In communication, questions have a unique power that other types of discourse often don’t. If I use an indicative (make a statement) you can, without really thinking about it, agree or disagree with it. For example: “Rocky road is the best flavor of ice cream.” But if I phrase it as a question, you have to look inside yourself and think about it. “Do you think rocky road is the best flavor of ice cream?” Questions have so much linguistic power that some questions – you just don’t ask. For a man, you never ask if a woman is pregnant unless you see her holding the baby. Many people would find it offensive if someone asked them how much money they make or who they voted for. Questions have the power to offend, to lead us to really consider something, and to reveal what is hidden in our hearts. This morning, Jesus has a question; the most relevant, important question of all: do you love me?
In our English translations, it appears that Jesus asks the same question three times. The Greek tells a different story. In ancient Greek there were four words for love – but only two are used positively in Scripture. Agape is the highest form of love, it is willful and intentional. It is the unconditional, undeserved love God showed a wicked world as spelled out in Romans 5:8 – God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Phileo (Philadelphia) is brotherly love, the love of friends and family – it’s natural love. Both of these terms for love appear in the words before us.
If we paraphrase the exchange between Jesus and Peter this distinction comes out clearly: “Simon…do you love me unconditionally more than the rest of the disciples do?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you like a friend.” “Simon…do you love me unconditionally?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you like a friend.” “Simon, do you love me like a friend?” “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you like a friend.” Far from pointless repetition, Jesus’ questions worked from the highest form of love possible (the kind of love and dedication Peter had declared for the Lord (Matthew 26:33)) to the lower – and, in doing so, Jesus pierced through Peter’s pride, knowledge, and self-righteousness; all the way to his heart. Peter was hurt by these three questions – because they served as a painful reminder of his three-fold denial. Why would Jesus do that to Peter? Because he knew all things; he knew that Peter was carrying around a load of guilt – the guilt of having abandoned and denied his Lord. Jesus knew that Peter had tried to rid himself of this guilt – through bitter tears, by sprinting to the tomb, by jumping out of a boat to swim to Jesus – but that those things didn’t work. Jesus knew that the only cure for a guilty conscience was to bring it to the surface so that it could be washed away by his true, unconditional love and forgiveness.
God did not preserve this dramatic exchange for us to sit here 2000 years later and feel pity or compassion for Peter. He preserved it so that we might learn from it; so that we would sit before Jesus and have him, the one who knows what is in a person’s heart (John 2:25), ask us: “Do you love me?”
First, note what this question is not. Jesus does not ask: “have you given a confession of your faith?” He doesn’t ask: “do you believe in God?” “Have you been baptized, confirmed; do you hold membership in a Christian church?” He doesn’t ask: “do you love your family, friends, your dog or your work or your hobbies?” He doesn’t ask Peter or us “How much do you give to the church or do for the church or how much do you witness your faith to others?” He doesn’t ask what others think about him. No, clear all that out of your mind, because the question Jesus asks cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Christ. Paul summarized the heart of the issue in 1 Corinthians 16: If anyone does not love the Lord – a curse be on him. (1 Corinthians 16:22) So, do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus unconditionally – that is, without asking anything of him in return? Do you think you love Jesus more than the people sitting around you? Do you love Jesus so much that you would never deny knowing him in order to escape an uncomfortable situation like Peter did? Do you love Jesus so much that you would leave your job and home rather than leave your Savior? Do you love Jesus more than your money or things? Do you love Jesus more than your son, daughter, husband, wife, mom or dad? Do you love Jesus more than your reputation and accomplishments? Do you love Jesus enough to admit that you don’t know him or his Word as well as you should? Do you love Jesus enough to never let anything come before sitting at his feet and listening to him? Do you love Jesus enough to acknowledge that you have put other things before him? Do you love Jesus enough to open yourself up to him to confess to him things that you have never admitted to anyone else? Do you love Jesus more than you love life? Do you? Do you love Jesus with intentional, agape love?
