Do You Love Me?

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19 (NIV)
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people will be saying, “I love you,” or asking, “Do you love me?” And many others will reply, “Yes, I love you,” or “I love you, too!” Cards and gifts may be exchanged; some couples will dine out or have romantic candlelit dinners at home. It is a day to celebrate love. There are thousands of poems and songs about love– ooey, gooey, gushy love; unrequited love; first love; true and lasting love; even “puppy” love.

But Valentine’s Day can also be a painful reminder– of lost love, betrayal, and loneliness. The story of Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement is not a “Valentine” story of romantic love, but it carries some lessons for today about love in general, and the Love of Christ in particular.

  • Love is a choice– freely given and freely accepted (apologies to Elvis Presley and others who have sung about not being able to help falling in love…) When Jesus first called Peter (and in the above passage as well) He simply asked Peter to “Follow me.” He made no demands, offered no bribes, used no intimidation. There is no long list of requirements or expectations; no bargaining; no “quid pro quo.” That said, Love is not a light-hearted or whimsical thing. Peter’s choice to love Christ, and to follow him cost him his life. Christ’s choice to love us led Him to humble Himself to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus could have escaped this fate several times over– He CHOSE to die for each of us!
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  • Love is more than just a feeling. “Follow me” demands an action and a commitment. There are many today who “love” the idea of Jesus; they love the parables, or the gospel story; they are in love with “love.” But the idea that “Love” is all you need (apologies to the Beatles) misses the mark. Feelings change; feelings are transitory and often dependent on circumstances. Love chooses to follow– even when the going gets rough; even when it is not convenient, even when it involves sacrifice.
  • Loving someone involves taking the risk of being hurt, denied, or betrayed. There is no Biblical passage describing the amount of hurt Jesus must have felt when Peter denied Him three times, or when Judas betrayed Him. The Biblical account tells us that Jesus already knew and predicted these two events, but how agonizing–every bit as painful as the nails in His hands and feet! Jesus loved those who spit at Him, abandoned Him, condemned Him, and persecuted Him. And we also see Peter in this passage being hurt at Jesus’ questioning him a third time; Peter was shocked and hurt when Jesus predicted his denial, and when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:23) Love is never free from risk– especially the imperfect love we have as humans.
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  • Love leads to restoration and forgiveness. Peter’s denial of Christ could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Had Jesus said nothing; done nothing to address this hurt, it would not have changed the fact that Peter was forgiven. But in publicly restoring Peter, Jesus made it clear that it was “all good” between them– Peter wasn’t just conditionally forgiven, he was completely restored!
  • Love is stronger than death! It is stronger than sin, or betrayal, denial, or hurt. Love is eternal and limitless, everlasting, and enduring. God IS Love and to know God is to know love. To speak to God and to hear His voice and read His Word is to converse with Love. Whether in the presence of saints on a mountaintop, in the midst of a raging storm, or on a quiet beach– Love is closer than our next breath, and more powerful than our deepest fear. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

And that’s a love worth endless celebration!

Praying “Seventy Times Seven”

The Apostle Peter once asked Jesus if he should forgive someone up to seven times. He seemed to feel this was generous and even noble, but Jesus said that Peter should be willing to forgive someone “seventy times seven” times (or seventy-seven times! (for an excellent discussion on this exchange, see https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/why-is-seventy-times-seven-still-so-radical-today.html. For the context, see Matthew 18.)

