Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
What is In the Sky?
This past week, something very exciting happened over New England. Around midnight last Monday, a fireball shot through the night sky. Here's a video...
When I heard about it, I remembered a talk that I heard about 3 years ago when I accompanied Tasha to one of her planetary science conferences in Canada. The speaker was someone who studies meteors and meteorites. He has spent his whole adult life looking at fireballs shoot across the sky and then studying the bits of space rock that people eventually find at the ends of those trails of light. When he read the account of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, he saw something familiar. He saw a fireball.
Fireballs are certainly powerful. Look at these images from the 2013 fireball in Chelyabinsk, Russia. I warn you, the video can be a little loud sometimes...
As you can see in the first part of the video, the fireball itself lit up the daytime sky. If you looked at it for too long, it could make your eyes hurt. It flew through the atmosphere with such speed and force that it created a sonic boom that broke windows and blew open doors. If you had your speakers up loud enough, you heard the boom. Now, while I'm not exactly convinced that the bright light from heaven that we heard about here in Acts is a fireball, if the light that Paul saw was anything like the fireball in Chelyabinsk, I can see why he might be inspired to change his ways. It kinda makes me wonder if unexpected, powerful lights from heaven and Jesus' own booming voice might have been the only thing to get him to change his ways.
When recounting his conversion in his letters to the church in Galatia and Corinth, Paul described himself as having been a terrible persecutor of Jesus' followers. He even says the he sought to destroy the nascent church. But, he says that he saw a vision of Jesus that changed his life. While he doesn't describe exactly what happened in this vision in any of his confirmed letters (in his own writings, Paul never mentions a great light, fireball or otherwise), there must have been stories about this vision circulating. When the author of Luke and Acts decided to write a testimony and history of Jesus' life and the early church, this author included one of those stories. He, too, must have thought that something very dramatic would have had to happen in order to change Paul.
Remember that part of the Gospel where Jesus said that you need to love your enemies? Well, it sounds like Jesus' followers would have certainly struggled with loving Saul. The book of Acts describes him as "breathing threats and murder" against Jesus' disciples. In a couple of his sermons later in the book, it says that he threw women and men who followed Jesus in prison. When he is given the opportunity to weigh in on whether condemned disciples should be put to death, he always voted that they should be. Always. He was so aggrieved by them... was so certain that they were blaspheming a god whom he dearly loved that he pursued them into foreign cities in order to capture and punish them. He was certain that he was doing the right thing. He was certain that he was defending God from these people who said that they were following "the Way." Nothing could change his mind. And, then, it happened.
He was walking towards the city of Damascus with a couple of other people. A light from heaven flashed around him. Now that you've seen a fireball, try to imagine that kind of brightness surrounding him. He fell to the ground. Remember that sonic boom knocking out windows and knocking people down in the video. Saul is like one of the folks in those office buildings, but, rather than hearing a sonic boom, or perhaps hearing within the boom, he heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul, not knowing what the voice is, asks "Who are you, Lord?" With words that echoed through his chest, he heard "I am Jesus, who you are persecuting." With those words, Jesus aligns himself once again with the suffering of humanity, identifying so closely with the people who love him that when they physically suffer, he physically suffers. Jesus then told Saul to get up and go into the city. He will be told what to do when he gets there.
Imagine having been so sure that you were right that you were willing to put people to death who disagreed with you. Imagine having been so sure that you are the righteous one that you chase the people you've decided were your enemies from city to city. Now, imagine that one of these people is the one who will bring you healing. That is where Saul is: unable to see... too affected by what has happened to eat or drink... praying and waiting to hear how he will be restored... soon to learn that a follower of the Way will bring God's forgiveness to him. Imagine that you are Ananias, the one who has to go lay hands on Saul. This is probably the last guy, short of Caesar himself, who you would imagine Jesus asking you to help. And, yet, it happened.
