Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Feast of Pentecost: 21 May 2009

Feast of Pentecost: 31 May 2009
(Acts 2:1-21/Psalm 104:24-34, 35b/Romans 8:22-27/John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)
Our Loquacious God

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth.
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Our God is loquacious, a description I first heard from William Willimon, though now I see it everywhere I look in Scripture. Loquacious: isn’t that a wonderful word? Loquacious: talkative, chatty, noisy – clamoring to be heard. No matter its true etymology, I think it’s a Southern word. A genteel Southern belle sits on the veranda sipping sweet iced tea, the smell of magnolia in the air. She’s surrounded by rambunctious, young nieces and nephews. She tilts her head just so, smiles at one of the mothers and says, “My, but your little one certainly is loquacious, bless her heart,” in the unique art form of Southern backhand compliment. “My, but your little one certainly is loquacious,” translates to, “My goodness, will this child ever be quiet?” Southerners understand without translation.

Our God is as loquacious as one of these children: talkative, chatty, noisy – clamoring to be heard. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, not by manual labor, but by speaking them into being. “Let there be,” God said, and there was, and it was good. God is loquacious and there is a cosmos to show for it.

The Lord said to Abram:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:1-2, NRSV).

God is loquacious and there is covenant, there is blessing to show for it.

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” spoke the voice from the bush.

“The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:6 ff).

And when Moses demurred – he could not speak for himself, much less for “I Am That I Am” – our loquacious God promised to make him loquacious.

“Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to speak” (Ex 4:11-12, NRSV).

God is loquacious and there is a liberated people, a free nation to show for it.

Our loquacious God spoke to and spoke through warriors and judges, priests and prostitutes, prophets and kings, and on at least one occasion, an ass. Loquacious: talkative, chatty, noisy – clamoring to be heard.

Sometimes people listened. Other times they tilted their heads just so, smiled and said, “My, but your little god certainly is loquacious, bless his heart.” These latter ones learned too late the power of God’s word: the depraved world of Noah’s generation, the wicked ones of Sodom and Gomorrah, Pharaoh and his armies, the Canaanite tribes, idolatrous and complacent Israel, rebellious Judah – all judged by the word of our loquacious God.

And though God speaks judgment, judgment is never the final word of our loquacious God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NRSV).

In Jesus, St. John sees God at his loquacious best, speaking light, and life, and redemption to man and restoration to all creation. From the fullness of our loquacious God and the word he spoke in Jesus, we truly have received grace and truth (John 1:14 ff). But even in Jesus, our loquacious God did not say all that can and must be said. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13, NRSV). There is more to be said and another voice yet to speak: the Lord, the Giver of Life, the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father.

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 (Acts 2:1-4, NRSV).

Rushing wind, tongues of fire, gifts of languages: clearly the attempts to silence the Word of God on the hard wood of the cross have failed. Our loquacious God has no intent of being silent. His word will go forth to every tribe and language and people and nation, creating a new kingdom of priests for our loquacious God, until myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands gather round the throne giving voice to all creation as they sing with full voice,

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
To receive power and riches and wisdom,
And strength and honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:9 ff)!

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: this is just the beginning. The sound of this mighty, rushing wind will go out to all lands, its message to the ends of the world (cf Ps 19:4).

It starts here in Jerusalem, though it will soon move to Judea and Samaria and beyond. It starts now, with the disciples speaking about God’s deeds of power. It starts with Peter – a fisherman – addressing a crowd of thousands in the name of the crucified and risen Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit of our loquacious God.

“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’” (Acts 2:16-21, NRSV).

What will Peter say on this great and glorious day? When our loquacious God breaks the silence of the tomb, when the Word rises victorious trampling down death by death, when the flaming tongue of the Holy Spirit rests upon Peter and the words burn in his bones, what will Peter say on this great and glorious day?

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promised of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22-24, 32-33, 36, NRSV).

“Write as if you were dying,” Annie Dillard challenges writers in her book The Writing Life – a challenge that applies equally well to preachers – perhaps better.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?[1]

Peter, what will you say to dying people that will not enrage by its triviality? Know with certainty this Jesus God has raised up and has made him both Lord and Messiah – this Jesus whom you crucified. This is the voice of our loquacious God in the person of the Holy Spirit, speaking through sons and daughters, young men and old men, slave and free, men and women – through Peter – speaking a new word: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39, NRSV).

