Three Questions

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This is the 3rd message in the series, “The Genius of Three.” Part One was, “Three Crosses.” Part Two, “Three Days.”

Larry L. Eubanks, First Baptist Church, Frederick, Maryland, Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

That video you just saw showed some of the “three’s” associated with the life of Jesus, and in this three-part series I’ve been talking about some more.

There are three crosses on which hang three rebels. All three opposed the brutal oppression of the Roman Empire. Two rebels tried to use brutality to defeat brutality and lost. One opposed brutality with love, swords on the ground, and he too would be crucified, but before dying he led one of the other rebels to paradise, and in death on of the Roman soldiers declared that he was truly the Son of God.

Jesus spent parts of three days in a tomb, which was a particularly Jewish way of saying that he was Dead. Very, very dead.

And in today’s Scripture, what is the first thing we are told? John 21:14:

This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

This is not just an offhand comment. It’s actually not needed. If you read the gospel of John the way it was intended to be read, from start to finish, not just picking here and there to find your favorite parts to stick on a greeting card, you already know it’s the third appearance.

Yet John feels the need to point it out. He’s warning us—this is where the important stuff really happens. Think about it:

· The rooster crows after Peter’s third denial

· It’s the third cross and the third rebel who is the one who changes everything.

· Jesus rose on the third day.

· Faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is the third, love.

Three Appearances

All of the appearances are important. Let’s take a look at them.

The first appearance is in the garden, and the disciples aren’t even there. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and she runs and tells Simon Peter and John that they—his enemies—have taken his body away and she doesn’t know where it is.

She’s upset because they had to wait until the end of the Sabbath to prepare Jesus’ corpse for burial, and now Jesus is not going to get a proper burial. They disgraced Jesus in death, and now they are disgracing his body by discarding it unprepared, as so much refuse.

Simon Peter and John run to the tomb, but only John gets what’s going on. Peter can only confirm what Mary has told him—someone has stolen the body of Jesus.

After Peter and John go home, and Jesus appears to Mary. I don’t want to insult the women here but we have to understand that a woman in those days couldn’t be a witness in court. They were considered to be unreliable witnesses. Only men could be witnesses, and none of them were around.

So this doesn’t even count as one of the three appearances to the disciples. The disciples haven’t seen, can’t believe, don’t believe.

The second first appearance occurred that night. The disciples, all but Thomas, are hiding out behind locked doors, cowering in fear that they would be found and arrested and crucified.

They had been unwilling to carry their own crosses when Jesus was alive, and they certainly weren’t going to do it now that he’s dead.

Jesus goes through the locked door of their fear and their disobedience, and breathes the Holy Spirit on them.

The second appearance was for Thomas’ sake. He hadn’t been in that locked room, and he refused to believe the disciples unless he saw Jesus himself. A week later they are all in the room again, this time the door is shut and not locked. So there’s progress.

In walks Jesus. He goes straight to Thomas and says, “Here’s where they drove the nails through my hands. Here, right here, have a feel. Here’s where they stuck a sword in me; go ahead, stick your hand right in there.

“Do you believe now? Now that you’ve seen for yourself? It’d have been better if you had believed without seeing. Those who do so will be better off than you guys.”

There have been two appearances thus far, and neither of them have been glorious reunions full of backslaps and guy-hugs.

We come here today, every one of us looking good, because it’s Easter. Everyone looks good on Easter Sunday. Guys who don’t ever dress up for church have dressed up today. It’s a happy day. Families are getting together, going to church, having a nice meal afterward. It’s great.

But that’s not how it was.

There’s a great song that came out several years ago by the contemporary Christian group MercyMe called I Can Only Imagine.

I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
I can only imagine

Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you Jesus,
Or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence,
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing Halelluja,
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine

That’s how we imagine it will be, dancing and singing and falling to our knees and being so awed we can’t even speak.

But that’s not how it was the first two appearances.

At the third appearance the disciples are no longer hiding in a room. They’ve gone back to doing what they know best—fishing.

Except they having caught anything. These fishermen haven’t caught a single fish.

If anyone thinks that’s just a statement about whether or not the fish were biting, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s a theological statement.

So Jesus shows up on the beach and tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and when they do there are so many fish they can’t haul the nets in.

They all get to the shore and find Jesus sitting at a little fire, cooking. He invites them to eat a breakfast of fish and bread, a re-enactment of the feeding of the five thousand—reminding them of one more time they didn’t believe in him.

Then John reminds us that this is the third time Jesus has appeared to the disciples. Do you get it? John is saying, “Watch it, something important is about to happen. Pay attention now.”

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.

Three Questions

Three questions. Actually, it’s basically the same question, asked three times:

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?

And basically the same response, three times: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

And the same command, three times: “Feed my sheep.”

Again, we have to ask ourselves, “Why three times?” In a courtroom drama the defense attorney would have jumped up and said, “Objection, Your Honor, asked and answered. Counsel is berating the witness.”

Yes he is. Peter needs a good berating.

