Word, A Question, A Promise
do people do when they are let down terribly?
What do people do when they suffer enormous loss and are bereaved
beyond telling? They can do
They can deny their loss; i.e., consciously deny the significance
of their loss or unconsciously deny the fact of their loss.
They can put on a false face and pretend that everything is as
rosy as ever. Conscious and
unconscious denial, however, exact a terrible price psychologically.
Denial renders people become inwardly bent and outwardly lame.
Or people who suffer enormous loss can simply be overwhelmed by
it; so overwhelmed as to be frozen, immobilised by it.
Life stops for them. This
is a living death.
Or people who suffer enormous loss can admit their loss, own
their pain and endure their disappointment.
They can admit, own, endure, and go back to work.
They can begin doing once more what they have customarily done in
the past. The job they have
worked at they continue to work at.
This is by far the healthiest response.
It’s the best thing that any bereaved person can do.
My wife Maureen and I
often comment on the fact that when my mother was Maureen’s age my
mother had been a widow for eleven years.
At the time she was widowed my mother was working part-time and
was content to work part-time. One
week after my father’s death, however, she was working full-time.
My father had left her an insurance payout of $1000 (1967).
After funeral expenses she had $200.
The decision to work full-time was a decision my mother arrived
at quickly after little deliberation: if she didn’t work, she didn’t
eat. She often joked about
riding the subway train to work, packed so tightly into the rush-hour
car that if she had fainted she couldn’t have fallen down, her face
pressed into the back of a tall man’s rain-soaked woollen overcoat,
everything smelling like wet dog. She
also says that what she had to
do was the best thing she could
have done: work.
And this is what the disciples did in the wake of the death of
Jesus. They went back to
fishing. They had been
rocked by the events in the last week of Jesus’s life, shattered by
the ending of that life. Worst
of all, they felt themselves deluded, self-deluded, as gullible as
kindergarten-age children. “How
could we have been so naïve?”, they asked each other incredulously,
“Our earlier enthusiasm for the mission was as groundless as a mirage
in the desert. How could we
have been so simple-minded, so silly about ‘The Messiah’?
We aren’t suggestible people.
Then how were we swept up in the tide of exuberance and ardour?
Worse still, how many others have we misled?
How ardently have we commended to any who would hear us what has
dribbled away without trace like water in the sand?”
us – you, I, and everyone else – all of us are eager to think
We hate being "suckered" as we hate little else.
All of us like to think we are worldly-wise, able to identify
hucksters and charlatans and outright phoneys.
We shudder at being thought as naïve as a child standing
wide-eyed and open-mouthed in front of a magician.
There’s no humiliation like the humiliation of public
And there’s no humiliation like the humiliation of being taken
in religiously. Who
doesn’t feel sorry for the person who, perchance at a moment of
unusual need or unforeseen vulnerability, makes a religious declaration
that strikes us as hugely overblown or espouses a religious cause
that’s plainly exaggerated? We
share the embarrassment of that person who, months later, feels she
“went off the deep end.” What
do such people do next? If
they are wise they put their embarrassment behind them and simply get on
with the business of everyday living.
A minute ago I spoke of bereavement, of loss.
We mustn’t think that jarring loss is loss of loved one only.
There are bereavements everywhere in life.
There are familiar scenarios and situations that are so very
familiar as to appear unlosable. But
they are lost! Not merely a
familiar scenario and situation can be lost but even a familiar world. Someone’s
entire world can be lost, and lost more quickly and more thoroughly than
she would ever have thought; than she would ever have thought, that is,
until the day it was lost.
She always thought she knew how the world turned and what made it
turn. Then one day she found
out. The day she found out
-- the day of her shattering disappointment --
was also the day she was bereft of her world.
Denial won’t help. Immobility
won’t help. The only thing
to do is also the best thing to do: go back to work.
If our work is the work of a homemaker, it’s still work:
children have to be fed, the schoolteacher dealt with, the haemorrhaging
“I’m going fishing”, said Peter; “We’ll go with you”,
the rest chimed in; “What else is there to do?”
