There’s a book by Julian Barnes called The history of the world in 10½ chapters. Ten chapters are about the history of the world, and the half is about love – the only thing he finds brings meaning to life. But here’s his warning about how love can be insincere:
‘I love you.’ For a start, we had better put these words on in a box, behind glass that we have to break, in the bank. We should not leave them lying around like a tube of vitamin C. If they come too easily to hand, we’ll use them without thought, and there they are gone.
Listen to them again. ‘I love you.’ We must keep these words in their box behind glass, and when we take them out we must be careful. Men will say, ‘I love you’ to get women into bed with them. Women will say, ‘I love you’ to get men into marriage with them. Both will say I love you to assure themselves that the promised condition has arrived, to deceive themselves that it hasn’t gone away. We must beware of all such uses.
So we can say ‘I love you’ to another human being and fail to live up to it. And we can do the same to God. And in the last of this Easter series in John 20 and 21, we meet the man who did that very publicly – the apostle Peter. And in tonight’s passage the resurrected Lord Jesus meets Peter after his failure and asks him, ‘Do you love me?’ And that is still the Lord Jesus’ question to each of us, tonight: ‘Do you love me?’ Some of us have grown up in this church and heard it all, age five, eight, thirteen... seventy – whatever you are now. Some of us have been coming along on Sundays and to Christianity Explored, to sort out what we believe. And the issue for you is: ‘Have you got to the point of saying ‘Yes’ to that question, yet?’ (I’m not suggesting you ‘should have’, but just asking.) If not, looking at tonight’s passage will be like going to a wedding accompanied by your girlfriend or boyfriend, watching the couple make their vows and thinking to yourself, ‘Could I make that commitment? Am I ready to do that, yet?’ And then for those of us who do say ‘Yes, we love Jesus,’ looking at tonight’s passage will be like going to a wedding accompanied by our wife or husband, watching the couple make their vows, and thinking to ourselves, ‘That’s the commitment I’ve made – how am I living up to it?’
Now we need some background to this meeting between Peter and the risen Lord Jesus, so would you turn in the Bibles to John 12 and verses 23-26:
23Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man [ie, Jesus himself] to be glorified [ie, to die and rise again and return to his Father in heaven]. 24I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. [Ie, his death is going to produce the fruit of many lives forgiven back into relationship with God. So what are our options in response?] 25The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world [a strong way of saying, ‘who chooses commitment to Jesus over commitment to self’] will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me...
So whereas you can get little or no clarity from a phone company or political party about what they’re really going to cost you, Jesus is crystal clear about the terms of discipleship. Having just said he’s on his way to suffer on the cross, he says, ‘You must follow me.’ Now those of us trusting in him cannot follow him into the suffering of being cut off from his Father – which he went through in our place, for our sins. Thank God we’ve been saved from ever following him there. But at the human level, he went to the cross through the rejection of those who didn’t believe his claims. And we will have to follow him into that kind of suffering. We will have to face negative reactions (small and large) to our faith. That’s one of the unavoidable terms of discipleship.
Well, now turn over to John 13 and verse 37. It’s now the Thursday night before the Friday of Jesus’ death, and he’s just told his disciples that he’s going away. So look at chapter 13, vv37-38:
37Peter asked, "Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." [So there’s his great declaration of love.] 38Then Jesus answered, "Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!
Which chapter 18 tells us he did. The Lord Jesus had been betrayed and arrested; the Jewish leaders were in the process of engineering his death; and for fear of his own safety, Peter denies being Jesus’ disciple – three times. But let’s not sit in judgement. Because what we see in him we find in our own hearts – namely, the desire for discipleship without suffering; discipleship without the risk of the negative reaction. Ie, discipleship on our own terms. But that’s like wanting marriage on our own terms – saying ‘I’ll love him or her for better, for richer and in health, but not for worse, for poorer or in sickness. I’ll do three out of six.’ But you either accept marriage on its terms, or reject it. And you either accept Jesus on his terms, or reject him – there’s no middle ground. And one of the unavoidable terms of discipleship is that it involves making him known to a world that, to some extent, will always react negatively. And by the end of chapter 18, Peter still hasn’t accepted that – and maybe you haven’t yet, either.
Well, chapter 19 tells how Jesus died for us; chapter 20, how he rose bodily from the dead. And last week we looked at the first half of chapter 21, and the third appearance of the risen Lord Jesus in John’s Gospel. So, turn on to chapter 21 and look down to verses 14-15:
14This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
So what we see here is the Lord Jesus giving Peter a fresh start after that very public failure. And if you’ve not yet said ‘Yes’ to Jesus as Lord of your life, this is a great passage for seeing what that would involve. And if you have said ‘Yes’, it’s a great passage for asking yourself, ‘How am I living up to that commitment?’
