Sunday, April 22, 2007

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Psalm 30;
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

And every created thing which is in the heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things are in them, heard I saying, Unto him that sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb, be the blessing, and the honor, and the glory, and the dominion, for ever and ever.

“An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross in its impudence, that the most shortsighted can hardly fail to notice it during the past few years. It has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.” This quote might seem like something that was written recently by someone concerned about the number of churches feeding the flock with activities and preaching that will draw in the crowds and satisfy everyone’s needs. It is certainly a problem in today’s world, but apparently was a problem in the nineteenth century. The words were written by C.H. Spurgeon.

What is our purpose as a Church? Are we called to get as many people in the pews as possible? Are we called to be the majority? Should we conform to the world so that it will come through our doors? After all, if we can get them to come, then we can speak God’s word into their lives and they will come to believe, right? So, we spend our time trying to be exciting, satisfying and relevant – whatever that means – in the hope that we’ll fill our churches until they are overflowing. Then we can build bigger churches with room for more activities that will draw more people into our doors.

Now, it is not wrong to grow the church. As a matter of fact, much of the book of Acts is devoted to telling the story of how the Church grew from just a few disciples to thousands. There is even a story about how three thousand were added to their numbers in one day. Yet, in those stories it is not what the disciples were doing to attract the people that made them believe – it was the Gospel, God’s Word that gave the people faith. Nowhere does it tell us that the disciples entertained the people. They preached, they baptized, and they healed. They took the Resurrection of Jesus into the world and many were convinced of its truth. By God’s Word they believed and were saved.

This is not an easy thing for God to ask from us. The Gospel message is not necessarily what the world wants to hear. As a matter of fact, the message of the cross – of forgiveness – is foolishness to many. There are those who do not believe they have anything for which they should be forgiven. They have lived well enough, no one is hurt by their actions. There are others who think that they are beyond forgiveness. They believe that things will never be right because they are unworthy of such grace. Peter was arrested for telling this very story, but he refused to stop speaking despite the hardship for he was commanded by Christ to do so.

We experience the commissioning of the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus had already appeared to the disciples twice; today He appears to them again. It is a strange story because we hear that the disciples were not certain that it was Jesus and that they were afraid to ask. How could they have seen Him twice and still not be sure? What is truly amazing about the appearance stories is how Jesus always managed to reveal Himself in a way they would understand. It was not about recognizing His body or His face, but His words and His actions. Mary knew it was Jesus when He called her by name. The disciples on the road to Emmaus knew Him when He broke the bread. The disciples in the Upper Room on that first Sunday recognized Him by His wounds. We see two more revelations in today’s story, both repetitions of previous miracles.

The Gospel lesson is rather long and can easily be divided into two parts. In the first story, the disciples have returned to the sea, they’ve gone back to a place that was familiar. Peter wanted to fish. Three years before that day fishing had been Peter’s whole life. It was his livelihood, but it was also the place where he felt most comfortable. I can imagine that Peter could think there, after all it was a place where he was in control. He probably enjoyed the hard work, the fresh air, the satisfaction of bringing in a net full of fish. Some of the other disciples decided to join him. The disciples had experienced some incredible things in the past week or so – in the past three years. Now everything Jesus did was coming to a head; they were beginning to see that their lives would be forever changed. It was probably too much to bear, so they went ‘home.’

They didn’t have any luck, however. After a night of fishing the boat was empty. Someone called to them from the shore – about a hundred yards away. I suppose it was difficult to recognize a face from that distance; they did not know it was Jesus. “Have you any fish?” He asked. They answered, “No.” He told them to cast the net to the right side of the boat and they would find some there. Now, after a night of fishing and finding no fish, this must have seemed like a ridiculous idea. It is possible that they had already tried that spot, what could a guy on the beach know about where to find fish? They tried it anyway and the net quickly filled with fish until it was too heavy to pull aboard.

John, most likely the disciple described as the disciple whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John recognized Jesus not because he suddenly saw His face, but in the memory of another miraculous catch of fish. In chapter five of Luke, Jesus had been preaching by Lake Gennesaret and the crowds were pressing in on Him. He got into a boat and asked the fishermen to take Him a little way from the shore. From there He preached to the people and then told the fishermen to go out into the lake. They had been fishing all night without a catch, but they followed His instructions and they hauled in so many fish that it took two boats to bring them all in.

Peter was in that boat and when he saw this miracle he fell on his face and said, “Go away, I am not worthy.” Jesus told Peter, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” Now, here was Peter back on the sea fishing for fish again. With this miracle, Peter was reminded of that other time when Jesus called him to be a disciple. He was probably feeling the same unworthiness; after all, Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night before His crucifixion. Now that Jesus was back, would Peter still be accepted as part of the ministry?

