[Sermon given on Sunday, April 9, 2016 (Easter III – Year C) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.
John 21.7 (NRSV)
Grace and peace be unto you from G-d our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.
Good morning. Well, here we are on the Third Sunday after Easter to celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection. I am intentionally emphasizing the continuation of the Easter Feast because we are in the middle of a season that lasts for 50 days liturgically but our entire lives in reality.
We are an Easter People after all. We are a community of spiritual pilgrims gathered around the mystery of the Risen Christ and empowered to proclaim the Gospel, the good news, to a world stymied in the morass of fear and division.
It is probably just as well that the Liturgical Calendar gives us seven Sundays in the Easter season plus Pentecost, because we are so prone to episodic spiritual highs that seldom translate into spiritual action. If Easter were just one Sunday then we might be tempted to celebrate the Resurrection, give away the lilies, and then return to “church as usual.” To put it a little differently, the Season of Easter invites us into the sustainability of the Easter life, life lived out loud and empowered, life lived deeply loved, life lived in the light of the Resurrection wherein we can conceive of a world far beyond our limited imaginations. If G-d can raise the dead, what can’t G-d do?
That’s the bigness of Easter – “macro-Easter,” if you will. It’s Easter on a cosmic scale. But this morning I would like to downshift for a moment. I want to focus on what it means to experience Easter personally and tangibly in our lives.
If Easter is about one thing, it is about love. Not the sentimental, movie, Romantic-Comedy, Julia-Roberts-and-Richard-Gere, “meet cute” kind of love, but a radical, challenging, world-upending, heart-converting kind of love. Easter is about love transposed, in the words of C.S. Lewis. Easter is about cosmic love that not only upsets big empires, but is also laser-focused on our hearts.
The other day I was on the Facebook and I was joking around with someone about how so often we are tempted to take the Gospel, weaponize it, and hurl it at other people like a holy grenade.
But allow me to share something that I have found that has helped my preaching and deeply impacted my spirituality: always start at home. The Gospel we share has to find fertile ground primarily in our own hearts. If the Gospel that we are offering someone doesn’t start in our own heart and resonate with our own call to conversion, we might want to rethink our intention behind sharing it. The Gospel is not a weapon to be hurled primarily at others in order to bend them to our will, but an invitation for each and every heart to respond to the love of G-d that is laser focused on our hearts.
This is where we meet St. Peter. Before he was St. Peter, he was just Peter, and y’all, Peter was a mess.
In the moment when the Lord needed him the most, Peter chose to respond out of fear, denying the Lord three times. Before we castigate poor Peter for denying Christ, let us remember that each of us is also hardwired for survival. Peter knew that had he openly affirmed his association with Jesus Christ he might have suffered the same fate. He had not yet allowed the discipleship call of Christ to “take up your cross and follow” to penetrate his own heart. He wanted Jesus to kick butt and take names… all in the name of G-d of course.
Well, bless his heart, Peter found himself in a mess. Having denied his Lord, and his friend, in his greatest moment of need, Peter wore his grief and shame close to him as a shield. Even after Jesus appeared to his disciples and offered them “peace” in the Upper Room, Peter still clutched his shame like a security blanket. After a while, continually rehearsing our shame and grief becomes soothing. Shame requires no conversion, no change of heart; but, love does. Love challenges us beyond of our limitations. That is uncomfortable.
So when Jesus meets Peter by the seashore, Jesus meets Peter where he felt safe. Peter was doing what he was ostensibly doing before the Lord found him the first time – fishing when Jesus (even though in the moment they did not know it was Jesus) asks Peter and the disciples a searching, yet rhetorical, question, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
They responded, “No.”
His response, “You’ve been trying it your way for so long. Now try it my way. Throw the net on the other side of the boat.”
Jesus’s response to morass of the moment was simple – try something different.
I had coffee with Malcolm Teschan the other day and being a fellow southerner – he being from Tennessee while I hail from the Tar Heel State – he shared with me a quote, a “Southernism,” that I want to offer you about moving beyond the morass of the moment, “If y’always do what y’always done, y’always git what y’always got. An if’n yah don’t like it, do something different.” Let me see if I can translate that into “Midwestern Episcopalian” – STOP IT!
Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “You’ve done it your way. Now try mine.” This message of newness awakens the senses of disciples. They recognize in this message something familiar, something that strikes them as both comforting and challenging. They recognize Jesus by his familiar challenge, his reminder to move beyond familiarity and well-traveled roads.
As soon as Peter recognizes who he is, he puts in his clothes. Pay attention anytime someone in scripture puts in clothes. Like Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden hiding their shame from G-d as G-d walked in the cool of the day, Peter was trying to hide something – not his unmentionables, but his heart. Peter had worn his shame and grief from the night before the Lord’s crucifixion until this very moment. It had gotten him through the trauma of the crucifixion and the dismay of the next few weeks. He certainly was not about to stop now.
Jesus asks him, “Peter do you love me?” Peter responds, “Lord, stop playing; you know I love you.” The English translation denies the complexity and depth of this moment. Jesus says, “Peter, do you agapan me (do you love me with unconditional love)?” Peter responds “Lord, stop playing; you know that I philein you (I love you because you are connected to me).” There is the disconnect that is worth exploring. Jesus is asking Peter whether he has the capacity to love as G-d loves – unconditionally and without reservation. Peters responds that his capacity to love is limited by proximity – I can only love you if we are connected.
Jesus’ response is more challenge than comfort. “Feed by sheep.”
This exchange happens twice before Jesus transposes the love of G-d into the particularity of the Peter’s predicament. The final time Jesus switches it and says, “Peter, do you philein me?” Peter’s heart broke because he realized the limitations of his love. He responds, “Lord, you know me. You know my limitations. You know my disappointments. You know my hurts. You know my down-setting and my up-rising. You know me better than anyone else. You know me better than I know myself. You know that I philein you.”
Jesus’s final response, “Feed my sheep. The ministry to which you are called is one of heart-penetrating, cross-carrying love. I am inviting you higher,” Jesus says, “but it’s a place that I’ve been and already overcome. Take heart and follow me.”
This exchange is an example of the laser-focus of Jesus’s love. Jesus met Peter at the point of his deepest need and he promises to meet us there as well. Jesus invites us to take off the garments of shame and grief and to put on the cloak of joy and peace. To put it bluntly, Jesus invites us to conversion.
And to facilitate the conversion, Jesus gives us to this ministry. We are given to this ministry because it is precisely in our giving, in our healing, in our vulnerability, in our ability to love at the level of broken human hearts that we most resemble Christ. When we serve those are hurting or broken or hurting, we don’t do it to show off how wonderful we are. Rather, we reveal to depth to which we too are in need of healing. “Feed my sheep” is a command that echoes through the ages into each one of our hearts.
Christ’s sheep are fed when:
- parishioners travel thousands of miles away to bear witness to the in-breaking of the Reign of G-d in Haiti or when a few of us go down to the Kansas City Community Kitchen to serve those who are homeless with dignity and compassion.
- the sick and imprisoned are visited and when children and adults are taught the soul-satisfying stories of our faith.
- we bear the good news beyond these walls and outside these doors and speak “resurrection” and “new-life” in the face of a culture of death.
“Feed my sheep,” is a command to each one of us because each and every one of us is Peter by the seashore, struggling to take off the garment of shame and grief and to put on the garment of G-d’s unconditional love for the world and for ourselves.
“Feed my sheep” is the practice of an incarnational spirituality that takes relationships seriously even across political and ideological lines.
“Feed my sheep” is what Jesus offers us at the level of his bear naked love, love that meets us in morass of the moment and challenges us beyond our safe places.
That’s why we need Easter to last for fifty days and beyond – because so many of us are struggling to try this thing called “love” on, and we need constant reminders of the wideness of G-d’s mercy, the limitlessness of G-d’s reach, and the bear nakedness of G-d’s love.
“Feed my sheep” is not a suggestion. It is a command. We’ve been given our orders, now let’s get in formation.