John 21:1-19

In interpreting the Gospel lesson appointed for the third Sunday of Easter, Year C, much is often made of the question Jesus asks three times of Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

The symmetry is clear: Peter’s triple denial of Jesus during the Passion is now addressed with a three-fold chance at redemption. Yes, yes, yes–”Lord, you know that I love you”–will set to right the earlier panicked renunciation: No, no, no–”I do not know the man!”

But after each iteration of the question comes an admonition: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter’s penance is to put his love for Jesus into swift, concrete action. The philos and agape spoken of here (both Greek words for “love” are used in these verses) suggest doing, practicing, acting, achieving. This is love as/in action–engaged, committed, invested, risk-taking action. 

Maybe it’s because Jesus uses the overly-familiar sheep metaphor that we tend to make of his love a dreamy, sentimental feeling. This is the “lambs and rainbows” version of biblical faith (Barbara Brown Taylor‘s memorable phrase) in which love is fluffy and warm–like we might suppose sheepskin to be.

On this view, to love another as Jesus commands–to feed and tend his sheep–is to feel a vague beneficence toward a generalized other. No cost. No risk. If we conceive of this love in any way as acting or doing, it’s usually as a kind of eager and pious helpfulness. “Be nice to others” probably sums it up best. 

But the embodied love that Jesus is speaking of in this breakfast-on-the-beach scene is the love-as-doing that got him killed. And the news isn’t good for Peter either: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

This is not the fuzzy love of liberal Christianity. Nor is it the nostalgic “God and Country” love of American civil religion. (It was the state, after all, that executed the rebel Jesus).

Instead this is a love that irritates and inconveniences; that calls state power–indeed all principalities and powers–into question; that defies the status quo; that makes trouble and learns to expect trouble (but never courts trouble for its own sake). 

Jesus’ own mother, in her politically-charged speech in Luke’s gospel, foretells that the Love soon to be incarnate will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; bring down the powerful; lift up the lowly; and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53). (So much for Mary meek and mild).

In the aftermath of last week’s coal mine explosion in West Virginia, there’s been little talk of love. Of course, family members and mining communities have expressed love and support for each other. But what would it mean, I wonder, to understand the naming of corporate greed and irresponsibility as an act of enemy-love? Or to say that confronting and resisting the powers that for decades have harmed the earth and those who toil deep within it is cruciform love in action?

What would it mean, in fact, as Wendell Berry has asked, to make of our love an economic practice? To embody the kind of risk-taking love that thwarts business as usual, confounds the status quo, and which may lead those who dare practice it to places, as Jesus warned Peter, they “do not wish to go.”

Feeding and tending sheep, it turns out, is sometimes more than providing the essentials for those in need. To love all the sheep, even the ones who stray, fall away, and do harm to others in the fold, may mean speaking the gospel truth to raw, unchecked power. It may mean “jamming a spoke in the wheel” of injustice, as Bonhoeffer discerned. It will most certainly be an act of making trouble, much of it for ourselves.

But in whatever context and under whatever circumstances and conditions we practice it, this kind of love will always mean bearing non-violent witness to a crucified and risen Messiah who continues to say, as the conclusion of John’s Gospel reminds us this week: “follow me.”