Do you love Jesus? I’m not trying to get you to go from saying no to saying yes. Because there’s a very high likelihood that, if you’re reading this, you already answer yes to that question. But, sometimes the right answer can be wrong. And Jesus has a way of making us realize how the things we always thought were right aren’t as right as we thought they were.
When we look at John 21, we see this famous question asked:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Before we can answer the question, “Do you love Jesus?” I think we have to ask the question, “What does it mean to love Jesus?” When asked, “Do you love Jesus?” we all know that we’re supposed to yes, right? But when we look at this story of Peter, I think we discover that loving Jesus may not mean what we think it means.
A lot of times when we think about loving Jesus and what that means, we think about what it means to love someone else. I love my mom, and so I buy her gifts on mother’s day. I love my girlfriend, so I take her on a date. I love my friends, so I play some board games with them. So we think about loving God and we think that it is the same thing.
I think this is a mistake. Not because we aren’t genuine about loving God, but because I think we misunderstand what loving God looks like. And I think we do it in the same way that Peter does it. The first thing we do is that we compare our love for God with our love for other things and people.
Look at the first thing that Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus was trying to set up an idea of love that provides competition. “Do you love me more than you love other things or people?”
Peter answers Jesus’ question by saying “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Now I think the reason that this story seems so weird to us is because we think that Peter gives Jesus a good answer. Because Peter answers it the way that most of us would. How many of us have a list of loves? 1) Jesus 2) Family 3) Friends 4) Taco Bell. Right? Jesus is always at the top of the list. And we think that this is the way that it should be. That we are supposed to “love Jesus more than these.”
But I think Jesus’ response to the question gives us a different story. He responds by saying “Feed my lambs.” And then he asks Peter again, probably hoping to get a different answer. But Peter responds the same way and Jesus responds to him in a similar way, “Tend my sheep.” What is Jesus telling us here?
What I think Jesus is trying to tell Peter is this: loving Jesus is about so much more than loving Jesus. Loving Jesus means loving his sheep.
I’m going to say that again in a different way. Love for Jesus isn’t about loving Jesus as just another person in our life. It’s about loving Jesus in and through our loving others. So, it isn’t 1) Jesus 2) Family 3) Friends. I love Jesus by loving my family. I love Jesus by loving my friends. I even, and probably especially, love Jesus by loving my enemies.
A sweet example of this kind of love just happened to me recently. I was on vacation with my family and I wanted to bring back my girlfriend some souvenirs. I got her a shirt and a candle holder, but there was something else that I saw that I wanted to get her. It was a locket necklace that had the letter “L” on it.
My girlfriend’s name is Brenda, so the L wasn’t for her. It was for her cute little niece Laila, who Brenda loves with all of her heart. When I gave this present to Brenda, I told her, “This present is for you, but it’s also not for you.” I still presented it as a present for her because I know she loves Laila, and I was loving Brenda by gifting her with a present she could give to someone that she loves.
That’s a bit like what Jesus is trying to get at. The way that we love Jesus isn’t necessarily about Jesus himself. It’s about those that Jesus loves, which is everyone. When we love our brothers and sisters, we are loving Jesus. There isn’t a competition and it isn’t about loving Jesus more or in a separate way from loving others.
Jesus is trying to get Peter to understand this. But Peter keeps responding in the same way. “Do you love me?” “Yes Jesus, I love you.” And now, I read this passage, just waiting for Peter to respond, “Yes Jesus, I love your people. I love your sheep, your lambs. I love the ones that you love.” Because I think that’s what Jesus is relentless with asking the same question over and over again.
Let’s use an example, like fasting. Fasting is essential to the Christian life and it can form us in deep ways. However, let’s not forget what Isaiah warns us about in Isaiah 58. Fasting can become something that we use to “prove our love for God” while leaving other people behind in the dust. Let’s start in verse 1:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
So far, it looks like Israel loves God. They seek God daily. They love knowing the ways of the Lord. They believe they practice righteousness and obey God’s ordinances. They delight in drawing near to God. But then this is how God responds:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What God is saying here is that you can’t say that you’re fasting and being righteous and loving God when you don’t even care about your neighbor and ignore the oppressed and refuse to do good to those who desperately need it! We can’t live like this, in apathy for those around us, and say that we love Jesus.
If you notice that last verse I read in Isaiah, verse 7, sounds very similar to a passage that we find in the New Testament. Let’s look at Matthew 25:
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
This is it. This is what it means to love Jesus.
The same things that were listed in Isaiah 58, feeding the hungry, welcoming in the stranger, clothing the naked, they’re all listed here as the criteria of those who inherits the kingdom of God.
And the odd thing? When we do these things for those in need, we are doing it for Jesus. That’s what Jesus just said! Because, just like Jesus let Peter know, to love Jesus is to love his sheep.
In this parable, the goats aren’t them or those people or the sinners. We have to take very seriously that we may be the goats in this parable—the ones who didn’t recognize Jesus in the face of the poor, the stranger, the hungry, and the naked. We may be too busy looking for Jesus in the same way Peter was looking for Jesus, or in the same way that the Israelites in Isaiah 58 were looking for God—in a way that ignores God’s people.
Now, I want to exhort you in the way that Jesus exhorted Peter. He ends this conversation in John 21 by telling Peter, “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.”
I think what Jesus is saying here is that we’ve all grown up being taught to be independent, not just in life but even when it comes to God. We focus on a personal relationship with Jesus, and even though that’s necessary, we often turn it into a private relationship with Jesus. One that chooses Jesus over others. We fasten our own belt and go wherever we wish.
But now, God is calling us to relinquish control. He’s calling us to open our closed arms and allow others to come rushing into this newly opened embrace. He’s telling us that it may be uncomfortable, we may not like it at first, and, like Peter, this may even get us killed. But that a life without loving others is a life without loving Jesus. And life without loving Jesus is a life that is unfulfilled.
Loving others means losing security, losing privacy, losing what makes you think that you’re safe. Loving others means having someone else fasten your belt for you, and it might not be fastened the way that you always fastened it. It means giving up where you want to go, and being opened up to the places where the Spirit is leading you and guiding you and, at times, maybe even dragging you along.
But, brothers and sisters, it’s worth it. This is who we were meant to be. This is what we were created to do. Our God who is love created us to share in his love and to share that love with the entire world. And this love for others isn’t a secondary thing or an afterthought. It’s our purpose, our destiny, and our birthright.
So, stretch out your hands. Love others. And in doing so, maybe then we’ll be able to start to answer the question, “Do you love Jesus?”