whatever your calling is in life — whatever God’s answer for your struggle is — you cannot find it until you accept God’s love for yourself and choose to love him first. Next, notice with me what God’s love will lead you to do — feed and shepherd God’s sheep.
Don’t misunderstand. Yes, that is the call of the pastor. That is Kat’s call; that is my call. But we misunderstand the will of God if we think that all the sheep God wants to be fed and shepherded can be met by just two people.
When you love God first and welcome God’s love, as you learn to recognize God’s voice in your life for what it is, you will find God giving you a compassion, a burning fire, to be there for people who have needs that only you and God together — not Kat and me — can meet. And though you won’t necessarily get a funny collar, or a title — for that moment and in those moments that follow, you will be their pastor because the Holy Spirit of God will be pastoring through you.
Look around this room at each person. Say to yourself, these are God’s sheep. If you love God first, pray and you will find God’s voice calling you be there for them, for each other.
Now look around this room at all the empty seats and think of who is not here today who needs to discover that God is already reaching out to and speaking to them, who needs to know and love God. Who do you see God showing you is missing? God is saying to you today — these are my sheep. As you love me, pray and I will show you how to feed and shepherd them.
‘What about them?’
Two final things.
First, notice what Jesus says to Peter near the end. Peter turns to Jesus and points at an unnamed disciple, the one who wrote the Gospel of John. Some scholars think this is John, son of Zebedee, a fiery character who we are told in the Bible once asked Jesus to throw down fire from heaven to get revenge on the people who hurt Jesus, yet who later goes through such a change of heart he becomes the writer of John 1-3 that speaks of the need for love and forgiveness. John is one of the first prophets of Christianity, penning the book of Revelation.
Other scholars think this disciple is Mary Magdalene, who we are told Jesus reached out to when she was either possessed or mentally ill, and who society lumped together with whores and street people. Yet when Jesus saved her she showed the most love toward him of any of Jesus’ followers, chose to abandon women’s work and learn alongside the disciples, and stood by him even at the cross when the men of the church ran and hid.
The Gospel of John never tells us which person wrote the book and who was this disciple — however it does tell us they had a different temperament than Peter. Peter was the natural leader of the disciples. He spoke up with what everyone was thinking. And many, many times he put his foot in his mouth and Jesus had to extract it by saying, “Simon, that isn’t God speaking through you; it’s Satan and your own damned pride.”
This un-named disciple, either Mary or John, was quiet, sat and listened to Jesus, knew Jesus’ heart, and had a depth of relationship with Jesus by quietly listening to him that Peter didn’t have. And you get the sense that Peter was jealous of this man or woman’s relationship with Jesus.
So now that Peter has said, “Yes, I love you” and “Yes I will feed your sheep,” of course he turns and points to either John Zebedee or Mary Magdalene and says, “Well, what about them? I know you think they are special. I see how you hang around them. Aren’t you going to tell them something to do? Why does it have to just be me?”
I love Jesus’ answer — though when I heard him speak it in my life the first time, I truly hated it. Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s question. He simply says, “What is that to you? For all it could matter, I could keep them alive until I return. It is none of your business. You need to focus on following me.”
I think God has a word for us there, doesn’t he?
How many of us, honestly, have said many times when we heard God calling us, “But God, what about… them? Why don’t you have them do it? Why me? But God — that means I have to be around so-and-so, and they annoy me. They hurt me. Their gifts and calling scare me.”
I would not be at all surprised if some of us are saying that this week. And I think if we will recognize it, we already know what Jesus is saying, don’t we? He is saying to you and to me when we start to point the finger at all these others in our lives, “What is that to you? It is none of your business. You need to focus on following me.”
And the reason it is none of our business is for our own good. Because as Jesus warns Peter, the places God is calling each of us to are outside our comfort zones. Peter will be handed over by the people he served, beaten and crucified. History tells us that is how Simon died. John Zebedee died in prison shortly after writing the book of Revelation. We don’t know how Mary Magdalene died — but we know she died not being remembered as a powerful witness to Christ, but as a whore. None of these ends could have been comfortable. But those three people’s respective callings led them to uncomfortable places.
The reason we cannot worry about the others and have to focus on Jesus is because it is about our own walk with God, not theirs, and God has things for each of us to do that others might not understand. And God is saying, “Follow me to feed and shepherd my sheep anyway, whether other people understand it or not.”
Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C., Rev. Micah Royal earned a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School and served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern N.C. Association of the United Church of Christ.