The Bishop’s Sermon at the Synod Eucharist

Do you love me? (John 21: 15-19)

Do you love me?

We have just heard the risen Jesus Christ ask this question of Peter three times.

Do you love me?

And at each affirmative reply, Jesus gives him a direction.

Feed my lambs

Tend my sheep

Feed my sheep

Put at its simplest – here in this gospel passage a person’s love for Jesus and the care of his flock (his sheep and lambs – his people) are linked together in an essential way.

Those who love Jesus are trusted with ministerial roles and tasks.

Now, as you know, there is a great deal more happening in this passage. Many of you will have preached on these verses a number of times. You know that the context is the rehabilitation of Peter, the thrice denier is restored through the three-fold re-iteration of his love of the risen Lord.

There is the reminder that Jesus calls into service those who have known themselves to be humbled by sin. And at the end of the passage, there is more than a hint of the cost of discipleship and ministry, a pointing forward to martyrdom.

But for today – let us focus on Peter’s love of Jesus, and Jesus entrusting to him the care of his people, his flock.

St John’s Gospel, indeed the tradition of his writings, has much to say about love.

It is this gospel that tells us that it is because of God’s love for the world that the Son is given, it is here that Jesus explains that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, it is here that Jesus gives the ‘new commandment’ that we love one another, it is here that Jesus says that our love and unity will be a converting sign to the world.

Love is not incidental to the gospel – it is the gospel. God is love, and those that live in love, live in God, and God in them. – John’s tradition tells us.

This gospel touches on our need and desire to love and be loved.

In the Orthodox liturgy for St Andrew’s Day (which reworks verses from John chapter1) – Andrew says to his brother Peter:

O come, we have found him for whom we have yearned….

Peter comes to Jesus, and his deepest need for love and to love is met.

We are reminded that this is an essential element of being made in the image of God – that we each have the capacity to be loved, and to give love.

And this giving and receiving of love are held together, for us, in and through the person of Jesus.

For this reason we have to hear the question asked of each of us.

We have to hear Jesus Christ speak our name, and then ask us:

Do you love me?

If the reply is ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you’, then we can be trusted with those others that Jesus loves – his flock, his sheep, his lambs. If we love him how could we possibly do harm to those who Jesus loves?

Oh, if only it were so easy…

This past week, and indeed every week at present, we hear of stories where those who love Jesus, and who have been trusted with the care of others – those Jesus calls ‘his lambs’- loose their moral and spiritual compass. Rather than loving and serving, they use others to meet their own personal needs and agendas. When this happens bodies, minds and spirits are violated. When this happens the church is no longer a safe and loving place, or thought of as such.

We are used to hearing the big stories, but the small ones – of places where someone came, but did not feel welcome, or were spoken badly of, or heard others disparaged – these are important as well.

If we love Jesus, and love those whom he has called and is calling – then we will want to make sure that our churches are safe and loving environments for every person that enters our doors. They will be places here no one ever feels unsafe – where people are spoken to, and about, with dignity.

If we love Jesus this will affect how we clergy speak about each other (especially when another is not present), and how lay people address or speak to their clergy. Lay people will treat each other with respect, always remembering – this one, and this one, and this one – they are the beloved of Jesus.

A loving church is a safe church, where there is no place for bullying, or hectoring, or raised voices.

In a safe and loving church those who are on the margins are drawn into community, the excluded find a family, those that know themselves to carry differences find a place to be and become all that God has made them to be.

We know that love does not carry conditions – ‘we will love you if you are like this, or behave in this way’. Jesus has not loved us with conditions – why should not impose them on others?

We will be greatly helped in this by remembering, with great humility, who we are in God.

Through our baptism we are called first to belong to Christ, then to serve. We do this knowing that we are held in the love of God in Christ.

The care of the people of God, the ministries that we celebrate today, are given to us as a consequence of this relationship of love that we have been drawn into.

Jesus asks us – do you love me?

If we love him, then we are also called to love all those others Jesus is calling to himself.

There is no distinction here between Jesus and his body on earth – they are one. If you love one then you love the other.

We cant say that we love God and hate our brother and sister, John again tells us.

Is it too obvious to say – Christianity is about loving and following Jesus?

It is about him! In dioceses and charges we can get distracted, think Christianity is about church buildings, making services happen, going to meetings, all those other important things with which we fill our diaries

But most of all, before all else, it is about a relationship – with Jesus, with God, and so this is why the question Jesus asks is so important:

Do you love me?

So – do you? Because if you do, then you can be trusted with his sheep, his flock. If you do, hear his words today – priests, deacons, lay-readers, the baptised people of God, hear his direction to you:

Feed my lambs

Tend my sheep

Feed my sheep