Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Yoke Is Easy

My Yoke Is Easy
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 28, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 11: 20-30 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[1]

Many of you have been reading Leif Enger's Peace Like a River over the last month. I was actually thrilled and overwhelmed by every one's willingness to read it. I first was introduced to it in seminary. I was taking a literature and theology class, and it was one of the eight novels that we read during the course. I was instantly hooked, especially by the opening scene. Having had bouts with pneumonia at a young age, I understood very intimately the intensity it's basic dilemma, being born without the natural capacity to breathe. And then to be given breath, as the first of many miracles, so simple, so poignant, I was  hooked. I want to read part of that scene to refresh our memories, or to share it with those who have not read it. It goes like this:

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with--given circumstance, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor's hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.
When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.
My father wasn't in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running--sprinting across the grass toward the door.
"How'd you know?" I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.
"God told me you were in trouble."
"Out loud? Did you hear Him?"
"Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way."
I had, in fact, been delivered some minutes before. My mother was dazed, propped against soggy pillows, unable to comprehend what Animas Nokes was telling her.
"He isn't breathing, Mrs. Land."
"Give him to me!"
To this day I'm glad Dr. Nokes did not hand me over on demand. Tired as my mother was, who knows when she would've noticed? Instead he laid me down and rubbed me hard with a towel. He pounded my back; he rolled me over and massaged my chest. He breathed air into my mouth and nose--my chest rose, fell with a raspy when, stayed fallen. Years later Dr. Nokes would tell my brother Davy that my delivery still disturbed his sleep. He'd never seen a child with such swampy lungs.
When Dad skidded into the room, Dr. Nokes was sitting on the side of the bed holding my mother's hand. She was wailing--I picture her as an old woman here, which is funny, since I was never to see her as one--and old Nokes was attempting to ease her grief. It was unavoidable, he was saying; nothing could be done; perhaps it was for the best.
I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.
Dad lifted my gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.
"Breathe," Dad said.
I lay in his arms.
Dr.Nokes said, "Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes."
"Breathe!" The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair shot and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.
Dr. Nokes approached him. "Jeremiah, there would be brain damage now. His lungs can't fill."
Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it--a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining. I have it still. He left my face uncovered.
"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, "there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won't pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood." Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. "Lungs that can't expand to take in air. In these cases," said Dr. Nokes, "we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best." At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the Living God, I am telling you to breathe."" 

The great thing about a novel is that it can make us feel and experience things we could never imagine ourselves going through in real life. Most of us cannot imagine not being able to breathe. Breathing is a reflex. Most of us do not even have to think to breathe. You can sit in church, right there in your pew, and breathe, off and on throughout the service, without even realizing that you are, but the moment you stopped breathing, you'd surely know. You'd surely panic, and I bet others around you on  your row would also know. They'd be jumping to your aid. Doing whatever they can to help you. Breathing is a given; not breathing is an emergency, a tragedy, a catastrophe. Breathing is life and not breathing is death. It's that simple really.
And so he does breathe, his father get's him to take that first breath. His lungs are not fully healed yet at this point; his lungs are still "swampy", but as readers we are introduced to the first, of many miracles surrounding Reuben's father, Jeremiah land. A baby, born and in this world for 12 minutes plus without breathing, and survives. I remember when Clara was born 1 year ago today, she didn't breathe for about 40 seconds, and it seemed like an eternity, so I cannot even imagine 12 minutes, but his father's command fills his swampy lungs. At one point Reuben, who stands as the narrator of the book, makes the statement that he believes that the very purpose of his life, the reason he breathed that first breath and is allowed to breathe each subsequent breath is to witness to the miracles of his father. He says, "The answer, [to why he survives] it seems to me now, lies in the miracles. . .
Being a witness, he has thought a lot about miracles, what they are, and what they do, what their function is in this God's world. He says.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave--now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees the numb, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed--though ignoring them will change you also." 