The book of Hebrews says: the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) This question is proof. This question is why King David’s confession must constantly be on our lips: I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (Psalm 51:3-4)
Why does Jesus ask this question to his disciples, to Peter, to you, to me? Because he knows, better than we do, that as long as we hide our sin or make excuses for it or try to work it off – it can’t be forgiven. When we realize this, we know that it is out of the deepest love that Jesus asks us this question. Jesus brings the darkest, guiltiest depths of our heart to the surface – not to put it on display, not to mock us, not to laugh at us – but to show us how badly we need him – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (John 1:29)
Here’s the surprising thing: the real reason we avoid the confrontation of the law isn’t because we don’t want to feel it’s piercing pressure, but because we often forget what the Gospel – the good news really is. What? Well, how many of us, when Jesus’ question pinned us down were thinking, “Ok, I’ll try harder to love you.” That is our default reaction. But Jesus didn’t say try harder, did he? What did Jesus tell Peter? Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…feed my sheep. Peter, by his denial of his Lord had forfeited not only his position as Christ’s apostle but his place in heaven. By commanding Peter to feed his flock, Jesus was telling him: “Now that your sin has been brought to the surface, it has been washed away by my atoning blood – and not only are your sins forgiven, but I am restoring you back to your office as my witness, my apostle – not because you deserve it, but because of my love.”
That’s something we always need to keep in mind: Jesus only disciplines those he loves. (Revelation 3:19) Really? By making Peter think about the most embarrassing event of his life, Jesus was loving him? Think of it this way: would you ever speak to someone who had betrayed and denied you? Jesus did. Simply by coming to Peter, Jesus showed his compassion and love for his fallen, broken disciple. By coming to him, likely still with the visible marks of his crucifixion, Jesus left no doubt in Peter’s mind of his love. Recalling the events of Holy Week, Peter couldn’t help but remember that Jesus had washed his feet, had been arrested, beaten and crucified – for him and his sins. While Peter had denied Jesus, he could not deny that Jesus loved him in word and action with true, unconditional, undeserved, agape love.
So we see Jesus’ loving heart for fallen Peter, but where is it for us today? Well, Jesus is here, isn’t he? He’s here in Word and Sacrament. Even though we have betrayed him, he still speaks to our hearts and shows us his heart. Maybe it’s too obvious. Easter and Good Friday seem like a long time ago already, but may we never forget the love Jesus demonstrated in allowing himself to be arrested, beaten, murdered and sent to hell – for us. See Jesus standing before Peter and restoring him to his flock – but see him standing here before you, healing, restoring, and loving you, too. For still today, Jesus speaks to his lambs and sheep. Do you know what he’s saying? “As God’s sacrificial Lamb and by the power of my blood: I forgive you. I forgive you for thinking that you can earn my love by your offerings or effort. I forgive you for your sinful pride. I forgive you for loving your job and things, your children and spouse, your wealth and life more than me. The whole reason I humbled myself to be born in this world, went without riches or glory, allowed myself to be arrested, beaten and hung on a cross was because I knew that you could never love as God demands – so I did it for you. Whatever the sin, no matter the guilt – I have paid for it, it is gone, wiped from God’s memory and mine. No, you don’t deserve my sympathy or love, but I give it anyway – so come forward to receive proof of my love, come forward to receive the very body and blood that I gave up and poured out to forgive your sins. Come for my forgiveness and then go, go in peace because you don’t have to do anything to earn my love. Go back to your life and follow me. Follow me through sickness and health, through trial and trouble, through good and bad – know that I know all things, I know what is going on in your heart and life and I love you, unconditionally, anyway. Go with my love, go as my lamb and go with my blessing.”
Questions have the power to touch us where nothing else can. It cuts us to the heart that Jesus asks us this question. But there’s an even better, more humbling, more comforting question for us to leave here and wonder about: Jesus really loves people like us? Yes, he does. He lived. He died. He rose. All because he loves you. That’s why we’re not done celebrating Easter yet. He is our Lamb because he died for our sin and today he’s our Good Shepherd because Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.