Why do we serve? Why do we give of ourselves, day in, day out, week after week?
We all know the answer: because of love. Right.
But what is the object of our love? Whom or what do we love in order to allow ourselves to be given?
Once again, the answer seems obvious: the person you are serving, the one to whom you are given. If your life is to be given for your children, then it is the love for your children that leads you to that place. If your life is to be given in service of the poor, then it is the love for the poor that leads to that givenness.
That is the obvious answer. But I think it’s wrong.
At least, it’s incomplete, and insufficient. It’s not enough to sustain us, to carry us through the dark nights and the lonely hours. It won’t push us through the pain and the hurt we’ve experienced from the very ones we were trying to help.
If you don’t believe me, ask the apostle Peter.
After the Resurrection, Peter returned to fishing. Think about it: He ran to the tomb. He saw that it was empty. He was, most likely, with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them. He may have been there when Thomas placed his hands on Jesus’s scars. And still he went back to his old livelihood.
Maybe Peter felt he had lost it all that night when he denied knowing Jesus. Maybe Peter was too confused about what the Resurrection really meant. Maybe whatever it meant, Peter was too covered in shame for it to matter. He might as well try to just live a quiet life, a smaller story.
But John 21 describes how Jesus found Peter and reenacted the scene of their first encounter, the first time Jesus called Peter to follow Him.
“Throw your nets on the other side of the boat,” the voice called out from the shore. Peter knew he had heard that voice before. But it was John who recognized Him.
“It is the Lord,” John said to Peter.
It might have been John who recognized Jesus first, but it was Peter who responded—and responded radically. Peter threw on his robes and swam to shore, leaving the other disciples to drag the fish—a big haul of fish—behind the boat to shore.
After their breakfast on the beach, Jesus asked Peter a simple question, a heart-piercingly simple question: “Do you love me more than these?”
Who were “these”? The other disciples? Did Jesus mean, “Is your love for Me greater than their love for Me?” Or did He mean, “Is your love for Me greater than your love for the disciples?” We can’t be sure. Yet Peter’s answer acknowledged that whichever way the question was intended, Jesus already knew the answer.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter replied.
“Feed my lambs,” Jesus responded.
This exchange continued two more times, with minor variances. There has been much scholarly and theological exploration of the nuances and shifts in word choices between the Savior and His disciple. But the main point is that Jesus was reinstating Peter. He was reaffirming Peter’s purpose, calling, and destiny. The three repetitions of the question are meant to correspond to Peter’s threefold denial.
The most significant bit, however, is the one hidden in plain sight.
In this restorative, call-renewing conversation, Jesus asked Peter, simply, repetitively, and piercingly, “Do you love me?”
Not “Do you love the sheep?”
Not “Do you love the food?” meaning “My teachings.”
Not “Do you love yourself?”
Not “Do you love purpose and mission?”
The question was simply, “Do you love me?”
In the other gospel accounts of Peter’s first call, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” You might say that first call was about a purpose. In essence, Jesus said, “Peter, I’ll lift you from a life that is going nowhere. I’ll sweep you up in the greatest story of all. I’ll give you a role in the kingdom of God arriving on earth as it is in heaven. I’ll make you a participant and not just a recipient.” That is, after all, what it means to be given.
But it isn’t the love of being given that leads to our givenness. It isn’t the love of a purpose that can sustain us. In the end that was not enough to keep Peter faithful. The love of a calling will never keep you from falling.
If Peter’s first call was about a purpose, this second call—this renewal of destiny and identity—was about a person. “Peter, do you love me?”
Do you love Jesus? Do you love Jesus above all else? Lesser loves may lead you to begin following Jesus or even to enter into vocational ministry. But these cannot sustain you. The love of meaning or mission or purpose or the church will not keep you surrendering and serving. Only a deep and abiding love for Jesus can do that.
Glenn has a new book releasing in Aug. entitled “Blessed, Broken, Given”