And three thousand people heard the Lord God call that day. Three thousand people were baptized. Three thousand people received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand new tongues began to give voice to our loquacious God that day, and the word went out among them and through them, and we are their children. Our loquacious God is not silent; the word he spoke on Pentecost he speaks today. When the last benediction was written by the last apostle in the last book – “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (Rev 22:21) – when the last Amen was sounded, our loquacious God did not fall silent. The word he spoke he speaks still, through the body of Christ, the church, in whom the Spirit dwells: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Our loquacious God has spoken through warriors and judges, priests and prostitutes, prophets and kings, and on at least one occasion, an ass. He has spoken in a bush, in tablets of stone, in a still small voice and in a mighty rushing wind. He has spoken in dark cloud and blinding light. He has spoken in the Word made flesh, and in the disciples of that Word. And he is speaking still in the church, the pillar and foundation of the truth (cf 1 Tim 3:15). Loquacious: talkative, chatty, noisy – clamoring to be heard.

And, he is speaking through you – through all who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27, NRSV).

When we are bewildered and perplexed, when our prayers are reduced to inarticulate sighs, when our loquacious God seems strangely silent, we have this promise: the wind will blow and the Spirit will come with tongues of flame to speak in us and through us, and God who searches the heart will hear the intercession of the Spirit. Never is God silent. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” Paul writes (Eph 6:18, NIV). It is the only way we truly can pray. Our fathers in the faith tell us that if we devote ourselves to such prayer, the time will come when we fall silent and the prayer will pray itself through us – our loquacious God speaking again. Such is the work of the Spirit.

Yes, our loquacious God spoke on Pentecost and is speaking still, in myriads of voices: in Scripture, in the church, in the prayers of the saints. God’s is the voice of creation – of new creation. When God speaks, when his Spirit goes forth, we are re-created and all creation is renewed (cf Ps 104:30) – all a work in progress.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:22-23, NRSV).

We wait, we groan, we listen for the word that God is speaking to us, into us, and through us – a word that is making us new, re-creating us in the image of Christ, making us truly ourselves. Robert Benson speaks of this word.

We are, said Bob Mulholland, “an incarnate word, spoken by God, still being spoken by God.” And because we are still being spoken, the questions we have…are, in part, questions about listening for the incarnate word being whispered into us. They are questions about learning to open up to and becoming the word that was whispered into us. And is still being whispered into us.

Somewhere deep inside of me, perhaps in the truest and most holy part of me – the part of me that is the most me there is or ever will be – there is an echo of the Voice that spoke me into being and is still speaking the incarnate word who is Robert

or whatever the name is by which God calls you. Our loquacious God speaks our name and we listen and we are made new.

Our God is loquacious: talkative, chatty, noisy – clamoring to be heard. Pentecost is the promise that he speaks still: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

[1] Annie Dillard. The Writing Life. Harper Perennial. 1990.
[2] Robert Benson. The Echo Within. Waterbrook. 2009.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Feast of the Ascension: 24 May 2009

Feast of the Ascension: 24 May 2009
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Ephesians 1:15-23/Luke 24:44-53)
Going Away

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven: Come let us adore Him.

Though Trinity Church is neither Anglican nor Episcopalian, we nonetheless consider The Book of Common Prayer as our prayer book. From it we draw our daily offices, our collects, the Psalms, and large portions of various liturgies. This is true, in part, because The Book of Common Prayer[1] has a spiritually rich and theologically sound internal structure that embeds the life of the individual within the worshipping life of the church. “O Lord, open thou our lips. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,” the book invites us to say as we rise from the nonbeing of sleep to the daily re-creation of dawn. We go about our business of business or school until the noon bell – or its equivalent – rings to remind us how little aware we have been of God’s presence and providence, distracted as we often are by the cares and concerns of the day. “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us,” the book prompts us then to say as we recall Christ stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross at another noontime precisely to save us and to help us. Later that evening, home at last and surrounded by those given to us and those to whom we have been given, the book counsels us to “Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name.” There is marvelous and needed perspective in these words. While we have been about our affairs – and how important they sometimes seem as we strut about on the stage of our lives – God has been holding the universe together for us: constellations and orbits and tides. The Lord is his name. And though the One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, we must. So the book reminds us to die this small, daily death with the words of Jesus on our lips: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” We know only this, that through the grace of God we shall awake – here in the presence of family and friends or there in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. It makes little difference, really; either way, as the book reminds us, we are in God’s hands.

