Do You Love Me More Than These?

Given May 1, 2022

Last week, Ed talked about church planting in his sermon and I really like how he worked with it. I continue with that church planting theme today thanks to Ed. 

After the disciples experienced Jesus walking through their locked door and talking with them, after they had been commissioned and emboldened to go forth and do God’s work in the world, some of them went fishing. This is where we pick up today, adding in a couple more rules of church planting. 

One of those rules is: retain your major supporters. This is both true believers and financial donors. The Jesus Movement did have financial backers. They were mostly women. Of special mention in the Gospels are Joanna, wife of the manager of King Herod’s estate, and Mary Magdalene, women who were also deeply faithful and committed to the Jesus Movement. If Mary Magdalene was from the town of Magdala, she came from a prosperous place near the Sea of Galilee known for the quality of its preserved fish. Since they didn’t have fridges, most fish had to be preserved, so being able to do that particularly well created a prosperous community and there’s reason to believe Mary might have been financially well off. 

In Luke’s Gospel, both Mary and Joanna are at the empty tomb. In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene alone who comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Whether they went in a group or Mary went alone, the apostles dismissed them. In Luke, they declare the women’s stories to be idle tales. While John’s Gospel doesn’t include that detail, the fact that the apostles holed up in a house and locked the door shows that they didn’t really trust Mary when she told them she had seen the Lord. Not only did they not believe the truth, in part because it was delivered by a woman, they risked their relationship with women who gave so much of themselves to this ministry. They were alienating those who had gone above and beyond for Jesus. 

This breach is both financial and relational. The women weren’t favored by Jesus because they were financial backers, but their financial backing did make a big difference. Their roles, both financial and spiritual, were vital and necessary to the movement. The Church is a co-op. We don’t cater to those with money and resources, but we combine efforts, we share gifts, and we help each other out. When a congregation is healthy, every person has a part in it that helps build up the entire community. The entire community works together to support the vision of the Body of Christ. In a cooperative structure, leaders are raised up, boards are created, and the people work together to support paid positions. There is a structure with well defined roles, but the organization belongs to everyone. The Church belongs to everyone. Everyone has a part to play, everyone has gifts or talents they bring to the larger whole. While there will always be disagreement, there is no division. The Holy Spirit helps unite us. Everyone is part of the mission to be Christ’s body in the world. The apostles had dismissed the women’s part in this divine co-op and in doing so risked everything. Their money didn’t make them more important, but they were fulfilling their roles, taking on their parts, in God’s vision for the world until they were dismissed by the men. 

Rather than working to repair their relationship with the women, Mary Magdalene especially, after seeing Jesus risen and alive, the disciples go fishing, returning to work to financially support themselves. There is no shame in having multiple jobs or being bi-vocational, but they returned to the sea because they were ashamed and were not ready to have the kind of hard conversation that leads to true repentance and reconciliation. They weren’t ready to say sorry to the women. 

So we’ve got a church with a disgraced leader, the staff has left, the biggest supporters have been dismissed and their faith ignored. These are all the components of a failed church plant. It’s time to pack it in and try again later. But what does Jesus do? 

Jesus meets the apostles at their boat. They’ve been working all this time and caught nothing. Since they’ve been locked up in a house, they have been spending money without making any. They are close to broke if not there already. Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side, and what do they find? Fish in abundance. They are given more than enough to sell and sustain themselves for a while. Jesus even goes so far as to bring a separate bit of fish for breakfast, their catch is entirely their own to sell at the market. God bankrolled them. 

They spend some time enjoying each other’s company, the stress of their finances having been relieved. They eat bread and fish in abundance, hearkening back to the feeding of the five thousand. God provides when they are weary and tired, bringing food, fellowship, and renewal of life. 

It is once their needs are met, once they have relaxed and are able to hear that Jesus pulls Peter aside. It’s time to have a heart to heart. This brings us to one of the most important rules of church planting: having accountability partners. Peter and the apostles have to be held accountable for the things they have done wrong. They cannot continue as they are right now. It’s time for repentance and reconciliation.

The church can be destroyed if we don’t have people who can help bring us back to the right path when we’ve strayed. The tough conversations have to happen, especially with leadership, otherwise the church risks corruption and could easily build up congregations that follow a personality rather than congregations that follows God. Every person, especially those in leadership, needs people to help lead and guide them, to help them see when they have erred and to help them listen deeply not to their own desires or ego, but to God’s voice. 

