About a year ago, we experienced a service in which we were reminded of our Methodist roots and why we are a people called Methodists. Many times we look at different theologies and belief systems and try and define them based on what they do or how the see certain aspects of faith. It is interesting to note that in 1742, John Wesley was confronted with the same issue…he was asked to define what a Methodist was. In his response, Wesley define a Methodist as, “one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;’ one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind and with all his strength.” For Mr. Wesley, it was not a matter of theology or practice; it was a matter of love. This worries me, not because I think we shouldn’t love God, but because I think that we have lost our love for God. During the months leading up to General Conference, I found myself in earnest prayer with several of my pastor friends. It was then that God really spoke to me and said that what we were praying for was good, but He laid the nagging question on my heart…do you love me? Of course we love you Lord, why wouldn’t we love you! Then feed my sheep, He said. It was at that moment that I realized what God was saying. You see, John Wesley defined us as people who loved God, and out of that love sprang our service. However, we have become people of action…of hectic schedules…of doing, so much so that we have forgotten our primary characteristic…a love for God!
This love relationship was evident to many of the early Methodists, including Charles Wesley. This morning, we sang words that he penned regarding the amazing love of God. He said, in the hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, “Jesus thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art.” John Wesley also says that, “If anybody preaches …about anything more than love, he is aside from the mark, because the thing which you need is to be perfected in love and filled with all the fullness of divine love; and, if that is so, that will be fulfilling of all the law of God.” The love of God was something that was greatly understood to be the key component to a relationship with God. John Wesley knew it; Charles Wesley knew it; many generations of Christians have known it, and Jesus made sure that Peter knew it. In this morning’s scripture, we see an interesting conversation develop between Peter and Jesus. This conversation comes on the heels of Peter denying Christ three times before the crucifixion. And here we see Jesus using the triplet form of conversation to convey a message to Peter. It is my contention that Jesus wanted to let Peter know that he was still going to play a vital role in the shepherding process of the Kingdom. Peter was still going to be a shepherd to a great flock even though he had made a mistake. But what I want you to notice with me this morning is that with the command to be a shepherd (Feed My Sheep), there is always a question. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? It always interests me to sit down with different pastors or missionaries both here in the U.S. and abroad. I love to converse with them about their work and their journey. But doing this intrigues me because so often I hear about the “feeding the sheep” that is happening and not at all about the love for God or their love relationship with God. However, these are not the only folks who have this issue. I had a professor at the seminary point out that far too often, seminary students come to seminary out of their love relationship with God, but somehow along the way, it gets put on the back-burner because of papers, tests, and preparation to be church leaders. He then challenged the class to not let this happen. He reminded us that after seminary, life is not going to get any easier. Yet this epidemic of forgetting our love relationship doesn’t end there. Every Christian struggles with this. Our lives become so busy, we become consumed by our careers, we struggle with family issues, or money issues, or health issues, so much so that we completely neglect our love relationship with God. We mustn’t think that we can get a grip on it when things calm down, because things NEVER calm down. We need to learn to have the love relationship now! Do you love me? I heard a story once about Dr. Paul Rader’s father. Paul was the president of Asbury College and his family has been in the leadership of the Salvation Army for many generations now. His father met Samuel Logan Brengle, who was one of the men responsible for bringing great growth to the Salvation Army in America. Early in his career, Rader’s father asked Brengle what his greatest temptation in ministry was. What is it that tempts you every day in your ministry? Brengle replied, “There is one thing that has tempted me, and when I give in, my life is miserable and like a living hell. However, when I resist this temptation, life seems to go on smoothly and everything falls into place. The temptation that has nipped at my heels my entire ministry has been to want to DO something FOR God each day before I’ve spent time WITH Him.” Oswald Chambers reiterates this idea in his book My Utmost for His Highest when He says, “The main thing about Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain, and the atmosphere produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to look after, and it is the one thing that is being continually assailed.” He is saying that there is a primacy on the relationship with God that a relationship is the main order of business and the ministry will flow from that relationship. Do not let the temptation of feeding the sheep get in the way of loving God! Do you love me? So many times, people let their egos get the best of them. People think that the knowledge they have or the zeal they have or the compassion they have will be enough to do the work of God. And while that approach might work for a while, they will soon come crashing down because their efforts are their efforts and not God working through their love relationship to reach others. P.T. Forsyth, a WWI era theologian said when speaking about having a love relationship with Christ that, “It is possible to be so active in the service of Christ as to forget to love him. Many pastors preach Christ, but get in front of him by the multiplicity of their own works. It will ruin you if you do.” Pastors are not the only ones who have to be cautious not to let this happen. J. Sidlow Baxter writes, “The first thing which makes a true Christian minister or missionary or evangelist or preacher or Sunday School teacher, or leader or Christian worker of any kind, is not learning, not eloquence, not wisdom, not organizing ability, not pleasing personality, not even a ‘passion for souls’, but a love-passion for Jesus Himself. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING, can take the place of that. All else without that is like withered flowers.” It may not be our egos which get in the way, it may simply be a works equals love attitude. We may have a twisted sense of how our love relationship with God works. It does not stem from us doing things…from us feeding the sheep. It begins with us humbling ourselves and allowing God to love us and in return we love Him by worshiping Him, praying to Him, studying His Word. As our relationship grows, our actions will begin to reflect our relationship with God. So, do not think that feeding the sheep equals loving God…without a love relationship, the sheep will starve.
I want to close with this thought. In this morning’s scripture, we heard Christ first calling Peter into a love relationship with Himself and then giving the command to feed His sheep. It also interests me that the Great Commandment (love the Lord you God with all your heart…) precedes the Great Commission (go and make disciples…). A love relationship with God is the first step in becoming a worker in the Kingdom. Do you love Christ, or do you put Him on the back-burner because you are too busy? Do you love Christ or do you get tripped up by the temptation to do for rather than be with Christ? Do you love Christ or do you feed the sheep thinking that that will earn God’s love? Jesus loves you and desires a love relationship with you, but a relationship takes more than one person. We, as Christians, need to once more be defined by our relationship with God and not our work for God. We need to be living in a love relationship with Christ. So, let me ask…DO YOU LOVE HIM? That is the first step in restoring the love relationship…we must love Christ before we can serve Christ. Do you want to restore the love relationship? Now is the time to begin the process. Jesus stands ready to help and is asking…DO YOU LOVE ME?