Back to fishing they went.
while they are fishing that Jesus appears to them.
They don’t recognise him. Of
course they don’t. In the
first place, they aren’t expecting him; in the second, they’re
fishing. None of us can be
conscientious in our daily work and “be looking for Jesus” at the
same time. Besides, where
would we look? The men and
women who tighten wheel nuts on cars in
aren’t standing around, looking for Jesus.
Still, despite all non-expectations the risen Lord steals upon
the disciples and startles them. He
speaks. As he speaks, Peter
recognises the One he’d put behind him forever – he thought.
It still happens. William
Sloane Coffin, among other things chaplain at
for 17 years, and before that an officer with
military intelligence; Coffin was raised by a wealthy, socialite family
that recognised his prodigious talent as a child pianist and prepared
him for a career on the concert stage. His family provided no Christian
formation at all. When
Coffin was an adolescent his best friend died suddenly.
Coffin wasn’t sure why he was going to the funeral, but went
anyway, if only to curse the God he didn’t believe in.
Sitting through the funeral service he mysteriously found himself
addressed: “Whose life is it, anyway?
What makes you think you’re the measure of the universe?”
He emerged from the funeral service turned around for life,
retiring a few years ago as minister of
A friend of mine; his parents couldn’t get him to church
regardless of what technique they deployed.
This fellow – atheist, sceptic, cynic – went to university to
pursue a program in Honour English.
Naturally enough his program required him to read English
criticism, including criticism of mediaeval English.
Scholars in this field opened up literary riches to him, cultural
wealth he hadn’t known to exist. One
such scholar was C.S. Lewis, Cambridge Professor of Mediaeval and
Renaissance English. Soon he
moved from reading Lewis’s formal academic writings to Lewis’s
popular Christian writings. And
like Peter of old he came to say, “It is the Lord.”
Neither of the two men I’ve mentioned was expecting any such
thing. Both were immersed in
everyday matters. Yet both
were addressed. In the
course of being addressed both came to know who had addressed them.
The apostle John adds a comment to his resurrection narrative
that we read this morning: “This was the third time that Jesus was
revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
The third time? Why
was a third time necessary? Weren’t
the previous two times enough? First
the risen Jesus had appeared to the eleven in the upper room when they
were fearful. Then he had
appeared to them with Thomas when they were doubting.
And after two such appearances the disciples still
want to go back fishing? The
truth is, all of us always stand in need of a new visitation from our
Lord and a new word from him. We
never get beyond needing yet another apprehension and word.
Maureen and I have been married for 37 years.
Even so, a dozen times a week we ask each other, “Do you love
me?” I don’t think for a
minute we are insecure in our relationship.
I don’t think for a minute that our marriage is at risk and I
might go home Monday evening only to find Maureen’s shoes no longer
under the bed. Then why do
we ask each other, “Do you love me?”, as often as we do?
It’s because both she and I live and work in jarring, turbulent
environments where it’s easy to see there are many people who aren’t
loved; easy to see there are many people who were once
loved; easy to see that love is scarce in the world.
Therefore it’s all the more important to meet each other yet
again, affirm each other once more, declare and exhibit and embody our
mutual love as often as we need to; better, as often as we can.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the third
appearance of Jesus. Before
you and I are finished our Lord will have to visit us 300 times.
Needy as we are, our need is never greater than his grace.
our Lord does more than visit us again and renew our life with him once
more. He also puts a
question to us, the same question he put to Peter: “Do you love me
more than these?” The
Greek word for “love” that Jesus uses here is strong: it’s love in
the sense of total self-giving, total self-outpouring, thorough
self-forgetfulness, utter self-abandonment.
It’s the word used of God himself, “for God so loved
the world that he gave – himself, utterly, without remainder or regret
– in his Son.”
