It's almost 4 months since Millennium eve - I wonder what it is from that evening that most stands out in your mind. Maybe it is the people you were with, or the fireworks you saw. Maybe it will have been some of the images from around the world as different nations saw out the old year and welcomed in the new year. Each of us will have different memories of that night that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. But how many of us can remember the resolutions we made on that night? More importantly how many of us have kept the resolutions we made on that night? Probably for many of us who are Christians our resolutions had something to do with our faith - maybe that we would serve Jesus Christ more fully this year or that we would make an extra effort to share the Gospel with family and friends or even that we would not be ashamed to stand up for Jesus at work or university or school.
If you did make some ambitious resolutions, you weren't alone. The new year saw lots of resolution making - one tabloid newspaper's editorial on 1st January was typical of the mood around at the start of the year. Under the headline, 'Together we can earn a brilliant tomorrow' the paper said that what people wanted in the new Millennium was, "Peace. Prosperity. Happiness." and that we should resolve to, "realise those dreams, to eradicate poverty, feed the hungry and shelter the poor". Very ambitious but now, just four months on, that resolution looks very hollow and probably so do ours. Even if we were not among those who made spiritual resolutions, all of us will have in some way or another let Jesus Christ down over the past four months. If that is your experience then this evening's passage is for you because we are going to be thinking about someone who made and broke ambitious resolutions just like us - the disciple Simon Peter.
His resolution was that he would "lay down his life for" Jesus - that he would give up everything for his master. Peter said that the night before Jesus died and as you know within a few hours he had denied that he even knew who Jesus was three times. If you look back to verse 3 of chapter 21 you get an insight into Peter's thinking after his failure,
"I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told [the other disciples], and they said, "We'll come with you". So they went out and got into the boat, but they caught nothing.
When Peter says that he is going out to fish, he is not saying that he is popping out for a relaxing night on Lake Galilee but that he is going back to his old life as a fisherman before he came into contact with Jesus, before he became a disciple. Peter, having failed so spectacularly, was on the brink of chucking in his Christian faith. But within a few hours everything has changed. Despite Peter's failure, he is forgiven, reinstated as a disciple and reminded what it really means to be a Christian - that being a Christian is not primarily about believing a set of truths or relating to a group of people or belonging to an institution but about knowing to a person - and more than simply knowing him, loving Jesus Christ. And as we will see these verses tell us what real love for Jesus involves - supreme love, suffering love and submitting love and we are going to look at each of those in turn now.
First, SUPREME LOVE
Have a look at verses 15-17,
When 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."
Again 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."
The 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."
Jesus' first question to Peter was "Do you truly love me more than these?" We can not really be sure what the 'these' are. Is Jesus here asking Peter if he loved him more than he loved the life Peter wanted to go back to - do you love me more than these fishing boats and nets? Or he could be asking Peter if he really loved Jesus more that the other disciples did, as he had claimed the night before Jesus died. It does not really matter which it is because the underlying question is clear - Jesus is wanting to know if Peter loves him supremely, more than anyone or anything else in the world.
I wonder what it is you most value in life. A simple way of working that out is to think about what you would be most horrified to lose. For all of us there will be a scale of horror from the relatively minor inconvenience of losing small amounts of money or cheque books, through the loss of items that have sentimental value to the loss of close friends and family. Jesus wants to be at the very top of that scale in our lives.
Something we all love and treasure and do not want to lose is a good reputation. The prospect of people thinking badly of us is not something we welcome. But if we want to be Christians in the world we live in just believing basic Christian truths will involve losing our good reputation. Just think about some of the things we have learnt over the past few weeks in these evening services. A couple of weeks ago we learnt from John 14, where Jesus says this:
"I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14.6)
If you believe that the world will tell you that you are narrow minded, intolerant, arrogant, self opinionated and bigoted. That is hardly what you call a good reputation.