It turns out that Ananais didn't need a fireball to get his attention. He just needed a vision of Jesus. As soon as he heard Jesus, he thought he was ready to do whatever he asked... at least until he realized that Jesus was going to ask him to go see Saul. Ananais said that he's heard about this Saul guy. He's awful. Is Jesus sure that he wants to heal him? Jesus said, yes. I'm sure. I've got a job for him. It won't be easy. My jobs rarely are. But, he's the one to do this one. To his credit, Ananais went and he gently laid his hands on the one who, only three days prior, would have happily had him killed. Turns out that Jesus asked a lot of Ananais, too. As we know, Jesus' missions are often hard ones. Thank goodness the Holy Spirit was there to do the actual healing. Something like scales fell off Saul's eyes... all the hatred and fear that he had for the people who he believed to be so different from him fell away. He could see. He was baptized. He shared a meal with the people present. He gained strength. He gained a mission. He began to preach. He began to be called his Roman name, Paul, in honor of his mission to the Gentiles. And, all it took was a little fireball and a vision from God. That's not much, right?
In the sermon last week, I asked you to think about who in our community would be surprised if we showed up, speaking words they understood, and sharing our testimony of God. I think this fiery story asks a couple different questions of us. Scholar Eric Barreto suggested that we spend some time discerning if our own zeal has ever been as misdirected or even as destructive a Saul's once was. If it was, how did or how is the Holy Spirit intervening to help correct it? He also pointed to the difficulty of both Paul's and Ananais' missions. Faith in Christ did not make their lives easier, even though it did make their lives richer. How can we shift narratives of faith away from understanding God as one who only wants to make our lives cushier and easier into an understanding of God who walks with us into unexpected places as we do very hard things? And, I think there's a tough lesson about enemies here, too. On the one hand, a powerful man is forced to see the humanity in the people who he sees as his enemies. On the other, a member of an oppressed religious group is asked to be willing to see God working on the heart of the one who could have hurt him. Reading this passage, we might ask, what does it really mean to trust God to deal with our enemies, especially if it means we might have to work with them later?
Most importantly, though, I think our question is are we actually willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, in whatever form it comes? Are we really willing to change even if it means re-evaluating the values that we most hold dear? A fireball knocks over our walls. A still small voice echoes in our chests. What do you see in the sky? Will you let it change how you are living?
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2835
James Boyce: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=563
William Hartman's talk titled "Chelyabinsk, Tunguska, Zond IV, and the Road to Damascus," presented at the 76th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting (Edmonton, CA: 2013)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Every time I feel the Spirit: Acts 2:1-21
The professor and preacher Dr. Fred Craddock once shared a story about the first church that he served as pastor. It was a small church in East Tennessee, not to far from the city of Oak Ridge. As you may know, Oak Ridge became a center of the atomic industry. As the city grew, the small towns and country communities around it also grew, filling with single men and families drawn to the area to work. Some people even lived in tents while they worked to save enough money to either return home and buy a place, or settle more permanently in the Oak Ridge area. Craddock's church was located very near where all these new folks had moved. It was a lovely little church with a pump organ and kerosene lamps hung all around the walls. The congregation sat in pews that had been hand hewn from a giant poplar tree. It was a warm and inviting-feeling little church. Dr. Craddock felt like they should be inviting some of the newcomers to help fill it. Imagine his surprise when his congregants weren't as excited to invite new people as he was.
He consistently heard "Oh, I don't know" and "I don't think they'd fit in here" when he raised the suggestion. Someone even objected to inviting the new folks because many of them seemed to only be there temporarily. Why spend the energy on outreach when the "construction people," as someone called them, would be leaving pretty soon. Dr. Craddock countered by encouraging the church to invite the people in and make them feel at home, even if they would only be local for a while. Craddock said that they argued round and round about it, choosing to put a vote about next steps off until the following Sunday. When they sat down the next Sunday, a member of the church stood up and said, "I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county." Someone quickly seconded it. Unfortunately, the measure passed. When the pastor voted against the measure, he recalls being reminded that he "was just a kid preacher" and he didn't have a vote. Not long after this very inhospitable vote, Craddock left this pastorate.
