The Ultimate Question for Christians: 1999 Brown Lecture Series | First Presbyterian Church Dallas, TX

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This lecture concerns the “ultimate” question - Do you love Christ?

John 21: 15-19

The Gospel of John is in many ways the most remarkable document in the New Testament. As Professor Reynolds Price has said, “The whole story is seen in the first three paragraphs.  The Word was God and God was the Word.  The Word became flesh.”  There are almost no moral teachings in this gospel, only the astonishing claims of Jesus culminating in the famed doubled amen statement: “Amen, amen I tell you before Abraham was, I Am.”  I Am – the name of God.  So, he says not that he is the only Son of God, but I am God himself, here and now; I have always been, will always be.  

In John there are four post-resurrection appearances.  He speaks with a woman, the Magdalene, at the grave, he breathes the Holy Spirit on the eleven disciples, he satisfies the doubt of Thomas, and he helps the disciples catch fish and feeds them breakfast.  And then it comes.  The ultimate question for all Christians, but addressed specifically to Simon bar Jona, whom he called Peter.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

There is one absolutely unique thing about the God of the Bible not seen in the Eastern religions, Hinduism or Buddhism, not in the Quran nor mentioned in the worship of Islam.  There are many similarities in the teachings of the Jerusalem cluster – Judaism, Christianity, Islam:  all posit a single God; all three say God is good, just and merciful; all three say he makes moral and ethical demands; that final fate (heaven and hell) depends upon one’s actions in life.  But the Bible says something absolutely unique.  It says that God is love.  That God loves humans - and even more surprising - that the Maker wishes his creatures to love him.

Why did Jesus ask Peter and not one of the other disciples the ultimate question?  Because Peter had betrayed and thrice denied his friend and lord.  I think that is why Peter was chosen - to save Peter from the devastating, never forgotten memory of his denial of Christ.  So the question came three times.  "Do you love me?"  And three times the answer came: "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."  Do you see the balance?  There had been three denials and now three times the Christ allows Peter to confess his love.  

That is recapitulated in each of our lives.  We deny and continue to deny, and yet in the deepest part of what we are, when he asks the ultimate question, with trembling heart we say, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."  Based on the Peter episode, I think we can say with all certainty that beyond every flaw, every denial, every sin, he knows that we do love him.  Because he is the Savior of the world.  

So the first point is that the ultimate question for Christians is: Do you love God?  Do you love the Christ, the incarnational I Am?  There are two other lessons from this gospel.  If the answer to the Lord is “yes,” it cannot be an abstract answer.  Peter receives a thrice repeated demand: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.  What that means is that lovers of the Christ become caretakers of the world for the children of God from young to old.  For any need.  For every need.  What Jesus was saying at the end is this: “I was the shepherd.  Now I am leaving.  Serve awhile in my stead.”  Point 2: when we answer “yes” to love with love returned we are to be surrogate shepherds standing in for the chief Shepherd of the flock.

The last lesson from the reading has three parts:  

First, the discipleship of Christ always comes with cost, sometimes with very high cost.  A high cost does not come to all of us as Jesus told Peter his death would, but we have to be ready if it does.  

Second, the cost to others and their call is not to be our concern.  Peter wanted Jesus to exclude the disciple who betrayed him, but Jesus says to him:  “If I want him to stay until I come, what is it to you?”  The interaction between a person and Christ is their business, not ours.  And no comparisons can be made.

Finally, Jesus gives the instruction that allows the disciple to pay a high cost and to not make comparisons.  He says simply, “Follow me.  You follow me.”  This is the universal instruction to Christians. 

So ends the great fourth gospel.  

John has recorded the final words of Jesus.  I repeat them.  There is the ultimate question about love for the Shepherd.  There are the demands: tend the sheep; pay the price, even to death; be concerned with your discipleship, not that of others.  Follow me.

Professor Price, in concluding his book, Three Gospels, wrote: “It had been two years since they first met him and they’d never see him again on earth.  It would only be slowly that they came to see how, in the time they shared his life, his hard ordeal and calm return had ended all things as they’d been from the start.  And whatever they lacked that final dawn, they gave the rest of their lives to his other task – to make all people know that God is at hand with his flaming love, comprehensible at last - and they never lost hope to see him come again to claim them.  One of their cries was ‘Lord come now.’  In other lives that cry has lasted near 2,000 years.  It is always the same.  'Come now, into my life now.  Come then, at the hour of my death.' "  

That final day began with the ultimate question, "Do you love me?" and ended with the answer, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you."  On his behalf, I ask it again now.  

Do you love the Christ?


Brown Lecture #2     1999