I’m not a big bumper sticker guy, but I couldn’t help noticing the one proudly displayed on my new neighbor’s car. When I first saw it, I was excited because it said, “JESUS LOVES YOU” in large capital letters. Great! I thought. A Christian has moved in next to me. I imagined early morning Bible studies, perhaps even attending church together, exchanging prayer lists, or swapping casserole recipes for church potlucks.
But the rest of the bumper sticker gave me pause. In fine print, under the “JESUS LOVES YOU,” was a cryptic second line: “But everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.” My neighbor is not a theologian. I’m not even sure he is a follower of Christ. But those simple lines gave me some good insight into a phenomenon that unfortunately plagues the evangelical. We think it’s acceptable to love Jesus and hate His followers. The last few years have seen an explosion of books that try to separate Jesus from the church.
Most of these are well-meaning efforts to distinguish genuine faith in Christ from hand-me-down, works-based religion. This is important in a culture still influenced by a nominal Christianity, where many think a ticket to heaven simply requires regular church attendance.
But I wonder if in some ways we’ve overreached and have, in emphasizing the personal relationship with Christ, lost the holistic nature of the gospel message.
America is a highly individualized nation— we pride ourselves on our independent spirit. Christianity, however, was never intended to be an individualistic faith.
Throughout Scripture, God is calling out a people for Himself. Sure, at times He chooses to work through individuals such as Adam, Abraham, Noah, and David. But in every covenant and every promise, God is looking for a people. In the age of the church, we may be saved by personal faith in Christ, but we’re also baptized into a body. We join the growing gathering of people from all ages and times.
This is why Jesus’ final words to Peter in John 21 are so poignant and powerful. For most of us, it’s a familiar scene:
Jesus on the beach, reappearing to the wounded and confused disciples, calling them back to their original mission, and pointing them toward their roles as leaders of this new movement—the church. That morning, Peter announced to his fellow disciples, “I am going fishing” (v. 3). These were the words of a burned-out and embarrassed follower of the Messiah. Sure, Jesus had risen from the dead, but Peter had not yet fully realized the significance of the resurrection and the power it would bestow on the apostles. He was thinking only of how he’d failed Jesus at the moment of greatest need.
Peter definitely wasn’t thinking about ministry. But that’s precisely what was on Jesus’ mind as He approached the beach and looked out at the ship of tired, fruitless disciples. It’s a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ first call to Peter, recorded in Matthew 4. I wonder if he, seeing the overflowing nets a second time, remembered Jesus’ words from three years earlier, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (v. 19). Could it be that Jesus is still calling me to love and serve Him, he must have wondered, even after I failed?
Jesus uses every moment to reinforce the original call. Even the smoldering coals on which they cook fish recall the fire where Peter warmed his hands and denied his Lord. Yes, they had all failed Him. Yes, they had misunderstood. But these are the very kinds of people Jesus is calling out—failures and deniers, the weak-willed. And fishing for men is exactly the kind of ministry Christ is calling them to.
Which brings us to perhaps the most famous exchange in all of John—the last words between Jesus and Peter.
For most of my life, I’ve heard it explained this way: Jesus was testing the type of love Peter had. Was it agape, a kind of supernatural love, or was it merely phileo, a kind of brotherly friendship? I’ve also heard it said that Jesus intentionally asked Peter, “Do you love Me?” three times to counter his three denials. But I’ve since reconsidered that interpretation for a few reasons.
First, the exegesis of the different words John uses for “love” is a bit stretched. Students of Greek will quickly realize that John often interchanges these words throughout his gospel, in his three letters, and in the book of Revelation. This is more of John using linguistic variety and creativity than making a point. Second, I have a hard time seeing Jesus here as guilting Peter for his level of love. The whole point of Peter’s life until this juncture seems to be that God takes people where they are and transforms them by His Spirit into what He wants them to be. Peter didn’t fail Jesus by his lack of effort in summoning up the right kind of love. Peter failed Jesus because he didn’t realize his own weakness and Jesus’ strength. So what is happening here?
I believe Jesus is making a statement, not simply in these final words, but throughout the encounter on the beach. It’s a powerful statement against individualized spirituality and for relational life in the body of Christ.
Peter had always been individualistic: The other disciples might fail Jesus, Peter assumed, but he would always be stronger. He’d be the first to defend the Lord and cut off the soldier’s ear. He’d be the first to fight for Jesus. And it was Peter who suggested that Jesus institutionalize the moment of transfiguration. Ministry in the new covenant would have a new paradigm. It would involve giving oneself in sacrifice to bring others into the kingdom by fishing for the souls of men. And it would involve loving Jesus by caring for His sheep. “Peter, do you love Me? Feed My sheep.” Jesus didn’t repeat this line to guilt His servant. He did it to drive home the central idea of what it means to follow Him. The best way to demonstrate love for the Lord was not by foolish vows, impulsive and reckless demonstrations of bravery, or even martyrdom. Peter would love Jesus by loving His people.
And so it is for us two millennia later. There’s no category in Christian discipleship that allows us to love the Lord and hate His people. Love is the distinguishing mark of a follower of Christ. This theology might not fit on a bumper sticker. But it does fit in the life of every faithful disciple.
This was originally published by In Touch Magazine.