Years later, he and his wife were traveling near Oak Ridge. He decided that he wanted to take her to see that church. It was diffcult to find. In the intervening years the roads had changed. They eventually found the state road, then the county road, and then the little gravel road that would take them to that pretty little church with the kerosene lamps and the pump organ. As they drove down the gravel road, he finally saw the church set back in the woods, gleaming white. Much to his surprise, the parking lot was full! He saw trucks and cars and motorcycles squeezed into every available spot. They drove around and saw that the church even had a new sign on the front of the building. The sign said, "Barbecue, all you can eat." Craddock quickly realized that the church was no longer a church. It had become a restaurant. It was packed with all kinds of people: locals, tourists, single folks, parents with little kids, construction workers, scientists, Medians, Parthians, and people from Mesopotamia. Fred looked over the crowded former sanctuary and then over at his wife, Nettie and said, "It's a good thing this is still not a church, otherwise these people couldn't be in here."
The restaurant was packed with all kinds of people. We heard the same thing about Jerusalem, too, in today's reading from Acts. Faithful people from all over the Ancient Near East had gathered in the city for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The city would have been full of people, many of who could speak Greek to one another but also spoke their own, more local dialects. Aramaic, Egyptian, Latin, Phrygian, and many other tongues would have filled the air in the Holy City. People who had been born into Judaism and people who had converted later would have filled the streets, coming to celebrate the law that had brought them all together.
But something strange happens. In other Bible stories, God's presence is symbolized by wind and fire. God becomes present here at Pentecost in the same way. The presence of the Divine is described as a violent wind that fills the house that the disciples were in. In a scene that is even more surprising than that old church turning into a barbecue joint, the author describes bits of the Holy Spirit alighting and then settling onto each of the disciples. The author said that it looks something like divided tongues of fire. With this wind and fire, the disciples feel the presence of the Holy Spirit and began speaking languages that they didn't even know. The people gathered for worship were astounded. "How could these simple Galileans suddenly know all these different languages? These Galileans are speaking to us in words we understand about a God we all know. But, they are telling us new deeds that our God has accomplished. What is going on?"
Now, if I was in a barbecue joint, and smelled a little smoke, I probably wouldn't be too worried. There's supposed to be smoke and flames there, though, admittedly most people would prefer not to have the flames on them. And, if I heard people shouting about God, using words I know and words that there was no chance that I could understand, I might be tempted to blame the loud, ostentatious talk on day-drinking, just like some of the folks who heard the disciples did. But, the disciples weren't in a barbecue joint when they saw Holy Fire. They were in the midst of a religious festival and their revelry was due to the Holy Spirit, not to many hard spirits imbibed too early in the morning. Peter stood up to explain, as best he could, what was going on.
He reminded his fellow Jews of the words of the prophet Joel: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days, I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." He goes on to describe signs in the heavens and on earth that with help people know when God's reign of peace will break into the world. At that time, when God's Reign is fully realized, everyone... all people... will have the opportunity to join God's Kin-dom. Notice, Peter did not say that all people who own property in the county will be invited. No. All people will be invited. Migrant workers, townies, people who are just passing through, people who will never leave. Hondurans, Iraqis, Somalis, and French Canadians. Young, old, somewhere in between. Women, men, people in between. Enslaved and totally free... All people will be welcome and all those borders and social conventions that we have constructed to keep us separate from other humans, those walls will no longer have the power to keep someone from accessing God.What Peter said was, even if you don't own property in the county, you have a place in God's kin-dom.
