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The Greatest of These

Nothing is more transforming—and commissioning—than the love of Christ.

The story behind the sermon (from Mark Buchanan)

This was the second-to-last sermon of one of the longest series we've ever done at our church—20 weeks! The series was titled "You Learned Christ: The ABCs of Discipleship." It was intended as a primer in Christian discipleship—something our pastors and elders felt was needed in the life of our church due to an influx of new believers over the last few years.

We bookended the series with an introductory sermon and a concluding one, and in between, we preached eighteen sermons divided into three sections of six sermons apiece: six sermons on the disciple's attitudes (the "A" in ABC), six on the disciple's beliefs ("B"), and six on the disciple's conduct ("C"). This sermon, which focuses on the imperative to love, was the last of the six sermons on conduct. I had intended to use 1 Corinthians 13, but the week before, I changed my mind and decided to explore John 21 (though I kept the Corinthian reference in my sermon title).

As I studied John 21, I was intrigued by the narrative elements of this story—the similarities between it and Luke 5, the detail of the coal fire, which ties in with Peter's three-fold denial, how Jesus asks Peter to express his love in simple, practical, mundane ways—feeding sheep—instead of mystical raptures or extravagant heroism.

When I began to tease out the connections between John 21 and Luke 5, I noticed Jesus' shift in emphasis from evangelism to pastoral care. The call to fish for men becomes a call to feed sheep. This led to the major thrust of the sermon: Jesus' call does not demand we choose between these things but that we practice both. The parallels between the two stories also provided my primary approach to exegeting the passage. This is a grace story, where Jesus allows Peter a second chance. I knew that this insight would deliver the most pastoral benefit. It was something many of my people needed to hear, so I lingered on it.

I wanted a crackerjack story to end the sermon, but I chose something more subdued. I felt the quieter approach fit with the nature of the love Jesus calls us to show: neither glamorous nor dramatic, but ordinary and daily.


A group of children were once asked, "What does 'love' mean?" Here are some sample answers:

  • Rebekah, 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time—even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
  • Billy, 4, said, "When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth."
  • Bobby, 7, says, "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."
  • Nikka, 6, says, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with someone you hate."
  • Tommy, 6, says, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
  • Cindy, 8, says, "During my piano recital, I was on a stage, and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me, and I saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. And I wasn't scared anymore."
  • Jessica, 8, says, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot."

Are there any more powerful words in the world then "I love you"? You could have wealth, you could have power, you could have status, but if no one says and demonstrates that they love you, none of those things make up for love's absence. It's always been this way for human beings, and it will always be. The most powerful force is love: a love that looks you in the eye, and when she says your name, you know your name is safe in her mouth; a love that can give you incredible courage when you are scared on the stage or scared in any other way; a love you almost feel mending your broken heart. When you're complacent, and somebody speaks those words to you—"I love you"—don't you feel the fire coming back again? The words "I love you" are a fire in your belly. Love can disarm the worst enemy. Love can break the thickest wall. Love can mend the most shattered heart. "I love you"—there's such power in those words.

Here's the great good news for us all: Before the creation of the world and up to this very moment, God has said, is saying, and will say to you, "I love you." When he says your name, it's safe in his mouth.

There's nothing more transforming than the moment you understand that the God of heaven and earth—the God who created all and rules over all—went to great lengths to draw you back to himself. There's nothing more transforming than the moment when you understand that God looks you in the eye—it's as if he cups your very chin in his hand and pulls your eyes up to meet his—and says, "I love you." Suddenly, you're not scared anymore. You even realize he'd paint your toenails if you had arthritis.

