What Only Love Can Do

Guest sermon by Rev. Sanford Wylie

Gospel: John 21:1-19

I read recently that each day across this country 50,000 people quit their jobs. Now, some are moving on to better jobs. But many in this difficult jobs market are not. They simply lose their motivation; they lose their desire for life as usual. That’s not all. In a recent survey of workers across the U. S., nearly 85% said that they could work harder on the job. More than half claimed they could double their effectiveness if they wanted to.

Now that raises a question: If we could all do better, why don’t we? I mean, why don’t we just do it? I tell you, everybody is asking the question of motivation. Teachers are asking how to motivate students, parents are asking how to motivate children, employers are asking how to motivate employees…. and most of us would be happy if we could just motivate ourselves. (PPPS 6-3-90, p. 3)

We see human motivation at work every day of our lives. We see people motivated by things like money, power, hate, and jealousy. All of these are forces of tremendous power. But these forces have little positive value. They don’t change us for the better…. they don’t make us good people. In human affairs there is a motivator that stands out above all others. This motivator has a lasting impact. It has an amazing power that transforms people for the better–not just individuals but whole communities.

The motivator I’m talking about is love. In one of his books George Gilder explains what love does. Love, he says, is effective because it works at a deeper level than other modes of education and change. Love doesn’t teach or persuade; it possesses and transforms. It gets inside us and works on the very core of our being. Love changes us like nothing else can.

In 1997 there was a movie that brought together two veteran actors in an unconventional love story. The actors were Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, and the movie was called As Good As It Gets. This movie grabbed me for one important reason: I’m always rooting for someone who’s got a problem. That’s the way a lot of us pastors are: our sympathies are with those who struggle…. we want people to have a better life.

Now Melvin has a problem–and it’s a big problem. He’s locked in a classical obsessive/compulsive disorder. The grip that this disorder has on people is as strong as the grip of any addiction or sin. This disorder is progressive. The people who have it seldom seek therapy, and there’s almost never a good outcome. So throughout the movie, I’m rooting for Melvin…. even though it’s hard to like a guy like him. He’s obnoxious and bigoted. He’s not the kind of guy you would want living next door to you. There’s only one thing in all the world that can loose a grip such as Melvin is in–and that’s love. Only when love gets inside a person like him do things begin to change. As the story of Melvin and Carol unfolds, we begin to see small indications of change. We begin to see hope.

The old gospel songs know about that hope. They know that in the dark places of life love is the only bridge to salvation. One of those songs says, “When nothing else could help…. love lifted me.” The story of Melvin and Carol is the kind of story I like. It’s a gospel story. I want to see love lift people. Just as love is the greatest changer in the world, so is it the greatest motivator. I can show this to you by asking you some questions. Let’s talk about one of your children. If you don’t have a child, think of another family member or dear friend.

If your child were critically ill and needed an expensive operation in order to live, would you be willing to empty your bank account?… to take a second or third job?… to sell your house? How far would you go? Most of us, I trust, would do whatever it takes! When the Lord Jesus Christ called people to follow him, he called them not to be thinkers or dreamers or organizers. He called them to be lovers. He called them to a life of love and service. Such a life could have only one fountain–the love between Jesus and his followers. They would follow him to the end only if they loved him above everything else.

That’s why Jesus was at the lake that morning in our text. He came back to find out something. He came back to ask the most important question he would ever ask. It was a question for Simon Peter. Jesus had had so much confidence in Peter. At one point he had said that Peter and his faith would be the foundation on which he would build his kingdom. But it didn’t go well at the end, did it? When the going got tough, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus–not once, not twice, but three times. And then Peter, with the others, deserted Jesus.

So the situation looked bleak there at the end. Peter had come unraveled. But it wasn’t Jesus’ nature to give up. He had to try it again. He had to ask Peter that question that had been burning in his heart. He had to ask it because he had to know. And so when breakfast at the lake was over, Jesus looked at Peter and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved that Jesus asked the question 3 times…. but Jesus had to know. If it was a positive answer and if it was a truthful answer, all the rest would take care of itself. If Peter truly loved Jesus above all else, he would do his will. That’s just the way love is.

We find the same thing in a very different love story told by Jack London in 1903 in his masterpiece The Call of the Wild. It’s the story of a man and his dog. Buck was a magnificent dog–half St. Bernard, half Shepherd. He was 150 pounds of pure muscle. Because Buck was such an impressive animal, he was stolen off the streets of San Francisco and taken to Alaska, where there was a great need for powerful sled dogs. He was treated cruelly by his kidnappers, but he finally fell into the kind hands of John Thornton. Thornton was so humane in his treatment of Buck that the dog developed an undying loyalty to him. But Thornton wasn’t perfect. One evening in the Eldorado saloon he was lured into making a $1,000 wager that Buck could break a thousand pound load from a frozen standstill and move it 100 yards. Some dogs had been known to break 500 pound loads, maybe even 600; but a thousand pounds–that was impossible. It was a foolish wager, made more foolish by the fact that Thornton didn’t have $1,000.

Everyone spilled out of the saloon to see if Buck could possibly perform this feat. A sled holding a thousand pounds of flour was standing frozen in the snow. The 10-dog team that normally pulled the sled was released, and Buck was harnessed in their place. Thornton knew there was only one thing that could possibly work. He put his face against the face of his great dog. This time he didn’t playfully shake him as he normally did. Instead he knelt down by Buck’s side and whispered in his ear these words: “As you love me, Buck, as you love me….” Then Thornton stepped back and waited breathlessly for Buck to do the rest…. and he did it. (PPPS 5-19-91, pp. 4-5)

It was in a spirit much like this that Jesus came to the lake that morning to talk with Peter. And not just Peter. You see, in the Gospels, Peter is the representative disciple. In Peter’s experience is reflected the aspirations of all who would follow Jesus. And so Jesus’ question of Peter was directed to all of us: “Do you love me? Do you love me?” It was a very personal question. He had to know. He had to know…. because only those of us who truly hear his voice will be the lovers he is calling us to be.

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