All You Need Is Love

Sunday 22nd April 2007
Year C, The Third Sunday of Easter
St Peter's, Henfield
Acts 9:1-6
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Love, O love; there is no word more abused than love; it is the human talent for corrupting the divine that can take its most sacred word and turn it into selfishness. I love chocolate means I want chocolate; I love a girl means I lust after a girl; I love you means I want something you have; I am doing this out of love means I want to force you to be more like me. We have got it completely wrong; if ever a word has been turned upside down and inside out it is love; if ever a glass has been broken, a picture blurred, a melody twisted, a smile distorted, a candle blown out, it is love.

This explains why so many of us ask the question that should never be asked: "Do you love me?" because we know deep down that the answer is worthless. What we want to be told without asking is that we are loved; better still, we want to know we are loved without even being told.

So what is the meaning of Jesus' question, repeated three times so that poor Peter gets upset? This is surely not a question put persistently because Jesus does not know the answer. The theology of the post Resurrection Jesus is even more difficult to grasp than the incarnational theology of Jesus God and Man; but whether or not our Risen Lord was a man in any way we would understand, He surely cannot have had any doubts about the minds and hearts of His followers. I believe, therefore that to think that Jesus is asking Peter whether he loves Him out of a sense of uncertainty is profoundly to misunderstand what is going on. There are those who advocate this explanation because they link the supposed threefold doubt of Jesus with Peter's threefold denial of Him on the night before the Crucifixion. But surely there can have been no such doubt. Peter had been chosen to lead the church of Our Lord on earth. The denial is both a warning and a consolation.

I believe that the reason why Jesus asked Peter the question was to ensure that Peter put that question to himself deliberatively enough to be able to answer for himself for the rest of his human life; just as we deliberately concentrate when we see a landscape we want to remember; just as we re-read a striking passage to retain it in our memory; just as we deliberately fix the words and tone of a treasured sentence, so Jesus was orchestrating this process for Peter so that he would never forget.

And with good reason. Although the Acts of the Apostles bursts with the zeal of the Holy Spirit we only have to look at today's passage about Paul to realise how precarious was the Christian enterprise. In the preceding Chapter the Church was almost obliterated by Paul. There was the crisis of the Council of Jerusalem when Peter bravely advocated the admission of Gentiles into the Church without the need to observe the Jewish Law. We know about Paul's beatings and shipwrecks and no doubt Peter underwent many of the same experiences before he was almost certainly martyred by the Emperor Nero. And so, although he might have been temporarily discomfited by the repeated question, the incident must have been etched on his heart for the rest of his life.

The instruction which follows the question is also to be etched on Peter's heart. The duty of feeding the flock and the failure to do so are themes which soar out of the general mayhem and pessimism of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This is no fancy, figurative, image. For the Jews the primary form of sacrifice was the lamb; without the flock the possibility of appropriate sacrifice was severely curtailed. There were specific instances for the sacrifice of cattle and natural produce and - typified in the Presentation of Jesus - remission in favour of doves but the staple offering was the unblemished lamb. The flock was, therefore, not even primarily a source of physical nourishment, that was a collateral benefit from the offering of sacrifice. The implication is therefore clear for Peter; he is to nourish the spiritual flock which must stand ready to be sacrificed for Christ, a poignant motif given that it is almost certain that when St. John the Divine wrote these words the Church was undergoing severe persecution under the stern hand of the Emperor Domitian who took his own divinity with, literally, deadly seriousness. The lambs of Christ were being sacrificed all over the Empire and so, in Revelation John tries to stir the infant church to new courage, again and again evoking, as in today's reading, the image of the lamb as worthy of God and, by extension, showing how faithful Christians, too, can be worthy of God. And it is no coincidence that the image of the lamb transfers across from Jesus to His followers because there is a profound sense in which we share in the divinity of Christ just as He shared in our humanity.

The injunction upon Peter was to be selfless for the flock which, in turn, explains the question about love. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, Jesus was not asking for something. Love is not a deal or a contract where we give on condition that we receive; that is our profound mistake. Love is selfless in the profound sense that it creates space in which the beloved can live in total freedom, beyond judgment. Jesus was therefore not asking Peter for anything because there was nothing that Peter could give that Jesus would want except for the opposite of something; Jesus wanted Peter to give Him nothing, to give Him space.

And we, like sheep, who often go astray, do so most frequently because we get love tangled up with deal making. As human beings living complex lives in a difficult world there are many occasions when we need to make deals, contracts, reciprocal arrangements; but let us not call these love. Love is a one-way impetus: it goes and it goes and it goes; but, to correct the Beatles line at the end of Abbey Road, the love you take is not equal to the love you make. The more space we make, the more space we are able to make and, in turn, the more space we find for ourselves. The anxiety of deal making, of worrying whether we will receive what is due to us, is the most wearing anxiety of all.

So when Jesus asks Peter, on our behalf, whether he loves Him, the question for us is, how prepared are we to let go?