Sunday, April 28, 2013

Unfinished Business, Part 2

Text:  John 21:1-22

TWO WEEKS AGO in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John we began to see how the risen Christ works in us, from the perspective of the Apostle Peter.  We saw how Jesus meets us in the ordinary activities of our daily lives, even when we not be looking for Him.  We were reminded how He transforms us by the saving power of His cross, so we can run to Him and His holiness in spite of our sin.  And we saw again how Jesus, our Lord and God, provides us with everything we have and need, and though He doesn't need our help, still He calls us to participate in His work in the world until He comes again.

This morning we're going to go deeper into this last truth as we examine the second part of this passage.  We left Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Thomas, Nathaniel, and a couple of the other disciples on the western shore of the Sea of Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) gathered around a charcoal fire eating breakfast with the risen Jesus.  Imagine the mixed emotions Peter might be feeling.  You know how it is when there's something wrong between you and a good friend; when you've offended or hurt him in some way.  He's treating you like everything's all right, but you know, you just know that the two of you have unfinished business.

And there certainly was unfinished business between Simon Peter and his Lord.  Back in John chapter 18, in the hours before Jesus was crucified, there'd been another charcoal fire with Peter standing near, that time in the courtyard of the high priest.  Some distance away Jesus was standing His farce of a  trial.  Peter had already denied knowing Jesus when he was let in at the courtyard gate.  And by the flickering fire Simon Peter had denied his Lord the second and third times.  In a few hours Jesus was dead and now it was too late, the offense could never be put right.  But now here was Jesus, risen from the dead and sitting there with them! But for Peter, the joy had to be mixed with the nagging feeling that Jesus must still be terribly, terribly disappointed in him.  Would it be worse if the Lord left the unfinished business unfinished? Or if He openly called Peter out on his sin?  Either way, could their relationship ever again be the same?

Then it happened.  After they'd all finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"

Notice how Jesus calls Peter by his birth name, Simon, and not by "Peter," the name He gave him?  "Peter" means, well, not quite "rock" like the Rock of Gibraltar, but more "rocklike" or "rocky."  It signifies strength and steadiness, but Simon had been anything but strong and steady the night Jesus stood His trial.

Then see how Jesus asks him if he "truly loves" Him, "more than these."  It bears repeating that the Greek word the NIV translates "truly love" is "agapas," the second person singular of the verb related to "agape," which means selfless, deathless, Godlike love, the love that for the sake of righteousness would cause a man to die even for His enemies.  "Simon", Jesus is gently asking, "what about all those grandiose professions of unbending loyalty you spouted in the Upper Room?"  "I will lay down my life for you," Peter had said.  "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!" Peter had said.  "Simon," Jesus says now, "do you truly love Me,  agapas me , more than these?"  The night our Lord was arrested Peter had sworn, "Even if all fall away, I will not."  Peter had been so sure he loved Jesus with unshakeable, deathless       love, that his love for Jesus exceeded the love of any of the other disciples.  That had been his fervent boast.  So, "Simon, do you truly love Me like that?" Jesus asks. "More than these others do?"

What can he say?  Peter tries to get round his shame by replying, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  But what's this?  Peter isn't using the verb form of "agape" that Jesus used, but the verb form of "philia," or brotherly love.

Now, let's not sell philia love short.  It's far more than just liking.  It's the kind of love that would cause a sister to spend her last dime to bail her sister out of jail, or a soldier to fall on a grenade for a comrade in his regiment.  But it tends to focus on people you're in a mutual relationship with, those you know would do the same for you.  It doesn't have the same self-abandoning quality as  agape. Peter has to step it down and profess to a love that is not so high.

Once more, in verse 16, Jesus asks Peter, "Do you truly love Me, agapas me?"  Why does He ask this again?  Because the Lord bears true agape love towards Peter, and He wants to make sure Peter learns what he needs to learn.  Peter needs to really hear and respond to Jesus and not just say what he hopes he can get away with or what he thinks Jesus wants to hear.  Their unfinished business needs to be finished, not glossed over.

And again Peter can only say, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you-- philo se."  "Yes, Lord, I love you like a comrade-at-arms or a brother."  Peter can no longer claim that his love for Jesus is unlimited and Godlike.  It is, he decides, a good, solid, devoted human love.

But then, in verse 17, once more Jesus asks Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" That is, in the Greek, "Do you  phileis me?"   The Evangelist tells us that Peter was hurt at this.  Not because Jesus had asked him about his love for Him a third time, but because the third time Jesus had changed the word for love He was using.  He switched to the term Peter was trying to accommodate himself with.    "So, Simon, do you really love Me with philia love?"  How the reminder must have probed the depth of his betrayal!  Fall on a grenade for Jesus?  Back there in the high priest's courtyard he couldn't even admit to knowing Him!

But still, this philia love is what Peter intends towards Jesus and it's the least that Jesus deserves.  So he appeals to Jesus' deepest knowledge of his heart: "Lord, you know all things; you know I love you-- philo se!"