I am sure that you are just as frustrated as I am by the idea that a barbecue joint is more welcoming than a church. That doesn't seem right at all. I bet, though, you aren't surprised that it happened. We've all heard of churches that have chosen to close ranks rather than be open to the Spirit who calls us to make this Body of Christ ever broader and more diverse. Thank God that this church has been open to the Holy Spirit's inspiration that has taught us to speak new languages to help more people learn about God. For example, a while ago you decided to change some of the language used for parts of the building that might unfamiliar to people who didn't grow up in church. That helps people feel less like they have to know a special church code in order to fit in. You put in an elevator and you put up signs to help show people around the building. You declared yourself Open and Affirming of all people, regardless of class, gender, sexuality, ability, or ethnicity. While you haven't started shouting in Median yet, you've learned enough Spanish to welcome our Honduran friends when they come visit, and you have traveled regularly to serve with and learn from them. Surely these acts are signs of a Pentecostal spirit, even if they are a bit quieter than that Pentecost long ago.
And, yet, what is our next Pentecostal step out into our world? What new words is the Holy Spirit teaching us so we can reach out just a little farther than we have before? Who are the people who would surprised if we showed up, speaking a language they didn't realize that we know, sharing how God has moved in our lives and still moves to make this world more just, merciful, and loving? That's what the author of Acts, who is also the author of Luke, wants us to think about. How will the Holy Spirit help us continue to spread the Gospel in this world? The Spirit is right here, ever ready for us to share a new word about God's reign of love and justice. Let's pay attention to where the Holy Wind is pushing us. New life is there. I wonder if there will still be barbecue?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Fred Craddock, "The Softer Side of Pentecost" in The Cherry Log Sermons (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001)
Gail R. O'Day, "Acts" in The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2837
Brian Peterson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1630
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4641
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
On Making Disciples: Matthew 28:16-20
Last Friday afternoon, I fell in a lake. Not all the way in, thankfully, but far enough in to soak my shoes, socks, and my pants up to my knees. I had gone to Pilgrim Lodge's Jump Start weekend, a couple days at the beginning of the summer season where volunteers are invited to come out and help prepare the place for campers. I was trying to help Steve, the facilities manager, with a couple boat docks that he had towed into camp. I being very careful as I hopped from one to another, meeting Steve and tying off the docks. He headed out to pick up a couple more and I turned around to return to shore. I made it safely almost all the way back. When I just had one step left, I stepped out onto a rock and the rock moved. While I managed to not fall completely backwards into the water, I did slide into the Cobboseecontee. Most of me landed on dry ground, though, so it was pretty easy to get up begin to dry off. Some other folks who had come up from Brunswick helped me clean up and found a dryer to throw my socks and shoes into. They even offered me some cookies while we waited for our next assignment, which turned out to be sweeping the boardwalks that connect the cabins (an assignment that, thankfully, I could do pretty easily while barefoot).
Here's what I learned while sweeping and meeting more volunteers as they began to arrive. People love Pilgrim Lodge. It's not that I hadn't heard this before. It was one of the first, and more surprising, things I learned since becoming part of the Maine Conference. Pilgrim Lodge is more than a place to send your kids away to get them out of your hair for a week during the summer. This camp is a rich spiritual community... just one that includes silly songs and hiking and quiet walks in the labyrinth. One of the volunteers I met has come to Pilgrim Lodge 41 out of the last 42 years. He and a friend had come up from Wiscasset to help with the clean-up. Another volunteer reported that she has had just about every role possible at the camp "except for being a cook." She'd camped there as a kid, later becoming a teenage counselor-in-training, and then going on to be a counselor every summer. She won't be able to serve this summer because she is moving from South Paris to New York state. But, she assured me that she'd be back next year. She said, "This is worth coming back for." And, the folks who help me dry my socks: they come to PL regularly, having brought their kids and now their grandkids up to camp just as soon as they were old enough. In fact, most of the folks from their church who come to PL aren't actually the kids... it's the adults who make sure to come every year. This camp is church. They don't want to miss out.
Throughout this Easter season, I've been preaching from different Gospel stories about Jesus' appearances to his followers after the resurrection. I have preached from Luke, John, and, today, from Matthew. I think each of these stories can teach the modern day Body of Christ something a about how to be a follower of Christ in a post-resurrection world. I've been telling some other post-resurrection stories, too, more modern stories about places that I think Jesus has been showing up here in Maine. From emergency shelters downeast to Heifer projects down south to coastal cooking classes, the Body of Christ has been busy. The Body of Christ has been busy at Pilgrim Lodge, too, this time doing one particular type of Gospel work, that is, going out and inviting others into discipleship. But, what exactly do we mean by discipleship?
In Matthew, we know that discipleship is important because Jesus' final command to his 11 remaining disciples is to go and invite others to follow him. Though some doubted, when he saw the disciples, he called all of them to continue his mission on earth. This passage is often called the Great Commission. The Eleven are to go and teach others what they have learned from Jesus. They are not to let old ethnic and religious conflicts keep them from engaging with people different from them. They are to fling wide the doors of the Gospel, and go into all the nations, inviting all the people, expanding the Body of Christ. While this may seem to be a big job, Jesus assures them that they will be able to do it. He's going to help. He said, "I am with you always, to the end of the age." They won't be doing this alone.
We haven't read Matthew together in a while, so it might be helpful to have a short overview of what Jesus taught in the Gospel, especially since the disciples are supposed to teach this to other people. Central to Jesus' ministry in Matthew is healing the sick, blessing the poor and poor in spirit, caring for those who mourn, making peace, and being pure in heart. Jesus also commanded his followers to adhere to the heart to the law, to offer forgiveness, and to love abundantly. He said to pursue justice but favor mercy. He taught his followers to be kind to children and to people who were oppressed. He said to love your enemies, too. Oh, he also said not to love money more than you love God. Oh, worship... worship is important, too. The disciples remembered that part. That's what they did when they saw him after the Resurrection. With his final words, his great commission, he sent them out to teach the world all the rest.
And, aren't we glad they did? We would not be here had those remaining eleven disciples not gone forth and expanded the Body of Christ. Now, throughout history, people who have claimed to follow Jesus have often fallen far from his teachings. Our discipleship has often needed a reorientation back towards the rich, compassionate, loving discipleship outlined by Jesus in the book of Matthew. I think that this reconnection with the work of Jesus, this recharging of discipleship, is a primary role of Pilgrim Lodge. I think they help make a lot of new disciples, too. I think that Pilgrim Lodge helps people grow as disciples through a couple of different means. First, they invite people to reconnect to nature, reminding us that heaven and earth were closely connected through creation. Part of our calling as Christians is reconnect this Earth to the Divine with the help of the Holy Spirit. Remember, here in Matthew, Jesus reconnected with his disciples on a mountain. Modern day disciples can reconnect with Jesus by the lakeside.
Secondly, people live together, experiencing what PL calls the "joy of giving and receiving love." The camp works to foster helpful, caring relationships. Fellowship, recreation, and worship all help to build these relationships, reconnecting people to one another as the Body of Christ. Real healing, mercy, and joy happen here, around campfires, on the tree swings, and even on those slippery docks that I was helping tie in. Thirdly, the camp operates with a spirit of openness. Doubts are welcome here, just like they were among the first disciples. Questions are encouraged. Critical thinking is understood to be a vital part of the Christian journey. It is not expected that all people report the same experience with God, just that all people strive for openness to the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Anne Roundy shared a PL story with me that I think highlights the Great Commission work that happens at camp. She worked once as a high school counselor. The kids were surprised and frustrated with a rule change that the deans had made. As an exercise in Christian community, Rev. Anne encouraged the campers to go to the deans and lovingly share their concerns. Guided by their commitments to Christly community, the counselors and deans listened to the campers. Ultimately, after much communal discernment, they decided to change the rule in light of the concerns shared by the teens. One of the campers later came up to Anne to ask if she was ok. She said, yes, why? He worried that by helping them stand up for themselves, she might have incurred the ire of the other counselors. She hadn't, of course. The conversations they had all had had been guided by commitments to stay in conversation even when they disagreed. And, yet, this young man had been concerned for someone's well-being other than his own. Isn't that a bit of discipleship showing up, right in the midst of healthy conflict. This empathy is certainly a great foundation for his development as an adult and as a Christian. This is surely this is a reminder that Christ is in this place. I am also struck by the willingness of the counselors to take the teens concerns seriously. That sure sounds like the love of children that Jesus encouraged.