Or think about what we learnt last Sunday, when we looked at the resurrection from John 20. If you believe in the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead the world will tell you that you're simplistic, that you believe in fairly tales and that 'modern people' can not believe in miracles. In short they will tell you that you are stupid. Again that is hardly what we want people to think of us. Jesus being the only way and the resurrection of Jesus are two of the most important and foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. They are reasonable and believable. But if you hold to them people out there will think that you are a stupid bigot. Some will even tell you so.
For some of us it will be our reputation that gets in the way of our supreme love for Jesus, for others our reputations may not concern us - it could be family, friends, possessions instead. Whatever it is it boils down to one basic question: who do I love most? My reputation or Jesus? My family or Jesus? Whatever it is for you or Jesus? So first, Jesus want us to have supreme love for him. Then real love for Jesus is suffering love.
Secondly, SUFFERING LOVE
Look at verse 18,
[Jesus said,] "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." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.
In that verse Jesus compares Peter' life when he was young, before he started to follow Jesus, to what his life will be like when he is older, as a result of following Jesus. And the contrast couldn't be greater - on one hand when he was younger Peter was free to dress how he wanted and to go where he wanted, but because of his future faithfulness to Jesus he will find himself being dressed and led to where he does not want to go - a place where he would have to stretch out his hands. Jesus is telling Peter that he will one day face death by crucifixion for following and proclaiming him. And tradition has it that Peter was indeed crucified.
Jesus' prophecy of Peter's future here reminds us of his words when he first explained what it meant to follow him. Jesus said that if anyone would come after him he must deny himself (in other words love Jesus more than anything else), take up his cross (be prepared to suffer, even to death) and follow him. Taking up your cross is a very stark, very simple picture of the suffering a Christian is to expect if they follow Jesus. Have you ever seriously considered what it meant to be someone on their way to the cross? We have a very romantic view of crucifixion as something that is noble, even bearable because of the hundreds of paintings of Jesus looking peaceful and pious on the cross. In reality crucifixion meant pain, humiliation and rejection by your contemporaries. It meant a drawn out and excruciating death. It was horrific. And that is how Jesus describes what it means, in part, to follow him.
Today on Tyneside we don't face the worst ravages of persecution on a daily basis. But other Christians in other places do. This is the experience of the Reformed Church in a town called Timisoara in the late 1980's as they lived faithfully for Jesus under the Communist regime in Romania:
"The methods of the secret police were anything but subtle. They threatened… the Reformed church and members had to run a gauntlet [of secret police agents] just to enter the building each Sunday. Once the service began, agents would stand in front of the Church cradling machine guns in their arm… merely attending the church was a silent act of protest. Meanwhile, [the Pastor of the church] Lazlo Tokes was denied his ration book; without it he was unable to buy bread, fuel or meat. Church members… shared from their own slim resources, smuggling firewood and food to the pastor and his family. [However] Lazlo Tokes was afraid for his four year old son and sent the child to live with relatives.
"His fears were well founded. The secret police contacted one of Lazlo Tokes's friends, an architect… and ordered him to comply with their campaign against the pastor. The architect refused. A few days later his body was found in a Timisoara park. The police termed his death a suicide. Then Tokes himself was attacked. Four men, their faces concealed behind ski masks, burst into the pastor's small apartment located in the church building. Lazlo Tokes and his wife happened to have visitors that evening, who helped fight off the attackers with chairs. The assailants ran away, leaving Tokes bleeding from a knife wound to the face.
"Soon after the secret police must have concluded that killing Tokes would simply make him a martyr. Instead they would render him ineffective by exiling him to a small remote village outside Timisoara. A court ordered his eviction from his home and church, setting the date for 15 December 1989." (from The Body, Charles Colson, pages 73-74.)
This particular story has a remarkable ending. The outraged members of the Reformed Church (along with others) protested against Tokes's exile. They were threatened and intimidated by the secret police. They stood firm and the protests against Lazlo Tokes's eviction started the revolution that ended the Communist regime in Romania.