What is was our Lord trying to accomplish with all this?  Just this: It was still His intention that Peter should be the leader of the Apostles and the chief evangelist to the Jews throughout the Roman world.  But Simon Peter couldn't be all that as long as he was depending upon his own strength and good intentions.  He had to be-- not humiliated--but humbled, so he would depend wholly on the strength and resurrection power of Jesus Christ instead.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord hasn't called us to be the Prince of the Apostles like Simon Peter.  But He does call us to love and serve Him with a right appreciation of our intentions and abilities.  He wants us to walk humbly in His presence, depending on Him alone.  It's bad enough when we hang back from serving Him because we think it's all up to us and we feel inadequate and scared.  It's worse when we pull the "Stand back, Lord, I'll defend You!" act, as if we were St. George and Jesus were the helpless maiden who needed to be rescued from the dragon.  Because fear may cause us to cry out for Christ's help, but when we boast in our own strength, we forget our need of Him altogether.  Then He can do nothing with us until by the Holy Spirit we are moved to repent.

But what does Jesus command Peter each time the apostle confesses, "Lord, you know I love you, that I  philo se"?  "Feed my lambs," says Jesus.  "Take care of my sheep.  Feed my sheep."  Peter is the model and prototype of all the pastors and elders Christ has put into His Church to build her members up in the Christian faith and ministry.  All right, Peter loves the Lord with philia love.  How can he show it?  How can any leader in the church show it?  By bringing the people of God, young and old, to a deeper, richer, truer, heart, mind, and spirit knowledge of and relationship with the Lord who died to save them from their sins and rose to give them eternal life.

From the Holy Spirit's work as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles we know this feeding and care taking primarily means preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and His saving work.  Not just to bring in new converts, the lambs, but also, always, to sustain the sheep, the more mature saints.  For we who have been in Christ's Church longer also need to be comforted and corrected by repeated reminders of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.  Otherwise we forget and wander off on our own imaginings about Jesus and what He's about.  We go astray.

Brothers and sisters, we live in dangerous times when pastors and elders especially need to adhere faithfully and firmly to these commands of Jesus.  And I'm not now talking about bombs set by American citizen terrorists or infringements on our liberties by our own government.  No, I'm referring to a  trend that's set in in some parts of the evangelical wing of the Church, that would reject totally what Jesus commands Peter and all pastors to do.

This danger starts with the insistence that we should stop using the word "sheep" for God's people.  It's demeaning, some Christian leaders say, and it implies that we're all stupid and helpless.  And yes, it isn't exactly a compliment to be called a sheep.  They do tend to wander off.  They eat stuff they shouldn't.  They refuse to drink unless the water is still and not running.  They get dirty and diseased and smelly.  But God in His wisdom chose to incorporate this term for us in His Word because that is exactly what we are like when we're left to ourselves in our sin.  Helpless.  Wandering.  Consuming poisonous weeds.  And not very clever, and the most intelligent among us can sometimes be the stupidest of all.  He chose this word moreover because it exalts Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd who keeps us safe and healthy, who laid down His life to rescue us from Satan, that old wolf.  Without His loving favor we are prey to every false religion and wild beast of lying worldly ideas that comes along.  But Jesus does save and preserve us, and He does so by the hand of faithful undershepherds like the man He was making Peter to be.

Along with this, there are also those in our time who'll admit that God's people are His sheep, but they say it's up to the sheep to feed themselves.  That's the only way, they insist, for the church to be "seeker sensitive" and "missional." Pastors like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Chicago and Steven Furtick of Elevation Church of Charlotte, South Carolina, have said openly that members must become "self-feeders"; that those who want to hear more about the doctrines of grace on Sunday morning are on the way to becoming "spiritually obese"; that it's not their job as pastors to take care of the already-saved, they have to focus on the lost.  These men are right that the local church should be as outward-looking and concerned for unsaved sinners as Jesus is.  We must not be a private club where we care only for ourselves.  But they seem to forget that without pastors and elders continually building the membership up by the Word and sacraments of Jesus Christ we have nothing to take into the world.  If we sheep (and that includes all of us) are left without the shepherds God has appointed for us, if the shepherds refuse to do their Christ-given jobs, we will be walking pieces of unfinished business, with nothing to offer anybody but our own failing, faulty human efforts.

It would be bad enough if this "self-feeding sheep" mentality were a problem only in nondenominational churches, but some evangelical Presbyterian leaders are also beginning to suggest that that's what it takes to be missional.  Brothers and sisters, whatever you do, make sure that the person in your pulpit feeds constantly with the sincere milk and the strong meat of the Word of God, not only in preaching, but in care and visitation.  For only then will you be strong enough to reach out to those who do not know our great Shepherd and the only Lord.

Jesus in this episode in John led Simon Peter into a new knowledge of himself and of Jesus' will for him, and closed the unfinished business they had between them after Peter's denial.  But Peter is not exactly comforted when Jesus goes on to indicate how Peter will finish his life on this earth, in a martyr's death.  He no longer boasts proudly about facing it without fear, but he can't help wondering if John will experience the same.  But the command of Jesus to him and to us is immovable: Never mind my will for him (or anybody else), you follow Me.

For Jesus' business with us is never finished, at least, not until He comes in glory and we are perfected in Him.   We love imperfectly but are to go on loving, not depending on our love but on His; we serve in and with and through the gospel Word, not boasting in our own strength but humbly relying on His.  And the strength and love of Jesus are perfect and sure, for He who died has risen from the dead, and He is with us now and forever more.

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