But the most important thing in all this is not our commitment to him, but his commitment to us – so my first of three headings for the rest of our time is this:
Firstly, BEING A CHRISTIAN IS BASED ON JESUS’ COMMITMENT TO US
This passage says loud and clear that the Lord Jesus’ commitment to Peter hasn’t changed, despite Peter’s failure. He’s been forgiven his failure. In fact, from what we read earlier, we know Jesus had predicted his failure – he’d anticipated it and yet still died for Peter. And the truth from that for all of us is that when he died, Jesus anticipated every sin we would need forgiving for, and paid the price of its forgiveness.
So there may be some sins in your past, or even in your future, that appal you – and leave you thinking, ‘How could I ever have done that? And how can I possibly be forgiven that?’ But they won’t take the Lord Jesus by surprise, because he anticipated them and died for them. Which means there’s no sin you can confess to him that he can’t forgive. So will you trust him on that, tonight?
Maybe, like Peter, you’re a disciple very conscious of failure and that’s paralysed your Christian life for weeks, months or maybe years – you just don’t feel you can be forgiven and get up and start again.
And I want to call on you tonight to trust that you can. Or maybe you’re on the brink of accepting Jesus as Lord, but held back by the thought of how much you’re likely to fail him. Well, you will. And he knows you will – he knows all about your future sins. But he also died for them so that he can forgive you whenever you need it. And I want to call on you tonight to trust him on that – and not let that hold you back any longer from committing yourself to him.
I was in the Metro station here the other day and this slightly world-weary cleaning lady had just finished mopping the platform. And it was sparkling. And down the steps came this guy and, oblivious to the cleaner (who was behind him), he started plodding muddy footprints along her newly cleaned floor. And she gave me her world-weariest look, took up her mop and followed about three feet behind him, so that as fast as he muddied, she mopped, and they arrived at the end with a sparkling clean platform behind them. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘What a great picture of what the Lord Jesus does for us as we fail our way through the Christian life.’ Because he keeps forgiving us, right up to the present moment.
So firstly, being a Christian is based on Jesus’ commitment to us. It doesn’t all depend on our commitment to him. It all depends on his commitment to us – dying so that we could be forgiven everything.
The next thing to get from this passage is this:
Second, BEING A CHRISTIAN MEANS COMMITMENT TO JESUS AS LORD
Look down again to v15, and these three questions that I take it reflect Peter’s three denials, vv15-17:
15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
17The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
‘Do you love me?’ asks Jesus. We love different people in different ways, don’t we? – husbands, wives, parents, children, friends. So what does love for Jesus involve? Well, back in chapter 14, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (John 14.15). So it’s not love for an equal – like for a human friend. Just look back over to chapter 20 and verse 28 and you’ll see that Thomas, having seen Jesus risen from the dead, says to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’ And that’s who Jesus is. And love for him is nothing less than wholehearted, glad obedience – not just because he’s our rightful Lord. But because, out of love for us, he went to the cross. So he’s asking, ‘Do you love me like that?’
Well, what do you say? The moment I say ‘Yes’, I think of all my failure to love him – and wonder whether I really should say ‘Yes.’ And if you’ve not yet accepted Jesus as Lord, you may well be wondering how you could possibly say ‘Yes’ with integrity. And yet Peter does, doesn’t he? Look again at v15. Despite his failure, Peter says,
"Yes, Lord... you know that I love you."
[And v16:] He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
[And v17:] He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." (vv15-17)
So notice what Peter is appealing to, there. He’s not appealing to his track record, but to the Lord’s knowledge of his heart. He’s saying, ‘Lord, you know my failure, but more importantly, you know my heart. You know what I really want. You know the real me, and that the real me isn’t the person who gave in to sin back there, but is the person standing in front of you, who wants to get back up again and live for you.’ And the question is: can you say that? Because that’s what it means to love Jesus. It doesn’t mean that you have done, perfectly – we never will, in this life. It means that you want to, and that you try to, and that when you don’t, it grieves you – and you want to get up and try again, in the strength of being forgiven and still loved despite your failure.
So Peter appeals to the Lord’s knowledge, which sees through his failure to his heart. Just like the old hymn says:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
Isn’t it extraordinary to be able to say those last two lines about God? So being a Christian means commitment to Jesus as Lord – but always based on his unshakable and gracious commitment to us.