Each day the book calls us to embed our lives in the prayer the church – on earth and in heaven – prayer offered continually from the rising of the sun to its setting, that God’s name may be great among the nations.

Each week the book calls us to embed our lives in the worship of the church: to lift up our hearts to Lord; to give him thanks and praise; to remember his work of redemption; and to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as we break the bread of heaven and lift the cup of salvation.

Each year the book calls us to embed our lives in the feasts and fasts of the church: Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints, and back around again.

And in the largest cycle of all, the book calls us to embed the whole of our lives – not just the individual days and weeks and years, but the whole of our lives – in the larger story of the church, calls us to see the whole of our lives as sacramental: baptism, confirmation, marriage, childbearing, sickness, death, and burial. All of these events are sacred moments of transition experienced within the larger story that is God’s: from death to new and eternal life, from childhood to maturity, from isolation to union, from barrenness to fruitfulness, from bodily vigor to physical decline, from dust to dust, from death to new and eternal life and ultimately to resurrection – a lifetime, and beyond, of sacred transitions.

This day marks such a moment of transition in Jesus’ life and in the life of the church: the feast of the Ascension. Like the moments of transition in our lives, the Ascension, too, is embedded in the larger story of redemption from which it derives its meaning.

Forty days Jesus has been among us following his resurrection, popping up here and there, almost at random it seems. We’ve gotten used to looking for him: the familiar stranger around a campfire, the unknown companion on the way, the Lord with wounded hands and side. He might be anywhere, so we look everywhere. This day he appears to all of us together and leads us out as far as Bethany. There, he lifts his hands in blessing and, as his grace descends on us, he is caught up out of our sight into the clouds of heaven, ascending to the right hand of the Father. We stand, gaping open-mouthed, up into the clouds until our reverie is shattered by two men in dazzling white raiment – angels we know them to be – speak to us: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Luke 1:11, NRSV). And that’s it; he is gone. We do now just what he told us; we return to Jerusalem and wait and pray and fast. Something is coming, he has promised – something good. And so we wait.

This is the story of the Ascension. It is a story of leaving, a story of going away. We all are familiar with such stories; we celebrate them routinely. A child graduates high school and prepares to leave home for college; with a mixture of pride and sadness, we throw a party. A friend is relocated for work; with a mixture of nostalgia and best wishes, we throw a party. A colleague retires; with pure, unadulterated envy we nonetheless throw a party. A relative dies; with a mixture of grief and hope we throw a party, a wake. We celebrate the goings-away of our lives. Or do we?

What parent, having devoted eighteen years to love and worry and joy and struggle in the raising of a child, really wants to see that child grow distant? What person, having known true friendship, having shared a story and a history with another, really wants to see communion with the childhood friend and confidant reduced to infrequent, long distance phone calls or impersonal emails? What employee, having been mentored by a master, having been befriended by a respected colleague, really wants to see that trusted mentor leave the profession, laying aside the expertise and wisdom and grace with which he or she practiced the craft? What person ever wishes for the passing of another, for the ache that accompanies absence? Clearly, though we throw going-away parties, it is not the going-away that we celebrate, but the presence of the person with us in the past. Our going-away parties are really expressions of how very much a person means to us and of how very much we wish that person could stay.

And now comes the Ascension – Jesus’ going-away – one of the great feasts of the church. But why do we feast: to celebrate his leaving or to express how very much he means to us and how very much we wish he were still here? Given the choice, would you have Jesus visibly present with us as he was then, or visibly absent from us as he is now? Before you answer, consider how the Ascension is embedded in the larger story of redemption.

On the night he was betrayed Jesus spoke clearly to his disciples of his death and of his going-away.

4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

5"Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:4-15, NIV).

“It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says, for “unless I go away, the Counselor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.” Why, in the economy of God, Jesus must be absent for the Holy Spirit to be present is a mystery beyond our knowing, but it is so. And it is needful for us that the Holy Spirit be present – more needful, and so better, than having Jesus physically present with us. This is one of the rare cases, then, when we actually celebrate a going-away precisely as a going-away. Embedded within the larger story of redemption, we celebrate the departure, the Ascension, of Jesus because it is the essential precursor of the arrival, the Descent, of the Holy Spirit. The victory that Jesus won through his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit now implements through the church. “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says, and, though we miss him, we must agree.

