Turn on your TV at any given time, day or night, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a rerun of Law and Order or some other courtroom drama. Our culture loves courtroom TV and we’ve watched so much of it that we’re all well-versed in the lingo. We know what “exculpatory evidence” means, or what constitutes an especially “heinous” crime. We know what it means to “badger” a witness and when a witness is testifying to “hearsay” conversations.
We’re so used to hearing phrases like these that we’re certain we could navigate a courtroom using all that we’ve learned from our TV lawyer mentors like: Perry Mason, Ben Matlock, Denny Crane, Jack McCoy, or if you have been watching “The People Vs. OJ” the real life lawyer, Marsha Clark. And then of course there is my personal favorite lawyer—Saul Goodman, on the hit show “Better Call Saul” a prequel to the incomparable “Breaking Bad.”
We love the drama, edge of your seat, spectacles that come from these courtroom fireworks—and there is none more iconic than when Lieutenant Caffey, played by Tom Cruise, thunders away at Colonel Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, in a “Few Good Men” where we get the famous lines, “I want the truth!” Which is followed by, “You can’t handle the truth!” I thought about showing the scene but the language within it isn’t all appropriate for Sunday morning worship. But ask any lawyer, and they will tell you, court is rarely like what we see on TV and in the movies. It’s far more boring and repetitive, and a lot of the arguing takes place in hallways and behind closed doors. Rarely do you get that “You can’t handle the truth!” moment from a witness. And actually, when witnesses do appear in court, they often fail to answer the attorney’s questions altogether.
I bring this up because our text for today of Jesus with his Disciples contains a very interesting “line of questioning” in which the respondent, Peter, seems to be ducking the questions of Jesus.
The setting is several days after the resurrection on a beach on the Sea of Galilee. Still reeling from the whole crucifixion drama, and from Jesus’ appearance to them in Jerusalem, Peter and some of the other disciples decide to head back to Galilee where they intend to resume their old lives as fishermen. It’s then that Jesus again shows up to the Disciples, and gives a dramatic interrogation of Peter—one that is as tense as any courtroom drama, but instead of indictment, brings about redemption and second chance.
As we know, Peter, the leader of the group, on the night before Jesus was crucified, had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted. He was surely stunned when the risen Jesus showed up days later. The sudden appearance of the one who he had betrayed must have shamed him greatly—hence his desire to get away, and go back to fishing. But like a diligent NYPD detective, Jesus was not about to let Peter get away without so much as an interview. And so after a successful hauling in of fish—which we will talk about more in a minute—Jesus gets his chance to do just that. After breakfast, it was time for Jesus to take a deposition—one of those terms we learned from our TV lawyer mentors. Jesus begins to ask some questions of Peter who has been called to the witness stand. And knowing his own guilt, Peter immediately begins to duck the questions.
Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
It’s interesting that Jesus uses Peter’s original name and not the one he had given to the disciple previously— Peter, the rock. It was almost as though Jesus were acting like a lawyer, trying to get the witness to focus from the beginning, almost saying, “Let’s go over your story again.” Peter’s answer, however, is non-responsive. He doesn’t really answer the question directly, but speaks to the questioner’s previous knowledge. It’s a classic dodge— describing expected procedures.
To this first, weak, non-responsive response, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” In other words, Jesus is calling Peter to demonstrate his love by caring for the people whom Jesus cared for. It’s an echo of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples earlier in the gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Feed my lambs
Jesus asks a second time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter again offers his definitive “Yes, Lord,” but then qualifies it again by putting the onus on the questioner: “You know that I love you.” Peter makes an assumption of Jesus’ knowledge, but Jesus is after a real demonstration of that love. “Tend my sheep,” Jesus commands, as if he is saying, “Then show me Peter. Show me how much you love me by being a good shepherd and following up on your bold promises from before. Show me how you’re willing to sacrifice yourself on behalf of others and me. Because, again, no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Tend my sheep.
Jesus asks a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter attempts one more time to dodge the question, this time by being “hurt” by this line of questioning. So he offers an argument—yet another way witnesses in court are non-responsive. Like a frustrated Colonel Jessup arguing with Lieutenant Caffey in A Few Good Men, Peter fires back, “You want answers? You know everything, Jesus!” And he does. So Jesus responds with the truth, but Peter has a hard time handling the truth, as would we. Jesus tells Peter that he will, indeed, die for the sheep; die for being a disciple. The non-responsive Peter will eventually give the ultimate response to his Lord by offering up his life in authentic love. Feed my sheep.