But the persecution of Christians around the world goes on. For example Christians in the Sudan, face death on a daily basis. Hospitals, schools and homes in the predominately Christian south of Sudan are bombed indiscriminately by the Sudanese Government.
There's information at the back of Church on Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a group which works for persecuted people around the world. And it is not just in Eastern Europe in the past and in the so called Third World today that Christians face violence. You may remember the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, USA just over a year ago that were in part (though certainly not exclusively) motivated by hatred of Christians. A few months later seven Christians were killed during a prayer meeting at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The BBC news report on the web gave this description of what happened:
"The Wedgwood Baptist Church was holding an evening service for teenagers when [the gunman] burst in, shouting anti Baptist and anti Christian obscenities and firing indiscriminately. Four teenagers were among the seven dead. Another seven people were injured… City spokesman Pat Svacina said that the [gunman] rolled a pipe bomb down the aisle shortly after the shooting began. The bomb exploded but caused no injuries." (from www.bbc.co.uk/news on 17 September 1999, italics added)
The testimony of those believers in Romania just over 10 years ago, the on going suffering of Christians in places like the Sudan and the willingness of those young Christians in the USA to die because they identified with Jesus Christ all points to one thing - they really loved Jesus Christ. And the correct response for us as we hear their stories is not just to sit back and say 'how remarkable' or 'how tragic' but to ask ourselves if we would do the same as them in those situations. Would you be here if there were secret police outside who you knew could deprive you of your food, your home, your family and even your life? Yes or no? Would you stay a Christian if it meant facing the bombs of your government on a daily basis? Yes or no? Would you identify yourself with Jesus Christ if a gunman burst in here? Yes or no?
My suspicion is that our answers to those three questions are very telling. Whether we said yes or no to those questions will determine whether we mean it when we say yes or no to the question Jesus asked Peter three times all those years ago. So real Christian love is supreme love, suffering love and finally submitting love.
Thirdly, SUBMITTING LOVE
Look at the very end of verse 19,
Then [Jesus] said to [Peter], "Follow me!"
Two very simple words ("Follow me") but they have profound consequences. They mean that people who love Jesus are to walk in his footsteps and to do the same as he would, in other words submit to him. A person who won't submit to Jesus can't really claim to love him. Indeed it is a good measure of your love for Jesus the extent to which you are willing to submit to him and his will.
You may have read in the papers about over the past couple of weeks about a new novel called Easter by the author Michael Arditti. Even though it is a novel, the book sets out an agenda for the Church of England. The two things on the book's agenda are for the Church of England to jettison classic teaching on sin and the atonement for sin that Jesus achieved on the cross and a change to the church's attitude to homosexuality. In other words the book wants the church to dump the Gospel and the moral implications of the Gospel. Ironically the author argues that this would be part of following Jesus' demand for total commitment. But that can't be right. To dump the Gospel and the moral implications of the Gospel would be to demonstrate that we don't love Jesus Christ. There is no other way of putting it.
When Jesus says "Follow me" he demands our total submission and commitment, on matter of belief and on matters of behaviour. And to turn round and say to Jesus 'I'm not going to accept what you say on this or that' is the same as saying to him 'I don't love you'. And if you do that there are huge spiritual consequences. Even in the relatively short time I have been a Christian I have seen too many people who have refused to submit to Christ in some way or another come to grief.
One of the very first Christians I ever met when I was a teenager was a teacher at my secondary school. He was a very impressive man but subsequently it emerged he had not submitted to Jesus' authority in several areas and he is nowhere Christianly today. I wonder if there are areas of your life or thinking that you know are in rebellion against the Bible's teaching. If there are (and to a greater or lesser extent there will be for all of us) you need to do something about it because it is compromising your love for Jesus.
So there we are. Real love for Jesus is: supreme love - loving him above anything and anyone else; suffering love - being prepared to accept the consequences of living faithfully to him; submitting love - putting your whole life under his authority. In the light of that will you say 'yes' when Jesus asks you, "Do you love me?"?