When I was in junior high school I began going on mission trips each summer to New Orleans. Our youth group would break up into teams and lead backyard Bible clubs in neighborhood parks. We always carried Evangecubes—an interactive tract—with us. One day I was sitting at the bottom of a slide with a little boy who was around 8 years old. As I flipped the Evangecube open and closed and went through all of the verses and the plan of salvation I eventually came to John 3:16—the crux, or cross, of the matter. I recited it and moved on. As I finished describing all of the pictures and offering the accompanying verses, the boy decided to ask Jesus into his heart.
As I returned home from that particular summer’s trip I began to have questions. This child had met Christ, I believed that, and still do…but what now? All I told him about was eternity…did Jesus have any space in his life while he still moved around in his body on this earth? I was wondering about this young boy and his discipleship, but somewhere deeper I was also wondering about my own relationship with Jesus and whether it had any bearing on my life besides getting me into heaven one day.
I’ve discovered in my years of formation and walking with Christ since then that John 3:16 on its own is an anemic version of the Gospel of Christ. It does teach us of God’s love, but only one facet of it. Here’s what the rest of this section of John 3 says in The Message translation:
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.
It’s Advent and we are watching and waiting, once again, for the God-light to stream into the world.
As I was thinking about love and wondering how to explore it in light of this waiting, in-between time of Advent, a scene flashed into my mind…
It’s evening. Peter announces he is going fishing and his friends Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and a couple other buddies say they’ll go, too. They’ve all been on a rollercoaster since Jesus was crucified, but they’ve seen the risen Christ a couple times since then and their spirits are beginning to lift…not Peter’s, though. He’s still in a cloud of gloom. So they go along, fish all night, and catch nothing. Early in the morning someone calls to them from the beach: “You have no fish?” No. They have no fish. “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They do it. So many fish fill their nets that they can’t haul it in. This feels familiar. John turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord!” When he hears that, Peter jumps to life. He throws his clothes back on, and hurls himself into the sea, swimming hard toward Jesus. His friends paddle behind, dragging their bulging nets. Even with their heavy load it doesn’t take them long to catch up…they were only about 100 yards from shore. Jesus has built a charcoal fire and provided some of his own fish and bread. It’s sizzling away, and as the aroma wafts toward the weary fishermen Jesus asks them to bring him some of their fish. They join in the work of breakfast and, when it’s ready, Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them. He does the same with the fish. This feels familiar, too.
As the breakfast scene fades, we zoom in on Jesus and Peter. Suddenly it is just the two of them.
“…Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’
‘Yes, Master, you know I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
He then asked a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
‘Yes, Master, you know I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Shepherd my sheep.’
Then he said it a third time: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ so he answered, ‘Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep. I’m telling you the very truth now: ‘When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.’ He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he commanded, ‘Follow me.” —John 21:15-19, The Message
Peter gets upset when Jesus asks him for a third time if he loves him. Peter also got upset days before when the rooster crowed for the second time and he realized he had in fact denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus said he would.
This scene on the beach, though painful for Peter, is oozing with love.
Peter is in pain because of his denial, yet when he hears that Jesus is on the beach he dives into the sea and swims hard to be near to him as fast as possible.
Their conversation is painful, but it is loving. Jesus is sitting with Peter as he confronts his darkest moment. He is full of shame as he sits before the one he loves and the one he denied. The world turned against Jesus, and so did Peter.
It is not easy to look into the light. When we move toward Jesus, his light illuminates things that separate us from him. Yet this is what we do in Advent.
This week as we consider what it means that God so loved the world that He sent His one and only son, as we anticipate the reality of the incarnation, may we find ourselves on a beach, bellies full of fresh bread and fish that Jesus prepared and broke for us, proclaiming to Jesus once again: I love you, I love you, I love you. May we learn what it means to repent and move forward with the blessing of God’s grace and presence with us as we go. You love me? Feed my lambs. You love me? Shepherd my sheep. You love me? I know you do. Feed my sheep.
Jesus did come that we might have everlasting life…but Jesus also came that we might know love now, and offer that love to those around us.
This post originally appeared on the Smyth & Helwys blog, Coracle; I invite you to explore their site and discover the many wonderful writers and thinkers that contribute there. You can read my original post here.