The same applies to praying for someone. I know many people who ask for prayer almost daily –often for the same “little” problems or complaints. The selfish, human part of me sometimes wants to judge what is “worthy” of my prayer, and what is not. But this is not for me to judge. Other people are too proud to ask for prayer. That does not make them better or stronger people, or less “needy” of my prayers. I need to be willing to pray for everyone as I have the opportunity: that includes when they request my prayers (over and over) or when they refuse to share their needs at all. Someone who is struggling with ongoing issues needs my compassion and wisdom, not my judgment. Someone who resents my prayers needs my compassion and wisdom, too. We are to pray without ceasing, not just when we think it is “worth” doing. (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17)

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There is a caveat here. My prayer life should not be determined by others’ expectations. I should gladly pray for the person who asks; however, I should NOT let someone else determine how or what I should pray. In other words, if someone is asking me to pray for “healing,” I will gladly lift up their situation and leave it in God’s hands. I will ask God to heal that person according to His will and in His timing. If they are asking me to pray for total instant healing, I will still pray, but I won’t demand of God what is not His will to do. If they are asking me to pray that they win the lottery because they gambled away their rent money, or avoid prosecution for a crime they committed, I will not pray for things that so clearly contradict God’s will. If someone else is telling me not to pray for them, I will not promise NOT to pray at all, but I will not insist that they listen in; nor will I pray that God “fix” them as I would like. I will pray for their safety, healing, well-being, etc.– again, according to God’s will and timing. Some people are afraid that I will pray for them to be saved against their will. Some people think that because I pursue prayer as a lifestyle, that I have an “in” with God– that He will do what I ask, when I ask, because it is me asking. That is not how God, or prayer, operates. I have seen God do miracles, but I have also asked Him for healing that never came in this lifetime, or for things that turned out very differently than I expected. And I have prayed for the salvation of others, but I don’t have the power or authority to change their will or pierce their conscience– that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

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Sometimes, it is difficult to keep praying for the same stubborn person, or the same unresolved situation. When God doesn’t answer us how or when we expect, it can seem as though He isn’t listening, doesn’t care, or even taunts us with silence and frustration. It can be tempting to give up– to think that our prayers are “not working.” But, once again, that is not how God, or prayer, “work.” Often, while we are staring at the situation that doesn’t seem to change, we miss seeing the changes happening in other areas of our life, or the obstacles that are being cleared from our path going forward. This is true of prayers we lift up for others, as it is for ourselves. We continue praying anyway. Sometimes, prayer changes our outlook– sometimes prayer even ends up changing how we pray! Prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about getting closer to the heart of God!

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So, if we are willing, we can keep praying–seventy-seven days in a row! Even 490 days! Not because God is counting the days or keeping score of our faithfulness, but because we know that God is faithful in ways we cannot see with out limited vision, or know with our limited understanding.

When God is “Too Early…”

We spend a lot of time wondering about God’s timing– usually when we are waiting for God to act as we expect! But there are times when God acts before we expect– sometimes before we even ask!

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Tucked in the pages of the book of Acts is a curious little story about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2012&version=ESV

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Peter’s situation was dire. Herod had already killed James, the brother of the Apostle John; he was planning to make a spectacle of Peter, likely by having him executed at the time of Passover. In verse 5, we see that earnest prayers were being made for Peter’s rescue. But just a few verses later, when Peter shows up at the prayer meeting, everyone is incredulous– “you are out of your mind,” they told poor Rhoda when she brought the good news. They left Peter standing outside knocking and trying to gain entry to the prayer meeting being held for his rescue!

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(Point of clarification— in verse 17, Peter says to “Tell James and the brothers” about his release…this is NOT the James who was martyred, but likely either James the son of Alpheus, or James, the brother of Christ, both of whom were leaders in the early church.)

God’s timing is not our timing– but God is ALWAYS “on time.” This can be difficult for us to accept. We may be waiting for a loved one to be cured, or for an abusive situation to be ended. When it ends in tragedy or death, we feel that God “didn’t show up on time.” But the same can happen when God seems to show up “too early.” We may wonder whether the rescue was really “of God” or just “coincidence.”

We must remember that God is not bound by time the way we are. We see time in one dimension–from the present going backward through the past. We cannot see the future; we cannot see “what might have been.” We cannot see at what moment God’s intervention will have the greatest impact.

