I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about Love, not the mushy romantic stuff of movies and trash fiction but the God-kind. The kind that goes on despite the unlovely object. My thinking started with a sermon taken from John 13-15 focusing on our obligation to love each other as hard evidence that we in fact love God… It’s easy to present the case:
1) Jesus said, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’
2) Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another (as I have loved you!!)’
The rational conclusion: if you don’t love each other, you don’t love God. Simple. Case closed.
To be fair, that was only a part of what was said. There was more, about forgiveness and fellowship… and vines and sticks! Who wants to be a stick, thrown in the ‘burn pile’, useless?! Not I. And yet, I could think of more than one person I find it difficult to think fondly of, let alone love like Jesus does. I should have seen a red flag right there and started waving my white one! Do I love anybody like Jesus does?! I give up. To admit it then and there would have saved me an afternoon of unrest and soulsearching. I should have just said, “Yes, you’re right, I don’t love people like God does and yet, I know in my heart that I do love God. ” But how is this apparent contradiction to be explained?
I got alone with the Good Shepherd in a quiet place later in the afternoon and it has made all the difference in my understanding. When I asked Him how I was to make sense of this passage my eyes fell on Peter’s words in John 13:37. Jesus had just announced His upcoming Crucifixion indirectly, saying He was going away and that his disciples would not be able to follow Him right then… and Peter blurted out: “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I’ll lay down my life for you!”.
My attention was arrested because I know Peter’s story. I know he had great intentions of demonstrating his love for Jesus with the ultimate test of laying down his life. He meant what he said. But Jesus had to contradict him: “Will you? In fact, you’ll deny me 3 times…”
Ahha! so here was another would-be lover of Jesus that had no hard evidence of his love, and in fact was about to fail the test. But what I loved as I sat there in that quiet place being led through the story, was Jesus’ response. He went right on after this disclosure of Peter’s upcoming failure, to say: ‘Don’t let it trouble you. You believe in God, believe in me too. I’m going to get a place ready for you to spend eternity with me’* There was no rejection, no scolding, no shame, just encouragement to hang in there and keep believing. I love that! It was what I so needed to hear.
But the story went on, picking up beside the Sea, after Jesus had come back to life and gone to find His discouraged disciples. They’d thrown in the towel and taken up fishing again, something they were good at, comfortable with. Maybe it would help them make sense of things…
Next thing you know they’re on the shore having a breakfast barbecue with Jesus. Once again Jesus breaks the bread and hands it to them. Once again Peter smells the scent of a charcoal fire in the early morning and remembers the fateful day he denied His Lord. So does Jesus. And after everybody’s filled up, Jesus gets right to the point: ‘Peter, do you love me more than these?’ Do you have that unconditional, self-sacrificing, lasting kind of love for me, that has nothing to do with your own feelings… Peter’s answer is a qualified ‘yes’. “Yes, you know that I have a brotherly affection for you.”
But Jesus doesn’t seem to mind. Without missing a beat He gives Peter a job feeding His precious lambs. Then He asks Peter again if he loves Him with that agape kind of ‘God-love’. Peter’s answer does not change. His love is still below the level of God’s love and he knows it. Furthermore, he knows that Jesus knows it. But still Jesus gives him a role in the Kingdom: ‘Take care of my sheep’.
Then a final time the question is posed, “Peter, do you love me?” But this time, Jesus uses Peter’s word for love, brotherly love, a love based on common affection, shared interests… Do you have that kind of love for me, Peter? Peter’s only defense is “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And again Jesus entrusts Peter with the task of feeding His sheep.
I was so into the story at this point that it had become my story. ‘You know that I love you, Lord’ even if my love is not like yours. And I heard those words from that other passage in John, “You did not choose me. I chose you, that you should go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” and I knew it wasn’t about me and my paltry efforts to love, or my productive efforts, but about Him working in me to accomplish His purposes.
And do you know what He said next? On the surface it doesn’t sound like a reassuring point. But Jesus proceeded to tell Peter that one day he would be taken where he would not want to go, that he would indeed lay down his life for His Lord! Why did He have to tell him that right now? Because He was telling Peter that his love would grow and his life would bring God great glory! Peter’s desire to love with that God-like love (that sacrifices everything for the worth of its object) was going to be fulfilled. God would yet perfect Peter’s love. And in the meantime, his calling was: “Follow me.”
It all made sense. No, my love is not perfect, not even close. But it is not something to hyper-focus on and lose heart about. My calling is to follow Him, to believe that what God has called me to, He will accomplish in me. He is not shaming me. He is for me, pursuing me, teaching me, with me….
And now I turned to Peter’s first letter, to see what Peter’s thoughts were as an older man thinking back over the years, writing to the ‘sheep’ entrusted to His care. Given the backdrop of Peter’s life, the testing of his faith and love for Jesus, the sense of destiny he came to know, the passage was profound to read. It was as though it was being read in my ears… “To those… who are chosen…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure….and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”
My soul was at peace again. I could go home rejoicing. My Good Shepherd had stooped to help his distraught little sheep, had picked me up and put me back on my feet. And now, He was going on ahead inviting me to follow Him.
Isn’t He good?!
*Some quotes are approximate free versions of the text.