John: Transformed from a "Son of Thunder" to the "Apostle of Love"

Do you know the power of this love? Think of the apostle Paul. Have you met a more angry man than Paul? When he first shows up in the Book of Acts, he's consumed by hatred. There's a bile in his belly. As he goes through life, he obsesses over destruction and hurt. It says in Acts 9 that he went from town to town, breathing murderous threats against the church. He was a man in the grip of hatred. But this is the same Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 13—one of the definitive chapters on love. How did he get so turned inside-out? In 2 Corinthians 5, he tells us: "God's love has been spread abroad in our heart." In other words, God's love has landed deep in our souls, and it overflows. The sign that lets you know Paul has been radically transformed by love is that before he became a Christian, he hated the church with all his strength for no good reason. Them, after he became a Christian, he actually had several good reasons to hate the church. Think about the stuff they put him through! Upon his conversion, some wanted to kill him. Yet, over and over and over, he has nothing but love.

But even more than Paul, the person who strikes me as being utterly turned inside-out and transformed by Christ—such that the before-and-after shots can hardly be recognized as being the same person—is the apostle John. Do you remember what Jesus nicknamed him and his brother? The Sons of Thunder. He called them that because they were a lot of hot air. They were these bilious clouds of complaints, self-righteousness, anger, and bellicosity. When a little Samaritan village gave them a rude reception, they looked for weapons of mass destruction to come down from heaven. Do you remember that moment? They want to call down fire from heaven, and Jesus has to rebuke them. These two brothers were always looking to have the advantage. They were always looking to get ahead, these "Sons of Thunder."

Do you know what they called the apostle John by the end of his life? The Apostle of Love. In fact there is a legend that when John was on his dying bed—he was the only one of the disciples who lived to a ripe, old age—his beloved community was gathered around him, and they begged him, "Can you give us one more word, John? Just speak one more word to us." This is what he said: "Love one another." John fell silent, and they said, "John, is there anything else?" But he said that was all.

How does somebody get so utterly transformed, so turned inside-out? There's a little clue that John gives in his gospel—a clue that he offers several times. Again and again, he describes himself in his gospel as "the one Jesus loved."

John got it. Despite all his fallenness, all of his folly, all of his flaws, all of his murderous thoughts towards Samaritans, all of his desire for advantage, he got that Jesus Christ looked at him in with the eyes of love. When Jesus called him by his name—even when Jesus called him "Son of Thunder"—John knew that his name was safe in Christ's mouth. He got it. He embraced it in the innermost places. I am loved, he thought. When you know that you are loved by Christ, it changes who you are. You can go from a violent man like Paul or an angry man like John—from men so bitter and self absorbed—to what men of deep love.

You are the one Jesus loves.

I've come here today to tell you something: You are the one Jesus loves. When he looks at you, he sees all the stuff you wish you could hide. He's not diluted. When he encounters you, it's like when he encounters that woman at the well in John 4. "Come meet the man who told me everything I ever did," she says to the townspeople. She says this because Jesus did tell her everything she ever did. He pointed out her broken life. But what she was really saying to the townspeople that day was this: "Come meet the guy who knows all about me—and still loves me."

You are the one Jesus loves.

In 1 John 3:1, John, the apostle of love, writes: "Behold what manner of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God." The word "behold" doesn't convey the idea of, "Oh look! God loves us!" No. It is an emphatic word. It's a dramatic word. It says, "Would you take a look at that! Hey, everybody! Over here! This Niagara Falls of love—it's from God to you!"

Jesus once said these words to his disciples: "Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends." In fact, not long after Jesus spoke these words, he showed them the greater love described in these words. He didn't just lay down his life for his friends. He laid it down for his enemies.

Do you know how much you're loved? It's not an arrogant thing to consider. It's actually the key to living the fruitful, fulfilled life that Jesus Christ bought for you with his blood. It's the key to setting you free to live. You need to know that you're the one Jesus loves. He couldn't love you any more than he does. He won't love you any less. He loves you completely. He loves you infinitely. He came a long way—he went to great lengths—to tell you this.

Showing love as fishermen and shepherds

John becomes the main witness to this love from Christ. This is why he's called the apostle of love. Again and again, in his gospel and in his letters to the church, he speaks of this divine love, but I want to concentrate on one section in John 21. Here Jesus spells out once for all—for John, for Peter, for all of us—that we are loved. And then he tells us the implications of this love—that we are to love others.