It is this idea that connects the novel to our gospel reading. In the first half of the gospel reading from today, Jesus is denouncing all of the cities where he performed miracles, but the people in all of them were unchanged and unaffected by what they observed, saying woe to them, that their fate will be worse for them than it was for some of the ill fated Old Testament cities like Sodom and Gomorrah. But it was this line that really glues down the connection. Jesus says,  "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Yes the little children, and therefore Enger puts the truth in the mouth of Swede, who is quite the prodigy and voice of unique wisdom throughout the book, despite being the youngest character. How many miracles in our world do we  miss or simply ignore because we are unwilling to change as a result of them? It is quite an indictment of us and our place in the world, what we hold fast to, what we question, and what matters and doesn't matter. But woe to us, because not being changed by a miracle is being changed by one. It would seem that ignoring miracles is part of the essence of sin. And this truth, truly profound, comes out of the mouth of the child, the youngest. Yes this passage seems truly central to the themes of Peace Like a River, and I couldn't help making the connection, but where the gospel goes next gave me pause.
The gospel passage goes from woe to these cities, to my burden is light and my yoke is easy. Come to  me all that you are heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Doesn't that echo the title of the book, Peace Like a River. Now for those of you who've read it, is it a book that has a lot a peace in it? Does it appear that the life the Land family is living is easy, without burden, laden with an easy yoke? They all struggle, not just the narrator, but also his sister, his older brother, even his father, who can work the miracles, he levitates, he heals a pockmarked face, he evades police checkpoints unmolested, he even rides a tornado for miles, and there are so many more, but even he struggles with his faith, wrestles with God, literally, at different times throughout, yelling, questioning. . . it doesn't seem like a "easy yoke" or a "burdenless existence." It seems heavy, not light. And so even amidst miracles, and faith there is struggle, yet there is something that is "easy" for Jeremiah Land.
He sacrifices himself, he trades places with his son, he saves him, giving himself up instead. And it turns out that, that is the easiest thing in the world. It doesn't seem easy on this side of things, in apprehension, before, but in the moment it's different, and in the moment we get a glimpse of the other side, the peaceful side, the peace on the other side of the river, and think about it. It would be easy to trade places with your child in a situation of pain, hurt, of struggle, even so far as death, without thinking you'd do it. Why because of love, and the fulfillment of love is that full type of sacrifice, and because it is so natural, it's easy, it's light. This, I believe is the yoke Jesus talks about, that no matter how heavy the cross is, how much pain it is, love makes it light. Without love there is burden, with love their is ease. Without love there is stress, with love there is peace. Without love there is death, but with love there is life. We are talking about sacrifice, and ultimate sacrifice, but the burden is light because of love. Yoke is a great word, because a yoke is something that tries to balance and separate the weight of a load, sharing that load, the other reason that Jesus' yoke is light is because he is inviting us to share in work he does right next to us. He may be asking us to make love sacrifices when he says love your neighbor, or God, or even your enemies, but he walks that road with us, he already has up to Calvary.
In our world filled where the blinders of sin, the fears that we have, the terror of the last two weeks, the renewed sense of mistrust, the danger, the mortality, the cruelty, amidst all of it are some glimpses of miracles beyond our imagining, reminding us that God actually did create this world, that God is in control of this world, and that Jesus walks with us, making our burdens light with love, and woe to us who misses them being unwilling to change. I'd like to close with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. It seeks to remind us of this goodness, the miracles of our world. It is called "Where I would Like to Live." I actually posted it on facebook the day after the bombings in boston, a fried had asked me how to talk to her 4 year old son about what happened because he had accidentally scene what was on the news. I told her to tell him the truth, to hold him tight and tell him the truth, and then to read this.

I'd like to live in a world
Where a baby's cries
Are calmed in a mother's embrace
Where smiles will lighten the sternest face
Where history is forgiven if not forgotten
And everyday is a new chance at grace.