When John said that it was the Lord, Peter threw on some clothes since he was wearing nothing and he jumped into the sea. The other disciples followed, dragging the net. They saw that there was already a fire and some fish cooking on the coals. There was also bread. He told Peter, “Go bring some of the fish you caught.” He went aboard and hauled the net which was full of fish – 153 of them – to the shore. There has long been discussion over the meaning of this number. It is such an odd number, and why did they bother counting so many fish? Some have suggested that 153 is the number of known varieties of fish or people at that time. Others have identified a numeric code in the ancient languages that suggest a connection between 153 and words related to fishing and nets. Others have suggested that 153 is the 17th triangular number (1 + 2 + 3… + 17 + 153) thus a number of completion or perfection. A friend recently wondered if perhaps 153 were the number of disciples following Jesus at that point. There is some purpose to this number, but perhaps it is one of those things we will never know for sure until we make it to heaven.

Heaven is the theme of our second lesson for today – an image of heaven in Revelation. In this vision, the people do not really care about things like the meaning of 153 fish. In this passage, John describes a scene with myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels, creatures and elders surrounding the throne of God. They sing His praises with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” Then every creature in heaven and on earth sing blessings to the One on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.

Talk about lame, huh? It is no wonder that some people aren’t interested in spending eternity in heaven – it would be boring to do the same thing over and over and over again forever, wouldn’t it? Yet, I’m not sure we could possibly know how we would react in that day when we come face to face with God. I remember when I was a teenager, I met one of my favorite stars accidentally in the parking lot of a rest area. I was a bumbling idiot, couldn’t say the right thing even though I was trying to be so cool. I got his autograph and he was very kind even though I said something ridiculous. Other people react differently to people with fame or power. Some scream, others try to make small talk or a big impression.

We think we know how we will react, though Mercy Me’s song “I Can Only Imagine” probably captures the truth most closely. We can only imagine how we will react – will we laugh or cry, stand or fall on our knees? Will we sing for joy or be stunned into silence. Perhaps the vision of John is the most accurate – God’s presence will be so awesome that we will sing His praises for all eternity and even eternity might not be enough time.

Peter, in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus, put on some clothes and jumped into the sea. After the breakfast, Jesus turned His attention to Peter. This is the send story in our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus asking of Peter? Does he love Jesus more than the other disciples? Does He love Jesus more than those disciples love Jesus? Does he love Jesus more than his fishing gear and the hard work of catching fish on the sea? Peter does not answer with specifics but simply says, “Yes, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Jesus did know, for Jesus knew the hearts of His disciples as well as He knows our own hearts. Yet, Jesus asked again. And then He asked again. Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love and by the third time Peter was hurt because Jesus asked it again. “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”

There are several reasons for why Jesus might have asked Peter three times. We are reminded that Peter denied Jesus three times, and the threefold confession of love for Jesus counters the denial. For Peter, the three questions seemed to verify his unworthiness, but for Jesus the three answers restored their relationship and reinstated Peter to his position as leader among the disciples.

There are some subtleties in the text that may or may not be significant. One thing that is often noted is the use of the word “love” in these passages. In the Greek there are different words used by John in describing this scene. The transliteration of these words is “agape” and “phileo.” Some suggest that there is little difference between these two words and John simply used the variety to keep the passage interesting. Others will tell you that agape refers to a deeper, more abiding sense of love while phileo is a brotherly love.

There is some comfort to be found in this passage if we recognize the difference between these words. In the first and second questions Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you.” In the third question Jesus asks, “Do you phileo me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” To me it appears Jesus was asking Peter for a deep commitment while Peter was not yet ready to give him that much. Yet, Jesus did not take anything away from Peter. Peter was still restored and reinstalled, commissioned to do the work of Christ in the world. There is comfort in this for those of us who have taken too many years to make that commitment to the work Christ is calling us to do. We can see that Jesus has patience, that He does not take away our commission because we have doubts and uncertainties. He loves us and encourages us until we are deeply and fully committed. Obviously, Peter’s love became deeper as he continued the work until he did died the martyr’s death on the cross.