When Jesus ascended, God

seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Eph 1:20b-23, NIV).

Embedded within the larger story of redemption, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus because it marks his exaltation to glory at the right hand of the Father and his appointment as head of the body, the church. And here, a great mystery unfolds. How can the head be where the body is not? If we are truly members of Christ’s body – and we are made so by grace, through faith, in baptism – then what is true for him must also be true for us. Where he is, there we must also be.

4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7, NIV).

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. Jesus’ ascension is our ascension. This is the Ascension embedded in the larger story of redemption – the reconciliation of man to God so that man might participate fully in the divine life of the Trinity, so that man might live in the very presence of God, so that God and man might abide in one another, sharing the divine nature and life. “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says. “Amen,” we say.

And if we do not yet perceive our citizenship in heaven, our exalted position in Christ? No matter: the prayer Paul offered for the Ephesian Christians he offers for us, as well:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places (Eph 1:17-20, NKJV).

Paul’s prayer receives its answer, in part, at every Eucharist.

“Lift up your hearts,” the Celebrant says in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the people respond, “We lift them to the Lord.” Closer to the theological reality of the Ascension is the Anaphora of Saint James, one of the most ancient of the Eucharistic liturgies.

“Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father, let our thoughts, minds and hearts be at this hour,” the priest chants. “They are with the Lord God,” the people respond, acknowledging the truth of the Ascension – that our thoughts, minds, hearts, and lives are even now present with and in Christ where he sits at the right hand of God the Father. It is as much Ascension as the other movements in the story – death and resurrection – that makes Eucharist possible. Ascension finds it meaning in the larger story and in turn gives meaning to the larger story.

It is all mystery how we can feel so earthbound when our hearts and lives are with the Lord in glory. It is, for now, beyond our knowing, but not beyond our faith. And so, in wisdom and grace, Mother Church calls us to the feast of the Ascension and to the Eucharistic Feast of Heaven and Earth, calls us to embed our story in the larger story of redemption, calls us to ascend with Christ and thus be forever with the Lord.


[1] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church, The Seabury Press, 1979.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sermon: 6 Pascha/ 6 Easter (17 May 2009)

Sermon: 6 Pascha/6 Easter (17 May 2009)
(Acts 10:44-48/Psalm 98/1 John 5:1-6/John 15:9-17)
Who’s In / Who’s Out

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

The reading from Acts 10 confronts the church with the challenging topic of inclusion, a topic surrounded with much heat and little light in the modern church. Miscommunication is more likely than understanding, in part because not everything that should be said can be said in the limited time available in sermon or lesson. Clarity depends largely upon shared history and a hermeneutic of trust in the church, and also upon the opportunity for give-and-take.

I have chosen not to preach from Acts 10, but rather to teach from it and to lead a discussion on this important issue for the church. What follows, then, is a very truncated summary of some of the issues we will address on this sixth Sunday of Pascha. I offer it simply to encourage your own thought and exploration of Scripture and the faith and practice of the church as we continue to announce to the whole world the good news that Christ is risen.

You notice an advertisement for a church – perhaps on a billboard, or in the newspaper religion section, or in the Yellow Pages – it makes little difference where, but you notice an advertisement that reads:

An Inclusive Faith Community

Now, clearly, code words are being used in the advertisement, particularly “inclusive faith community.” What are we intended to hear in those code words?

If our ears are attuned to current concerns – the past twenty years or so – we likely hear inclusive faith community as “GLBT accepting and affirming.” Saint Somebody’s probably welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, affirms their sexuality, and incorporates them fully into the life and leadership of the church. Of course, there is a spectrum of belief and practice among inclusive churches, but I think this fairly captures the intent of the words as I’ve seen them used.

But, forty years ago, the debate in the mainline churches was not over accepting and affirming gays and lesbians; rather, it concerned the role of women in the life and leadership of the church: 1974 was a turning point and marked the beginning of female ordinations to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. For a few years following, “inclusive faith community” might well have meant accepting and affirming of female ministry and leadership. Context and timing are everything, aren’t they?

