Do you love me?
April 18, 2010
There is a lot of talk in the church these days about visionary leadership and having a clear vision etc. It is one of the categories you check off on a list of qualities you want in your pastor. Peter and Paul were both visionary leaders of the church and as different as they were (indeed they quarreled with each other about the direction and nature of the Christian movement, their visions often were in conflict) as different as they were they came to be visionary leaders by the same path and that path began with the calling of God to them in the form of a question. For Paul the question we read is “Why do you persecute me? And for Peter, it was “do you love me?” but in fact it is the same question: ‘If you love me what are you doing?”
Paul as you probably know was a ruthlessly religious man long before he became a leader of the Christian movement. He really believed that he was doing what God wanted when he persecuted the early Christians. He was fiercely loyal to God and thought the Jesus movement was a threat to God’s people and to God’s holy religion. His understanding before he met Jesus was exclusive, that religion was meant only for some and not for all and that it was important to know the difference and to keep separate those who were in and those who were out. This was in part a result of the fact that even then there were the conflicting ideas that one, God’s people were to be distinct from the nations of the world and two that many were assimilating to the culture even as those from culture were joining the religion. Some felt this was a good thing and others were threatened by it including Saul. As Sarah Dylan Breuer put it in the Christian Century: (Saul) based his life on the assumption that the survival of God’s people depended on making sure that God’s welcome?like all limited goods?was extended only to that limited number of people for which it was meant.
Usually when people have a strong opinion or view of the world as this you do not change their mind and this is one thing that Paul and Peter had in common, they were both set in their ways, strong, stubborn, opinionated men and this is also where their paths are similar –they both were confronted by Jesus and the will of God in such a way that they had to respond and if ever there is a sure fire way of getting your mind changed it is to come up close and personal to the mind of God and whether you get blasted by light and knocked out of the saddle blind and helpless or whether you are surprised by grace as Peter was when Jesus asked him three times if he loved him (Peter who had denied Jesus three times didn’t even know how much those questions meant until he had actually been able to answer three times for the three times he had failed, a failure that broke his heart for sure and which now would heal his aching soul and in fact what happened to Peter as a result is the other similarity between these two leaders, they both went out in Jesus’ name to bravely meet much trouble and an untimely end and this time Peter did not turn away.
In any case, to know God’s mind and heart is to know that there is nothing limited about God or God’s grace and while visions come and go if the source of the vision is a profound felt love of God it may have more staying power than most not to mention having a better chance of being acceptable to God. The visions of Paul and Peter were eventually joined and the church we know today began its life on earth based not on their strong opinions but on their love for God and what that love changed in them and called them to do.
It seems to me that any church that wants to be visionary must begin here as well, in the mind and heart of God, experiencing a profound love for God that will not only empower us to not turn away but will clarify for us just what we can do to serve what God wants. The vision begins in the love of God and draws strength and power and peace from that same love. If we start in love we have a better chance of remaining in love, of acting in love, in short of actually doing God’s will. You may recall that our three simple rules culminate with ‘stay in love with God.’ This is no accident. When we do what we do because we are in love with God we will indeed be blessed and our work will be blessed and good things will happen. How do we stay in love with God? For one thing we stay in touch with God. We worship, we pray, we sing, we care for each other. It works both ways. We are the church because we love God and because we love God we are the church.
And all of this is because of grace. The examples of grace in these readings today are numerous. Saul, the ruthless persecutor of the followers of Jesus is ‘invited’ to lead the followers of Jesus, to have a new life with a new name. Grace changed his heart and Paul is the one who later has written some of the most beautiful words we have about the experience of grace and Spirit and church. Grace healed Peters’ heart with three simple questions. Here is the blundering cowardly unusually normal man Peter ( a man like any other only more so) who is given the chance to tell Jesus three times that he loves m. He knew he loved him but saying it out loud seemed to change everything for Peter. He became an eloquent and courageous leader of the church. When Paul and Peter heard their names called by God’s grace both were to come to know just how much they did indeed love God and how little whatever it was that had held them back in the past mattered now. The grace of the new overwhelms the failures of the past every time. And so it is that we are changed. And so it is that there is hope for us all.
The question is always before us all. Do you love me? Sometimes we don’t even know how much we love God until we are asked the question or until we really have to answer the question. Once we know that we love God however the vision part is easy. It boils down to feed my sheep. Build my church. Tell others the good news of Gods’ grace. Serve the poor. Do no harm. Do all the good you can.
The great poet and writer Wendel Berry once spoke of life after Easter for those of us who follow Jesus in a very practical yet profoundly beautiful way. He said, practice resurrection. Do everyday what does not compute, what is not expected, what love calls you to do. Practice resurrection. Rise from death not just when we die but everyday loving God with all our hearts and souls and strength just like the good book says. Jesus said “Because I live, you shall live also.” So be it. Let the living commence! Love God. Love your neighbor! Love yourself! Be glad.
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