“Do you love me more than these?” – John 21:15b
We heard this question asked of Peter three times this past Sunday by Jesus. “Do you love me more than these?” This question has reverberated through my brain since then. I wonder, who are the these Jesus refers to?
It may certainly be the case that the these are the other seven disciples gathered with Jesus and Peter. Does Peter love Jesus more than this group of guys? Maybe. Or, are the these Peter’s old way of life, the familiar and comfortable, the practice of fishing? Again, maybe. There may be some subtle nuance in the Greek I’m all together missing that clarifies the whole matter; I was never much good with Greek, just ask my teachers; but it seems to be left vague and open to interpretation as to who the these are in Jesus’ question.
“Do you love me more than these?” I suppose as this question echoes through my soul I’ve been hearing, Jonathan, son of Buck and Cindy, do you love me more than these things that are familiar and make you comfortable? It is, to say the least, a very disconcerting, make you wiggle in your seat, sweat under the collar kind of question. There are lots of things in my life that are familiar, and comfort giving, and joy producing; and any number, if not all of them, may very well be things that I love more than Jesus. As Luther put it in speaking about the first commandment, I may well have many gods that find their way to the front of the line ahead of Jesus. What’s easy to miss is the fact that those false gods and shiny idols may well be good and wholesome things; they need not be, and often times are not, the vices and debaucheries we warn ourselves of.
In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), I serve as a dean. That means I end up in a lot of meetings and a lot of conversations about what God is up to and what is the state of the church. It probably comes as no surprise to those of us in the west that the picture often doesn’t look good. Pews that once were filled now leave more empty seats than those occupied; budgets once were larger and the money always seemed to come; the church building once gleamed where now a mounting list of maintenance and repair looms; perhaps the sound of children that once filled the halls has grown eerily silent…maybe even more concerning than these is the awareness of how long it’s taken us to even notice. Long story short, the church with its structures and systems and ways is becoming untenable. Churches dot the landscape almost equaling the number of people making the weekly pilgrimage to join in the sweet hour of prayer. Do relatively small southern towns need two, or three, or more churches all with in a few miles of one another all of the same particular brand of the church of Jesus Christ? Or, to really hit where our comfort and familiarity resides, does Jesus desire temples built of brick and mortar, or perhaps temples built of flesh and blood? Perhaps it’s no coincidence for us in the ELCA, or the church in the United States, or in the South, that we sat comfortably in our church buildings surrounded by our stuff and our systems on Sunday and heard Jesus ask us three times “do you love me more than these?”
Make no mistake, the church is not going anywhere. Jesus promised that (see Matthew 16:18). But our way of doing and being church may very well perish. Our steeples may fall, our bricks may crumble, our offices may close, and more. But the church, the body of Christ, that will go on, that will prevail. In the midst of it all, even as we ponder the implications and the depths of the question “do you love me more than these?” for our lives there is Jesus who prepares a table for us to nourish us. This Jesus even dares to invite us to bring to the table what we have and hold and cherish to be used in his work of nourishing us, the church, and the world. We may well, and need to ponder the question do we love Jesus more than these? But as we wonder and ponder take joy and confidence that as Jesus is asked the question “Jesus, son of Mary, do you love these people more than anything else?” The answer is yes, Jesus loves us more.