Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost 2023
You can see more, and check out other worship services through my church’s website: beechgroveumc.org
15 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.’ 16 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.’ 17 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. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’John 21:15-19
Introduction: Five Marks of A Methodist
Here is an interesting question to begin our time together today:
Why are you a United Methodist?
You may be trying to parse this question as to what brought you to this church. Maybe it was a friend or family that gave you an invitation. You came for the first time and enjoyed it. The people were nice, the pastor had a good sermon, and you generally felt comfortable here. Now you may not be a member (yet), but you enjoy attending this United Methodist Church. You wonder what differentiates this church from say, a Catholic Church, a Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, or any of the other several denominations and even non-denominational churches.
In the variety of expressions of Christianity, United Methodism has carved itself as a whole as one of the larger denominations in the Christian faith. So then what makes us United Methodist?
I could easily give long-winded theological explanations, or I could tell you attending a United Methodist Church makes you a United Methodist…as well as a Christian. Yes, we may have some stark theological differences with many of our other denominational siblings in Christ, but there is a comfort in the manner of growth in this denomination. I have loved the emphasis on grace and a life of sanctification that exists in this denomination. However, I have also noticed that even more so than anything else in my faith, I have been called to the tenets of the Christian faith experienced through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
John Wesley and the Five Marks of A Methodist
Despite all of this John Wesley, the igniter of the Methodist movement sought to identify key markers of Methodists. He sought to define Methodists as Christians, and in doing so, called them to a standard of living that looked beyond the fallacies of merely claiming Christianity but not truly living it.
In response to much of Wesley’s apathy in the Anglican church, and seeking to define this tiny fledgling sect, he wrote a document called The Character of a Methodist. In this document, he wrote about the marks of a “Methodist”. In writing to the fledgling Methodist movement he wanted to instruct them on what it meant to claim the mark of Methodist, and even more broadly and importantly, Christian.
Wesley was clear to never disassociated any of these marks against other movements of Christianity, but in speaking directly to Methodists he called them to uphold especially these characteristics above and beyond.
“These are the principles and practices of our sect; these are the marks of a true Methodist. . . . they are Christians, not in name only, but in heart and in life.”John Wesley, the Character of a Methodist (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N20188.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext)
Over the next five weeks, we will dive into each of these marks and examine them in connection to our life in the church today. According to Wesley, we should seek to live out the most important characteristics of our faith in the United Methodist Church. This is a connection to what we believe and how we live it out daily.
The First “Mark”
Wesley begins with the first mark saying,
“A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit give to them’; one who ‘loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength.’”John Wesley, the Character of a Methodist (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N20188.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext)
So we see that the first mark of character is that “A Methodist Loves God.”
To name at the onset we must recognize though, this is no ordinary love. It cannot be defined or even quantified by human understanding. However, I think in looking at this there are ways to talk about this love that help to inform our task in fulfilling this characteristic in our lives. When I say a Methodist loves God, this is different from other forms of love in their life, because broadly it is a love without limitations. To love God is not to love a parent, a friend, or even a partner. To love God is to have limitless love for the one who created you.
Biblical Translation and John 21
As we encounter the scripture before us today we see that the way we differentiate our love for God from the other manners of love in our life is what defines this relationship and what will then ultimately define another mark we will explore later: that we love others.
The scripture invites us into this interaction between Jesus and Peter, and we may side with Peter at first glance. We may look and see, “yea, I’d be angry at Jesus too.” However, notice the scripture does not say “angry” but “hurt,” and even some translations will write grieved. Peter is not angry…rather he is sad and if we dive into the Greek, it would appear that Peter cannot give Jesus the answer Jesus wants.
This passage is the quintessential reason we cannot just read the Bible in English. For a deeper understanding as to what is happening here we must look towards the original Greek this passage was written. This is because in English we see the word “love,” and we think nothing of it. However, it is not just one word. There are, in fact, two. Two types that is. There are commonly four words in Greek scripture that can be translated to love. And often they are translated as just “love,” with no other qualifier, but each represents a different expression and manner of love.
The four words that are often translated to love:
- Storge is a natural or instinctual love like a parent/child or sibling relationship.
- Phileo is a friendship love, brotherly love as it is often described.
- Eros is romantic or sexual love, this love is often found between partners.
- Finally, Agape, the love we most often refer to in the church, is unconditional or selfless.