I'd like to live in a world
Where heroes strive
To save one in need
Where people act outside of greed
Where love is present everyday
And sweet fruits grow from every seed. 

I'd like to live in a world
Where chocolate and peanut butter
Found a taste for each other
Where people find a friend in their brother
Where day is lit by a shining star
And the night twinkles with a billion other. 

I'd like to live in a world
Where there are plenty
Songs for me to sing
Where everlasting is found in a ring
Where colors bless the evening sky
And people find joy that only love can bring. 

I'm glad I live here on earth
Where all this is possible
And happens nearly every day
Where God hears when we pray
Reigning deep within all of our hearts
And allowing us to follow His perfected way. 

And that way is sacrifice and love, be moved by the little miracles, be inspired by examples of love, and go and do likewise. Amen

[1]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Mt 11:20-30). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Chains in the Darkness

The Chains in the Darkness
(A Meditation on El Greco’s A View of Toledo – center of The Spanish Inquisition)
File:El Greco - View of Toledo - Google Art Project.jpg
The hillside green was a mixture of light and dark,
When the clouds rose up seemingly from below,
Out of nowhere the swirling winds blew through
My cell, whistling through the links of my chains.
Premature darkness it seemed crept into the window
As the wind extinguished the candle that had been
My only light. There I sat in the natural darkness,
Aware of the futility of the artificial walls binding me,
Protecting me, holding me in place, in my cell,
As the light had left so too did my thoughts of man’s
Infinite possibilities, potential, power and control.
What little of a mind I had left, for my days were long
In this cell, behind in a past long gone, slowly
Disappearing from the recesses of my skull, useless
Empty caverns, long vacated, and left to rot.  

This is why I stayed, though I knew my chains were not,
And I knew the walls were not, and I knew that man was not,
But somehow I also was not, or had become not,
By years of imprisonment. How can something not
Simply be? Can the non-existent become existent?
Quiet! It is this thinking that landed you here, stop thinking
It only produces chains. This heresy, this unorthodox thinking
Is blasphemy, hateful to God, but why did he give me
These thoughts? They are certainly dangerous to his Church,
But are they dangerous to him? He who brought existence,
From non-existence, order from the chaos monster,
When everything was nothing, formless and void,
He made, gave shape, form, and freedom, for us
To be bound in these stone prisons, for being what He made? 

There must be a difference, for the God who did that
Did not make these walls, did not make these chains,
Did not make these rules that I somehow have broken,
But it was only in the darkness that I can see His light,
Through the walls, despite the chains, in my heart,
There is, was, and forever will be natural divine light.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Sheep

My Sheep
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 21, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 10: 22-30
Revelation 7: 9-17 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

The last couple of weeks the Lectionary has done crazy things. It's been different. Normally, and by normally, I mean every week for three years, except for these few after Easter in the third year, and normally, it makes sense, there is an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm Reading, a Gospel Reading, and then an Epistle Reading, but in these weeks, there is no reading from the Old Testament, and there is no Epistle, instead they include a reading from Acts and a Reading from Revelation, which poses some problems. The last few weeks, I just let myself go with the Gospel reading and then choose my own Old Testament Passage to match it. And I did it all because Revelation is intimidating, and Acts is too. What is it about them that gives us pause? Maybe it's just me.
It could be, but I started thinking about it. Perhaps the problem that we have with Acts is that there is a challenge to us as disciples and as apostles. The passage from Acts for today, which I am just going to mention for illustration of the challenge, is one where Peter is raising a woman from the dead. It is hard enough to wrap your mind around Jesus raising people from the dead, hard enough to wrap your mind around Jesus being raised from the dead himself, but to have to acknowledge Peter, a disciple, having such ability is hard. Peter, who like us, doubts, messes up, denies, freaks out, speaks at the wrong time, squabbles with the other disciples over who is the greatest, the most loved, the best, etc., and like we saw last week, does crazy stuff like putting on clothes just to jump into the water.  just like us Peter has all the weaknesses of being human, being a sinner, and he is given the power of faith strong enough to raise the dead. That is a challenge. And then Revelation is the other, encapsulating two ideas we have trouble with. . . the future and the end. Both, either, give us pause, because they are unknowns, at least, and again a huge faith challenge, it seems to put it all, not just some, not just what is comfortable on the line. . . making it scary stuff. Shakespeare said it best. . . in the mouth of Hamlet:

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.

