John 21: 15-19
If there is one thing that strikes fear and trembling into more than a few Episcopalians it is the prospect of talking about “Evangelism.” This week I came across the story of a lady who was working at a bookstore, and as she was opening up, a Hasidic Jew came into the store in full attire: hat, dark suit, white shirt, full beard and ringlets coming down from his head. She asked if there was anything specific he was looking for, and he replied that he wanted to learn about Jesus. Dutifully, the lady pointed out the Spiritual and Religious section of the bookstore and rattled off a few titles she personally enjoyed. Imagine her surprise when the man said, “no, no! I want to know what you think about him. You tell me what you believe about Jesus.” Than woman later said, “My Episcopalian soul shivered” not even knowing where to begin.
Today we remember the martyrdom of who we consider to be two of the greatest apostles and evangelists in the history of the Church: St Peter and St Paul. St Peter and St Paul, as you know are also our patron saints, and it’s a special point of pride to be here among you, the first Episcopal congregation in all of Florida and the first African American congregation, and I was reflecting on how special it is to have to a chance to speak to everyone at once before I head off to seminary in 33 days…but who’s counting? I give thanks to St. Peters for all their support, their sponsorship and love over the past five years and St. Paul’s has already established a place of affection in my heart in the short amount of time I have been with you. I have to tell you it always does the heart good to see us gathered together as one Episcopal community and something that we don’t do enough. It reminds me of a song that we used to sing in Bible School which went, “The Church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people. I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” Our histories are long and noble. It is quite appropriate that St Peter and Paul are our patron saints, as St Paul carried the gospel to the ends of the Roman Empire just as St Paul’s congregation was established at the farthest reach of the country. St Peter was called to be a fisher of men and he also focused his ministry on the community in Jerusalem, just as St. Peter’s congregation has deep roots in the Bahama Village Community.
Speaking of fishing, over the years I’ve heard people joke that tourists think our lives here in Key West revolve around fishing all day and we feast on shrimp and lobster every night, and every time someone talks about giving up their lives on the mainland and joining us here, there are plenty of times when we just listen politely and smile knowingly because life is not exactly a fishing trip, is it? Human life, especially life here in paradise can be difficult and messy, full of pitfalls and stumbles, and that brings us to the scene with Peter and Jesus in the Gospel of John.
I must confess that Peter’s one of my favorite characters in the Bible. He’s headstrong, brash, not at all subtle, but he’s got passion for what he does and for all of his faults, he just absolutely without any question loves Jesus. Today’s Gospel lesson shows Peter and Jesus talking with each other after Jesus rose from the dead. Earlier in this chapter we read that Peter led the disciples on a fishing trip. When they saw Jesus on the shore and recognized him for who he was, they stopped what they were doing and joined him for a breakfast of fish and bread. And here, Peter and Jesus deal with some unfinished business. We know from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. For all his professed love of Christ, when it came down to the wire and his teacher, his friend needed him the most, Peter’s fears got the better of him and he hid in the darkness. When Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to the disciples, up to this point Jesus makes no mention of the betrayal. Based on how Jesus acts towards the disciples after the resurrection, I believe it is safe to say that he had already forgiven Peter for what he did, and even forgave him before it happened, but doesn’t do anything to remove the shame and remorse Peter felt at betraying the one he left everything to follow.
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” and each time Peter responds, “Yes Lord you know I love you,” to which Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” This scene is shown as Peter’s restoration, or sometimes as his commissioning as chief among the apostles. Other times Jesus’ question is seen as testing Peter’s level of commitment and his conviction that he’s doing and saying what he means. The question “Do you love me” echoes back to the farewell discourses earlier in the Gospel of John where Jesus gives his disciples the commandment to love one another as he loves them, a love that meant a willingness and readiness to die for them. For Peter, that means being willing to go to places he does not want to go, a way that tradition says ended in a violent death as he, too, was crucified. Love, it seems, offers no security.
When St. Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and began to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he also had to be willing to pay a price for his commitment. Paul was the epitome of the privileged man in society. He was a Pharisee, was most likely rather well off, and he was citizen of the Empire. But when he met Jesus, he gave it all up. He found himself making tents in order to make ends meet while being constantly on the road. And at the end of all of his, he was imprisoned and later executed.