As I mentioned earlier it is two of these, phileo and agape, that play roles in this passage today. When Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me…” the first two times the word for love is translated from agape. However, Peter’s response each of those two times is “You know I love you” and it is translated from phileo. The final time, when Jesus asks Peter he transitions away from agape and asks Peter using phileo. This is where we read that Peter is hurt, and he responds using the word phileo as well.
Jesus is looking for Peter to affirm this agape affirmation, but Peter does not affirm it. It is quite unexplainable, but Peter can’t bring himself to say agape for whatever reason. Though this is the kind of love God looks for from us, because this is the kind of love that God offers to us. It may seem more impactful to tell God that you love them with that friendship-type love, we often do that in the church, but phileo, storge, or eros… are all loves on human terms. God asks for more than human love. God seeks the same love they offer us, and Jesus is helping Peter understand that.
We see this understanding when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is in Matthew 22. Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Jesus’ response is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37)
“You shall agape the Lord your God…”
This agape is the foundation of our faith, but what is it exactly and why is it so important that this is the foundation of our relationship with God?
As I said before agape is an understanding of love that is unconditional and selfless. Steve Harper talks of agape saying,
“Unlike the other three words, this quality of love is based in the lover, not in the one being loved.”Steve Harper, The Five Marks of A Methodist, pg. 6
If we break down phileo, storge, and eros, they are based on the one who is being loved. There is some condition that is being met for the lover to love the recipient. They are also understandings of love that can break down based on the feelings of the one who is being loved.
However, agape transcends these understandings. It is a love that originates completely from the lover, and nothing the one who is being loved does can intercede in that love.
God loves us…this cannot be argued. God’s love is not contingent on any qualifications we must meet. God loves us even if we don’t love God back. Our reciprocation of that love is not forced, and we can enter into that relationship of our own free will. God loves us in this agape manner. This sets upon us a calling to love God in the same manner God loves us. John Wesley considered this a natural response. Once we recognize God has a love for us, how could we not have this unconditional and limitless love in return?
Our love for God is predicated on nothing other than our innate ability to love. Peter continually responds to Jesus with phileo because I think that is truly what Peter is offering. However, we are called to give God the love that has been given to us. When we think of this phileo love we expect something in return for our love. However, in agape love, it is not predicated on our benefits. We don’t love because we expect something in return. We love because God first loved us (a reminder we here in 1 John). The danger becomes a self-focused love versus a God-focused love.
Steve Harper writes,
“A great danger in much of contemporary spirituality, Christian and otherwise, is that it keeps the focus on the self—the ego. And the peculiar thing about egotism is that it will let us believe in God, and claim to love God, but always on our terms—no matter how sophisticated or subtle the affirmations may be. The sign of ego faith is that we orient our love in terms of personal benefit, even our love of God.”Steve Harper, The Five Marks of A Methodist, pg. 7
When we focus on this agape love we take the focus of love off whether or not the love is reciprocated or even warranted and turn it into a love that is unconditionally given. Even when we are hurting or in pain we are still loving God. When we treat God with this philio love we begin to expect something in return, and we turn God into a source of divine prosperity in our lives. We feel entitled to something for our love. However, agape means that we love God because it is whom we are called to be.
“God is the first object of our agape love because if God isn’t our first love we end up loving God for reasons that the self seeks. We will love God for what we can get out of the relationship. We will love superficially and capriciously.”Steve Harper, The Five Marks of A Methodist, pg. 8
Bearing the Mark of Loving God
We need to bear this mark of Methodism and greater Christianity because it is the foundation that the other marks and characteristics stem from. Without our love for God how then can we claim to be Christian, and when our love for God expects to be repaid selfishly how can we truly follow the first commandment Jesus expresses to the Pharisees?
Much like he asks Peter, Jesus asks us “Do you agape me?” I believe that Peter’s intentions are true and answering and saying phileo. Yes, Jesus I love you like a brother, but Jesus knows that even brotherly love can fade when life gets tough. Maybe the responsibility of agape love feels too great, but our love for God should be similar to God’s love for us…UNCONDITIONAL
So, what is your answer?
This week I want you to ask yourself honestly what kind of love is at the foundation of your relationship with God? Have you set up a transactional system where your love entitles you to some blessing? Or do you love God with the same selflessness that God loves you?
Do you agape God?