Maybe not just after death, but certainly in the future, certainly undiscovered, certainly the frightening openness of the unknown. So for the last few weeks, I flew to the known of the Gospels, but this morning, I feel called to venture a bit into that undiscovered country, perhaps the Psalm for today, being completely familiar, gives me enough support, hope, faith, and comfort, that I can walk into this Valley of the Shadow of the unknown, without minimal fear, knowing that God art with me. So here goes.  Revelation 7:9-17 

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11     And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15     For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16     They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17     for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [1]

The President of Union Seminary, Brian Blount, who was a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary for years, before taking the appointment at Union, during my second year there. We were blessed to have him speak to our New Testament class when we talked about Revelation, and it so happened at the time that he was writing an extensive commentary on Revelation, that would come out a few years later. It's an amazing book, and it takes much of the fear away from the book of Revelation because he simplifies it to the simple message of the importance of steadfast witness that Christ is Lord, and ties it not so much to a fanciful future event, but to the 1st century situation of early Christians amidst the persecutions within the Roman Empire. Basically being a Christian was a crime, punishable by death. He includes a fascinating letter from a Roman Governor to the emperor Trajan, he writes:

I have never been present at the interrogation of Christians. Therefore, I do not know how far such investigations should be pushed, and what sort of punishments are appropriate. I have also been uncertain as to whether age makes any difference, or whether the very young are dealt with in the same way as adults, whether repentance. . . or renunciation of Christianity is sufficient, or whether the accused are still considered criminals because they were once Christians even if they later renounced it, and whether persons are to be punished simply for the name "Christian" even if no criminal act has been committed, or whether only crimes associated with the name are to be punished.
In the meantime, I have handled those who have been denounced to me as Christians as follows: I have asked them whether they were Christians. Those who responded affirmatively I have asked a second and third time, under threat of death penalty. If they persisted. . . in their confession, I had them executed. 

Trajan's response is equally harsh: 

You have chosen the right way with regard to the cases of those who have been accused before you as Christians. Nothing exists that can be considered a universal norm for such cases. Christians should not be sought out. But if they are accused and handed over, they are to be punished, but only if they do not deny being Christians and demonstrate it by the appropriate act, i.e. the worship of our gods. Even if one is suspect because of past conduct, he or she is to be acquitted in view of repentance.

So in other words you are good, home free, off the hook if you deny being a Christian, and John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation is trying to convince people to not deny. Dr. Blount states that this is the context for the book of Revelation, and should be taken into account when reading the rest, that it can decipher much of the difficult language and symbolism. Now let us look at our passage from these eyes.
The first detail of the passage says, "there was a great multitude, that no one can count, that came from every nation, and they cry out in a loud voice, saying: and what they say is in verse like a hymn, a poetic statement, a memorable statement, the very statement of witness, singing it: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” our God, not the emperor of Rome, our God, not Jupiter, our God is salvation and nothing else. Such is the witness, seems so simple, but how hard. But look at how John of Patmos inspires people to be strong and stand firm. There is a great multitude, many, all kinds of people, so therefore you are not alone, there are others, and they can do it, so then so can you. . . quite a challenge, but there is comfort if not safety in being with a large group, not being all on your own. It helps us see that there is purpose, and that all is not lost. And the diversity of the group also seems to sing out that idea that the masses surpassing all other distinctions is a part of this, and John is inviting us to take part.
So then someone asks who all these people are, mentioning that they are all clothed in white, symbolizing purity, having been washed clean by the blood of the lamb. And the answer is that these are the people who came through the great ordeal. It appears that they came through the ordeal and remained faithful, and now they are here at the throne of God, and look at what it says here, look at what they now have:

