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John 21:1-19
"Agape Love"

Sermon Notes

John’s gospel account is filled with various themes that seem to culminate in today’s passage. There’s the theme of light and dark; sight and blindness. There’s the theme of the good shepherd in chapter 10. There’s the theme of deep, self-sacrificing love in chapter 13. And there’s the theme of ‘I Am,’ in which Jesus claims for himself the identity God shared with Moses in Exodus. It seems these all come back around today.  

In chapter 1, we are introduced to the Word, spoken in the darkness of creation, from whom all things come into existence. The Word is the Light, and the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and has not diminished it. Throughout the gospel, those who seek clarity, who do not understand the ministry of Jesus, often come to him at night. Nicodemus is a prime example of this. And when the blind man is healed, he ‘sees’ and understands Jesus as Messiah, while the religious officials remain blind and in the dark.  

Today, we hear that Peter and the others choose to go fishing. At night. They do not understand the resurrection, even after Jesus has shown himself to them. They do not know what this means for them, even though Jesus told them to go and preach and live the resurrection life in the world. Instead, they go back to what they know. They strive to go back to normal.  

But, as we see, there is no going back. Their efforts take them nowhere. They catch nothing. Because you can’t go back to what was after such an event. After 9/11, we are not the same as we were before. I watch movies filmed before the events of 9/11 and marvel at how lax airport security was back then. After COVID, we can’t go back to what was before. Economy, worship, relationships, expectations. We are different.  

The disciples could not be who they were before—as if the past three years simply hadn’t happened. They are different for having known and followed Jesus. Even if they tried to deny it, they view the world around them differently—through the lens of a cross they have yet to understand.  

So, it’s only as dawn begins to break that they see someone on the shore, calling out to them. Light. Understanding. New life. New hope. Another chance. Another way. And as the encounter with this man goes forward, recognition takes place. “It is the Lord!” Finally! A direction.  

After they eat, however, things turn tense. Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves him. Jesus uses the word agape the first two times he asks. It’s the same word he used when he washed the disciples’ feet and gave them a new command—to love one another in the same way Jesus loves them. Simon responds that, yes he loves Jesus. Jesus knows he loves him. But Simon says he phileos him (not agapes)—the ‘brotherly’ love for which Philadelphia is named. It feels less intimate. It’s less sacrificial. It’s less scary. Does Simon Peter recognize the difference? Does he change the verb on purpose?  

It’s only with the third question that Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?” Does Simon finally hear the difference then? Is that why he feels anguish at this third time? Three times he is asked about his love for Jesus. Three times he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples as he awaited Jesus’ trial. Three times he said, “I am not.”  

And now, during this exchange, he is given the opportunity to identify himself as a disciple of Jesus—to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, to identify himself as one sent by God. To say, “I am. I AM a disciple. I do love you with a self-sacrificing, agape love.” Only, Peter can’t quite go there. Not yet.  

I get it. If Jesus were to ask me if I loved him with an agape love, I’m quite sure I would be hard pressed to go that far. Do I love him more than these? More than my job? More than the security of my home? More than my husband and son? More than the control I try to have over my life? More than the conveniences my world offers? More than financial security? Meaning…would I give up all of this to follow Jesus? Would I surrender it all for my love of God? Would you?  

That is agape love, you see. And it flies against everything we hold dear—against independence, against security, against comfort, against protection, against power. It is the kind of love Jesus shows when he surrenders himself to the guards and is led away, eventually to be crucified. Simon Peter, on the other hand, tries to defend himself by cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers. Noble effort, Simon. I would have done the same. But that’s not agape love. It only serves you and your own.  

And so, Jesus asks Simon if he loves him. And he’s not quite there…yet. And instead of chastising him—for his denial, for his difficulty loving—Jesus instructs Simon to feed and tend his sheep. This sounds relatively basic, at first. But consider how Jesus tended his sheep. He called himself the Good Shepherd, leaving the 99 to find the lost 1. Leaving security to risk all for the sake of one who willingly strays, who is hard to love, who perhaps doesn’t even want that love. That kind of tending and feeding is counter-intuitive. And yet, that’s agape love—to make yourself vulnerable for the sake of those who don’t even want anything to do with you. That is the love that Christ gives.  

And while Simon may not be ready to love at that level right now, there will be a time in the future when he be called upon to go there. When he will relinquish control over his life and learn to place full trust in God as he is led where he does not want to go. And that’s so often where Jesus leads us. His final words to Simon in this exchange is simple: “Follow me.”  

It’s the call to discipleship. It’s the beginning of a new day. Every day. It is an Easter moment. A resurrection event. Peter is invited to be redefined by God. Where he once claimed that he was not a disciple, he is called again to follow, to learn, to listen, and to serve. To bring the good news of God to a world that resists it to the point of death.  

Resurrection redefines us, as well. It redefines what is most important. It takes seriously the truth of death—of our past denials and failures and challenges—and brings us to a new experience, a new understanding, another opportunity. Not that resurrection is dependent upon us getting it right eventually. No…resurrection doesn’t depend on us. We depend on it. Our lives have new meaning and hope because the resurrection is already a reality. Our past does not hold us captive because each new day dawns with new light.  

Every second is resurrection as the past dies, and we are made alive again—alive to love in a way that trusts God’s goodness, even when the fish are scarce and the fears plentiful. Resurrection gives us the strength to love with an agape kind of love—the kind that chooses to diminish so that others may live more fully—the kind of love that serves not the self but the world. And so each second, you and I are given another opportunity to choose this kind of love; this kind of discipleship. Perhaps, together, we will get better at it, resting in the knowledge that God’s love for us never wavers, even and especially when we fall short.  

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE