Sermon Prep Reflections for May 3, 2020 - John 21, 1-14
You don’t have to go looking for God. God is everywhere you are. Even when you’re not looking, or maybe especially then, God shows up.
When the world changes rapidly, when the rug gets ripped out from under you, you may not know where to turn or what to do. Even if the change is a good one, it can be disorienting and strange and set us off our game.
We often revert back to our old, comfortable habits of place and practice when the world presents us with new information and opportunities that overwhelm us. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s just a thing. All depends on what those behaviors and spaces are and how healthy and helpful they are for us going forward. Just because it used to work for us in the past does not mean it will work for us in the future.
In John’s gospel, chapter 21, we again encounter several of the Apostles – the inner circle of Jesus’ friends and followers. These are his most trusted and loyal allies, the ones he called and mentored for months on end. They saw him teach and minister and heal. They were blessed and renewed by his grace. They shared his story as their own. They watched him be arrested, crucified, and buried. Then three days later they encountered him risen from the dead, just as he promised. The world would never be the same.
To be clear, their worlds had already been turned upside down by meeting and choosing to follow Jesus. They’d chosen the Gospel over their old lives, which if necessary meant choosing Jesus over family, friends, work, and even the ways they’d been taught to believe and practice their faith. Now everything had changed again. It just felt like too much.
I’m struck by the way John tells the story of these weeks following the Resurrection. I would have expected Jesus to spend every waking hour with his core followers, preparing them for his return to the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit and the Birth of the Church. There should have been strategic planning meetings, power point presentations, webinars and zoom meetings and conferences and workbooks with Certifications and Continuing Education Credits in Church Development and Missions. God was about the birth the church in, among and through them. All they seem to get is a brief weekly check in. “Hey. How are yall? Still doing ok? Alrighty then. Good. See you soon.” And he’s gone again.
It truly is a New World for the disciples. And they are dependent on their Old Routines to get them through. Easter night Jesus appears to them. Then, a week later, the same stunt showing up in a locked room. Then, John tells us, “…After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples… and it happened this way…” So according to John’s gospel, this story represents their third encounter with the resurrected LORD. Not surprisingly, they’re a bit at a loss for what to do in the between times. How should they be planning for what is next? What are they supposed to DO? They’ve got no clue. So they do what is familiar, comfortable, useful. They go fishing.
Remember, at least some of these guys are professional fishermen. They return to the Sea of Galilee (here called the Sea of Tiberias), some 75 miles north of Jerusalem. When they walked back home to the north country of Capernaum and surrounding communities we don’t know. But here they are back at the familiar port town, back at their boats and among their friends, their ropes and sails and nets. Here they know what to do without thinking. The muscle memory is so deep that they can function on autopilot.
That’s what often happens to me when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If I can function at all, it’s on autopilot. I do what I know so well that my brain can check out and I can just go. My body can be absorbed in the tasks of cooking and cleaning or organizing or playing music or walking or writing. These things I know. They are comfortable and familiar and in some way useful or productive. Widows will often come home from the hospital after losing their life partners and set to work in the kitchen feeding everyone in sight, because that is something their body can do without their brain fully engaged.
Notice several weeks have passed. It’s likely, since this story is framed this way, that the disciples sat around eating and drinking and staring at one another day after day for a fortnight. They couldn’t do much of anything. Nothing made sense anymore. They didn’t know their place in the world. The new reality had been described to them. They had the information, the facts, but still they were frozen. Finally, maybe because of the miles of walking north day after day, they get unstuck enough to at least do this. Peter is able to frame an idea, and everyone else simply ascents to it. “Yep, let’s go fishing…”
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Once you are able to do something of course. What are the people, places and practices that bring you that familiarity in which you find comfort? After a loss people often reach back into their past to reconnect with old relationships, even old flames. I think one reason is that people are seeking solid footing, and we imagine that the past might hold it. This rarely proves true, but there’s no harm in spending some time there.
It’s good and right to rely on the familiar in our time of uncertainty. Many people I know have reconnected with old friends, renewed old hobbies, returned to favorite authors. These are source of comfort that offer a mooring in these unsettled waters.
The story shows us that Jesus meets us there, but does not leave us there. He invites us to commune with him. He acknowledges and responds to our concrete human needs in the moment. And then he calls us toward the future. Once we’ve found rest and solace, once we’ve taken our fill and be satiated, Jesus shakes us from our stupor and calls us away from out past that can be an anchor dragging us down to the depths. He calls us forward into new life in Him. He refuses to let us get distracted by the paths that others are walking. “Keep your eyes on your own path. Mind your own business. Don’t worry about how I’m calling or leading someone else. Walk the road that I’ve put before you, and let that be enough.”
This is both a comfort and a challenge. It is comforting to know that we can return for a time to what soothes us. It is a comfort to know that Jesus meets us there. It is a comfort to know that he sees and addresses our needs in times like this. And it is a challenge because eventually he will call us to wake up to the new realities and begin to live the hope and promise of a bright tomorrow that is different and blessed.
So for now, take comfort. But be ready. It is a New World, and those Old Routines that may comfort us now will not serve us well for long.