Now, you don't have to go to camp to be a disciple. As I talked about with the kids earlier today, discipleship is something you can practice every day. In fact, we are called to continually go out beyond the bounds we construct to restrict ourselves, and find others who will help us build the Body of Christ just a little bit bigger. Maybe your practice of discipleship will look like time spent empowering teenagers. Maybe it will be helping a stranger dry offer her soaking shoes. However, it looks, I hope you'll be attentive to the ways that you are following the Great Commission this week. Jesus gave us one job, to go out and invite others to build the Body of Christ with us. Let's make sure that take the risk of going out to build this Body. Even if we fall in the lake, the Body of Christ will be there, ready to help us dry off and make sure we have some lunch. After all, that's what this Body is here for.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2422
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097
Craig R. Koester: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=936
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097
Richard Beaton: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=86
The Mission of Pilgrim Lodge: http://www.pilgrimlodge.org/mission.html
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Feed My Sheep. John 21:15-19
It turns out that people can learn a lot about Jesus while cooking together. This week, I'm bringing you a couples stories about meals, one around a charcoal fire and one in a middle school cafeteria, that teach us something important about what it means to follow Jesus. Our first meal is by the seaside, or, really by the lakeside. The Sea of Tiberias, also called the Sea of Galilee, is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. Seven of Jesus' disciples had been fishing there. They were having no luck until Jesus showed up and helped them out. Boy, did he help them out. They caught 153 big fish! More importantly, they were reminded that the surest sign of Jesus' presence was an abundance of care and provision for people in need. Just to punctuate his already proven point, Jesus also made them breakfast. No sense in making a bunch of exhausted anglers also have to fix breakfast after a long and mostly fruitless night. In making them breakfast, Jesus once again demonstrated his care and concern for them. It wasn't the first time he had fed hungry people, and it wouldn’t be the last. The difference is that the next time, it would be through the hands of his disciples, the New Body of Christ, the ones whom he would send forth.
Let's have a quick reminder about who is here at this impromptu beachside breakfast. Nathanael, Thomas, the Sons of Zebedee, and two unnamed disciples had all gone fishing together. Simon Peter was there, too. In fact, this whole fishing trip had been his idea. Simon Peter has struggled greatly since Jesus was arrested. Through the last several chapters of the book of John, we have seen the man who once was willing to literally fight for Jesus' freedom quickly become the man who denied being one of Jesus' disciples. Three times he was asked if he was one of Jesus' followers. Three times he denied his own discipleship. I really can't imagine quite what that felt like. I imagine it's some mix of fear, with a little hopelessness and shame mixed in. And, now, even though he was one of the first to see the empty tomb and he was present when Jesus appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, rebuilding them as the new Body of Christ for the world, Simon Peter still seemed to need help rebuilding what was lost when he denied his discipleship. Jesus seems to know that three questions once knocked Peter down. He's going to use three questions to build him back up.
The seven gathered around the charcoal fire, sharing the breakfast that Jesus had cooked for them. Jesus looked Peter square in the face and said, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" This time, Peter did not balk. He said, Yes. Of course. You know that I love you. Jesus responds, "Feed my lambs." Jesus asks again, Simon son of John, do you love me? Peter says, again, Yes. I love you. You know that. Jesus responds with, "Tend my sheep." Much to Peter's frustration, Jesus asked a third time, "Do you love me?" Frustrated, Peter said, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus responded more fully this time than the previous two, first saying "Feed my sheep" and then explaining that this sheep tending is not always going to be easy. His final words to Paul in this portion of scripture, and also to us, are "Follow me." Even if discipleship is hard... Even if you don't know what to do... even if you don't know how you will get by... My spirit is with you, providing for you. Follow me.
