There is something about the season of Spring that seems to sprout curiosity. I suppose that people think about and question all sorts of things at all times of the year, but there seems to be something about Spring that brings my attention to the reality of growing questions within myself.
Much like with the small children in and around my life, questions burble up and out of me into the spaces I am living. Suddenly, the crisp and greening spring atmosphere seems alive with potential and growth and curious behaviours, and questions abound, sprouting out of seemingly idle and dormant winter minds.
I’m routinely amazed at a child’s capacity to ask innocent yet incredibly complex questions and their ability to ask a question that gives me a moment of pause. I am secretly delighted at how their developing minds weave thoughts and ideas into questions. Just so, I also revel in the bizarre questions that bubble out of my mouth at after a period of time when I have been lost in seemingly idle thought only to blurt out:
“I’ve never thought about it this way before but…
Hey, have you ever wondered what would happen if;
so, why does, how did, what do you think?”
So, imagine my delight when a couple of things happened this week that helped me find the direction of what has turned out to be this sermon.
First, a colleague of mine recently posted a story to Facebook about a question their small one asked about where they and each of their parents came from. The beautiful answer that my colleague’s spouse shared in the moment was this:
You come from Mommy and Daddy, and from love.
Mommy comes from Grandma and Grandpa, and from their love.
Daddy comes from Nana and Papa, and their love.
An answer which I absolutely adore and hope to remember when small ones ask me similarly minded questions. But, in a strange way also feels me with a small dread because I almost anticipate the next question: what is love?
Then, looking over the readings for this Sunday, pondering the many and various directions this day’s sermon could head, when all of a sudden that peculiar little question runs across the billboard of my mind’s eye again:
What is love, exactly?
My ordinarily hyperactive brain skips a couple beats as a plethora of images and definitions scatter across that same mind’s eye, and the brain comes to a halting stop. You know? That’s a good question.
It feels like humanity has really struggled time after time to define this one small word: love. The English language kind of fails us in definition:
Some might say that love is “an intense feeling of deep affection,” much as my computer’s dictionary does. That dictionary is quick to clarify that “deep affection” is deeply romantic. At the same time, the dictionary elaborates, helpfully, that matters of love are also indicative of “a great interest and pleasure in something,” while also being an “affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one’s behalf,” or “a formula for ending an affectionate letter.”
Clear as mud. And not particularly satisfying as a definition.
Because when my small friend asks me: what is love? – I pause.
How do we explain the matters of head and heart and body and soul in a sentence of words? How do we explain the innate understanding of a mother’s explanation of from their love that we all seem to carry deep within each of us?
Which leads me to today’s gospel reading where a thrice-appeared Jesus is finishing off breakfast on the beach with his disciples.
Jesus turns to Peter and proceeds to ask him three times if Peter loves Jesus.
There are a couple of things going on here, so I need to back up a little.
There are also a number of ways that this story has been interpreted over time. And I want to focus on the ones that have to do with helping us understand what love is.
Most scholars point out that the disciples are still coming to terms with “Life after Jesus” – and it seems that the most common reaction in their grief and loss is to return to something rather mundane, rather than heed the words of their loving leader. Peter announces that he is going fishing, and the others follow. And in a somewhat analogous ending to a night of fishing: they caught nothing.
In a interesting turn of events, Jesus appears to the disciples again. The first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after his death, they were locked in a house, and Jesus appeared in front of them. He showed them his hands and his side, and says: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:19-25) The peace that Jesus is blessing them with is the deep peace of shalom – a peace wholeness, of unity, of belonging, and of love. Incidentally, Jesus also breathed the Holy Spirit on them and commissioned them to a purpose: to go and do – As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
The reaction of the gathered disciples is first, and exuberantly, shared with Thomas, who wasn’t present – they have seen the Lord, experienced Christ, and known a peace and love like none other than God’s.
And I think we all remember what Thomas’ reaction was.
The second time Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas is there. And Thomas is wrapped up in that experience of belonging and purpose through Jesus doing exactly the same things – showing and sharing his wounds and blessing them with the peace and love of God.
So, of course it follows then that the disciples went fishing, rather than believing and doing what Jesus said when he appeared to the disciples in the house.
I think this whole thing is telling of God’s commitment to loving humanity as a whole.
Jesus stands on the shore and doesn’t scold the fishermen. He doesn’t place his hands on his hips and demand what on earth are they doing. He says, in a way that reads incredibly patient and loving to me: “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
I like to think about the double meaning of that simple question and the resulting exchange:
They have no fish, literally.
But, as fishers of men that Jesus made them out to be, they also have no fish.
They have not gone out as Jesus has sent them – living out into their purpose.
Still, something makes these fishers do what the stranger on the beach tells them, and as they do as Jesus tells them to cast their net, they are rewarded with incredible abundance. There were so many fish, different and full of variety. I think it’s a telling prediction of the work of the disciples living into their purpose of being sent: we have the incredibly vast and full of variety church of Christ in all the corners of the world.
To be even more clear about what it is exactly to live in this purpose and what that purpose even is, Jesus turns to Peter and proceeds to ask him three times if Peter loves Jesus. Three times! Imagine someone you care about asking you three times if you loved them. No wonder Peter feels hurt.
There used to be this understanding that there are different words of “love” being used here. Hence, the three times. English being what it is, has only one word for love, and all its kinds, so is left with a repetition. I like the repetition because it mirrors the times Jesus appears to all the disciples. Three times to be with them again and love them. Three times to surround them in love and let them know that they belong to God and God has a purpose for them in their going out into the world. Three times to hold them in the charge to go as from God, with the love of God, living and loving in the world of sheep who need to be fed and tended and led in the way of love.
Belonging and purpose.
Much like my new small friend and their wonderfully caring parents, we discover through these Easter stories that we are the created products of love. We are from God’s love and we belong to God, first and foremost. Through Jesus, we discover that love is active and alive in each of us – a gift from God! That vibrant gift of love is what we celebrate each Eastertide – freely given and spread to all the corners of creation. It resides in each of us, and it moves through us, sending us out into the world to let the world know that we are all indeed from love.
So, if my small friend asks: what is love, exactly?
This is my answer:
Love is to be from God.
Love is having purpose.
Love is belonging.
Love is a gift.
- Frank L. Crouch. “Commentary on John 21:1-19.” Gospel Reading, Preach This Week, workingpreacher.org
- Karoline Lewis. “Resurrection is Abundance.” Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, workingpreacher.org
- David Lose. “Easter 3 C: Two Things Everyone Needs.” Dear Partner, …in the Meantime.
- David Lose. “Commissioned Yet Again.” Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, workingpreacher.org
- Janice Love. “Do You Love Me?” Ekklesia Project.
The image associated with this post is entitled “Feed My Sheep” by the artist David Andre Koch. The image does not belong to me and is used without permission.
Image is courtesy of the Church of Latter-Day Saints online Church History site, which can be found here.