I’ve been listening to a podcast recently called the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It goes into depth about what happened with the megachurch Mars Hill in Seattle and their pastor, Mark Driscoll, a church that rose up, had thousands of members and a global audience, then fired Mark Driscoll and disbanded soon after. There was a lot of harm caused by Mars Halls, both in its rise and its fall, it espoused harmful theology and left a wave of religious trauma in its wake. One episode went into length about how Driscoll abandoned the path of accountability. He started the congregation speaking of shared leadership, and there were actually three co-pastors, who all shared preaching duties, and a strong board when the congregation started. He was brought into the Gospel Coalition in hopes that older leaders could help provide mentorship to the young rising star.  When Mars Hill ended, Driscoll had reshaped the founding narrative of the congregation to focus exclusively on him, the other two pastors were gone, the Gospel Coalition’s offer of mentorship had been ignored, and the board had been stripped of its power. He had no mentors, no spiritual guides, to hold him to task. He was a loose  and unfettered cannon. Because the cooperative nature of the church broke down, everything crumbled once Driscoll was ousted. If the center of the church is not Christ, if there is not mutuality and shared exploration of how we follow Christ together, if leaders do not have others that can call them out and help them recenter themselves on God, everything can and should fall apart.

Jesus takes Peter aside as his accountability partner and tells him in the most loving way possible, “You are off track.” Peter had denied Jesus. The apostles had alienated the women who were more faithful than they were. Everything was going wrong. So Jesus takes them to task. He looks Peter in the eye and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” 

I wonder how quickly Peter replied, “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus gives him the Gospel mission, “Feed my lambs”, but then tries again. Jesus needed the words to sink in. Peter needed to hear what he was being told. He now had stability, he didn’t have to panic about making ends meet, he now possessed a baseline of security that too few people have in the world today. Now he needed to make things right. He needed to reconcile. He needed to tend to those in need. He needed to stay off the boat and get back out onto the road, helping others. It took three times before Peter was finally able to absorb Jesus’ question. Peter had gotten tripped up by his fear. He had gotten trapped into believing false narratives. He thought this ministry was over. While the source of Driscoll’s betrayal of Christ was his ego and narcissistic tendencies, Peter’s betrayal came out of something we all possess: the narratives we build up in our heads. 

We all build narratives about the world, it’s part of our survival as a species. Our narratives are built out of stories and we are storytellers at heart, every one of us. There’s a reason the Bible is mostly story telling. Story is our best mode of communication. We begin early on in life building understanding and roadmaps of our world through story. Even the youngest of children need stories because stories help us process and understand what is happening around us. We need structure. We get anxious when the structures of our lives, the stories we tell, don’t match with the realities we see around us, when there is a disconnect. We need help processing those disconnects. We need others to help us determine if our lives are going in the direction we desire. If we don’t assess and adapt our narratives, we can’t grow. Those narratives feed into systemic structures, help build up communities. They help give us identity and purpose. That’s part of the reason why we need to come together and partner with each other. We need to hear each other’s fears, to process together whether the structures we have built are harmful or helpful, to help each other discern the next best step. We need the ability to critically evaluate our lives together in safe environments. Especially if what we feel God calling us to is scary, we need support. 

Jesus called Peter to something scary. Jesus doesn’t tell Peter that it will be alright. He tells Peter that he will die for following Jesus. But Peter will die feeding Jesus’ lambs, following God’s ways in the world. He will be part of a bigger community, a body of Christ that upholds each other, that works together, that mutually supports one another and holds each other accountable. This community will feed all, tend to all, care for all. The Holy Spirit will guide them. Peter will have Christ by his side the entire way. It won’t be easy, but it will be full of love. 

I don’t know if Peter ever got it fully right. Reading the letters we traditionally say he authored, I have doubts. I don’t even know if he went back and reconciled with the women he had harmed, though I imagine he did. Otherwise they might not be mentioned by name in the Gospels at all. What I do know is that he kept accountability. He kept trying. He sought God’s heart and he kept in community with others who were trying to follow God too. They fed not only each other, but those around them. They cared for everyone they met. 

That’s how the first church was planted. They got everything wrong except this one thing: they held each other accountable and upheld one another. Their love for one another is why we gather still today. When they got it wrong, Jesus’ question returned to center stage: “Do you love me more than these?”  It was purely through the effort to follow God, to love Jesus more than anything else that the first generations of Christians survived and grew. Many were martyred, yet still the church did not die. Eventually the church became part of the empire and different dynamics came into play. But those first disciples didn’t have any of the advantages western Christians hold today. Many were killed, not applauded. The church they planted relied on accountability, on mutuality, and on the question that remains at the center of our life as the Body of Christ today: Do you love me more than these?