Go back even farther into the earliest decades of my childhood in the south, particularly the 1960s. A hypothetical Baptist church in Mississippi or Alabama with a sign outside proclaiming it “an inclusive faith community” – though they would not have used those words – would have been making a bold and dangerous racial statement: Negroes are welcome here and are accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ. I still remember as a child listening to the “old men” – my grandfather among them – standing on the church steps between Sunday School and Preachin’ debate what we should do if a Negro showed up at our church. I’m not proud of some of the discussion – at least as I remember it – but those were very different times and it is perhaps not fair to judge them by our modern perspectives.

We could go back farther, still, to the infancy of the church, to the first century. James, bishop of Jerusalem and brother of our Lord, admonished the church to be an inclusive faith community. What did he mean? Welcome and include the poor.

2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9, NRSV).

I mention these few examples – and many others could be cited from throughout the church’s history – merely to show that inclusion has always been a difficult issue for the church. We grapple – as did our fathers and mothers in the faith – with fundamental questions: (1) To whom is the Gospel accessible? and (2) What are the requirements for and the limits of Christian fellowship?

In the first reading appointed for this sixth Sunday of Pascha (Acts 10:44-48) Peter is confronted with these very questions as he finds himself addressing a roomful of gentiles in the home of the God-fearing, Roman Centurion, Cornelius. (Acts 10 details how God arranged this meeting for Peter.) As Peter proclaims the Gospel to these gentiles – really an unthinkable act just days earlier – the Holy Spirit fills them in a second Pentecost not unlike the first one in Jerusalem. God has spoken: first in the Great Commission, next in Peter’s vision in Joppa, and now in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Do not call unclean what I have cleansed. While the Gospel is the fulfillment of the Jewish Law and Covenants, it is now accessible to all people, to all nations. Through Abraham and his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

It is there is the Psalm.

98 Cantate Domino

1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.

2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.

3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in
the sight of the nations.

4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to
the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the
victory of our God.

5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

6 Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.

7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.

8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.

9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.

10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.

Sing to the Lord a new song. Why? Because in Jesus he has done a new and marvelous thing, and the old songs won’t do to describe it and to sing God’s praise for it. With his right hand and holy arm he has won the victory and has made it known in the sight of all nations. His mercy and faithfulness to Israel He has now extended to the ends of the earth.

To whom is the Gospel accessible? For whom is it intended? For Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, white and Negro, gay and straight – for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, for all whom the Lord our God shall call. In light of Pascha we have great, good news: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. He has conquered sin, death, and hell. He has inaugurated the Kingdom of God and has begun to put all things to rights. He has reconciled man to God and incorporated man – male and female – into the divine life. And he has done so on behalf of all and for all.

But to say that the Gospel is intended for everyone is not to say enough. We must also say that, if the Gospel is for everyone, then it is for everyone in the same way. Just as there is no distinction in who may come to the Gospel, there is no distinction in how we must come to the Gospel. The way of inclusion is the way of faith, repentance, baptism, and conversion. Writing an explanation and defense (apology) of Christian faith and practice in the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr gave the parameters for Eucharistic fellowship:

And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined (Justin Marty, First Apology, Ch. 66).

All may be included in the Gospel, but only those are included who share the faith once for all delivered to the saints, who change the direction and focus of their lives, who die to sin and rise to new life in Christ through baptism, and who walk the path of life-long conversion, living as Christ himself and as Christ through his body the church has taught.

The church is and always must be an inclusive faith community in these two ways: that it offers the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone – no exceptions, and that it requires from everyone faith, repentance, baptism, and conversion – no exceptions.

Thanks be to God for his mercy and faithfulness, for his victory which has gone out into all the earth. Amen.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sermon: 5 Pascha/5 Easter (10 May 2009)

Sermon: 5 Pascha/ 5 Easter (10 May 2009)
(Acts 8:26-40/Psalm 22:25-31/1 John 4:7-21/John 15:1-8)
The Abiding Life

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

This is among the greatest tragedies of the human condition: that we were made for so much and that we settle for so little. It is both consequence and symptom of the fall of man, and it all began in the Garden. Examples abound and their effects ripple outward creating a modern tsunami.

18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, ' for she was taken out of man."
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh Gen 2:18, 21-24, NIV).

