By the Fire – Sermon Preached April 10, the 3rd Sunday of Easter

I was being prepped by some friends for my examination on the floor of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. It was the final step to becoming pastor of this congregation. The meeting was in Clarksville, at First Presbyterian. My friends said, “You need to be ready for Gudger’s question.”

“Okay, who is Gudger, and what is his question?”

“He’s a retired minister member of the presbytery, and he’s going to ask if you love Jesus?”

“That’s it?” I said. “Is it some sort of trick question?”

“No, but he will ask it. And it sometimes trips people up.”

I wondered how you could get tripped up on that one, but thanked them anyway for the heads up.

And then I spent several hours trying to come up with an answer. I assumed the presbytery had heard it asked and answered scores of times by now, and I wanted my answer to be memorable. A mere “yes” seemed pedestrian, expected, maybe even inadequate. How do you answer, really, such a question.

“Do you love me?” It is the simplest of questions, and the most difficult. Peter looks at Jesus, his face aglow from the charcoal fire, the smells of breakfast still lingering in the air – fish and bread. Peter’s stomach is full, his muscles aching from the swim and hauling the large catch of fish to the shore, when he hears it – the question.

He’s been expecting something ever since he heard one of the other disciples cry out, “It is the Lord!” He throws on his clothes and jumps in the water, swimming toward the shore frantically. He pulls himself up onto the beach, and rubbing the salt water out of his eyes, he sees it. A charcoal fire, Jesus standing next to it, fish and bread cooking over it. A memory hits him.

The last time he stood before a charcoal fire, out in the courtyard, while Jesus was being beaten and humiliated inside, Peter stood warming himself and denied him three times. Three times. As soon as he saw the fire, he had to know it was coming, a reckoning. But how heartbreaking the way the reckoning came; as a question, the simplest of questions. Three times.

“Do you love me?”

It is amazing what a simple question can reveal. I read several weeks ago about an author, Charles Duhigg, who in the course of doing research for a book, discovered that the basis of what at the time was one of the most productive car manufacturers was the belief that “even the most complex problems have simple solutions if you know how to look for them.” It was encapsulated in a method called “The Five Whys.” If there is a problem, start with the problem and work your way back with five why questions.

Duhigg decided to try it with his own family and one of their most unsolvable problems. They never got to eat family dinners anymore, though they wanted that to happen, there was just never time. Why did they not have family dinner? Because he and his wife always got home later than expected. Why did they get home later than expected? Because though they intended to leave the office by five, they never could because there were so many miscellaneous tasks that needed attention they didn’t get to throughout the day. Why had they ignored all those tasks? Because they arrived each morning at work just as the first meetings were starting, and so all the unread emails and memos were put off till the end of the day, where they were joined with other emails and memos that had accumulated. Why were they arriving later to work than they intended. Because although they always intended to leave home at 8 each morning and get the kids to school, they usually ran late and didn’t get out the door until 8:20. And, finally, why were they leaving the house later than planned? Because it always took so long to get the kids dressed in the morning.

So they made one small change. The last thing they did before bed was set out the clothes the kids would wear the next day. The family dinners started happening almost immediately. An evening problem that seemed unsolvable was solved by a small change in the morning with just five questions.[1]

You should try it. But I warn you. Don’t try it unless you’re ready to change; don’t try it if you really don’t want to know. Because five questions can get you to the root of things pretty quickly.

Jesus only needed one.

I don’t know that I have ever sat with a couple either in pre-marriage counseling or in counseling married couples that the question hasn’t come up, in one form or another. It is a simple question, easy to answer; and yet it is the most difficult question of all, because of what it means, what it asks, where it takes us every one. “Do you love me?”

It sometimes comes because an emotional distance has crept into the day to day. Sometimes it is asked because of a breach of trust. Sometimes it is asked because actions do not match the words.

“Do you love me?”

And whether you are talking about marriage or friendship, relationships between siblings or parents and children, always the question is implied. We really want to know, need to know, “Am I loved?” The question in any relationship worthy of the name is always there, in the background.

Peter has betrayed Jesus as much as Judas ever did. He denied him and abandoned him. He went back to fishing I suspect to escape his own grief and guilt, hoping the seawater would sooth his shame. All night he fishes, but nothing good ever happens in John at night. Now the day breaks. There is Jesus. The one he denied. Cooking breakfast. Offering food for Peter’s body. And then, the gift of gifts; food for his soul, in the form of three questions. Does Peter realize it as it is happening, how Jesus is offering him the chance to express his love as many times as he denied him? Jesus gently restores him, this broken and failed man; Jesus gathers him back to himself.

Stanley Hauerwas says, “It is surely right that all that Jesus is and does manifests God’s love for us, but it is no less true that Jesus asks us, as he asked Peter, ‘Do you love me?’”

“If you are like me, you would prefer to read the passage as one limited to that particular context in order to excuse yourself from having to answer. How on earth can I answer that question without immediately feeling trite? I suspect I am more ready to believe in Jesus than I am to love him.”[2]

It seems as if Jesus wants to get Peter to the root of things, to the reason why he exists, to the whole point of his being the leader of this band of disciples that will become the church.

Because you can build the most beautiful sanctuary and pay off the mortgage, you can preach and sing and pray and study, you can do service and mission for people close to home and around the world, but if you do not love Jesus, if all of this is not motivated by a heart that has been captured by his Spirit, then it all may be good and beautiful and even edifying, but it is not authentic.

I stood before the presbytery, anticipating Gudger’s question. Instead, someone else stood up and asked me about predestination. They knew I had come from the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, which split from the Presbyterians over 200 years ago now over just this question, among others.

I thought, “Just like a bunch of Presbyterians; they are more concerned that I love John Calvin than Jesus.”

So I gave an answer. I wish I could say I remember what it was, but I got in, so I guess it was acceptable. I hope it was an answer that placed predestination in its proper light – as a halting and imperfect way of speaking of a God who loves us and claims us before we are even able to love and claim in return, and a calling to respond to that grace with lives of love and service.

After I answered, sweat pouring off me, a man stood up in the front pew. His voice was low, and I had to lean in to hear him.

“Do you love Jesus?”

I had been preparing something grand. But in that moment, all that came out was, “I do.”

And somewhere in my soul, deep, at the root of things, came a response – “Feed my sheep.”

And so it is for us all. The table is prepared. Hear the voice of Jesus calling us to dine. A charcoal fire awaits us at this breakfast, the whole broken and failed lot of us, the whole beloved band of us. We will eat. And as we eat, hear the question, because it is surely being asked.

“Do you love me?” Careful how you answer. You know what comes next. “Follow me.” Amen.

[1] New York Times, March 10, 2016

[2] https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/stanley-hauerwas-the-question-cannot-be-avoided

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