You see, all along Peter thought he was better than the rest of the disciples. Peter was that alpha male who always had to win, always had to come in first, always had to be the smartest guy in the room, always had to be right.

Peter is the guy who isn’t content to watch Jesus walk on water, he wants to do it too, but his faith isn’t as big as his need to be better than the rest, and he ends up needing to be rescued.

There’s even a little re-enactment of that here. When they are fishing and Peter realizes that it is Jesus standing on the beach, he jumps out of the boat and starts swimming to shore.

He had to be first. And in his need to be first, he left the other disciples in the boat to do the hard work of hauling in the catch.

Guys like that have to be taken down a notch or two before they can be useful, otherwise they will eventually tear the group apart. There will be resentments, and backbiting, arguments and jealousies. There will be a fight every time some young buck comes around to challenge his alpha male status.

So Jesus is testing him. He’s trying to see if Peter has learned anything, if the first two appearances have changed the man.

That’s why he asks him the first time, “Do you love me more than these?” And he gets the answer he expected but didn’t want: “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” More than anyone in the whole wide world.

Oh, Peter, Peter Peter.

So Jesus asks him again, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

And gets the same response: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

And then the third time—so watch it, here’s where the action comes.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Now Jesus has hurt his feelings. “You know everything. You know how much I love you. I was the only one in the group who tried to defend you in the garden. Even though I was outnumbered, I was ready to die in battle with you and for you. Nobody else was. You shouldn’t even have to ask, and now you’ve asked three times, like you didn’t believe me the first two times. You know that I love you.”

Three questions.

But this is not the first time that Peter has been asked three questions, or essentially the same question three times.

In John 18, after Jesus has been arrested, Peter goes into the courtyard, and the woman guarding the gate says to him, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (John 18:17)

And Peter says no.

A little later he is warming himself around a fire with a group of people, and they say the exact same thing: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” And again he says no.

And then a third time, this time it’s a relative of the slave whose ear Peter cut off in the garden who speaks to him. Yeah, that great show of strength and dedication back in the garden, when Peter drew his sword and attacked a slave.

Bad aim too. Aimed for the head, only got an ear.

But it wasn’t even a soldier he attacked, it was a slave. Rather than attacking one of the oppressors, he attacked one of the oppressed. But that’s how it is in battle. There’s always going to be some civilian casualties. We don’t even give them names, they’re just “Collateral Damage.”

So this relative of the guy Peter attacked, a slave himself, says to Peter, “Hey, aren’t you that guy who was with him in the Garden? I saw you!”

Peter denied it a third time, and then the rooster crowed.

The question now is, now that he has seen Jesus, has anything changed? Has he learned anything? Jesus wants to find out. Or, rather, he already knew. It’s Peter who had to find out.

Three questions, three answers, and three responses to that answer: “Feed my lambs. Tend to my sheep. Feed my sheep.”

“Peter, I don’t care if you walk on water, have all the right answers, and tell everyone how much you love me. None of that shows me anything. I don’t want to hear about how much you love me—I want you to show me. Show me you love by serving me. Feed my sheep.”

I don’t imagine feeding sheep is all that exciting. In Israelite society being a shepherd was about the lowest job you could have.

Jesus is telling Peter, “Until you give up your need to be first, you’ll never love me. Unless you are willing to become the lowest of all in tending my sheep, I really don’t care how much you say you love me.”

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1John 3:16-18)

We can talk about how much we love Jesus, but the only thing that matters is how we serve the him. You can feel all warm and fuzzy about Jesus, but that doesn’t say a thing about your love for him. All the songs you sing, all the Quiet Times and Bible studies you attend don’t make any difference if you aren’t humbling yourself and serving Jesus by loving and tending his sheep.

There’s one last Three we should look at before we go. When Jesus first meets Peter in John 1, he’s not called Peter. He is Simon son of John. Jesus meets him and says, “You will be called Cephus,” which is the Aramaic for “Rock.” In Greek “rock” is “Petros” or Peter.

But here in John 21, Jesus never calls him “Peter.” Three times he addresses him, and all three times he calls him by his old name, “Simon bar Jona.” Simon son of John.

Three times he addresses him, and not once does he call him “The Rock.”

Because he’s not a rock. He is not yet the foundation on which the church can be built.

See, some names are given, but some have to be earned. Simon hadn’t earned the name “Rock” yet. He will, but not yet.

You call yourself a Christian, but that is not a name that can be given. I know we say that you can’t earn your salvation, that it’s a gift, an act of pure grace on God’s part and faith on our part.

And, yes, that’s true.

But you don’t get to call yourself a follower of Jesus just because you’ve accepted a gift and believed some doctrines and walked an aisle and got baptized.

No, you have to earn the name. Here we all are on another Resurrection Day, looking good and having a good time. We’ve sung about Jesus and talked about Jesus and we’ll leave here like we do every week, and the question is, “So what?” What are you going to do about it?

Earn the name. Humble yourself, become the least of all, and “feed my sheep.”

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / image191

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