Do you love me? – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

John 21:15-19

“Peter, do you love me more than these?”

The heart-piercing question is asked on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Peter and several of Jesus’ other disciples have gone to fish.  What are they doing here?  They have witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection, he has breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sent them into the world… so what are they doing here in Galilee, taking up again the familiar occupation of fishing?

It’s difficult to predict how we humans will act, especially in the aftermath of extreme trauma and stress.  There can be no doubt that these disciples were shaken by what they had seen in Jesus’ final days and that they were struggling to make meaning of it.  And we can imagine how unsettling it was to encounter their Lord risen from the dead, appearing suddenly in a locked room and showing them the wounds in his hands and side.  It’s not hard to see how all this could have been overwhelming, and how they might have been experiencing fear and confusion as well as hope and gladness.

In times of crisis, of loss or fear or uncertainty, we often find ourselves grasping for the familiar, the predictable, that which we know and of which we can feel certain.  We cling to familiar routines, until our mind and heart can catch up with each other and we can regain our balance in life.  This may explain why these disciples headed for home, back to the shores of the lake they knew so well, back to the work they were so accustomed to doing.

But they are unsuccessful.  They have labored all night long and caught nothing.  Until a stranger appears on the distant shore and instructs them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, they find their nets straining with an abundant catch of fish, and realize that this stranger is none other than the Risen Lord.

“Peter, do you love me more than these?”

It is the voice of love, spoken gently across the flames of a charcoal fire on which their breakfast is cooking.  It is the voice of love, recognizing the breakdown of friendship and trust resulting from Peter’s denial and abandonment.  It is the voice of love, seeking to restore and reconcile, to heal and forgive.

Three times the question is posed, echoing the three-fold denial spoken ‘round another charcoal fire, this one in the court of the high priest, where Peter three times denied knowing his Lord.  And three times the answer is given, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

How gentle Jesus is.  Our failures do not deter him.  We are allowed to be imperfect.  The disciples catch no fish, so Jesus helps them.  Peter has failed to be faithful, and Jesus reaches out to him with compassion and understanding, demonstrating his readiness to forgive and begin again.  So it is with us. When we are afraid, he comes to us.  When we are ashamed, he assures us.  When we see so plainly the ways we have turned away from him, or preferred something else to him; when we are burdened by our sense of shame and guilt; he loves us still.  He comes to us, welcomes us, restores us, encourages us.  And invites us to follow him again.

“Do you love me more than these?”

Lord, you know that we love you.  In spite of our weakness, our infidelity, our lack of courage or strength of resolve, deep in our hearts you know that we love you, and want to serve you.

“Do you love me more than these?”

What is it that stands between you and God?  Is it some failure on your part – or, in your mind, on God’s part that has created a distance between you?  Is it some person or some thing that stands between you, something or someone that you value even more than you value God?  Is it a fear of what God might ask of you if you gave yourself completely to love with all your mind and with all your heart and with all your strength?  Is it your need to maintain the illusion that you are in control of your own life, calling your own shots, doing what seems best to you?  Is it surrender to God that you fear?

“Do you love me more than these?”

Can you identify what it is that stands between you and a total, heart-felt commitment to God?  And can you love God more than you love this thing?

Feed my sheep.”

Jesus’ invitation to love involves more than just words and feelings; it requires action.  It is not enough for Peter to express his remorse and his devotion.  The call comes with an inherent expectation of doing.  It involves commitment, courage, taking risks, following wherever he leads.

“Feed my sheep.”

Take care of my people.  Do my work.  Build my kingdom.  Restore my creation.  Be co-workers with me in the work of saving and redeeming the world.

The invitation of love breaks the circle of self-absorption and pride, and all the vanities that proceed from them.  It calls us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, into the neighborhood and into the world.  It leads to the service of others – always!  It leads us to care, and to act!

It is not enough to answer the question, “Do you love me?” with words and feelings.  It needs to be answered with kindness, with caring, with generosity, with patience, with forgiveness, with long-suffering and meekness.  We reveal our love for God by how we treat others.  If our love is real and genuine, if it is earnest and pure, it will show itself in kindness and compassion, in thoughtfulness and concern, in actions as well as words.

“Feed my sheep.”

Not only is Peter restored to the fellowship of Jesus’ followers, not only is he forgiven for his infidelity, he is also restored to the position of pastor.  He is given the responsibility of feeding and caring for Christ’s sheep.  He is given important work to do, work that matters.

And so with you and with me.  We are invited by love, welcomed by love, forgiven and healed by love, restored to our full identity as children of God and given meaningful work to do in the world.  What you do matters to God.  How you do it matters to God.  You have been given a vocation, “a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God” (Walter Brueggemann).  God wants to use you, to work through you to bring hope and healing to the world.  When you fail, God will pick you up and set you on the path again.  When you are weak, God will be your strength.  When you believe yourself to be inadequate to the task, remember that it is GOD who is at work; you are merely God’s instrument, “God’s pencil” (as Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it), through which God writes.

God knows your weakness, your uncertainty, your fear.  God is aware of your failures and of your tendency to shrink back.  God knows how you cling to what is familiar in order to avoid the risks of something new.  And God loves you still.  There is important, meaningful work for you to do in this world.  Your efforts are needed in the building of God’s dream, God’s reign.

“Do you love me more than these?”

How will you answer?  What are you prepared to risk?  What stands in the way?

We honor today two saints, Peter and Paul, who answered the call of love by giving themselves to God’s service.  Each of them made the ultimate sacrifice of his life for the sake of the gospel.  And yet each was imperfect, and very human.  God chose them in their weakness to do great things, just as God is choosing you and me.

Will we be able to say someday, with them, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”?   May God, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, accomplish this in us all, for the sake of the world which God so loves.


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  1. Sandy on September 2, 2015 at 10:08

    Br. David, this sermon is one of the most profound and important sermons I’ve heard. (and I’ve heard a lot as a 51 year old and a daughter of a Presbyterian pastor!). You have brought forth Jesus and His call to us, to move beyond our shores of comfort and security – essentially dying to ourselves so that we can find our full life in Christ which brings forth His Kingdom here on earth, His Kingdom come and His will be done. – and yet we shrink back, fearful of the ‘yes’ to what a full life in Christ looks like. And, we cling to the shoreline. Thank you Br. David for your message that grace and love and new life comes when we release the grip and open our minds and hands. That we are invited to ‘begin again’ over and over in letting go. I’m too embarrassed to say how many times I’ve listen to this sermon – both at home and in my car.

    A grateful heart,

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