Gospel reading: John 21: 15-18: “Do you love me?”
This is a tough question to hear. Maybe one of the toughest questions we can ask one another. The question itself contains a doubt that it is so, and perhaps even reasons to believe that it is not the case. The relationship that raises the question is perhaps a broken one. Still, the question also reveals a hope that love can be affirmed, even manifested in such a way that the question will not have to be repeated.
The context of our gospel reading was a catastrophe. The worst possible scenario had happened. Jesus’ words about truth and love, justice for the poor, and hope for the future had indeed created a new reality and new relationships. But his message had also provoked opposition, most of all from the powerful. It had led to conspiracy, power-games, politicization of religion, wilful ignorance , and violation of moral and legal responsibilities and principles. Countering his message and seeking to retain power led his enemies to inflict violence, cruelty, torture of an innocent person, and death.
But even Jesus’ friends, his closest friends, had broken their relationships through betrayal and denial. All the more remarkable, then, that when Jesus next met them, as the resurrected Christ, he offered his disciples a chance to share his new life: “Come and eat!” The one whom they had betrayed, left alone, was inviting them to a new relationship.
Jesus’ love across all broken relationships, all barriers, all fear and hopelessness, could not be expressed in a stronger way. Love is always about relationships, and love is about the future: Where are we going from here? To get there, the past must be clarified, and Jesus had done it. Completely. His love for Peter and the failing disciples was without reservation. Still, Peter also had to clarify and answer the question: Do you love me? This is the question and the answer that will define their future relationship.
No wonder that it was tough to answer. Three times Jesus asked. It had to be a moment of truth in his mind.
Today, this is the defining question to all leaders in the church. Do you love me? The question comes from Jesus. But he immediately directs the attention to all on whose behalf he is asking. Affirming love leads immediately to the task: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Love for God must be shown in responsibility and care for those in need, all those whom God cares for.
I hear Jesus’ question in what we face in our time, and particularly in what we face here in these days. Children and young people are posing the same question in a new way. Do you love me? Do you care for our future? Do you care for more than yourself? Do you love us? Do you love me?
Today we hear this question as it pertains to this greatest concern of our time, climate change or global warming. Will we fulfil the promises from Paris – or maybe just mouth the intentions – to halt global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius? The destructive changes in our environment, water, soil, air – all that defines the parameters of “nature” – raise questions of calling and conscience for us, to us, and even about us.
With regard to climate change, we are far beyond the level of knowing or not. Denial is not a serious option. Yet we are perhaps still in the phase of understanding or not, at least understanding the full dimensions of what we are talking about. In almost all the places in the world, we are experiencing its consequences: droughts, fires, irregular and unpredictable seasons, extreme rain, hail and snow, new record-high temperatures, winds, destructions, sea levels raising.
We address this human-made situation and talk about these catastrophes at our dinner tables, in classrooms, in social media, in private and public, in parliaments, in the UN.
We also address this situation as communities of faith, believing in God. We remind others and ourselves about our responsibilities to take care of God’s creation. We talk about achieving just peace with creation. We discuss climate justice, asking who is responsible for the problem and the solutions. We ponder what it means to hope, in face of these challenges. We plan for a just and sustainable way of living, locally and globally. We give children and youth to have agency in how the churches address the global warming.
All this and much more raises many questions, and many answers are required from our churches as communities, as institutions, from leaders, indeed from all of us. Again and again, from our pulpits, in our liturgies, in our meetings, as we work and walk together in faith.
Today I am struck by anew by Jesus’ question, as I have been many times before at critical points in my life, when making decisions about my life and future. Do you love me? The question immediately shifts our attention to the tasks of our lives, whether we are pastors caring for lambs, leaders or actors in community organizations or businesses or government, or something totally different. It is all and always about whether and how we love each other in response to divine love.
Do you love me? Do you respond to the love of the creator, who has given you life and all that nurtures and protects your life? Do you respond to being forgiven and accepted by God, even when we know very well our shortcomings and our failures? Do you respond to the love that expects you to do something that really makes a difference for those around you, for the ones you love the most – your partner in life, your family, your friends, your children, your grandchildren, all those who are enriched or affected by the way you live?
Do you love me? This is the question our children and youth are asking, demanding a love that shows itself in solidarity with them and their future, all over the world. What we are dealing with is always both very near to us and yet also a global reality. We know that now.
Do you love me? The question also comes from all those with whom Jesus identified. All those in the margins, all those who are less empowered and privileged. The WCC has said that we are on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace together, seeking just peace in all the world. We are pursuing our mission work from and with the margins. And we are committing ourselves as churches to children, ending violence against them, individually and collectively, now and for the future.
Do you love me? The question comes from all that are created by God, all that are interdependent with one another in what we call nature. This is no less the reality for those living in urban areas than in rural areas. We are all totally dependent on everything, the whole, the balances between everything God has created. We are ourselves living organisms, we are nature ourselves, not disembodied souls just sojourning on earth.
When we realize that the essence, the heart, of our relationships is love, and we hear from each other this question of our love for God, it becomes clear that the great commandment, the principle guideline for life, is the double commandment: You shall love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Because the neighbour is “as one of us.” We are all as one of us. We are so even with nature. Therefore, in our time, we cannot love God and our neighbour without loving nature. We cannot ignore or destroy God’s creation while claiming to love God and those God has created.
We still have the ability to hear this question, though it seems that some of us need more hearing aids than others. Still, there is hope in the question being asked, continually posed and amplified and echoed: Do you love me?
Dear leaders of churches and religious communities: This is our testing time. What are we doing, through what we are say, preach, and teach: Do you love me?
Dear leaders of states and international bodies: This is your testing time. What are you doing now, not only saying, to give your children and your grandchildren a future in which they can live, love, and enjoy life together in justice and peace? What are you doing to answer the question: Do you love me?
This is the time for the leaders of the world to give the right answers – and for all of us to make them do so. Amen.
(A sermon by World Council of Churches General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at Sermon Marble Collegiate Church, New York City, Sunday 22 September 2019, just before the UN Climate Summit)
Gospel reading: John 21: 15-18: “Do you love me?”