We come to his Easter morning following a difficult season of Lent. In the past couple of weeks, the Lord has come and taken three of our members home, most recently Bev, who we laid to rest on Friday morning. Chris lost his sister, Steve & Anita lost members of their family.
Now Betty and Carroll and Bev all knew that their bodies were dying. And so, as I have discovered is almost always the case when people reach this point in their lives here on earth, they start to wonder: am I sure that I’m right with God? Am I sure that heaven is in my future?
Often family members also want to be reassured. And as your pastor, I have the great privilege of being invited into these intensely personal moments in your lives. And so I was able to be with the family at the bedside of one of our members as they breathed their last; I was with the family at the bedside of another just moments after they passed from this world to the next, and with the family at the bedside of the third just shortly before they left us.
How can we be sure that when we die we don’t just disappear into nothingness? How can we be sure that there is life after death? Is it even possible to be sure? And if it is, how can I be sure that I’m on my way to heaven and not to hell? How can I be certain of my loved one’s eternal future?
Well, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is what Easter is all about. And in John’s gospel, we find answers to all of these questions. I’d like to back up for a moment to Chapter 11, (open your Bibles) where Jesus receives word that his friend Lazarus is ill. John tells us very specifically that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). And then he writes, “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (11:6).
Jesus deliberately waits until Lazarus is dead before he goes to Bethany—waits until Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. One day longer than Jesus Himself will be in a tomb just a short time later.
John 11:33-35 “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.”
Sometimes our English translations can’t adequately express the original Greek, and this is one of those places. We read that Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” The original Greek more clearly describes Jesus’ feelings as a combination of sorrow, pain and also great anger.
Jesus is angry—angry at the power and evil of death. In the grief of his good friend Mary, He sees and feels the pain and misery of the whole human race.
John 11:38-39 says that “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb … and said, ‘Take away the stone.’” The words “deeply moved again” express the same emotions described earlier when Jesus wept.
So the real picture that John is painting here is of Jesus weeping with His friends and then marching to the tomb and commanding that it be opened. John is showing us here at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry the same Jesus that we saw at the beginning, in Chapter 2, when He came to the temple in Jerusalem and made a whip of cords and drove out all the merchants and moneychangers along with their animals and their customers.
Jesus is angry—furiously angry. He makes them remove the stone from the front of the tomb and then He “cries out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ And the man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 43-44).
Jesus has once again emerged victorious in His battle with Satan.
We know that Lazarus is now alive and well, because we find Him in chapter 12 having dinner with Jesus at his home. Lazarus, whom John carefully describes as “Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead,” so that there would be no mistaking him for some other Lazarus. “Lazarus was one of those reclining with Jesus at table” (John 12:1-2). Lazarus is Jesus’ friend and he has been raised from the dead and is now with Jesus.
Immediately after this, the story moves to Palm Sunday and the final days of Jesus’ life here on this earth, to the moment on Good Friday when, hanging on that wooden cross, “He said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
If you look carefully at this entire story of Lazarus, you’ll find many parallels to this morning’s gospel. At Jesus’ tomb, there is a stone that has been “taken away from the tomb.” Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” She weeps—and then she discovers that her Lord Jesus, whom she thought was dead, is now alive.
No one needed to call Jesus out of the tomb—no one needed to be persuaded to move the stone away. Jesus emerged in His resurrected glory; unlike Lazarus, no one needed to unbind Him.
Jesus’ dead body has been replaced by two angels in white, who ask Mary why she’s weeping.
And when she discovers that the man she thought was the gardener is actually Jesus, He tells her to “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
Everything has changed.
The Father is no longer just Jesus’ Father, but our Father; Jesus’ God is also our God. He tells Mary to go and tells His brothers, the ones that had, up to this point, been His disciples.
Everything has changed. We have entered into a new creation with Christ Jesus. Death can no longer hold us down—in the ancient words of Job, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” That day has come—Jesus, our Redeemer, lives and He stands upon the earth.
Everything has changed.
But still we ask, “How can I be sure that everything has changed for me?” “How can I be sure that I’m included with the disciples?” We start to think about all the things we could have done that we didn’t do. We start to wonder if we’re good enough. We remember Jesus words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another’” (John 13:34).
Jesus loved us enough to die a horrible and painful death for us. And we start to wonder, “Do I love Him that much? Would I do that for Him?” And we wonder, “Do I love others as much as Jesus loves me?” “And if I don’t, will that keep me from spending eternity with Him?”
So many questions. But we can be certain–because everything has changed.
On Easter evening, the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room, and later he appears to them again.
So they know that everything has changed—but they’re still not sure that it’s changed for them.
