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April 25, 2004

Do you love me?

(John 21:1-19)

If I had been the savior of the world, and I had loved and served everyone and announced the good news of God’s reign of love and peace, but then was betrayed, denied, abandoned, arrested, condemned, tortured, and executed, I don’t think I would want to rise and come back from the dead, and meet those people again, and if I did, I would probably have been mad and angry and resentful and said, “Why did you let that happen to me? Why didn’t you protect me? Why did you abandon me?”

But Jesus does nothing like that. Jesus is completely different from us. He is perfectly nonviolent, peaceful, forgiving, merciful and loving. He doesn’t get mad. He’s not angry. He doesn’t yell at us or hold a grudge or make us feel guilty or seem resentful. What does he do? He makes breakfast for his friends! He goes from the Last Supper to the First Breakfast! This Gospel offers one of the most beautiful images in the entire scriptures, and I invite you to think about it, to ponder it, to imagine Jesus standing on the shore, early in the morning, by the Sea of Galilee, as the sun is rising, making breakfast. For me, that’s what heaven will be like. Having breakfast with Jesus and friends in the morning by the sea.

Simon Peter had just denied knowing Jesus three times, and here, Jesus gives Simon Peter three chances to make up for those three denials. He asks him three times, “Do you love me?” This is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus repeats a question. We spend our whole lives wondering, “Does God love me?” But we’ve got it all wrong. Yes, God loves each one of us. God just wants to be with us, to make breakfast for us, to enjoy us. But God is the one with a question. The gentle, risen, vulnerable Jesus asks us, “Do you love me? Do you truly love me?” That is the question we need to hear. He wants to know if we love him. So how are we going to answer him? We can say quickly, “Yes, Jesus I love you,” but St. Ignatius advises that love is shown in deeds, not in words, so we have to show Jesus that we love him by doing what he says, by putting love into practice, and as Dorothy Day liked to say, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.”

Peter tries to answer Jesus, but as usual he gets it all wrong. In Greek, there are many different words for love, such as eros, physical love; or philia, meaning brotherly love between relatives and friends; or agape, a word which we don’t have in English, which means “unconditional, unlimited, all-inclusive, sacrificial, nonviolent suffering love for all people everywhere.” In the original Greek, Jesus asks Simon, “Do you have agape for me?” Do you have unconditional love for me? Are you going to lay down your life for me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I have philia for you. I have brotherly love for you.” He doesn’t answer the question! So Jesus asks him again, “Do you have agape for me?” and again Peter says, “Yes, I have philia for you.” So Jesus asks finally, “Simon, son of John, do you have agape for me?” And Peter is upset because he is asked this a third time, and says, “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know I have philia for you.” He never gets it. That’s our problem too. We have philia for Jesus and one another, but not agape. We show “brotherly” love to some relatives and friends, but we’re only going to go so far. There are limits and conditions to our love.

Today, Jesus calls us to practice agape toward him and all people, to let our hearts break open with unconditional, unlimited, all-encompassing, nonviolent love for all people everywhere--not just for the people we like, but for all people on the planet, including the people of Fallujah in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine. We love everyone, and so we refuse the American government’s killing of anyone. We do not obey the false love or limited conditional love which American culture upholds. Our love goes beyond all borders and boundaries. We are now entering the perfect love of God.

Notice that Jesus still gives Simon Peter a new mission. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” He wants us to feed and tend one another and care for one another and serve one another.

Finally, notice also that this is the end of the Gospel of John, and here, for the first time, Jesus calls Simon Peter to be his disciple. Like Peter, we may think we have been through alot, we’ve done so much or suffered so much or tried so hard, that we’ve been good and that we can now settle into our ways, that we are at the end of the story, but today, Jesus tells us just as he told Simon Peter, “You are just beginning. I want you to start following me now. When you were younger you did what you wanted, but now, someone else will lead you where you don’t want to go, to the cross. Come, follow me.”

So as we come to the altar to be fed breakfast by Jesus, as he asks us if we love him, as he calls us to start all over and follow him, we say "Yes!" and pledge to follow him right into God’s reign of agape and resurrection.

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