The three most powerful words in the human language are "I love you." These words speak of the deepest kind of connection between two people. Between "I" and "you" is "love" - uniting two people in a bond of mutual affection.
"I love you" is a phrase that is so powerful that it should not be used lightly. We should not say it to just anybody. (And if we do, it certainly can't mean much.) I remember that when I dated, I hesitated to say these words until I was confident that I could say them and really mean them.
In our culture, we have to be even more careful. Most of the time the word "love" doesn't mean much in our culture. Most song lyrics that use the words "I love you" usually are not intended to mean, "I am united to you in a mutual bond of affection" but rather "I'm infatuated with you... I lust after you... I want you regardless of whether it is beneficial to you or not."
To add to the confusion, our word "love" can be distorted and twisted to mean a lot of things that have little to do with the virtue of love. In The Gospel and the American Dream, Bruce Shelley describes the source of our confusion:
Loving Dutch apple pie means I want to eat it. I want to devour it. To be honest, I want to feel good--as it ceases to exist. That isn't love; that is exploitation.
Loving a sports car means I want to own one. I want to drive it, to feel the surge of power and turn a few heads. That isn't love; that is possession.
Loving pro football means I like to watch it. I enjoy getting the thrills without the bruises. But that isn't love either; that is gratification.
We must not cheapen the three most powerful words. "I love you" should mean more than "I lust you," "I want you," "I want to enjoy you," "I want to exploit you," or "I want to possess you."
If the words "I love you" are the three most powerful words then the most important question must be, "Do you love me?"
These are the final words of the risen Lord Jesus in The Gospel according to John.
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." 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." 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." (John 21:15-17)
Like Tevye pestering his wife in "Fiddler of the Roof" Jesus pesters his Simon Peter as well: "Do you love me?"
Our answer to this question matters more than anything else. Indeed, all religion must lead to this question or it descends to mere ritual. For this reason, Jesus will not let us go until we give an answer. As he did with Peter, he comes to us in the ordinary routines of life, ever pestering us with the question, "Do you love me?"
Our story takes place after Easter. Like Peter, the excitement of Easter is over for us. We now have to move on with our lives. After the great celebration of the Easter Season, life moves on, the buzz dies down, and things continue on... same as before.
This experience is common. Very quickly, the extraordinary becomes the ordinary. The romantic candlelight dinners in a restaurant with great atmosphere quickly become microwave meals in front of the television's light. The trophies we worked so hard to achieve eventually gather dust and are forgotten. The Communion Table becomes routine - a monthly duty for the faithful few.
Whether we like it or not, this necessarily happens. We can't live off the fumes of our conversion forever. Our confirmation vows eventually recede into the past. Indeed, any spiritual experience - no matter how extraordinary or intense - eventually fades. We settle into our ordinary routines.
But it is right here - in the ordinary routines of life - that Jesus arrives. Like Peter, the risen Jesus comes into our ordinary experiences and perpetually asks, "Do you love me?"
After the excitement of Easter, the disciples find themselves back home again in Galilee. All the surprising and wonderful events are in the past. Things have calmed down again. The disciples once again find themselves caught up in the ordinary rhythms of simple, daily living. They've "gone fishing!" Back to what they know best - to the comfort of "real life."
But they cannot escape the risen Lord. Jesus is present in the ordinary, whether they initially sense him or not. In the experience of an ordinary meal on the beach, Jesus comes to them. And it is after the simple meal that he harps, "Do you love me?"
Initially, he seems to be pestering Peter. He asks him no less than three times, "Do you love me?" Though on the surface this may seem to be overkill, it is really an act of grace. Jesus is giving Peter - who had denied him three times - the opportunity to make up for his past mistakes and confess his love for Jesus once again. Through the unremitting barrage of questions, the forgiving love of Jesus is on display. And Peter takes Jesus up on his offer by responding in the affirmative to each round of questioning.
Like the first disciples, the risen Lord continues to walk among us - not just in the excitement of the Easter Season, but in the ordinary course of our lives (like fishing!) calling us to a fresh, new beginning. Like Tevye, his constant interrogation invites us to reflect on our relationship with him.