15     For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16     They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17     for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [2]

Their shepherd. . . do you see the parallels? My main critique of the lectionary is that the four passages aren't always connected, that it is hard to use them together, but that isn't the case today.
This passage echoes the very wording of the 23rd psalm, and it recalls the language from John's gospel read for us this morning. In that Gospel reading, we get the unfolding and unpacking of the scene before when Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," but as I've pointed out in another sermon, that in that very passage, he claims to be the gate, the sheep, the lamb, and all the other characters at one time. So they ask him, Jesus tell us plainly, are you the messiah?" And he answers saying:

I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  30 The Father and I are one.” [3]  

My sheep, hear my voice, I know them, they follow me. I give them eternal life, they will never perish. I shall not want, I lie in green pastures, I get led to still waters, my soul is restored, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the great ordeal, an at the same time I am comforted, my cup runneth over, and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever. "The father and I are one."
Don't forget it, don't deny it, no matter what, because the rest is the illusion, the rest is the lie, continuing on from the garden, the rest is simply an ordeal, and no ordeal can separate us from the love of God, the shepherding of God, the truth of God, and the power of God, as long as we are sheep, and sheep remain faithful, sheep follow where the shepherd leads, where Christ leads because the father and he are one, and Christ led to the cross. Perhaps the real challenge and danger of The Book of Revelation has nothing to do with the future, but instead the present. We continue to live in a world where true discipleship is hard, where ordeals exist, where evil men set bombs at the finish lines at a marathon, faith challenging ordeals even at the end of grueling physical ordeals, where towns are destroyed because fertilizer plants blow up, where feelings of revenge are spurred and assuaged by 24 hours of manhunt news coverage, where the small seems big, and differences of opinion seem insurmountable, where relationships get broken for trifles, where misunderstanding triumphs daily, yes faithful discipleship is hard, because like in those Roman times the illusion seems real, the illusion that the only solutions to problems are secular, that our only safety, security, and salvation come in the hands of the emperor, or through tougher legislation, and a tightening of the leash, the loss of freedom, bowing down to other means, apparent to our eyes, and blind to the faith filled truth, yes discipleship is hard, because the illusion makes the valley of the shadow of death seem as dark as ever, but there is one who leads who is light enough to destroy any shadow, sheep enough to feel and empathize with our fear and pain, and shepherd enough to protect us, shield us, nourish us and lead us, many have followed, and John shows that, many of many different types, all nations, and we can be of that number. . . washed whiter than snow by his blood. God Give us the Strength, the faith, and the vision, to see through the illusion and follow our shepherd as his beloved sheep. May it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:9-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:15-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 10:25-30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Real Bread

Real Bread
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 14, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 21: 1-14 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 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 sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. [1]  

Passages like this one are why the Gospel of John is so cool. It's great because there is so much symbolism and connections. It's the most poetic of the Gospels, and therefore there is so much going on besides just recounting the events of Jesus' life. I remember when I was in seminary and we were studying the New Testament, we talked about the genre called Gospel. We looked at how do you describe what a gospel is. What are its identifying marks? Because you could say it is biography, but it's more; you could say it's history, but it's more; you could say that it is about moral teaching, but it's more; what  you end up with is to all those questions the answer is yes. Really what a Gospel is, we discovered, and were taught, was that a Gospel is a sermon, it is a teaching, a proclamation of God's word, giving the events of the life of Jesus, but doing so in a way to not just relay events, but also to witness to those events, testifying their meaning, that Jesus is The Lord, and then to explain, and teach about what Jesus being Lord means at the same time. John's Gospel fits this description the most. From the poetic prologue, "in the beginning there was the word" all the way to its final line,

"24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. [2]  

