Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“Do you love me?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 30, 2020
13th Sunday after Pentecost
While I enjoy photography as a hobby, even more so I enjoy looking at other people’s photographic art—sunrises, sunsets, mountains, oceans, and old trails. I have a friend who is an attorney by trade—but his passion is photography. He takes mesmerizing photos of people he meets on random strolls through little towns and villages. He likes to shoot things that promise to tell quite a tale—if they could only talk—like dilapidated houses and buildings. I particularly enjoy his black and white photos of old farmers with their faces lined by the sun. Beautiful. And who knows why, but I am drawn to photographs of hands. One glance and I am pondering the lives the hands represent. I think of the clasped hands of newlyweds and the future they hold, and the hands of children with all their innocence and hope for tomorrow. A woman’s hands lifted in prayer; a man’s hands as he repairs the engine of his car or refinishes that special piece of furniture; a mother combing her daughter’s hair; a father holding bicycle handles while he teaches his son to ride.
Loving hands of my childhood include those of my grandmother rolling out biscuits as the sun began to rise in the morning sky; hands of teachers pointing me toward college and a future; hands of an uncle playing a guitar and singing songs about a Jesus whom I would come to love…
Later, my years working in the hospital as a medical technologist would show me other hands at work: hands of EMTs hoisting patients from gurney to bed; hands of nurses in the Emergency Room starting IVs so that medicine could be administered to sick patients, hands of doctors setting bones and sewing up wounds. Frequently the night shift brought in angry hands—hands scarred by barroom brawls, hands scuffed when resisting arrest, hands broken when the airbag deployed in the car accident. Sometimes when I worked a slow night at the hospital, I visited the nursery under the guise of seeing a nurse/friend, but really, it was about the babies. There I watched caring hands cleaning up newborns after delivery, gently patting backs after a feeding, offering loving care to precious babes at a vulnerable stage of life.
Of my 16 years in the medical profession, I was happiest when I worked at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. I loved being a part of a teaching hospital—there was such a positive energy about the place. Surprisingly, I returned to work there when I was doing my CPE training during seminary. (You might think of it as a chaplaincy internship.) But this time my role had changed. Instead of caring for the body, I was to care for the soul. Instead of using my hands to handle specimens and gather data, my hands were offering support when someone faced, perhaps, one of the scariest moments of his or her life. Often my hands held a book of psalms. Sometimes they tightly held the hands of the other in fervent prayer.
It was while I was at UT Medical Center in the chaplaincy program that I assisted with my first Blessing of the Hands service. The hospital chapel was set up with soft instrumental music and a few candles glowed in the dimly lit space. Throughout the day, surgeons, nurses, administrators, support staff, and technicians of every ilk streamed in to have their hands anointed. It was a moving experience. Later when the students got together to talk about it, our supervisor mentioned that her church held a similar service on Labor Day weekend. My heart skipped a beat. I knew if I ever got a chance to do such a thing, I would. And since graduating from seminary, I have led a Blessing of the Hands service almost every year.
The first one I led was at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee and I will never forget what one of the women of the church said to me that morning. With a big smile on her face, enthusiastically she reported, “O, Glenda, we usually go to the cabin Labor Day weekend, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to get my hands blessed. And I washed them extra-clean for the occasion.” She even held them up for me to examine—in case there was any doubt. When I was the pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia, women of the church created a Blessing of the Hands banner. And now, at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, we are about to celebrate our 4th Blessing of the Hands service next Sunday. Out of necessity, this one will be virtual. But we will not let a pandemic stop us for there is still much good work for our hands to do.
In our gospel reading, Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to several of his followers. As he approaches his final leave-taking, he shows up by the Sea of Galilee and makes breakfast for his disciples with his very own hands. It is a sacred meal—the last they will share together. Afterward, Jesus knows it is time to hand over his ministry to this ragamuffin band, so he turns to Peter. Peter, the one who has a habit of speaking when he should be quiet—Peter, who has remained silent when he should have spoken.
Three times Peter denied his Lord and three times his Lord poses the all-important question, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” As one scholar notes, “If we have carried away from the Gospel the idea that the final thing to remember about Peter is his unfaithfulness, [here we are reminded] that far more important than Peter’s denials is the grace of Christ: the divine willingness to engage and entrust the ministry, even to someone whose life so far has been marked by impetuosity and denial.”[i] Jesus hands over his ministry to someone like Peter—someone like us. Amazing grace—how sweet the sound!
In light of Peter’s profession of love, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” for you see, being a follower of Jesus is not just about what we profess. It is also about what we do. It is not that we must earn our salvation—Jesus has taken care of that already. Yet with grateful hearts we are compelled to respond by obeying the command Jesus staked his life on: Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
For believers who choose to follow the way of Jesus, he does not promise the road ahead will be easy, which makes it even stranger when preachers preach the Cotton Candy Gospel. If you just have enough faith—in return, you’ll get everything your little heart desires. But that is nothing more than a lie. Look at Peter—one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers—who ends his life with outstretched hands—being led where he does not wish to go. Tradition tells us Peter is crucified but because he does not feel worthy to die in the same fashion as his Lord, Peter dies upside down on his cross.
No, there are no pie-in-the-sky guarantees for those who follow the path Jesus trods. Some people will die young and some will die old. Some will have an easier path to walk while others will be martyred for their faith. There is no rhyme or reason to it all. And while Jesus’ interaction with Peter might lead us to believe that those who love the most get the highest rewards—let us never forget that the highest reward may look something like death on a cross.
The end of John’s Gospel is a witness to the curtain coming down on the earthly ministry of Jesus. But the real-life drama of Christ continues in Peter. It continues in the other disciples. It continues in the church that is born on the day of Pentecost. It continues in Paul who meets the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It continues in all the saints who come after—including each one of us.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Do we? How then do we live? Day by day, are we praying to become more like Jesus, abounding in love and faith? Do we seek the good of the other more than our own selfish desires? Do we recognize that what we say matters, so we try to speak words of love and encouragement? Is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our prayer—Lord, make me an instrument of your peace? Do we claim the work of our hands as God’s work?
Tending to the lambs of Jesus is the most tangible way to stay connected to Christ—as well as the surest way to show our love for him. This holy love knows no boundaries. It is love for the insider, the outsider, the poor, the rich, the business owner, the teacher, the plumber, the street-walker, the tattooed biker, the homeless addict, the physician, the lawyer, the stay-at-home mom, and every child of the world—red and yellow, black and white—they are all precious in Jesus’ sight! Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, 425.
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009