Monday, April 19, 2010

Agapas me? . . .

Peter, do you love me? Have any kinder and more emphatic words ever been spoken? Perhaps you have forgotten the context; after all, we are on Easter 3 and our Lord’s question is partially a response to Peter's actions of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. You remember, of course: Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crowed. Though Peter denied it, and though he stood ready to fight for Jesus' freedom in the garden of Gesthemene, Peter does in fact deny that he is a friend, companion, or knowledgeable at all of Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine the guilt? Can you imagine the personal sense of failure experienced by St. Peter? Given some of your questions on Low Sunday, and given that this exchange between Peter and Jesus is preserved by Scripture, I am certain that you do. I know I do. We are, after all, human beings. We are full of sin, not the least of which is that longing desire to be among those humans who did not need a lot of God's grace from just a few weeks ago. We want to believe that we are, basically, good people. The scourging, the mocking, the punching, and much of the ridicule were for the really bad people in the world. You know them: the murderers, the thieves, the abusers -- those that really hurt others. The bad people who do not gather in worship with us. And yet, here we are, discussing St. Peter and his failure before Christ. Why?

I can think of at least two reasons why this exchange between the Risen Lord and Peter takes place. On the one hand, Peter is restored by the very One whom he betrayed. Can you imagine Peter's personal sense of failure in light of the Resurrection. The shoulda/coulda/woulda's have to weigh heavily on him. "Gosh, He really was the Christ. He really was the Son of God. Man, I should never have slept in the garden. I should never have doubted in the storm. I should never have denied him before His death." You and I might experience those same feelings of unworth. Perhaps you have found yourself at work, listening to a care or concern of coworkers. You felt the compulsion to speak His truth into the situation, and His Gospel, or perhaps a prayer, and you chickened out. Who wants to be known among friends as a Jesus freak? Who wants to be known as the religious guy or gal who prayers about everything down the hall? We want desperately to be normal and to fit in. Yet we recognize that failure for what it was, a failure to do as our Lord commanded us. Perhaps you have found yourself trusting in things other than Him. Maybe, instead of letting Jesus bear your burdens and loads, you have found yourself seeking to drown your cares in the arms of a lover, in the chemical high of a drug, in the bottom of a jar of your favorite alcoholic drink. We want desperately to believe that He is sufficient to meet our needs, yet we find ourselves turning to everything but Him to ease the pain, to bear the burden, to forget our cares. We ignore church so we can “rest up” or “exercise by playing golf” or intellectually stimulate ourselves by staying home to “read the paper.” In a very real sense, Peter represents us. He has failed miserably, and Jesus will redeem him. In fact, only Jesus can redeem him, just as only Jesus can redeem us.

And so, on the shore, Jesus asks Peter three times "Do you love Me?" Three times Peter failed Jesus (three times recently, that is), and three times Jesus reaches out His hands in love to His disciple. And look at Jesus' response to Peter's answers. "Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep." The past is already forgotten, and the restored Peter is commissioned by the resurrected Messiah of Israel to go forth and feed God's flock. Often, Israel is presented by Scripture as God's flock, and Peter is told to go and feed them. Peter is instructed to go and feed them, young and old. He is told to tend their needs. And just like that, Peter is restored. He has a mission. He has a command from the very One whom he betrayed. He is restored to a dignity which he could never achieve on his own. He knows he is forgiven and sent out in the name of Jesus to care for His chosen people. And look at the transformation! An inelegant speaker will speak out in Acts, and thousands will be drawn to the Gospel (though, lamentably, crowds will at times be stirred up against the good news Peter has to proclaim). A former fisherman will begin to interpret the torah in the light of Christ for the religious leaders of his day and even for us. A former denier of Christ will, when push comes to shove later in life, refuse to recant his faith before the powers of the world and die as a martyr for that Lord who restored, redeemed, and commissioned him to be a bearer of good news!

But the story does not end with Peter's perspective. As most of you know, I just spent a few days listening to some amazing scholars at Wheaton. The best known of those speakers was N. T. Wright, a bishop in our Anglican church. Part of our jobs as Christians, he often teaches, is to figure out the why of the historical Jesus. Put another way, you and I are called not to think of Jesus as a theological concept floating around in our heads or in space above us but as, if we are believers, the Son of God who came into the world, for the sake of love, to redeem the world. And is there a better passage that demonstrates the truth of John 3:16 than what we read this week? Jesus meets us, every single one of us, where we are; then, and only then, does the transformation of our lives begin. The Scriptures teach us about God as much as they teach us about others who are not that different from us. What do we mean by this? Think of Jesus' questions. Agapas me? Agapas me? Phileis me? Twice Jesus asks Peter if he unconditionally loves Him. Twice, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him in a sacrificial way. Twice Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him as God loved His people Israel. Each time Peter declares Jesus to be his friend: philo se. Jesus is speaking in godly love terms, and Peter can only think right now in terms of friendship. It is not surprising that Peter answered in these terms. Outside Israel, no one in the ANE, not even their gods, could be conceived of loving unconditionally, of loving sacrficially, of loving in any way that resembled God's love. We are told, and we confess, that though He was fully divine, Jesus chose rather to empty Himself and take the form of a slave. John, who begins his Gospel story with the teaching that the Word was in the world, but that the world did not recognize Him even though the world was made through Him, ends his account with the reminder to each of us of the efforts to which God will go to reach us.

Nicole's lovely choice of a Gospel hymn should remind us of the truth of that statement and His effort to reach us. “it was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of thee” and "twas not so much that I on thee took hold, as thou, dear Lord, on me.” Such is God’s love for all of us that He tries to meet each of us where we are, even when we do not recognize Him, even when we question whether He exists, even when we have previously denied Him or persecuted Him. Peter is no different. Ok Peter, I hear you. You cannot yet love Me sacrificially, unconditionally, as I deserve, but I will restore you and I will come down to your level. Then, through the bestowal of My grace, and because this is where you are, my dear friend, I will teach you to agapas me. I will circumcise your heart and make you born of My Father’s will and not of natural descent.

Brothers and sisters, you and I have failed Him miserably. As we will confess in a few short minutes, we have done things we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things those things which we ought to have done. But the glorious news is that He did not come to judge us. He did not come to condemn us and leave us where we were, dead or dying. Just as He did with Paul, with Mary, with Thomas, with the Samaritan woman, with the lepers, with Zaccheus, and everyone else whom He encounters in Scripture and in life around us, Jesus reminds us that He comes to where were are. He empties Himself, pours out Himself to reach us. And He comes to where we are to shape us, to redeem us, and to commission us to do his work: to proclaim His saving grace to a world that, so often like us, knows it does not deserve such hope, such a lofty promise. Thanks be to God you and I have met Him, and thanks be to God that He uses people like you and like me to reach others in His name and share that joy that lasts not just a lifetime, but for all eternity!

What if you have not come to believe? What if, sitting there, you find yourself wanting to believe, but unable to overcome your unbelief? Perhaps you deem yourself too unworthy of His love, too far in debt ever to be freed by a holy, just, and righteous God. Brother, sister: hear His words of grace this morning. Hear that invitation which He has offered you every moment of every day of your entire life. Listen for that invitation and accept. Follow Him, and watch what He will accomplish through and in you as you are sent forth to bear witness to His immeasurable love and His unmerited grace. Follow Him and let Him make of you in the lives of others a Peter, a Paul, a Mary, or simply a saintly version of yourself in the lives of those around you.


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