From the first to the last, John's Gospel is doing this, testifying to the fact that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the light, and that the light shines through in the darkness, despite anything, in the face of anything, against anything, there is nothing that can separate us from the light of Christ, not even ourselves, and we get reminded of that in this passage because this passage is more than just a simple reunion between the risen Jesus and his disciples. It is a story of forgiveness, redemption, and renewed mission. Let's take a look at the details here.
It starts with explaining that this is the third time that Jesus makes an appearance to the disciples. We've talked about them the last two weeks. The first is in the tomb, then later when Thomas becomes forever marked as the doubter, and then this one. It happens early in the morning, but we don't know how much time has passed from the last. It simply says this is the third time, it could have been weeks later. Look at what is going on, Peter decides that he is going fishing, and he asks the other listed disciples to join him, Thomas, Nathaniel, the Sons of Zebedee, and two others. So Peter is going fishing, makes sense after all he is a fisherman. At least he was, before all of this started, all of this. . .
Since that first day when Peter decided to follow he has been through so much. He's outspoken, he's the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, he walks on water but falters, but most of all, and still I'm sure fresh in his mind, he denies Jesus three times. And Jesus somehow knew he was, called him out about it, and of course Peter said, no way, there is no way I'll every deny you, but he did, and now here we are. I think it is significant that Peter is again fishing. It seems to me symbolic of him going back to his old life, doesn't it. I'm sure in feeling unworthy he needs something comfortable, and I think it will start just as that, a casual fishing trip, but then eventually he will forget, and move on. The comfort, the familiarity, he knows what to do when fishing, but he knows not what to do anymore, how could he falter, how could he deny, what does that make him? How is he at all worthy to call himself a disciple, and certainly not an apostle? What message is he fit to give? Certainly Jesus can't want him. . . right? So they go out fishing and they catch, of course, nothing.
This story should sound familiar, because the other three gospels include it as well, but all three of the other ones put this story, the pulling in of the full nets at the beginning of their gospel, at the beginning of Christ's mission, the original calling of the disciples, but John places it here, in his post resurrection play by play. There are two ways to think of this, and both of them are pretty cool. One could be that John puts it here because he knows that the story is familiar to the church community, that it is a great call story, and here the disciples are again being called, just as they had before by the Risen Christ, as if their whirlwind mission is about to commence, as it did before. The other, and slightly more cool possibility, okay not just slightly, it's really cool, is that Jesus does this twice, that Jesus called the disciples the first time by filling their nets with fish, and so does so again here. As if he is saying to Peter, "Peter I know, you denied me, I told you, you would I still call you. I still need you. I still want you to be my rock. I still want to build my church upon your shoulders. You may not know your worth, you may feel that you have none, that you have failed a test, but I don't work that way, I know your worth and I need you, so I say so again, follow me, I'll fill your net, and I will again make you a fisher of men." That is what this second full net seems to scream.
But here is where it's really cool. Look at what Peter does, because he is so very human. There is Peter in each one of us, the faith and the fear all bottled up inside us. So they catch nothing then they look back to shore. . .

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 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 sea.


