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John 21:1-18 (Common English Bible translation)
My senior year of high school we did “Fiddler on the Roof” for the musical. I auditioned for Tevye, the overthinking, hyper-protective father role that I still feel destined for. My best pal got that role and I ended up doubly cast – as one of the bottle dancers in the big wedding scene and, you guessed it, the Rabbi. I guess my fate was set early on.
There are many songs in the production that are wonderful – “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” but I think that my favorite – or at least the one that holds a special place in my heart, is “Do You Love Me?” It’s a tender, short little song between Tevye and Golde, his wife. After all of the chaos around his daughter’s marriage and her rejection of tradition in the name of her heart, Tevye is overthinking about love and begins to wonder about his own marriage. “Do you love me?”, he sings to Golde as she’s simply trying to get her chores done. “Do I love you?”, she fires back. What kind of a question is that?
For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Tevye presses her further – evoking images of their own wedding, steeped in tradition, and the promise of their own parents that they wouldgrowto love one another. So, he asks again – “Do you love me?”
For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him,
Fought with him, starved with him.
For twenty-five years, my bed is his.
If that’s not love, what is?
Tevye breaks into a big grin – so, you love me? And he sits by her on that same bed, her unfolded laundry in her lap and they both say those words – I love you – as they sing together, with an appropriate bit of harmony: It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.
We should notice that at no point in Jesus and Peter’s little love song does Peter use the method Golde uses – why are you asking me this, Lord? Look at what I’ve done! Instead, Peter uses a much more common technique – look at what Isay, Lord! You want me to say it again? How about louder? When I marry people, I often say an adaptation of words attributed to St. Francis to the couple – be sure to say “I love you” often. Use words when necessary. See, trust and love are funny things. They both grow only with action. Saying, “trust me,” is only good if you are a person in whom I already have trust. And the same is true of love, which is like a bank for us where we store up capital and make deposits and withdrawals until, perhaps, at some point, we decide to close the account…or maybe we have so much, we open up a savings account to hold all our reserves.
Jesus replies to Peter by saying it again – do you Love me? He pushes Peter, asking three times not only, I think, because that’s a very biblical thing to do – things often happen in threes – but also because he doesn’t think that Peter is really getting it. Peter, is conveniently forgetting that the number of times Jesus has asked him if he loves him matches perfectly with the number of times he denied him at the cross. He thinks he has reserves, when Jesus is really asking him to make some deposits. So Jesu makes it clearer by switching his language from word to deed and says, “OK, I’ll take you at face value, Peter. I’ll trust you. So, ifyou love me…feed my sheep.”
Archaeologists and art researchers tell us that the earliest Christian imagery, the first art from the young Jesus movement’s development, depicts not cross or fish, not the table or the chalice or the crucifix, but rather the shepherd. It’s not a random image, but something straight out of the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who predicts in his oracles of comfort and hope to a Hebrew people in exile of a restoration of paradise, with abundant pastures tended by a shepherd. Jesus is marked very early on as the shepherd, which is not a familiar image to us. Anyone here know a shepherd? Anyone have an uncle or a cousin who’s a shepherd? If you said Jesus was a plumber, or an architect, or a blogger, we’d know what that was – but a shepherd?
A shepherd, to help us embrace this metaphor, seeks out the missing sheep, rescues those in danger, feeds them and leads them to life-giving water, cares for the sick ones and gives strength to the weak. These images from Ezekiel are used to inform the imagery around Jesus, calling him to Good Shepherd, and to make a claim on the followersof the Good Shepherd. At some point in the metaphor, we move from sheep to shepherd…weare to seek the missing, rescue the troubled, feed and give life, heal and give strength. There’s nary a piece in there about doctrinal purity or creedal accuracy.
But make no mistake. “Feed my sheep,” is not a soft ask. There are wolves and coyotes out there. And beyond that surface danger, the sheep of Jesus always seem to graze on the other side of the fences we’ve established. They live on the across the tracks, on the other bank of the river, on the other side of the wall. Barbara Brown Taylor says we turn this ask for love into a “lambs and rainbows” moment, as if Jesus is asking us to just be “nice” to each other. It’s a vague, beneficial feeling towards a generalized other. There’s no cost, no surrender, no change or transformation. It’s “don’t worry, be happy” on an endless loop, when it’s really be troubled a lot, by a Gospel that is both comforting and disruptive, grace-filled and demanding.