John 21 takes place just after Easter—after the disciples have had a series of encounters with the resurrected Jesus. If you had a week-long series of encounters with the risen Christ, do you think you would ever go back to normal? Do you think there's even a "normal" anymore? Again and again, a man who was once dead has shown you again and again that he has been risen from the dead. When you've doubted, he has allowed you to touch his wounds. Do you think there's any going back to life as you knew it? You'd think not! But the disciples do just that. They go back to life as they knew it. They go back to fishing.

Why would they do that? Well, why do you do that? Haven't you had astonishing encounters with the risen Christ? Haven't you had moments where God has been so real to you that you've said, "From this moment on, life's going to be different. My anger, my bitterness, the way I treat my wife, the hatred I have for my job, the internet sites I frequent? Done!" Haven't you had such dramatic encounters with the living Christ that you've said that to yourself, to others? But then it lasts for a week—maybe a little longer—and you've slipped back into the old life.

If that's happened to you—and I know it has—then the very first words of John 21 are good news: "Afterward, Jesus appeared again to them." Don't you love the grace of God? You've had these amazing encounters with Christ, you've had these vows, you soon go back on the vows, only to find that with God there's always an "afterward." Jesus will always appear again to us. He comes again and again, saying, "Let's recalibrate. Let me remind you of who you are and what I've asked you to do." It's wonderful!

In John 21, the "afterward" comes for the disciples. Jesus appears to them again, and it isn't just a resurrection appearance. This appearance is actually mimicking or echoing something in their experience from three years prior. In Luke 5, we read of the first time Jesus called his disciples—or, at least, Peter, James, and John. Jesus stands on the shore and cries, "Follow me!" It's almost a dead ringer for what happens in John 21. There are a few variations here and there, but it's almost the same scene: It takes place by the lakeshore. The disciples have been up all night fishing and have caught nothing. Jesus asks the fishermen to go out to sea again. The disciples aren't very enamored with the suggestion, and it's Peter who says, "Lord, we have been up all night and have caught nothing. But if you say so, we will." So, out they go, and when they throw the nets into the water, they are filled to the point of breaking. It's an amazing moment. And it's John who realizes this is a bit of déjàvu. He notices the similarities of their situation, and though he can't see who exactly it is on the shore, he knows it's Jesus. The script is too well-known. Peter gets it right away, too. The test says he jumps in and swims ashore. He doesn't try to walk on water this time, but he still wants to get there as fast as he can.

But there are also some differences between Luke 5 and John 21—differences that are certainly worth noting. In Luke 5, when Jesus first issues the call to his disciples, he uses a marine metaphor to get across his point. He says to his disciples, "From now on you will fish for men." In Luke 5, he basically says, "This fishing thing that you're all familiar with—I'm going to ask you to do something greater. I want you to tell the world the good news that there's a God who loves them. I'm going to have you bring them into the boat." When the scene is replayed in John 21, the metaphor shifts. Jesus now speaks of shepherding. The mandate shifts, too. It's no longer "Go win the lost world." Now the mandate is "Look after the people who are already found." The disciples are now cast as shepherds.

I want you to listen carefully to what I say next: Jesus is not asking us to choose between Luke 5 and John 21. He's not asking us to choose between the mandate to be evangelists and the mandate to care for God's people. He's not asking us to choose whether we are going to try to win the world or care for the church. Don't force a choice between those things! With God it is not an either/or. It's a both/and situation. I've heard people say, "We ought not be concerned about anything that's going on out there until we get our house in order in here." I've also heard people say, "I don't care about the church! They can look after themselves. I only care about people out there." Jesus would say, "Don't choose! If you're my disciple, this is what I want from you: love the broken, lost world, and love this fractious, petty, argumentative bunch of sheep that is the church. If you love me, that's what life looks like for you. It's not glamorous, but if you know that you're the one I love, that's what I'm asking you to do. There's a whole world dying out there, and I put you on this earth to carry out the job of telling them the good news of a God who loves them. That why I put you in that neighborhood, connected you with that sports team. I needed an ambassador in those places, and it's you. But I also put you in this church—in a place where you are sometimes hurt and disappointed and bored—because we are to love one another. When you choose not to love the least of these—either outside or inside—I take that personally. Don't choose!"