So Peter get's told that it is the Lord, so he puts on his clothes, and then jumps into the sea. hmmm. Wouldn't it make more sense, if you were thinking about going for a swim to take your clothes off and then jump in the water. But he does the opposite, and now if that wasn't strange enough, why was Peter naked in the first place? I cannot claim to be an expert about the fishing practices of first century Galilee, but I wouldn't think they would have fished naked. But you may say, well what if he was worried about getting his clothes wet, maybe he took them off to protect him from the stray splash up of those pesky waves around him, but if he was so concerned about his clothes, why would he put them on to jump in the water. Crazy, crazy, again like Alice in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. . . have we truly entered wonderland? This is not sane behavior.
So why is this here, why does he act this way, there is a parallel here, a human behavior parallel, and it is back as far as we can go, remember in the Garden of Eden, God comes to walk with Adam in the cool of the day, but Adam and Eve have sinned, and so they hide in shame for they can see their nakedness, and cannot stand in their naked sin before God. Is this the same for Peter? Cannot he face Jesus now having denied him, knowing the truth, understanding the resurrection? Is it all too much at this point? Can he not stand in the face of pure righteousness, because he has sinned? Is he still hiding? Are we?
Now the story never mentions any of this again. It doesn't mention Peter drying his clothes, or swimming to shore, looking at the ground embarrassed talking with Jesus. And Jesus doesn't bring it up, it is not mentioned again, at all. It is as if it never happened, it is as if it is not important, it is as if something is different in the human relationship with Jesus, it is as if Jesus understands where Peter is coming from, where humans are coming from, where we are coming from. No need for explanation, they simply eat breakfast, all the miracle fish, and some bread. And then Jesus confronts Peter.

15 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.” 16 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.” 17 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. 18 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.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” [3]  

He doesn't bring up any of that craziness, he doesn't bring up the denial, he just get's down to business with Peter, asking do you love me, then feed my sheep, feed my lambs, and then finally, FOLLOW ME. Peter is called anew, as if nothing happened, forgiven, and still called. Around Christmas, talking about Mary's call, and it rings true again here for Peter, I had said, "to be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." Forget the past Peter, follow me, my love is unconditional, so I am with you still and will be always,  you are not abandoned, and therefore, you are still called. Peter, be about my business.
This forgiveness is how Jesus rolls, would it have been the same for Adam and Eve? If they had faced, instead of hiding, would all have been taken care of, forgiven? But remember the rest of their story, they do not own their guilt, they point fingers and blame each other. Peter doesn't necessarily own up to his issue, either, but though he flees, the relationship does get restored, is that the power of grace? Is that what happens, that no matter what we do, the relationship that Christ brings to us is there waiting with no strings, no explanations, just a mission to go and do, that the past and future far outweigh the past? To be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned. And again Christ seals the mission with the breaking of bread.
I don't know about you, but I need this message. I need this message because Christianity is difficult, the call is hard, and daily, hourly, weekly, I am tempted, I am threatened, I am filled with doubt, and so I deny. Just this week in my teaching I doubted my call. I believe certain things about the ability of my students, I have certain expectations, and often I am told by people around me that they cannot do it, they cannot meet my expectations and that I should change the way I teach, telling me it's not a big deal, but I feel very strongly that it is, but I faltered this week, I faltered because though I feel called to stand up for the truth, I succumbed to the pressure to forget that and go the easier way. Later in the week, up against the wall of tax season and pressure, and deadlines, and numbers, and frustration, I questioned is it all worth it? Oh my faltersome faith. But those things passed, and Jesus again filled my net. . .and just like he did for Peter it was real bread. It was tangible bread. The feeling alive you get when you are doing the right work, the right work at the right time, what you are born to do, and like manna from heaven, the bread of fulfilling life, real life, real bread fills you with strength and an undeniable feeling of what it means to be alive  because you are doing what you are meant to be doing, and the other stuff has been forgiven, but more forgotten.
There was no question. I faltered, it happens, but that doesn't mean my call changes, it doesn't mean my mission changes. The world says, be consistent, you can't do it, it's too hard, you've already failed, alter what you see as your call to what you can accomplish. . . but there is Jesus still saying, do you love me? well feed my lambs. The mission doesn't change, because you falter, because you temporarily fail, I'm with you, know that, be of faith, as small as a mustard seed, see the light shining in the darkness, it is there though so many choose the darkness, many will, you may even choose the darkness at one point or another, that's fine, but come into the light, dust yourself off, and go back to work. And when I went back to work he gave me a taste of that real bread. . . my faith was restored, and I knew again what I was to do. May we all experience that feeling of grace, may we all get a taste of that real bread, for it is truth and it is life. May it be so!



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:1-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:24-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 21:15-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.