“Do you love me like that”, the master says to Peter; “Do you love me more than these
other fellows love me?” Now
Peter is shaken. “These
other fellows” were present, one week earlier, when Peter told Jesus
that these fellows might crumble, cowards, when the crunch came, but he,
Peter, “the rock”, would remain steadfastly loyal, brave and true.
Then these fellows
saw Peter fall all over himself. Now
they are watching him. So
shaken is Peter that he can’t answer the master’s question.
He can only blurt, head down, “You know that I love you.”
The English translations of our bible hide something crucial:
Peter doesn’t use the same word for “love” that Jesus has used.
Peter uses a weaker word. Jesus
has said, “Are you willing to sign yourself over to me, abandon
yourself to me, never looking back?”
Peter is nervous now about vowing anything this large, since the
last time he vowed something large he disgraced himself.
And so now Peter replies, “You know that I’m fond of you; you
know that I care for you.”
Jesus asks a second time, “Do you love me?”, using again the
strongest word for “love” that there is.
Now Peter is in pain. As
if his pain weren’t enough, he’s asked a third time, “Do you love
me?” – only this time Jesus uses Peter’s word, Peter’s weaker
word. “Simon, are you
truly fond of me? Do you
really care for me? If this
is as much as you can honestly say, will you say this much?”
Peter replies, “You know everything; you know that I care for
you.” After each question
and answer Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”
It’s a commission, an invitation and a promise: “Feed my
I am and continue to be a disciple not because of superior
insight or unusual loyalty or extraordinary grip on Jesus Christ.
Like Peter I’m a disciple only because my Lord keeps coming to
me, keeps speaking to me, and continues to hold me with a grip greater
than my grip on him. And
when he says, “Victor, do you love me?”, I don’t jump up and say,
“Of course I do! Isn’t
it obvious? Have a look!”
I don’t say this because, like Peter, I’ve heard the rooster
crow. Instead I barely
manage to croak, but do manage to croak, “You know that I care for
you.” Never has he said,
“Not good enough; see me in six months.”
Always he has said, “Feed my sheep.”
Now you mustn’t think I’m discouraged or depressed or
immobilised or even suffering from low self-esteem.
On the contrary, the master’s question, “Do you love me?” plus
his commission, “Feed my sheep” are a double safeguard.
In the first place we are safeguarded against spiritual
presumption. “Of course I
love you. My faith is
proverbial, my obedience faultless, my life exemplary.”
The question Jesus puts to us repeatedly just because he has to put it to us repeatedly; this question spares us a spiritual
presumptuousness as repugnant as it is false.
At the same time his commission, “Feed my sheep”, reinforced
relentlessly, safeguards us against despondency and uselessness.
He has promised that whatever we do in obedience to him; whatever
we undertake in his name will become food for his sheep.
We aren’t asked to be super-achievers or heroic or even merely
impressive; we need only be faithful, and our faithfulness, even when
pot-holed like Peter’s, he will yet use to expand his own life within
his own people. For our
Lord’s commission, “Feed my sheep”, is more than a commission;
it’s more even than an invitation; it’s a promise: we can
feed his sheep, and we shall,
just because he, unlike us, keeps the promises he makes.
The last word to Peter is, “Follow me.”
To follow our risen
Lord means that he asks us to go only where he has already been himself.
He asks us to do only what he has already done himself.
He asks us to intercede on behalf of the world only as he has
already interceded on its behalf himself.
To follow him means that we are never appointed to a work whose venue
and environment he hasn’t already prepared for us.
To follow him means
that he’s forever drawing us to himself, never driving us on ahead of
him. To follow him means that our obedience always decreases the distance
between him and us; only our disobedience can ever increase the
distance. To follow
him means that his word of pardon and freedom and encouragement is a
much louder word and a more penetrating sound than the raucous screech
of the rooster. To follow is simply to know that our Lord will ever use us to feed
others in ways that we cannot see and don’t have to see.
who appeared to disciples so very long ago with a word, a question and a
promise will continue to come to you and me.
His word will let us recognise him.
His question will save us from any suggestion of superiority.
And his promise, “Feed my sheep”, will ensure that we do just