What price are we willing to pay for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus says time and time again to consider the cost, take up your cross and to follow him. This week the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Salt Lake City. In the forefront of everyone’s mind is how we can be the church in 21st century when old ways of doing things no longer work. A great source of anxiety is that no matter what we seem to do, our numbers continue to dwindle. We especially feel that here in the summer when the ones that line the pews are “just us” and the visitors are few and far between. We say we want the church to grow and more people to come, we say we want children in Sunday School and great music programs, but what often goes left unsaid is that we absolutely want those people, but we want more people “just like us.” We want “the right kind of people,” which is not the model that Jesus offers. Sometimes we become more like Pharisees than we want to admit, dispensing law and not grace. Too often we we hold people to a standard which is more like an entrance exam for respectability than as a goal to work towards that is only obtained through discipleship. Jeffrey Johns, Dean of the St Albans Cathedral in England says, “The Church is not a sanctuary for the perfected – or even those who imagine themselves to be perfected. It is a free hospital for the wounded and joyful sinners who are in the process of being healed.”
Where is the Good News is all this talk of costs and the price of following Jesus? Jesus is talking about offering us something that we cannot live without. He is not only laying out the best offer in town for eternal life, joy, hope but he’s also got the only offer that will work. He has got the real deal, but … it’s going to set you back a bundle with no change given back. After all, it cost Jesus everything and it will cost us, too. All of that life, joy and hope he offers is free but it doesn’t come cheaply. It is absolutely terrible, unreasonable and scandalous that in order to gain all of this we have to be willing to lose it all and give up everything we thought we might have ever wanted.
It’s very easy for me or any preacher to stand here in the pulpit and talk about counting the cost and sacrifice, but I can tell you it is a topic where I do have some experience. I know what it’s like to uproot yourself from a comfortable living and leave friends behind, to lose a home, a job, a retirement account, a friend, and I know what it’s like to have a relationship end because I happen to take being here on Sunday morning rather seriously. I even must confess that when the opportunity arose to come to Key West five years ago I resisted, thinking the cost was too high. And as it turns out, the cost was high. But it was worth every penny. Throughout everything, I can tell you that there is absolutely no where else that this very flawed disciple of Jesus would rather be than putting one foot in front of the other and following where he might lead. When it seems like we have lost it all or have given up so much, then that is the perfect time for the Holy Spirit to step in and open up a way for us.
Earlier I mentioned the part of the story that came before today’s Gospel reading. I would be selling that story short if I didn’t mention the miracle that took place before breakfast. The disciples have just spent the night on the Sea of Galilee trying to catch fish, but in the morning they find they have nothing to show for it. The nets are empty. When Jesus calls to them and asks if they were successful during the night, their reply was a disappointed “no.” But then Jesus says, “Try it my way. Cast your nets to the other side and see what happens.” And wonder of wonders, they have the most amazing catch of fish, enough to feed themselves several times over.
Many biblical scholars and preachers point to how miracles, especially healing miracles show how Jesus reaches out to those outside the community, those who otherwise would be left out and no one wants anything to do with. This miracle shows that the net when cast as Jesus directs is strong enough and wide enough that it catches everything and everybody. We all get caught up in the reach of God’s saving embrace when we do things God’s way. The abundance of generosity of God’s grace does not belong to the past, but to the present. How often we lament how wonderful things used to be when we were children, when the church pews were full several times over on Sunday mornings, when we first fell in love, or even how great things were even two or three years ago; but we must never forget the blessings of the past are only foreshadows of the promises of the future.
Stories of commissioning, of repentance, of coming to faith in Christ is not a one-time event. It is something we carry with us today; it is a part of who we are as People of God; and we are reminded of that when we least expect it. It is a reminder that no matter how hard they try to make things work or to make ends meet, the disciples cannot do anything on their own without the help of Jesus. When we cast the net that God has given us in the form of these buildings, our manner of worship and our commitment to the community, we will find that our net is full to bursting of all the types of fish we can catch.
Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. It is a reversal and restoration of all the damage that has been done, not just in the denial of Christ, but the in how much we hurt each other, ourselves, our city. It shows how the Grace and Forgiveness of God is so much more powerful than anything we can ever do. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he was sorry for what he did, even if he felt bad for what he did or understood what he did. Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; and at the end of all of our struggles, the end of all of our history; that is what matters.
Our story shows that God is willing to entrust ministry and the Gospel message to a group of people whose lives are marked by impetuousness, denial, betrayal, vanity and doubt. It shows that God can call, feed and empower all sorts and conditions of people to do the work of the Kingdom. It shows that God’s word is resilient, vibrant, alive! Event though we may want our paths planned out for us, sometimes we just have to accept that we don’t know where God is going to take us. In our darkest moments, in our hunger, in our failures, in our poverty and in our desperation just to hang on, we can recall to mind that at the beginning of the story in the Gospel of John, we read that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that if we trust God. If we live and act like we trust God and love Jesus we are absolutely get to where God is next going to call us to be.
I am the church …. you are the church … we are the church … together.