SERMON NOTES for 072218:
(TEXTS: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22)
From the perspective of the Covenant of God with Abraham and his descendants, the human race was divided into two groups: Jews and Gentiles (literally “races” or “peoples”). Paul calls them “circumcised and uncircumcised” (Eph 2:11). That’s it. The whole human race divided into “God’s covenant people” and “everyone else”. Which may sound harsh and cynical and frankly pretty narcissistic of the Hebrew people and stingy of God. Till you actually hear WHY the children of Abraham were called:
Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:1-3)
BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING
Abraham was promised that, through the covenant God was establishing, the world would experience blessing. That was the purpose of the special relationship. The people often lost sight of that. The covenant became a source of pride rather than humility, and the covenant became a wedge and a hammer rather than a source of healing and flourishing. Until finally Jeremiah had to say, “You’re going to be in captivity 70 years for your faithlessness. And after that time God will redeem and restore you.
In the meantime... return to your first purpose. Bless your neighbors. Put down roots and commit to your community like you love it, like you need it and they need you. For you will only be able to experience God’s blessings to the degree that you first bless others.” (Jeremiah 29:4-15 paraphrase) Those people in that other group, the ones who you consider “outsiders”, love them as you love me.
And then along comes Jesus, who “breaks down the dividing wall and the hostility between us, making of the two groups one people.” (Eph 2:14-16). Because of the work of Christ on the cross, there are no longer two groups of people. There is just one chosen people, the human race. The call still exists to be a blessing. Its extends now to all humanity, and those who hear it are drawn into it. Whether people recognize, believe, accept or embrace this, it is a true and completed fact. God has extended the call of “blessed to be a blessing” to the whole human race. Jesus is the redeemer and savior of all. There are no insiders and outsiders any longer. There are no hoops to jump through or requirements to meet.
YOU ARE BELOVED. YOU BELONG.
The witness of the gospel of Jesus as Paul articulates it to the Ephesians is that God through Jesus has done away with the distinctions that used to separate Jew from Gentile – chosen from excluded. The church has spent much time, spilling measureless ink and blood, to declare and prove that some are IN while others are OUT. It continues today, with people still arguing in word and practice the following: Male = In / Female = Out. Straight = In / Gay = Out. Rich = In / Poor = Out. White = In / Everyone Else = Out. God declares that the dividing walls are torn down. The borders and barriers that we erect between us, and even that scripture has been interpreted to construct, are eliminated.
You don’t have to change to belong. You already belong. Everyone belongs. Welcome home.
As you come, allow God to continue working in and through you to move toward fullness and flourishing. God accepts and welcomes us as we are, but does not leave us such. God calls and crafts us forward from chaos to wholeness.
Hebrews 2:10 reads: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” The Greek word used here is teleio. This word can mean perfect, but a better translation (given our modern connotations of that word) would be complete or whole. If you’ve been working on a 5000 piece puzzle and you fit in the last few pieces, then the puzzle has reached its telos – its intended end or purpose. It is now complete, whole, perfect. You can see the full image in all its beauty and complexity and the puzzle has and is fulfilling its purpose.
Jesus needed to suffer not because suffering itself is a means to perfection, but because without that Jesus would not be complete as our mediator. Jesus-as-God-in-flesh must undergo the full human experience, which includes suffering and death. Only then is Jesus complete, whole, perfect. Only then is the puzzle of the Messiah finished. Jesus even said from the cross, “It is finished.” This was not an affirmation of suffering itself, but a declaration that through his own suffering on the cross he had achieved full and final union with humanity, and thus was able to redeem the fullness of humanity not in his death but through conquering death in the resurrection.
Unfortunately, this one verse has been used by the church for two millenia to justify the use of suffering as a means to sanctification and perfection of the followers of Jesus. This is blasphemy. We already suffer. If human suffering could have been redemptive then we would not have needed Jesus to join fully divinity and humanity in one being. You do not need to suffer to experience God’s salvation. Christ has suffered for you.
And yet, Jesus also calls us to take up our cross and follow him. The author of Hebrews references the sufferings of his own audience (10:32-39). He states explicitly that “[Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…” including “sharing in their flesh and blood” and thus their sufferings. (2:14-18)
Biblical perfection – “Be perfect as God is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – means to be mature, whole and complete, and thus to fulfill one’s end or purpose. It is not about never making mistakes, nor ever changing one’s mind. It is not about flawlessness of speech or skin. This phrase from Matthew could be understood in this way: Seek God’s measure of perfection rather than the world’s measure, for “humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God does not seek to shape our hearts by suffering, but to redeem our sufferings. Jesus became “perfect” in that he was fully like us only when he suffered and died, thus making him able to redeem and transform our humanity fully. When we “take up our cross” for the sake of the gospel we are following Jesus’ example of accepting suffering and hardship rather than forsake the calling and turn our backs on those Jesus desires to reach through you and me. God does not will or desire that we suffer. God recognizes that we will, and becomes our ally and advocate by joining fully in our suffering. When we suffer for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of justice and righteousness on behalf of the kingdom of God, then our sufferings become efficacious because they are joined with those of Christ (Colossians 1:24). When we willingly endure suffering for the sake of others this becomes our testimony to them – an extension of Jesus’ own testimony of suffering for the sake of the world. It becomes our solidarity with God-in-Christ and with the world Jesus came to save.
Jesus suffered so that you would not be alone in your suffering, and so that through his own suffering, death and resurrection he might transform all suffering. God does not directly answer the question “Why is there suffering?” or “Why does God allow suffering?”. God’s response to those queries is Jesus. “I am with you. You are not alone. Your suffering is not the final word. Death is not the final word. I will redeem, restore, make new. I have (already) reconciled to myself all things through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.”
We might wish, hope and long for a God who would eliminate suffering. This is fruitless. Rather, we have a God who comes to be one of us, to undergo all things in human experience, and thus is able both to understand and to redeem.
Whatever you’re going through, you are not alone.
God really does understand and really does care.
This is cause for hope. This is Good News.