What Jesus is asking Peter for – again and again and again – is to give the kind of love he has given. He’s asking him to not only see “the other,” and to love “the other,” but to be willing to give, to sacrifice, for “the other.” It’s a dangerous and bold ask, which is why he asks Peter so many times. Peter’s yes, Jesus realizes, is to something different, and Jesus wants to make sure he knows what he’s saying yes to, for there is an important distinction between what Peter calls love and what Jesus calls love. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, he is asking him to showthis, not to say it.
Tevye and Golde have a lesson for us as well. Anyone can say, “I love you,” but can they show it. Can they say, “I love you,” without saying a word? And then, the lesson goes, you can also show your love over and over, and forget to say it. See, we need both. We live in a time in which a cultural Christianity makes a claim on the words – say you love Jesus and you can go on about your business, with nary a regard for the missing, the wounded, the hungry, the sick or the weak. It’s a claim on the power, without the vulnerability of need or weakness. For such a claim, Jesus would ask again, and again, and again – do you love me? Then feed my sheep.
And then there’s a progressive Christianity, one that leans very heavy on deeds, having no issue with trying to live out our faith, and yet that same progressive tradition has trouble with the words, “I love Jesus.” We shy away from that because we’ve witnessed it being so misused, so abused and twisted. We shy away from it because it gets us out of our heads and into our hearts, and it’s a vulnerable place. So, in the name of saying, “We’re Christians, but not like THAT,” we’ve set aside the very thing that might replenish our souls, weary from the work of the world. For we need both. We need the word and the deed. We need to be able to say, “I love you, Jesus,” AND to show it with the way we live our lives.
This is the beginning of trust, to know both sides of this – the word and the deed, the promise and the action, the Christ and the Christian. And Jesus knows that trust is a better compliment than love, so he seeks from his disciples that trust – which is only created when actions meet words. Jesus’ resurrection call is aspirational…we hear the words, we share the dream, we take the action. He has to ask Peter again and again and again because he wants to make sure that Peter – and by extension all of us – is connecting himself to Love – a Love that will make demands, a Love that will make us change our minds and hearts, a Love that we will be subject to, not the other way around. No longer, as he says with a metaphor of age, will we tie our own belt and walked around wherever we want, but instead we will stretch out our hands and another will tie our belt and lead us where we don’t want to go.
There is a wisdom in this seaside appearance of Jesus – that we, like Peter, might come to understand that we need both a rigorous, active faith that comes from within us and something to which we are subject, a Christ who has risen and a God who did the raising, so that there is a name to evoke against the power and evil and injustice in the world when it feels as though our actions alone will never prevail. Like Peter, we can understand that faith is something we live, to something we possess or wield or weaponize. Like Peter, we need to both love Christ and Love likeChrist. We must have both so that God’s miracles don’t become somiraculous as to be useless, vacuous…they must live inus and through us to be of any good. It’s the words that may connect and inspire us, butit’s the deeds that will transform us. When Golde says, “I love you,” it’s because of the work of those deeds on her own heart, and when Tevye repeats it back, it’s for the same reason. They have grown a love out of action, which is something that faith actually lives for…it is the work of faith.
Christianity lost a powerful voice for the work of faith this weekend – a voice which lifted up doubt and lack of belief, mistrust and the need for community as Holy things. Rachel Held Evans, a self-described “ex-vangelical,” who found a home in the liturgy and mystery of the Episcopalian tradition, died at the age of 37 – far too soon. She made a name for herself re-imagining her upbringing, embracing the #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ+ movements and taking on her tradition. She is known for her words, but the witness in the days since her death is as much to her deeds of kindness, inclusion and hopeful engagement. She once wrote, “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian.” And she also wrote,“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” She reminded us that, “If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.” She spoke of this table as something to which we are subject, a table that she said was not my table or your table, but Jesus’ table – and all who are hungry are welcome. She connected words to deeds and while I will most remember her by her words, we can all remember her in our deeds, as we ought to remember Jesus who, in the words of Ms. Evans, “was ready to stop waging war and start washing feet.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.