And he chooses to pester us with the most important question of all: "Do you love me?"
This is where all true religion must lead. As Israel confessed in the shema the priority of loving God with our whole being, so we are invited to consider where we stand in our love for Jesus.
The simple meal of the Lord's Supper both represents and reminds us of Jesus' love for us and invites us to respond in return. It is as if Jesus says to us, "I love you. I demonstrated that by giving everything for you. I withheld nothing to reveal my love for you. Now... Do you love me? If so, receive my love and take it with you into the world. Yes, you've certainly failed, fallen short, perhaps even forgotten about my love. But I remain faithful, true, and committed to you. Put simply: I love you. Do you love me?"
And if our answer is "Yes" then a further challenge remains. We must seriously reflect on how it is we will show our love to Jesus. Thankfully, Jesus gives us guidance in this. If we want to show Jesus our love, we will "Feed his sheep."
To feed Jesus' sheep is to enter into a life of loving service to others. Love for God necessarily leads to love for others - for the church family in particular and for the human family in general.
Jesus is the "Good Shepherd" who laid down his life for his sheep. This is certainly the primary meaning of Jesus' command. We must seek the welfare of God's faithful ones. No doubt this includes providing "spiritual food" in the form of preaching, teaching, fellowship, and worship. Jesus is "the bread of life." We cannot live "by bread alone." We need to "feed" deeply on the words and life of Jesus.
But this certainly also includes providing "physical" food - caring for the needs of those in the faith community. We show our love for Jesus by feeding his sheep - spiritually and physically.
But this "feeding" also extends to those outside the walls of this church - those in our community, nation, and world. Those who love Jesus must show the love of Jesus to the world.
Last week, I had lunch with two friends from Indianapolis. During our discussion, Ana made this comment: "One way to evaluate whether a church is doing its job or not is to ask the question: If the church were gone, how would it impact the lives of those outside the church - those in the community and in the world?"
Though we don't get everything right, I do think we at Immanuel UCC can answer this question with great pride. Our "Circle of Friends" shop which provides essential goods for families in need, our orphanage and school in India, our consistent benevolence toward those in our community in urgent need are all examples of "feeding" Christ's sheep. If Immanuel UCC did not exist, there are many people who would feel the impact. And for that, we thank God!
Love is the proper goal of all true religion. Don't overcomplicate things. The final words of Jesus in John's Gospel bring to the forefront what matters most, for the most important question Jesus ever asked is, "Do you love me?"
This is the reason Jesus will not stop asking this question. Like Tevye pestering his wife, he continues to needle us into action by confronting us with the most important question, for our answer to "Do you love me?" matters more than anything else.
There is a reason that the three most powerful words in the human language are "I love you." We have been made in the image of the Triune God. We have been created "to love and to be loved." This is our deepest need and our greatest joy. Jesus will not let us forget that our fundamental identity is that we are "the Beloved of God" and our primary responsibility is to love others as God in Christ has loved us.
And if we don't get it the first time, don't worry, Jesus is persistent! He will continue to ask, "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" He doesn't ask, "Do you love liturgy? Do you love philosophy? Do you love morals and ethics? Do you love good teaching? Do you love religion? Do you love your denomination? etc." No, the question is far more personal than that: "Do you love me?"
Why is Jesus so persistent? Because he truly loves us. And true love desires only one thing in return: Love. Love's greatest demand is to have love returned!
The risen Lord Jesus comes into our ordinary lives today and asks, "Do you love me?" How will you respond to that question? And if you respond in the affirmative, how then will you show your love to Jesus? How will you feed his sheep?
 Years ago, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber spoke of the significance of this "I / Thou" relationship by contrasting it with our "I / It" relationship with most of the world. The "I / It" relationship is a relationship of control. I observe, examine, and use the things of this world as mere objects. This is fine in the realm of things, but destructive in the realm of human relationships. People are not objects to be used - mere data for examination.
 (Bruce Shelley, Gospel & The American Dream, 64f)
© Richard J. Vincent, 2011