do you love me?: John 21

read John 21.  One of the hardest things I know to do is to pray before acting.  It goes against the grain.  It produces an almost visceral feeling of annoyance in us to have to STOP right in our tracks, go off and get quiet and ask God about something – instead of charging once more into the breach, guns blazing, sure of ourselves and our sheer rightness and the stubborn wrongness of everyone else – even though experience tells us, over and over again, that we’ll end up flat on our face, ammunition spent, with nothing but the scent of napolm in the air, and the battered, bruised, bloodied bodies of the people we have wounded littering the ground beside us.

It’s hard not to believe we can be Batman.

I think it’s in that vein that even after the risen Jesus has appeared to the disciples, when Jesus seems to disappear again, Peter declares: “I’m going fishing.”  Because that’s what we humans do.  Even if we’ve glimpsed the transcendent reality of God, we return to the thing we know – the thing we did before God reached down and singed our hair with the heat of His love – even though, as it does for Peter here, we invariably end up catching nothing all night.

I love the fact that six disciples fall in right behind him.  You get the feeling that none of them can figure out what to do with themselves.  Fishing sounds good.

But what is it we plan on catching when we go charging back to our old watering holes?  What restlessness drives us to what AA calls the “people, places and things” we’re supposed to avoid because we associate them with our demons?  What are we chasing when we revert to our old ways?  What are we looking for?

I think that most of the time we just don’t know.  All we know is that we’re restless.  We want something.  We’re not sure what.  And when the pathway to God seems hard, opaque and murky; when God’s ways seem designed to deprive us of Mick Jagger’s kind of satisfaction… we climb back into those same old rickety leaking boats, hoping against hope that this time, just this once, they’ll take us where we really want to go.

But if we’re not sure what we really want, they can never get us there.  Jesus once asked Peter to leave the fishing profession with the simple words: “I will make you a fisher of men.”  That promise spoke to something deep in Peter’s heart.  After this encounter with Jesus in this, the very last chapter of the last gospel, Peter becomes an evangelist so powerful that people were healed just because Peter’s shadow fell on them.  So what happened in this chapter?  What was the turning point?  Where’s the big transition?

Strangely, at least to an English major whose been slapped on the metaphorical wrist with boatloads of spilled red ink for the slightest hint of mixing metaphors… the transition has something to do with Jesus moving Peter from a fisher of men to someone who feeds sheep.  Sheep don’t eat fish.  So what is it that Peter, the fisherman, is supposed to feed Jesus’ sheep with?

The hinge, or focal point, for this about-face seems to be Christ’s question to Peter: “do you love me?”

Here’s the setting: before Christ asks this question, the disciples are returning empty-handed after a night of fishing. Jesus calls to them from the shore and tells them to throw their nets on the other side.  The seven disciples don’t know who Jesus is, John says, but they obey Him.  Stop right there.  Why would anyone listen to someone they don’t recognize, especially after an exhausting fruitless night of fishing?  Is it just because they figure – “hey, what do we have to lose?”  Maybe.  But maybe this is a stunning example of what Jesus meant when He said earlier in the gospel of John: “my sheep know my voice.”

It’s like all those people in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind who start building the same mountain, obsessively, out of clay, garbage, shaving cream – anything they can get their hands on.  When the mountain is shown on t.v., those people jump in their cars to get there.  They abandon their families, jobs and homes just to get to the place that calls to something deep in them.  They go. Here, too, these seven men seem to know the voice of God – because they listen to Him, almost with their hearts not their eyes.  Deep calls to deep.

The moment they throw their nets on the other side – a metaphor I’ve always loved for how God turns us in opposite directions – they catch so many fish the nets almost break.  This has happened before.  Immediately, John says, “it’s the Lord.”  This is the same John who has written this gospel and who has no shame here describing Himself as “the one Jesus loved.”  Perhaps this confident belief that God loves John was the source of John’s incredible power – the one that carried him through the writing of this gospel, three moving letters about love, and the Book of Revelation.  When you KNOW God loves you, how could you not have confidence and power?  Isn’t being loved like that what we all want?

Peter, always impetuous, jumps in the water.  The rest wait it out on the boat.  Peter takes time to put his outer coat on – which has always struck me as the kind of thing we do when we’re excited – we grab an umbrella even though the sun’s shining – we put the milk in the oven and pour orange juice into the dishwasher – we smile, broadly, foolishly, for no reason, except that the one we love has come back, when we least expected, and we’re so happy to see them we’re beside ourself.  It’s the kind of reaction dogs have all the time when we walk into the kitchen – they wet the floor, spin in circles and wag their tails so hard they almost fall over.

And here’s the most incredible part, done so quietly that I missed it until I sat down to write this blog.  Jesus has just been crucified.  He’s gone to hell.  He’s experienced all the wrath of God – the punishment we humans deserve for our sins.  He’s come back from the dead – and who knows what kind of a drain just that feat alone entails.  And after all this – He has breakfast waiting for the disciples on the beach.  He’s got fresh bread, and he’s been cooking them fish over a fire of coals on the beach.  Is Jesus really that kind?  Can He possibly be that thoughtful?  Is he that long-suffering with our fruitless pursuits?  Apparently the answer is yes.  Apparently He has the kind of love that enables Him to endure far beyond the worst we could imagine, and rather than wallow in self-pity about it, wait on a beach to serve the very people who scattered like grapeshot at the first hint of trouble.

Jesus waits until Peter has eaten before He asks Peter, three times – the same number of times as Peter had denied Him – if Peter loves Him: “do you love me more than these?” Peter says he does.  And each time, Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep.