And with that, Peter steps down from the stand—yes as one who has just been found guilty—but who also has been redeemed from that guilt. Peter is now a true disciple—forgiven, restored, and made new by the inquisitive love of Jesus. At which Jesus says, “Follow me.”
It’s one thing to be a “witness” to Jesus with our words, and quite another to put those words into action. The call to follow Jesus is a call to self-sacrifice— to give ourselves on behalf of others. Previously, Peter had bailed out when given the chance to stick with his friend, despite his bravado in saying to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.” Now, he was getting a second chance to carry through on his commitment.
And just how is that being done? Well, Jesus has already shown them, and us how, right here in this passage of scripture for today.
These disciples knew a lot about fishing, but their ability to bring in a catch on this day was about as successful as their ability to stick with Jesus during his trial and crucifixion.
The risen Christ stood on the shore early in the morning, inviting the disciples to try a different fishing strategy. He had instructed them for three years on how to fish for people, and now he was telling them how to fish for fish. Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some. Sure, it was a literal instruction, but it also becomes a new call and a new model—stop doing what isn’t working, and do what I’m telling you to do—do things differently. Do things another way, a new way, and see what happens.
The disciples didn’t stop fishing. They didn’t change their goals—they were still fishing. They didn’t change who they were—they were still fisherman. They didn’t abandon their tools and resources—their boat, their nets. But they did listen to Jesus and they did follow his commands and they did things differently from how they were doing them. And the results were everything they could have hoped and prayed for—a haul bigger than they had ever seen.
This is our model of faithful obedience to our God given call. We don’t have to stop being us, we don’t have to give up all that we have already become, but it is an imperative to always listen to Jesus, even if it means doing something different, doing something new—even doing somethings we’ve always done before, in a different way.
It’s from this model, and the others we have heard from and considered throughout our Lenten and Easter seasons, that we will work from this Saturday at our Congregational Conclave. It will be a time to consider—not who we are—but what is it that Jesus is calling us to do, differently, or new. I hope everyone will be part of this process this Saturday.
Ever since Peter, disciples of Jesus have been confronted with the same line of questioning from Jesus: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” If we do, we will feed and tend his sheep. There’s no way to dodge that inquiry or deflect that responsibility on someone else. We need to understand, that like Jesus did with Peter, the same questions are being asked of us, and we must answer them.
But here’s the truth—we will answer them, one way or another. We will either demonstrate our love for Jesus through our love and care for others, or we will perjure ourselves before our Lord. Jesus said as much in Matthew 25— our words of love for him must be matched by our actions on behalf of others. But thankfully, if we’ve been failing to live as such, we can know that the one who reveals this truth in us, is also the one who is ready to forgive and restore us, just as Jesus forgave and restored Peter.
No, we may not be called to die for Jesus, as Peter did, and as many are doing today; but we are all called to follow him in ways that may cost us our comfort, our resources, maybe even our reputation. Love for Jesus is always love that is lived out in relationship with Jesus and with others. Which means that, like Peter, we cannot answer Jesus’ questions with a definitive “yes” unless we are living out his love in our relationships with others, even with those who may be our enemies.
So may we seek to respond to our Lord’s questions, with a resounding “Yes, Lord, I do love you!” Which is proved not just in word, but in acts of love.
May we, seek to love, and live, and serve just as Jesus called—feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, follow me. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, April 10, 2016
Holy God, how we love you! We don’t say it enough. We love you. We love you because you first loved us. We love you because you loved us so much that you sent your Son, who lived and taught and ministered to us, and then allowed himself to be nailed to a cross, because of love for us. We love you for your constant and abiding presence that surrounds us always, and never lets us go. We love you because you are our God, and you will never let us go. Thank you for showing us what true love is.
Gracious and loving God, we continue to walk the path of resurrection, encountering you on the journey to Pentecost. But it is easy to forget the celebration of Easter Day, even though we are an Easter people forever.
So in these 50 days of Eastertide, may we daily live the resurrection in our spirits and show the love and joy of resurrection to all around us. When the joy is elusive, remind us, O God, that your plan for each of us in Christ’s community is larger than our own desires, our own hurts, our own plans. When the love of this season is consumed by the worries of this world, keep us connected to your energy of love, so that we cannot help but share it with the world.
Holy God, we do love you and want our actions to demonstrate our love; we want our words to communicate our deep affection for you.
So may our hearts’ first desire be toward you, and may our lives never stop telling you how much we love you. May our daily actions and interactions be as an outpouring of our love and your love.
For we give all of this to you and ask that as we await the day of the Holy Spirit, may you keep us alive in your hope and may you receive as well, the prayers of our hearts offered in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus the Christ, our risen Savior, who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”