In his book Alive from the Center, Earl Palmer tells of an American mountain climber who has come up with a great answer to that perennial question: why do people climb mountains? And, no, the answer’s not simply “because it’s there;” rather, he says, it’s because people have “a universal desire to find the point of convergence.”
He goes on to explain that the most dramatic moment in mountaineering is that one in which the climber ascends to the true summit, the absolute peak of the mountain: this is the place where all the lines come together; the singular point where each trail comes to an end and every impossible, fragmented ridge is “resolved in one [single] outcropping of rock and ice.” After having struggled in a long, arduous climb through a morass of rock, timber and river systems, for the climber to now stand in one place to experience the vastness of both sky above and earth below, well, that’s everything, and it fills the mind, body and spirit. It is, writes Palmer, quite literally “the physical convergence of time, space, and geography.”
I love that image, but let me just say that the summit of Mt. Washington is not the only place that one finds such a “point of convergence!” Life is, in fact, filled with convergent moments: an Olympic athlete, for instance, might find one amidst the intense competition that results in a gold medal; for an artist or musician, it’s the perfect rush of creativity that finds its way on to the canvas or in a song. For that matter, they’re often found right within the quintessential moments that make up our daily lives – falling in love, figuring out what we’re good at, holding our children in our arms – or, in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances, when somehow in all the struggle we garner the strength, courage and, might I add, the faith we need at that moment to do what needs to be done! My point is that these are the “points of convergence” in our lives, times when suddenly and perhaps fleetingly, everything in life and living comes together as a whole, our spirits are lifted and we discover in clear and unalloyed fashion just what it is – or who it is – that is of the most importance in our lives.
Well, it seems to me that as John tells the story in our scripture reading this morning, Peter is having his own “moment of convergence” before the risen Lord; and it happens when Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Now, this particular passage from John’s gospel is thought by most biblical scholars to be something of an addendum to the resurrection story, but in a very real way this is the part that brings the whole gospel story full circle. The back story here is that all throughout this particular night and into the morning, the disciples had been fishing: which is interesting when you consider that three years before, when Jesus had first called them to follow him, they’d been fishing then, too; and in all honesty, they weren’t having any better luck catching fish now than they were back then! But just like before (but at the same time unlike ever before), here came Jesus, providing them an ample catch and breakfast on the beach.
The whole scene must have felt very warm and familiar to them – sitting on the sand, eating fish and talking with Jesus – and yet, everything was different, wasn’t it? And not simply because Jesus had risen from the dead, either; although that most certainly had changed everything! No, it was also that the disciples themselves had changed. They were no longer the same motley group of fishermen as before; they’d seen too many wonders and miracles, learned far too much along the way for that. In the three years they’d followed Jesus, they’d known moments of both inexpressible joy and utter agony, experienced things they couldn’t have imagined before.
And, truth be told, they’d made promises… promises that in the end, they couldn’t keep. They’d made vows of loyalty, but hid in fear when things had gotten rough; and even now, when the worst was over and the news was indeed good, these disciples weren’t at all sure where they stood and what they were to do next.
Nowhere was this sense of uncertainty more profound than in Simon Peter; for it had been Peter who’d been among the first to leave everything to follow Jesus; it was Peter who was faced with a dramatic moment of decision in the wee hours of that fateful Friday morning; and it was Peter who had fallen short, not just once, but three times. And now, though he’d never thought it possible, Peter was about to face that moment of decision all over again; everything in Peter’s life – every impulsive word, every bold assertion, every rash decision, every utter failure – was all about to converge on Jesus’ question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
You’ll notice that Jesus asks the question not once, but three times – as if to respond to each of Peter’s three denials. Moreover, in some translations of scripture, it’s not just “Do you love me,” but “do you truly love me,” as if to place that much more of a weight onto the question! You’ll also notice that with each question, Peter grows more and more agitated, as though (incredibly!) he was amazed and hurt that Jesus might not believe it when Peter answers by saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
It’s worth noting, too, that in the original Greek of this passage there are actually two different words translated as “love;” agape, which speaks of devotion and sacrifice, and phileo, which refers to companionship and loyalty. It’s slightly different wording that Jesus uses to drive home the point that love, true love, is not just something you say, it’s something you do; it involves the whole of life; it includes all of who you are. That’s why when Peter answers each time by saying, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus immediately responds by saying, “’Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep.’”
