“And now, I just have so much love for the Lord,” said the woman sitting across from in the seminary cafeteria. We were sharing each other’s biographies and that’s how hers ended.
“That’s great,” I said kind of half-heartedly. Really, I was just being polite. Her comment didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. At that point in my life, I just wouldn’t express my journey with Jesus with such emotional enthusiasm. What did that mean, anyway? Loving the Lord?
Do you love Jesus? Some of you might answer, “Yes”. Many of you might give that answer out of a sense of obligation. It is what you’re supposed to say in church. Yet inside you wonder what loving Jesus actually means. It can be a strange and difficult concept when you really think about it. Where does one go to love this Jesus and what does one do when one gets there? No offense to those of other sexual orientations, but it’s a particularly difficult concept for many heterosexual men. After all, the church often uses the language to describe a relationship with Jesus that borders on that of romantic love. We sing about how beautiful he is, his tender love, how we’re going to give it up for him. Face it, it can all be a little - well, weird.
Maybe you once were like the woman I met in the seminary cafeteria. You felt a passionate love for Jesus at one time on your life, but now it’s difficult to feel anything for him. Maybe you have no difficulty at all loving Jesus and exclaiming it fervently. Yet you know that one day life may throw you a curve, and you worry that love will die. Is there anything to loving Jesus beyond just our feelings?
The last chapter of John’s Gospel ends with another appearance by Jesus to his disciples after his death. The disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to their everyday lives as fishermen around the Sea of Galilee. There does not seem to be any talk among them about continuing a religious movement. Instead, Peter says he’s going fishing. Maybe it was his way of turning his back on the Jesus movement, to simply return to his old life and pretend none of it ever happened.
In the morning, Jesus appears on the beach, but once again, no one recognizes him. The Gospel tells us a story of how Jesus gives them fishing instructions, resulting in a miraculously large catch of fish. It is then that disciples recognize him. They all have breakfast with Jesus on the beach, during which Jesus gives them bread and fish, again recalling some of the imagery of the Last Supper. Afterwards, Jesus turns to Peter, the one he called “The Rock”, the one who denied he even knew Jesus, the one who deserted Jesus, and asks him, “Do you love me?” In most relationships, when one party asks the other that question, it is not a good sign.
Once there was a long-married married couple. The excitement and romantic feelings of love had since long faded in the wake of bill-paying and child-raising. One day the husband asked the wife, “Do you love me?” Hidden in his question was the implication that perhaps she didn’t anymore. The wife responded that, of course she did. Why would he think she didn’t?
The husband replied, “It seems you just don’t care about what’s important to me. I talk about my work and you don’t pay attention. I have hobbies and interests and you don’t participate in them. How can you say you love me when you don’t care about what I care about, when what’s important to me isn’t important to you?”
He had a point. After all, when you love someone you care about the things that are important to them. Jesus knew that. When he asked Peter, “Do you love me” he wasn’t asking about his feelings. In response to Peter’s obligatory, “Of course I do” Jesus challenges him with “Then feed my sheep.” In other words, now that you met and journeyed with me Peter, your love for me must be more than mere words or feelings. You can’t just pretend that none of it, my teachings, my miracles, my death and resurrection never happened. You can’t just deny it and go fishing. If you love me Peter, what is important to me, must be important to you.
What was important to Jesus? It was the thing he talked about most, the Kingdom of God. It was the new reign of God breaking into the world through Jesus and later, through those who followed him. These new followers needed to be fed and nourished in their spiritual journey. If Peter really loved Jesus, he said, he would be working in Jesus’ movement, developing followers, catching more fish.
If you wonder how to love Jesus, here’s the answer for you. Loving Jesus isn’t about how we feel. It’s about taking seriously the same things that Jesus took seriously. It’s about building his kingdom, feeding his followers. When was the last time you did something to bring someone further along on their journey with God? Do you serve in your faith community through teaching, through calling and visiting those who are going through tough times? When you speak to others within your faith community, do you complain? Are you negative and a downer all the time? Or are you positive, building up the community and everyone in it? Those actions feed Jesus’ sheep and demonstrate our love for him.
Back to our long-married couple. They had been through tough times in their marriage. The husband had lost his job and they had difficulty making ends meet. So he felt like a failure and withdrew to himself in the marriage. When he acted that way, his wife got defensive and she withdrew too, and they both created this cycle of lovelessness and suspicion.
“Why don’t you think I love you?” the wife asked. The husband secretly worried his wife would leave him because of his failures and finally he told her. “I worry you won’t stay with me when things get tough,” he said. “People who love each other stick together - for better or worse remember.” In our human relationships, we show love for the other person by doing difficult things for them. As parents sit through endless school concerts and games. We sacrifice our time for our kids. To have a loving marriage, we have to give up our own agendas and getting our own way. That’s hard. In loving families, changing diapers on a newborn baby or a dying parent is difficult. Love takes us to place we would rather not go.
At the conclusion of his conversation with Peter, Jesus address this very issue. After asking Peter three times if he loves him, Jesus gives an almost cryptic answer about being an old man being dressed and led to Peter doesn’t want to go. The narrator clues us in and says this was a foreshadowing about how Peter would die. Although historians don’t know for sure, there are stories a few years later, Peter was executed by the Romans for following Jesus. There are stories that he was crucified, even crucified upside down. Some say that was the Romans’ way of mocking Peter and his faith in Jesus. Others say Peter insisted on it himself, in order to avoid looking equal to Jesus. In any case, we do know that Jesus called Peter to a life of loving and following him, and loving and following Jesus leads to conflict and tough times.
If we say we love Jesus, are we to expect any less? Following Jesus means being willing to go places we don’t want to go, to love people we don’t want to love, to stand in places that are unpopular to stand. I think that’s why I had difficulty relating to the woman who told me she just “had so much love for the Lord”. It all sounded too perfect and unrealistic. Loving Jesus is not a ticket to a charmed life. It’s an invitation to struggle, like a married couple who vows to stay together for better or worse.
That means church won’t always go the way you like it, or fit with your personal preferences. It means you may wind up worshipping in a gym, or be in community with people you don’t really like, or be the one who talks about loving our enemies while everyone else is screaming for revenge. Peter followed Jesus to the point of being crucified upside down and some of us can’t even get up early on a Sunday morning to be in church. Loving Jesus means being faithful, committed and sticking with it. When we give up on following Jesus for what are often merely superficial preferences, we are no better than the guy who dumps his wife because she gains a few pounds.
Real love is about taking seriously the things the person you love takes seriously. It’s about following them to places that make you uncomfortable. We fail at that in our relationships with Jesus and with others. The good news is that in both cases, that failure need not be final. It’s no coincidence that the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before his death is given three opportunities to declare his love for the Risen Jesus.
Loving Jesus is hard work. For every time we fail at it, we are reassured by the knowledge that Jesus always gives us another chance. You may have not done a great job of loving Jesus in the past, but Jesus holds no resentments over it. Jesus always welcomes you back and continually calls us to new opportunities to love him again.