First Love


John 21:1-19 NRSV

I want us to take a close look this morning at Jesus. Look at him as he appears with wounds in his glorified, resurrected body to a few friends after Easter.  Look at him.  He had come into the world with a message through words and deeds of God’s unending, unlimited, unwavering and unconditional love for the world. But the world did not want anything to do with that message. Therefore, he was tortured, crucified and sealed in a tomb. He came to give us the best that God had to give, the gift of God’s self, and the world reciprocated that gift with the very worst the world had to give, the cross. Jesus came offering love, unbounded, unending, and we nailed it to a tree. Jesus came offering grace, free, extravagant, and it was too much for us. So, we killed him.

But there he was, standing before friends with scars on his hands and feet and in his side. Standing there rejected; standing there wounded simply asking, “Do you love me?”  And he keeps asking, “Do you love me?”  “Do you love me?  Three times he asks.  “Do you love me?”

I believe there is another way of phrasing this simple question. The rejected, wounded Jesus is standing there asking: “Do you really know how much I love you?”

Because if you and I really knew how much Jesus loves us, we would certainly love him. If we really knew the heart of God which was revealed through the love of Christ Jesus, loving this Jesus would be our only response.

John the evangelist calls this love revealed through Christ “God’s first love.”  “Let us love,” he says, “because God first loved us.” God is love and only love. So, let us love because this God has loved us freely and unconditionally from the very beginning.  The Psalmist sings that it was “in love that God created our inmost self and knit us together in our mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

Henri Nouwen once said that this first love is often difficult for us human creatures to comprehend. For the love with which we are most familiar is “second love.” This is the love we experience in our human relationships.  It is the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement and support that we receive from our parents, spouses, church members and friends. Nouwen says that this second love is only a broken reflection of the first love. The second love is a love which often leaves us doubting that love, frustrated by that love, angry and resentful.

All of us who experience human love know just how limited, broken and very fragile it is. Nouwen says that “behind the many expressions of this second love, there is always the chance of rejection, withdrawal, punishment, blackmail, violence and even hatred. Contemporary movies and plays portray the ambiguities and ambivalences of human relationships,” and there are no friendships; there are no marriages, and there are no communities, even communities of faith, in which the “strains and stresses of the second love are not keenly felt.” With human relationships there is always the chance of “abandonment, betrayal, rejection, rupture, and loss.”  “These are all the shadow side of the second love.”

The good news of the gospel is that the second love is “only a broken reflection of the first love, and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows.”

Jesus is standing there, rejected and wounded and resurrected and glorified as the incarnation of the shadow-free first love of God.  Look at him. Jesus is standing there offering from his very heart streams of living water. Listen to him. Jesus is standing there crying out with a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!  Let anyone who believes in me come and drink” (John 8:37). “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.  Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

Jesus is standing there rejected and wounded, yet resurrected and glorified asking, “Do you love me?” “Do you have any idea how much I love you? I love you with a perfect love, a shadow free first love.  I love you without limits, without conditions. I love you without end.”

Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.

I believe when we really know how much God truly loves us, our natural response is feeding the sheep of God: nourishing them physically and spiritually; tending the lambs of God: meeting their needs, educating them, fighting for the lost, the last and the least, protecting them from all those who wish to do them harm, those wolves who often clothe themselves with righteousness, who hide under garments of “family values” or “religious freedom.”

Look at Jesus, standing there in all his glory, yet wounded and broken and rejected, standing there with the loving heart of God. Our response to this Jesus can be none other but to bring healing, reconciliation, new life, justice and hope wherever we go. Our only response should be to say to the world with our whole being: “You are loved, unreservedly, unconditionally, eternally. There is no reason to be afraid, for God loved you first. God loved you before you loved God or even knew God. In love, God created your inmost self and knit you together in your mother’s womb. And God loves you even when your rejected and crucified that love.”

However, because we are more familiar with the second love, with fragmented human love, our natural response is often to love expecting something in return, therefore we have this awful and evil tendency to judge and to discriminate.

I believe this is why we are seeing so much hate in our world today: We have forgotten the first love. I believe the church and our country is in the state that it is in today because we have taken our eyes off of the crucified, risen Lord is standing before us all, asking, “Do you love me?”

After asking three times if we know how much God love us, and after telling us how to respond three times, Jesus said: “In all truth I tell you:  When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.”

This is a radical response, a radical understanding of maturity, for it is the exact opposite of the world’s understanding of maturity, the exact antithesis of American values. But God’s first love is a radically different from the world’s second love and any human value.

The world says: “When you were young, you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way and control your own destiny.”

Jesus’ vision of maturity is the exact opposite. It is the ability and the willingness to be led to those places where you would rather not go.

Here, as he has said before, Jesus is saying that we must become child-like. We must allow someone else to fasten our belts. We must place all of our being into the hands of God and allow God to lead us even into unknown, undesirable and painful places.

Look at Jesus, standing there rejected and wounded, yet resurrected and glorified. Look at him as he appears with wounds in his glorified, resurrected body to a few friends after Easter Sunday.  Look at him. He is standing there.  Listen to him. He is asking, “Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?

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