Commencement Sermon: Life With God
I want to focus my reflection this evening on Jesus’ part in this exchange. Christians affirm God as all-knowing and, so, usually focus on Peter in this exchange, as if the question, “Do you love me?” is only asked for Peter’s sake. I want to affirm that Jesus as God is all-knowing in classic Christian fashion, but if we think about God’s history of dealing with humanity, I think we will see that Jesus has His own reasons for asking this question of Peter.
The first humans, Adam and Eve, are made by God in His Image to rule His good creation on His behalf and dwell with Him, but they, instead, listen to the serpent and eat the forbidden fruit rather than from God’s Tree of Life. Ever since, human history has been marked by violence, greed, lust, arrogance, and all kinds of pursuits over our own lesser desires which never satisfy rather than pursue the goodness of God. Even the best figures of faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, dropped the ball more times than they carried it home. David, called “a man after God’s own heart”, was still capable of the vilest deeds. Israel, God’s chosen people, were far more faithful to worshiping the gods of the land than the God who led them out of slavery in Egypt.
Now, God is among humanity in the flesh, in Jesus. He has been misunderstood, asked to stay away from certain towns and cities, and, only a few days before this conversation, was murdered by the religious leaders of His people, the people He had entrusted with His Law and His promises. And He has quite a history with Peter too. He has poured three years into Peter, teaching him, showing him signs and miracles, taking him into his confidence, showing him His glory. Yet he regularly puts his foot in his mouth. On one occasion, Jesus even says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He is nearby during Jesus’ darkest hour in Gethsemane, sleeping. And as Jesus is falsely accused and put on trial the night before His execution, Peter is just outside, emphatically stating he has never met Jesus.
God’s relationship with humanity has been largely one-sided as God has poured out His love on His creation and His people have largely rejected Him. In loving humanity and entering relationship with us, God has made Himself vulnerable to rejection. In the incarnation, God the Son, Jesus, made Himself vulnerable to mockery, poverty, suffering, and, ultimately, a cruel death by crucifixion. One biblical scholar, Ellen Davis, writes in her provocative book, Getting Involved with God, “We are most vulnerable to emotional pain when the well-being and the faithfulness of those we love are at stake. And as we have seen, the Bible shows that the faithfulness of even the best of God’s covenant partners is always up for grabs. So it follows that God’s vulnerability in love is an essential element of covenant relation” (p. 62).
In Jesus’ relationship with Peter, Jesus has poured His love, wisdom, patience, trust, and has even suffered death on His behalf, but Peter has merely repaid it with his own arrogance and denials of Jesus. Jesus surely knows the answer to His own question before He asks it, but there is something in Jesus that wants to ask Peter, “Do you actually love me?” and wants to hear Peter answer it himself.
As you graduate and go out from here into the next stage of your life, Jesus asks the same vulnerable question, and will continue to ask it every day of your life. The way He asks Peter gives us clues for what He means when He asks it of us.
In this question, Jesus asks, “Do you actually love me? Because I expect you to show it.” Each time Jesus asks Peter, He follows it with a command: “Feed my sheep.” Answering “yes” to this question
will require Peter to give up a lucrative fishing career in order to proclaim the love of Jesus he has witnessed, to lead a new community baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to find himself at odds with both the leaders of his own Jewish faith and the Roman empire he lives within. In the end, this life will leave Peter old before his time, chained in a Roman prison, and sentenced to death by crucifixion, just like Jesus. Tradition records that Peter said, “I am not worthy to die as my Lord did” and requested to be crucified upside-down. In our text, Jesus told Peter that this is how his life would end, in suffering and death.
Answering “yes” to the question, “Do you love me?” demands everything of us. In another passage, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37 NIV). He requires we commit ourselves completely to him. Jesus, in asking “Do you love me?” requires us to constantly give up our own desires for comfort, achievement, and success. He requires a life of self-sacrifice, constantly giving of ourselves for the sake of others, just as Jesus did. In Mt. 16:24, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple
must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Life with God is not to be taken lightly. When I graduated from Christian school, I did not know how hard it would be to say “yes” to the question and, I confess, in my actions, I find myself saying “no” far more often than I would care to admit. Answering “no” is the easy way. Answering “yes” demands everything.
Yet this question is also an invitation. It is an invitation to follow Jesus who does not ask anything of us He would not do Himself. He, in His death,made the ultimate act of sacrifice on our behalf, to deal the final blow to evil, sin, and death. He rose again to give us true life, the life with God we were created to have. One prominent theologian in the history of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The demand to sacrifice our own desires
is an invitation to give up the things that do not satisfy in favor of the love of Jesus we were created to enjoy. Our hope rests on the fact
that God has created this good world and, while we have been faithless to Him, He is faithful to us. He became one of us to free us from any lesser desire which would enslave us and to free us to the joy of His love. Our lives are not headed towards chaos and death, but to the hope of resurrection, of being restored, and of living eternally in the presence of our loving God in the perfect world He makes for us. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:4 (NRSV), “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” When Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” He invites us into the full life of His love.
Every day of your life, you will have to grapple with this question: “Do you love me?” as Jesus opens Himself up to relationship with you. Do not take it lightly. It will demand everything of you. But it will offer you more than you can even imagine: life with the God who loves you extravagantly. As those who love you at Bridgeton Christian School, our hope and prayer as we send you off is that you answer Jesus' question, “Do you love me?” with a costly and satisfying, “Yes.”