With these three questions that Peter has now answered affirmatively, Jesus has fully restored Peter to the Body of Christ, allowing him to actively reclaim his discipleship. And, importantly, Jesus outlines what discipleship, that is, following him, actually looks like in this post-resurrection world. Scholars helpfully outline a couple aspects of discipleship. As I have said before, one thing that discipleship means is that you must be willing to be at odds with the dominant culture, even if that puts you in danger. Remember that there is a part of the Gospel where Jesus said that all of his followers must be willing to take up their cross and hold dear the things he held dear, that is, loving God and loving neighbor. Secondly, Discipleship also probably has something to do with following Jesus' actions after the resurrection, that is, modeling his reconnection with God through the ascension (which we haven't read about yet) by rebuilding our own relationship with God. This reconnection to God often seems to take place by turning our primary concern outward, beyond our own needs, towards our neighbor's needs and towards praising God. For Peter, in particular, and all of us who have felt like we have been overwhelmed by our call to discipleship, this encounter also means trusting that we can be restored to the Body of Christ when we falter and that we will be able to participate, even lead, in this new era of discipleship, despite the fact that we were once afraid of Jesus' calling.
Can you think of a real world example of this kind of discipleship? I heard a great example of the second part of discipleship this week, the part where we tend to our neighbors' needs. Remember how I said I'd be telling two cooking stories today. Here's where the second story comes in. This time, the people in the story aren't cooking over a fire by the lake, even though they are pretty close to the ocean. And, yet, Christ is in this story, too, feeding his sheep, or, well, feeding his middle schoolers. It all started when a couple women from the Federated Church of Thomaston, a UCC/UMC congregation, approached their pastor, the Rev. Vanessa Winters, with a calling to serve their neighbors, the kids in the community in particular. They knew that many of the children in their town struggled to have enough food to eat. You see, more than 50% of the kids at the middle school qualify for free or reduced lunch. And, even if they had regular access to food, they often knew little about how to choose and cook healthy meals. Rev. Winters said that the level of need really hit home for her when she was volunteering at a summer reading program and one little girl shared that she was very glad to have the strawberries for their mid-morning snack because she hadn't had anything to eat yet that day. She also shared that this was the first time she had ever had fresh fruit. She was six years old.
Volunteers from the Federated Church connected with a woman who works with a federally-funded program called Cooking Matters to bring a more formalized cooking classes to local middle schools that also have a large number of low income students. They help with the cooking classes where the kids learn to cook and are also given food and recipes to take home and share with their families. I bet that some of these students are the only ones in their households with time and energy to cook. It's like the church is feeding the sheep, and then the sheep get to go home and take hay the rest of the flock. Through the discipleship of the Federated Church, in partnership with Cooking Matters, these kids have been equipped to take care of themselves and to provide for their families. I know that folks in our own church are feeding Jesus' sheep, too, by working at, and regularly donating to, our own local food pantry and working with Meals On Wheels. And, maybe this summer, some of us will even be able to go glean local fields to gather extra produce for our neighbors to use.
Providing meals is not the only way we are feeding the sheep. Today, everyone is invited to share a simple meal of communion. Hey, maybe we're really just like the kids at Cooking Matters. Jesus feeds us and we go out and feed others. And, we keep coming back to Christ's table to be nourished for the work we do together in his name. I bet some of us even feel a little like Simon Peter, learning that we can still follow Jesus, even if we've been afraid to do so before. Either way, I hope that we can continue to hear Jesus saying, "Breakfast is ready. Come and eat. The, go feed my sheep. That's what it means to follow me." Let's remember to savor the grace we've been offered and share with the rest of the sheep out there.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2809
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1619
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-3-c-two-things-everyone-needs/
Food insecurity in Maine: http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2014/overall/maine
Cooking Matters: https://www.gsfb.org/how-we-help/programs/cooking-matters-maine/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.