I’m not sure what the “these” are that Jesus is asking Peter about- the other disciples?  The fish?  The beach, sand, sea and breaking dawn?  Maybe it’s all of it.  Maybe Jesus is asking Peter if Peter loves Him more than Peter loves anything else in the whole wide world.

Peter, being Peter, says of course.  John says Peter is “hurt” that Jesus asks three times.  But does Peter love Jesus more than these?  There’s one more telling detail.  The Greek language contains four words of “love”, a nuance lost to English speakers.  You can listen to C.S. Lewis – in his own voice no less – read from his book The Four Loves if you want to learn about it at length. But the brief summary is that in Greek there’s eros, which needs no explanation.  There’s storgi, which is love for the familiar – C.S. Lewis talks of the “thump of the dog’s tail on the kitchen floor” – which we miss when it’s gone.  There’s philios, which is brotherly love.  And then there’s agape.  I almost don’t want to translate agape, because here’s where all humans – Greeks and English speakers alike – fall short.  Agape is the kind of love that meant that from the moment God made Adam, He knew He’d have to send Jesus to rescue us.  Because agape is God’s kind of love.  It’s sacrificial, patient and perfect.  It’s the kind of love that can return from a grave and serve breakfast.  It’s the kind of love we long both to give and to receive – because we’re made in God’s image – but it’s the kind of love we catch only a hint of, a scent, a single elusive note – the kind of note that makes a man who hears a mermaid sing wander down to the sea to listen for her plaintive haunting melody the rest of his life.  It’s the voice that we listen for our whole lives, straining to hear it in as the wind whistles through the trees and the mourning doves coo.

Jesus asks Peter if Peter “agapes” him, and Peter replies that he “philios” him.  Jesus asks Peter if Peter has God’s kind of love for Jesus, and Peter replies that he has man’s kind of love, a brotherly love. Twice.  Finally, Jesus asks if Peter has a brotherly love for Jesus, and Peter replies that he does.  Peter has that kind of love.

Hold it.  This seems to be a new Peter.  Because the Peter who betrayed Jesus was full of bravado.  The old Peter would have proclaimed: “absolutely.  Of course.  No.  Problem.  Of course I love you with God’s kind of love. I’m a great guy, and you can count on me to cover your back.”  Peter DID say that at the Last Supper.  He said that even if EVERYONE else betrayed Jesus, he, Peter, never would.  That was the cocky Peter – the one, therefore, who burst into tears when the cock crowed.  I love that it was a cock that spelled Peter’s doom – it’s a fitting animal to testify to the shortcomings of being the kind of strutting, puffed up, cocky person that Peter was.

But the cross changed everything.

As it always does.

The new Peter recognizes his shortcomings.  He acknowledges his limitations.  And boom – just like that – in as much time as it takes a spark to fly from a fire of coals kindled on the beach – God restored Peter to sainthood.  Because sainthood – despite the casings we give it in English – has nothing to do with perfection.  Sainthood, in fact, is the exact opposite.  Sainthood comes when we recognize, and hate, the gap between our limitations and God’s perfection.  Sainthood comes when we, humbled and full of nothing but our human kind of love for God, admit that the best we can muster is philios, and that we long for more, and ask God for it – and that is when finally, at last, heroically, God can fill us with His agape.

And so we sing.

Until we don’t, all over again.  Because the very next thing that happens is that Jesus explains to Peter the kind of martyrs’ death Peter will suffer, and Peter turns around and asks of John, the disciple Jesus loved, – “what about HIM?”  The moment Peter is restored to sainthood, he displays a completely human moment of jealousy.

Jesus meets Peter’s jealousy, as we would expect, with the words: “what is it to you?”

It’s a good question.  What IS it to us what happens to other people?  Why DO we care?  Why DO we feel badly, sometimes, when other people seem to have nicer houses, clothes, children, spouses, parents, toys, jobs —  you can fill in the blank with whatever your personal Covet Poison happens to be?  What IS our problem?

Who knows.  It must go back to pride, to wanting to be God, instead of trusting that whatever God gives us is the right thing for us, at the right time, and our job is to just love Him – with gratitude – because this is a God who wants to give us His agape kind of love when we can’t agape Him back – and who is willing to give us an agape love for Him and others, over and over, if we are willing to ask for it, because He knows we run dry, over and over.

And that is how the four gospels of Jesus Christ end.  With a moment of jealousy.  And then John adds the beautiful words that he supposes that if all that Jesus did were written down, the whole world couldn’t contain those books.

I’d like to read those books, though.  I guess that’s what happens when we read the Bible.  Each time we read it, the words get richer and deeper, as they resonate with our own experiences, and what grace and circumstances have made of us, lashed against the masts of those experiences.  Just as Jesus moves Peter from someone who fishes for fish; to someone who fishes for men; to someone who feeds lambs – so Jesus can change us, if we’re willing, from people who spend all night fishing for we know not what; to people who start feeding others  – because God has so filled us with all that He is, it’s as if there’s light bursting from between our fingers.

But we don’t feed others with OUR light, or out of OUR perfection.  If we waited for that, we might as well bar the doors and wait for the Grim Reaper.  We feed others out of our imperfection – because we’re not giving them ourselves.  We’re giving them a gift given as freely as fish grilled over a coal fire on a beach at dawn – at the very moment we’ve returned empty-handed, because we’ve been up all night fishing in the wrong places.

And maybe that’s when we start to pray.  Not because we have to.  But because we find that even when we don’t love God, He loves us.  We discover we can go to God to get filled with a deep joyful satisfaction that nothing else can give.  We can go to God whenever we want, no matter where we’ve been fishing, and we will find there the peace that passes all understanding, the love that defies the boundaries of all our languages, and the joy that comes from the deepest murmurs of waves crashing onto a beach from a sunlit sea.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on August 10, 2012

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