Peter can’t forget that last supper with Jesus. That last supper where, right after Jesus tells them that they are to love one another as He has loved them, He tells them that He’s leaving and that they can’t come with Him—at least not yet. “Jesus said, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’” (John 13:36-37).
And then, that very same night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Three times when accused of being one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter said, “I am not.”
Jesus dies—and Peter is nowhere to be seen. Of the twelve, only John is at the foot of the cross.
But then Sunday comes and Jesus rises victorious from the grave. When Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John, they run back to the tomb and John tells us that “Simon Peter came and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7). And then he went home.
Easter has come—everything has changed But Peter’s not sure that there’s a place for him anymore. He and the disciples begin to have those same doubts that we have. Peter can’t forget that Jesus said, “I am,”while Peter said, “I am not.” He failed Jesus—he thinks he’s no good anymore. So he goes back to his old life—he goes fishing. And then, in chapter 21, as he and some of the other disciples are out on the lake catching nothing, the resurrected Jesus shows up on the beach. Shows up and cooks them breakfast.
After breakfast, Jesus asks 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.’ Jesus said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ … And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:15-19).
Once again, our English language cannot fully describe what’s happening here. Although we interpret love in many different ways, we have only one word for love, while the original Greek in which John wrote uses different words to describe different types of love. Jesus is using the word agape, which is the highest or greatest form of love—agape love is what God has for us.
So Jesus, who’s calling Peter Simon here because he’s failed to live up to that name—when Jesus says, “Simon do you love me?”, He’s asking, “Simon, do you have agape love for me? Do you love me the way that I love you?” When Peter answers, saying, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” He’s saying, “I have phileo love for you.” Phileo love is brotherly love. It’s love, but it’s not as great a love as agape love—and Peter knows it.
The second time, Jesus asks if Peter has agape love for Him, Peter again replies that he has phileo love. Peter has had a lot of time to think about things since that last supper and he has come to recognize that while he loves Jesus, he doesn’t love Jesus as much as Jesus loves him. And he thinks that because he denied Jesus three time, he’s not good enough to be used by Jesus.
The third time, when Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, Jesus is asking, “Do you have phileo love for me?” Peter was grieved because he thought that Jesus was telling him he wasn’t good enough. And so he answers sadly, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “You know that all I have to offer is phileo love.
And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” They both remember that at the last supper Peter said that he would lay down his life for Jesus. And Jesus is telling him that someday he will day down his life for Him. “And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
Jesus wasn’t testing Peter to see whether Peter loved Him enough to qualify to be one of His followers. He was saying that He’d take the love that Peter had; he was telling Peter that he wasn’t disqualified. He was commissioning Peter to work for Jesus.
Everything had changed—and Peter is included.
And we see in Peter’s first letter, written about 30 years after that morning on the beach with Jesus, that Peter’s faith and his love has matured to a place where he has literally become the rock that his name indicates him to be. Peter’s writing to churches that have begun to experience persecution. Nero is now emperor and it is under Nero that Peter himself will be put to death for his faith, crucified upside down. Peter has learned that when we follow Jesus, we grow in our relationship to Him. And as we grow, our love increases.
John, throughout his gospel, portrays Jesus as being in relationship with individuals. We clearly see that He has come to relate to each one of us, not just as a Savior who looks out and sees a crowd of people that He doesn’t really know very well. We see Jesus with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman, with the disciples, with Mary Magdalene, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus.
We see that Jesus had friends. And that He loved His friends. He loved them because they were His friends, not because of what they did or of how successful they were.
When Jesus said “Follow me” to Peter, Peter followed. Often imperfectly, but he kept following. Peter and Jesus were friends.
Dallas Willard, that great theologian who went home to be with his Lord in 2013, had an amazing ability to take the complicated thoughts and ideas of Scripture and express them in very simple terms. I know that some of you who have attended some of our studies based on his works think that he often sounds like the professor of philosophy that he was for most of his life, but I first discovered Dallas in his book Renovation of the Heart, which I read in seminary. And in probably his most famous book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas spoke of salvation. He spoke of our desire to be certain and of our uncertainty as to whether we’re following well enough, whether we’re loving Jesus enough. Whether we’ve somehow qualified, whether we’ve passed the test.
I can relate to that. I’m not always sure that I love God more than anything else or anyone else. And I start to wonder …
But then I come back to this story where we see how Jesus responds to Peter in his time of great doubt. And I remember Dallas Willard’s words, “If you’re a friend of Jesus, you have nothing to worry about. Because Jesus is never going to send one of His friends to hell.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s Easter morning—and everything has changed. Christ our Lord is risen.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.