Then, lastly from this passage:
Third, BEING A CHRISTIAN MEANS WORKING FOR JESUS AND ACCEPTING HIS PLAN FOR OUR LIVES
Look down again at what Jesus says in reply to Peter each time. End of v15:
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
[End of v16:] Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
[End of v17:] Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (vv15-17)
Now back in chapter 10, Jesus says, v11:
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’
So his sheep are those he died for – which means those who’ve already accepted him, and those who still need to hear about him so that they can. And Peter’s told to ‘feed’ them – that is, feed them God’s Word – and take care of them. Ie, he’s told to work for Jesus – for the spread of the gospel to new people, and the building-up of those who are already Christians.
Now we’re unlike Peter – in that he was an apostle and called to lead the church. And following Jesus doesn’t mean that for everyone. But it does, for all of us, mean playing our part in the spread of the gospel to new people, and the building-up of those who are already Christians.
So there’s no such thing as a secret disciple. You may be wondering if you can accept Jesus as Lord but keep it private so it doesn’t affect your relationships – with your spouse, or family or friends or colleagues. But the Lord Jesus calls us to work for him so that those very people get the chance to hear about him through us. So there’s no such thing as a secret disciple. And, likewise, there’s no such thing as a solitary disciple. Maybe you’re wishing you could accept Jesus as Lord without getting involved with us lot – with church. Maybe we’ve put you off in the past; maybe this group of people just doesn’t feel remotely your scene. But the Lord Jesus calls us to help one another follow him and to show the world how God changes lives corporately.
So that’s something of the work that the Lord Jesus calls us to. And having done so to Peter, he then tells him his plan for the end of his life. Look down to v18, where Jesus says, vv18-19:
18“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. [And we know from sources outside the Bible that Peter died for his faith about thirty years after this.] Then [Jesus] said to him, "Follow me!"
Now again, we’re unlike Peter in that the Lord’s plan was that he would die for his faith – which isn’t necessarily his plan for us. But the Lord Jesus does have a plan for each of our lives. And to be a Christian is to say to him, ‘From this point, I’ll go where you want me to go; be what you want me to be; do what you want me to do. Whatever the cost.’ So are you saying that to him? Are you still saying that to him, five, ten, twenty, forty years down the tracks of being a Christian?
But having said that, his plan is going to look different for each of us – that’s the point of the end of this passage. Look down to vv20-23:
20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") [And I take it, that’s the apostle John.] 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23Because of this, the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"
So Peter asks, ‘What about John?’ And the Lord Jesus says, ‘None of your business. You just get on with living your life for me.’ So if you find yourself asking, ‘Why haven’t I been given in life something like so-and-so has been given to do?’ – eg, like John being given the privilege of writing one of the Gospels – it’s actually the wrong question. Just do for Jesus what you’ve been given in life to do. And if you find yourself asking, ‘Why have I been given something harder to do, harder to bear, than so-and-so?’ – like Peter being given a martyr’s death to die – well, at the end of the day, the differences, the unfairnesses, between our circumstances are a mystery – eg, Peter died a martyr’s death early; John lived to old age. But the Lord Jesus calls each of us to glorify him in the way we respond to our circumstances. And paradoxically, those of us facing the hardest things can often glorify him the most in them, by ongoing trust and patience.
Now John wrote his Gospel to lead people to faith in Jesus. That’s what he says at the end of chapter 20, vv30-31:
30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
And I think he ends it with this account of a fresh start for Peter to show his readers what it would mean to follow Jesus – to show them that being a Christian is based on Jesus’ commitment to us; that being a Christian means commitment to Jesus as Lord; and that being a Christian means working for Jesus and accepting his plan for our lives.
But I think he also ends it like this to show his readers that once you’ve looked at the evidence and the claims of Jesus – once you’ve grown up with it, or done Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored (or whatever it is for you) – there comes a point where a decision has to be made. So look at how the Gospel ends, v24:
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
So there’s a final claim that John actually witnessed these things he wrote about – implication: it’s reliable enough to rest a decision on. And then v25:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Ie, there’s much, much more that could be said about Jesus – but this Gospel alone has said enough on which you can make a decision. You can always read more, talk more, question more, think more – and some of us here tonight will need to do so. But maybe for someone here tonight, you know it’s true, and you know enough and you’ve reached a point where a decision has to be made.
And if you’re someone who’s already made the decision, the end of John’s Gospel reminds us that, as in marriage, the decision has to be freshly re-made and lived up to every day.
And the decision is simply this: Do you love Jesus?
We thank you that you loved us in sending your Son to die for us before we had ever thought of loving him.
And whether we need to do so for the first time, or to continue doing so, we pray that you would enable us to trust in your forgiveness and unchanging commitment to us; to have the will to be committed to you above our own selves; and to work for you and bring you glory in the lives you have given us to live
We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.