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The rest of Acts 12 tells the “rest of the story,” one often overlooked. Peter reassured the believers, and then quietly escaped from Jerusalem. The next day, there was a massive search for Peter, which resulted in a sentence of death for the guards who “let him escape.” Herod’s campaign against the early Christ-followers was interrupted by political turmoil. But Herod, in his success and in his arrogance, failed to turn to God. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (v.23) The earnest prayers of the believers were answered in a way that far surpassed their expectations– not only was Peter rescued in a miraculous way, but God eliminated one of their fiercest enemies in a dramatic (and graphic) way! Not only that, but “the word of God increased and multiplied.” (v. 24)

Someone might say, “God could have removed Herod from authority long before He did.” Or, “God could have rescued Peter in a different way.” But who can argue that God was “early” or “late” in doing what He did? Who can argue that God “should” have acted differently?

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As difficult as it may be to accept in the moment, we can learn to trust God’s timing and His ways. And when we pray, we must remember that God will answer us as He chooses–and it will always be “on time.”

Mayday!

Today is the first of May. This is also known as May Day or Mayday. In many countries, there are traditional celebrations, including dancing around a May Pole, or leaving a small bouquet of fresh spring flowers on someone’s doorstep. It is meant to be a happy occasion, signaling the arrival of spring flowers after a month of showers and growth– the promise of more growth and greenery after a long winter and cool, wet, spring.

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This year, many people have been looking forward to May 1 as a potential “end” to the lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. They are eager for a chance to return to “life as normal,” including spending time in parks and gardens, and celebrating with friends. They long to chat, mingle, and dance with their friends and loved ones in the sunnier, greener weather. Others are just tired of being “cooped up,” and want to get out into the busy marketplaces and public squares. But many leaders (mayors, governors, ministers, presidents, etc.,) are extending the orders to continue social distancing during this pandemic season.

There is another meaning for the phrase “Mayday!” It is an urgent call for help. It comes from the French phrase m’aidez– help me–and is used mostly in radio transmissions from ships in danger. Many people around the world today are, figuratively or metaphorically, calling out “M’aidez!” They are calling on their political leaders, financial institutions, hospitals, emergency workers, and others for help– healing, testing, equipment, food, answers to impossible questions, guidance, and comfort. For many, it feels like drowning in a sea of uncertainty and danger.

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Even in times of uncertainty and danger, we have a Faithful and Loving God. When we cry out, “Mayday! Help!”, He is ready and able to answer our call:

I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.

I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.

Many times in his life, David had called on the Lord, and found him faithful– to protect him, rescue him, bless him, and forgive him. David danced and celebrated God’s provision for Israel, and he also cried out in anguish and bitterness of soul. And in every situation, God heard David’s “Mayday! M’aidez!”

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  • King David’s descendant, King Hezekiah, also cried out to the Lord. He led the entire nation of Israel in celebrating a magnificent Passover feast and a Festival of Unleavened Bread. He also built up and fortified walls that had been allowed to crumble. He strengthened a weakened nation. In spite of his measures, however, the nation was threatened with invasion and destruction by a powerful Assyrian army. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Chronicles+32&version=ESV But Hezekiah, along with the prophet Isaiah, sent up a “M’aidez!” to God, and He answered in a mighty way: 20 Then Hezekiah the king and Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, prayed because of this and cried to heaven. 21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. 23 And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem and precious things to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.
  • The Apostle Peter called out as he was sinking into the waves. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+14%3A22-32&version=NIV His faith, which made him to want to walk out to Jesus on the water, faltered. Peter knew the danger of open water, he faced such dangers in his fishing boat nearly every day. Without a miracle, he would sink below the wind-churned waves and be unable to make it back to the boat or swim all the way to shore. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” “M’aidez!” And Jesus was there to hold his hand and bring him to safety. Later in life, Peter went forth boldly preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, and spreading the Good News that Jesus Saves! Peter knew from first-hand experience that Jesus not only brought physical salvation from storms, but He offered spiritual salvation, renewal, and hope. In fact, it is in one of Peter’s epistles that we find this verse of hope: “..casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
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This May Day, we may call out to God in desperation, or in celebration, or both. But let’s take every opportunity to call on His Holy Name.

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