Another subtlety we see in this passage is found in the commission. Jesus first tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Then He says, “Tend my sheep.” Finally, He tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.” There is a progression in the way we do ministry found in these commands. First, we are to give the lambs – the newborns, the babies, the milk of the Gospel that they might believe and be saved. We go out into the world feeding the lambs with God’s grace so that they will follow Jesus. Once they have been saved, the lambs are brought into the fellowship of believers, through baptism and the sharing of the eucharist, and there in the congregation the shepherd tends to their needs, making disciples who will also go out into the world to take the Gospel to others. Finally, we feed the sheep. We never stop needing to hear the Word of God, to learn more, to grow in our faith. Every Christian needs to hear the Gospel over and over again, to stay firm in the faith which has been given. Peter first, and those of us who have followed, are called to continue to feed Christians with the Word of God, to offer Bible studies and the sacraments so that they will stand firm in Christ.

There is nothing in this commission about entertaining folk. We are called to share the Gospel message, help people to make it a part of their life and then help them to continually grow and mature in their faith. We might be overwhelmed with the tasks we have been given and with the people we have to help, but we find comfort in the scriptures and in the sacraments as we go study and gather in worship – even that so called boring worship that has no modern entertainment value. Our call might take us into places we do not want to go, but God will be with us through it all.

A friend recently shared a story about an early experience she had in ministry. She said that the first time they opened their home to Bible study, the group that agreed to come was larger than they could ever have imagined. She was overwhelmed – like those nets that were nearly breaking from the load. Through it all, she learned two important things – God provides the harvest and He held them together when things seemed to be breaking apart.

Imagine what it must have been like for Ananais when God sent him to heal Paul and baptize him. Ananias was not pleased. He knew that Saul was a cruel man who had done cruel things to believers. He did not deserve to be touched by God's grace. God spoke to Ananias. "I have plans for Saul who will become Paul. Do as I say and you will see something amazing." It took a miraculous revelation to get Paul's attention. We are called to be like Ananias, to share the Gospel with those who cross our path, to prayerfully share God's grace with them. We might be rejected and persecuted, but God knows what He is doing. Eventually His Word will touch the heart of those whom He loves and they will be saved.

Most of us have less dramatic experiences of God’s grace. As a matter of fact, most of us come to know the Lord slowly, as we go with our family to church each Sunday, attend Sunday school and other church activities. Most of us catch a glimmer here and a glimmer there, but grow as we are fed the Word of God throughout our lives. Some people do experience a miraculous conversion, like Paul and like a man named Jacob Koshy.

Jacob Koshy said about his conversion to Christianity, "Who would have believed that I could find the truth by smoking the Word of God?" His story is unusual. He was living in Singapore and success drove him to do whatever was necessary to get ahead. He was a smuggler and drug dealer, a gambler and abuser. Eventually he ended up in prison, a harsh place where he could not even get a cigarette. He managed to make cigarettes with smuggled tobacco and the torn pages of a Gideon Bible until one night he fell asleep with it in his hand. The cigarette burned out in his hand and when he awoke he read some words from today's lesson. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"

Jacob asked for another copy of the Bible and he read the story of Saul who became Paul. He realized that if God could work such a miracle in the life of a man like Saul, then He could do the same for him. He got down on his knees and with tear filled eyes asked Jesus to change him too. With every tear his pain was washed away. He became a missionary when he was released from prison and married a Christian woman. He no longer chased after wasteful things and lived a praise filled life in thanksgiving for what God had done. So, by smoking the Word of God, Jacob experienced the miracle of God's mercy and grace.

Perhaps there were those in the world who thought that Jacob Koshy did not deserve God’s grace. Christians most certainly had come across Jacob in his days of smuggling, drugs and gambling. Did they speak the Word into His life or did they turn away because he was undeserving? What about the people we meet day to day. Do we speak God’s Word into their lives, or do we try to create an entertaining experience that will bring them through our doors? They need to know God’s forgiveness, to be reconciled to the One who is their Father and Creator. They don’t need another place to fellowship or to play. They need the Gospel. It is in giving the world that which Christ commissioned us to give that we will see the miraculous catch of fish – so great that the nets will seem to be breaking.

This happens when we remember the words of today’s Psalm. This psalm was apparently written for the dedication of the Temple. Though this was a time of joy for the people of Israel, it was also a frightening moment. The Temple gave the people a sense of stability, roots. Yet, people were still out to destroy David and the Israelites. They could not become complacent in their blessedness, for complacency is our greatest enemy. It means we take for granted our past and our God, we forget His grace and we think we are to take credit for our blessings.

When we step out in faith to do the work God has called us to do, we ask ourselves, "What is our purpose." We seek to understand God's will for our lives and we try to do be obedient to His will. This often leads us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things that seem beyond our ability and beyond our resources. When we succeed, it is easy to pat ourselves on our backs in a congratulatory way. Yet we learn, particularly during this Easter season, that our purpose is not to create grand buildings to build up great ministries. Our purpose in this world is to glorify God.

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