God of the Mulligan

Back to the story. After he reaches the shore, Peter and Jesus engage in conversation just after they've had something to eat. John includes the telling detail that Jesus has made a charcoal fire for their meeting. Did you know that the sense most strongly associated with memory is the sense of smell? Have you ever smelled a charcoal fire? It's a very distinct smell—very smoky, tinged with tar. In John 18:18, we read of another fire made of charcoal. You remember the scene: "I've seen you before, you're one of the followers of that guy that they're putting on trial." "No, no," Peter says. "That's not me." "No," the person presses. "I know you are who I think you are. You have right accent for it." "I said I don't know him!" Peter yells. "No, I know it's you. I've seen you before." "I don't know him!" Peter yells again. In fact, the text says he swears to prove his "innocence"—a bit of blue language.

Do you know why Peter went back to fishing? He's ashamed. I'm sure he's thrilled that Jesus is alive, but what does that have to do with him? How could Jesus ever use him again after all that he'd done. He is certain he is disqualified. He figures he's useless. So he's gone back to fishing. What other options does he think he has?

When Peter inhaled the charcoal smoke, the memories—and all of the shame that comes with them—must have come rushing back. But what doesn't happen next is as important as what does. What doesn't happen is that Jesus doesn't bring up Peter's three denials in the courtyard. He doesn't say, "I told you, you loser. You hypocrite. I don't know how I'm ever going to trust you again! You are such a disappointment to me." No! He does something else entirely.

How many times did Peter deny Jesus? Three. And how many times does Jesus ask Peter, "Do you love me?" In one of his letters, Peter writes these words: "Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers over a multitude of sins." Do you see what Jesus is doing? In the most direct-yet-tender way, he lets Peter make a three-fold affirmation to cover over the three-fold denial.

Here's what we learn from this: Our God allows do-overs. He's the God of the Mulligan. Are any of you golfers? In golf you can shank that ball, you can pop it in the water, you can put it in the sand dune, you can be way out of bounds, and a mulligan says, "Play it again."


How many times have you denied Jesus? You may have never said "I don't know him" in some courtyard, but surely you've fostered some kind of attitude that denies him—some bit of behavior with your spouse or your neighbor or your kid. This behavior is as if you said, "I have never met him. I don't know who you're talking about." These moments often leave us wondering, Am I done? Would he trust someone like me? I'll just go back to what I used to do. And back we go to the drugs or the porn or the anger or the cruelty or the loneliness. And the sad thing is that Jesus doesn't even really want to talk about those bad moments. He just wants to step into our lives, look us in the eye, and say, "Do you love me?" Granted, he'll push to you to a point that almost hurts your feelings. He did that with Peter. But I love how Peter responds: You know all things. You know beyond all my mess-ups, all my foul-ups, all my getting it wrong, all my putting my foot in my mouth. You know that at the heart of who I am, I love you.

Jesus' response is beautiful: I know that Peter. I know that. I've got a big kingdom, and I'd love for you to be part of that."

Peter asks: You want me? After all of that?

Jesus replies: Yes! Don't you love this God who loves you? And I've got a whole dying world out there that needs to be told. I have some pretty funky sheep who need to be told. They need some loving. Would you do that?

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


I. John: Transformed from a "Son of Thunder" to the "Apostle of Love"

II. You are the one Jesus loves.

III. Showing love as fishermen and shepherds

IV. God of the Mulligan


Whatever it is that keeps you focused on you instead of on me and the life of my kingdom, sell it, give it away to people who might actually need it. For then you'll actually be able to come and follow me.