In other words, Peter, do you love me more than your fishing nets and your boats and your life before you followed me? Do you love me more than your fear and your pride and the uncertainty of the future, more than your weakness and your doubt? If the answer is yes, than do something about it; demonstrate your love; make it real in your care of those whom I love.
It is a true moment of convergence for Peter, and a powerful and touching one at that – perhaps because in Jesus asking the question and in Peter’s answer, one way or the other we cannot help but see ourselves. Because once again, this is the question that Jesus asks us, friends: Do you love me? Do you truly love me? More than your family, your friends, your job, your fun, your fears, your doubts… do you truly love me more than your settled ways of thinking and being and living?
That’s what Jesus is asking us… and it seems to me that with every choice we make in our faith, we’re giving our answer.
It’s there in every one of the personal and private decisions you and I make every single day of our lives:
…from the conversations over coffee that are more about caring listening than about the sound of our own voices, to the ways we endeavor to actually LIVE out of a welcoming spirit in our work, our play, and also, our worship…
…from the kind of personal moral and ethical standards we diligently apply to our own lives and relationships, to embodying the kind of risk-taking love that thwarts business as usual and confounds the status-quo, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once referred to as “jamming a spoke in the wheel” of the world’s injustice…
…from the ways that we choose to respond with deep forgiveness to those who would hurt us, to standing firm on the ground of our strong convictions of joy, hope and peace, even when the powers-that-be would slap us down for it…
…these are the times, the choices in which we answer Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” Simply put, friends, if we do love Jesus, his ministry becomes our ministry; surrounded by his lambs and sheep, we are to feed, and tend, and follow!
Of course, as was the case with Peter before us, this particular moment of convergence is a humbling one indeed – because if we’re being honest with ourselves and with Jesus, when he asks the question, our utter failures at love cannot help but be laid bare. We have not loved him as we should; and more often than not our lofty intentions to love one another as we have been love fizzles out at the first sign of struggle or conflict! Like Peter, we might be quick to answer Jesus, “You know that we love you,” but all too often our lives fail to match up to the rhetoric!
But while that may be true, let’s not misunderstand; Jesus does not ask this question to remind us of how hopeless or unworthy we are in faith. On the contrary, what makes this such a touching moment in John’s gospel is what Jesus ends up offering Peter is both forgiveness for his past failures, and an emboldening renewal for the future; it’s a call to discipleship hand in hand with the empowerment to move forward.
When you think about it, it really is a lot like climbing that mountain summit in order to reach that single point that is directed wholly toward heaven. In fact, I’ve always sort of thought of he Christian walk in just that way: it’s truly filled with exhilaration and wonder along the journey, but there are also some rough stretches that will drain us of nearly every bit of energy we have; moments in which we are so exhausted by the effort, we wonder if we can possibly take another step. Some days we rise to the occasion, whatever that means; other times – a lot of times – we will wander off the right pathway and fall far short of the mark where faith is concerned.
But still we keep walking, day by day, step by step, carrying with all the fragmented, disjointed parts of our lives. And along the way, we pause to feed Jesus’ lambs, to tend his sheep; we do what he’s called us to do and we live as he’s taught us, all in the knowledge that in giving all that we are to Christ, in the end the journey comes together in one place, that convergence of heaven and earth that is the kingdom of God.
Beloved, Jesus is asking you and me, “Do you love me?”
I hope and I pray today that as our walk continues, our very lives will show that we do, indeed!
And we continue to follow, hearing Jesus’ questions and seeking to answer them with faith and love, may our thanks be unto God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry