Summary: Love is all about relationships. The cross itself speaks of the two dimensions of love, vertical and horizontal, divine and human love. And where they intersect most powerfully is in relationships.
Love is Relational
I remember hearing missionaries to the Congo talking about the need for long-term missions, especially the importance of learning the language and the culture of the people. “Language and culture are important,” they said, “because they facilitate relationships. And relationships are what love is all about.” That last statement bears repeating and taking to heart. “Relationships are what love is all about.”
Two elderly friends were driving to a nursing home to visit David, Marjorie’s husband, who was being cared for in an Alzheimer’s Unit. On the way, Marjorie prepared her friend, Elizabeth, by telling her, “He won’t know you. He doesn’t know anyone anymore.” Once in the room, Marjorie took David’s hands into her own, and looking into his eyes, said, “David, here’s Elizabeth. Do you remember her? She’s our friend and former neighbor.” But as expected, there was no hint of a response.
Marjorie then began eagerly seeking his recognition of her. “Who am I, dear? Do you know me, honey?” David just kept staring at his wife, his face a complete blank. But then, after a long moment, his eyes lit up, and he spoke just three words: “You love me.”
Those were the only words David managed during their visit that day--and yet, as Elizabeth later wrote, they were enough. She knew they had witnessed a holy moment. The love forged over the years of their marriage had prevailed and pierced the darkness of his disease. And multiply that power many times over, in all sorts of other challenges of life.
Love is the hidden centerpiece of Creation and its most wonderful force, and we as the church should know that better than anyone. The love of God in Jesus Christ saves us from our sins, and from ourselves, and leads us into a new way of life. And that same spirit of love carries over into how we’re created to care for and bless others. The cross itself speaks of the two dimensions of love, vertical and horizontal, divine and human love. And where they intersect most powerfully is in relationships.
That’s why Jesus gathered twelve disciples to share his life with for more than three years, so he could develop close, impactful relationships with them. And it’s why he had an inner circle of friends within that group, of Peter, James and John. And it also seems that he and John were especially close, enough so that John, who calls himself “the disciple Jesus loved,” laid his head on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper. (I’ve always loved that tender image.) And the love between Jesus and his mother was also very poignant, of course, right to the end. And we know that Jesus' half-brother, James, became the leader of the church at Jerusalem, no doubt at least in part because of their lifelong relationship as brothers. It’s probably significant, too, that there were at least three sets of brothers with the group of apostles. And we could go on: Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, were relatives, probably aunt and niece. And Mary was the sister of Salome, the mother of James and John, who were therefore Jesus’ cousins. And even the Apostle Paul, whom we think of as so unattached, sends greetings to several of his relatives in the last chapter of his letter to the church in Rome. It’s very significant, I think, that there are so many family connections within the New Testament. Love is profoundly relational.
The strong bonds that exist between family and friends--including our spiritual family in the faith--make us who we are, and gives our lives fulfillment. There is prevalent today the "myth of Self," which says that we each have a core identity that deserves our primary focus, and is sufficient in and of itself. But that's a lie! We find our truest and best selves only in the context of who we are for others. Which is why Jesus spoke about dying to ourselves in order to follow him into a new life of self-giving, other-centered love.
That’s just what we see in our text this morning. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, presumably to heal their relationship after Peter’s three denials of Christ on the night of his arrest. But it's interesting that he also refers to Peter as “Simon, son of John,” and not by the name Jesus had given him, perhaps another sign of the need for restoration in their friendship.
“Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” he asks (meaning, does he love Jesus more than the other disciples, as Peter had once claimed). Peter answers very simply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “(Then) feed my lambs.” (I'm adding the word "then" because it's implied.)