Man – male and female – was made for human love and intimacy, for the union of body and soul, for the joining of a man and a woman into a new person greater than either individual. But we often settle for much less: for casual, sexual hook-ups, for extra-marital affairs, for lust instead of love and encounters instead of intimacy. Frankly, both the culture and the church often make too big an issue of sex – though often on different ends of the spectrum. It’s not that sex is so big; it’s that sex is much too small. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Man was placed in a garden of God’s making, a place of abundance and harmony and beauty, a place pronounced good and very good by God himself. Man was made to dwell in such a world in which God is everywhere present and fillest all things, in which God’s beauty permeates all creation. But we settle for a world filled with strip malls and strip mines and strip clubs. We settle for creation stripped clean of God until only nature remains, and then we use that nature as a tool, despoiling it and poisoning it and ourselves in the process. It’s not that environmental impact is such a big concern; in fact, it’s too small. Even a pristine, verdant world absent God can never be a place of true abundance and harmony and beauty. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Man was created and invited to walk in the wisdom of holy obedience and to eat from the tree of life. Man was made to commune with God and to live forever. But, we settled for less – much less – trading the wisdom of holy obedience for the knowledge of good and evil, and we have mistaken knowledge for wisdom ever since. Our knowledge now allows us to argue God out of existence, to create weapons of mass destruction, to discover the genetic code and to plumb the mysteries of life all the while destroying life through abortion and execution and war and simple neglect, through pride and willfulness instead of humility and holy obedience. Knowledge is not such a big deal. Without the wisdom of holy obedience, knowledge is far too small. We were created for so much, yet we settle for so little.

Created for glory, we settle for reality television. Created for purpose, we settle for distraction. Created for life, we settle for existence. Created for the transcendent, we settle for the ordinary. This is among the greatest tragedies of the human condition: that we were made for so much and that we settle for so little. We have traded down as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome – an accurate and scathing indictment of the fallen human condition.

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen (Rom 1:18-25, NIV).

We are made for so much and we settle for so little. And the church is not immune from such compromise; our faith is not exempt from such settling for less. The modern, Western church – and I am not qualified to speak of anything else – often contents itself with forgiveness of past sins and plasters “I’m not perfect – just forgiven!” bumper stickers on cars and lives. But what about holiness and righteousness and, yes, perfection (Mt 5:48), which was Jesus’ command? What about victory over the passions which wage war within and against us, which lead us away from God and not toward him? Why settle for less? The modern, Western church – and I suspect most other expressions of the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church, as well – often contents itself with a hope for everlasting life in heaven in some far distant future – life after death. But what about life before death and life after life-after-death[1]? What about the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10)? What about the peace that passes understanding, the joy amid trials, the faith that sustains, the hope that assures, the love that is greatest of all? Surely these are not reserved for a distant, disembodied, future afterlife? Why settle for less? The modern, Western church – and I speak as a child of that Mother Church whom I love with all my heart – often contents itself with producing nice people; good citizens; champions of at least 7 of the 10 Commandments; family folk; hardworking, stable, and respectable individuals who contribute to their communities and – hopefully – tithe to their churches. And, in the main, there is nothing wrong with any of this – nothing wrong unless that is all there is, unless that is the highest aspiration the church has for its children, unless the church settles and teaches us all to settle for less than we are intended to be and to have and to do.

We are called to more than all this. All of us as disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of God are called to more than all this. We are called to nothing less than perfect union with Christ our Lord, to such total mutuality that with Paul we can say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20, NIV). We are called to share the very life of Christ in the organic way that branches share the life of the vine. We are called to the abiding life.

15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
15:2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
15:3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
15:6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples (John 15:1-8, NRSV).

To have the very life of Jesus flowing through us, giving us life, cleansing us, healing us, transforming us, making us fruitful to the glory of God: this is the abiding life and this is what we are meant for and called to – this and nothing less. The abiding life is salvation – not the distant hope of heaven when you die, but the complete healing of body, mind, and spirit; the full restoration of the image of God to fallen man; the progression toward the full likeness of God – all begun here and now (I’m certain) and all continued there and then (I suspect). The abiding life is gift and struggle, grace and works: for “by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8, NIV). Now, “therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13, NIV). There is no dichotomy here, just the simple truth that “the artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”[2]

You received this gift of grace at your baptism when you were washed clean and sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever. As Jesus told Nicodemus he must be, you were born again – born anew, born from above – born of water and the Spirit, and in that instant of grace you began the abiding life – filled with the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, Christ’s own life coursing through you. What you do with that life, whether you continue in it, is largely up to you. If with Paul you want to say, and say truly, for me to live is Christ (Phil 1:21), there is much work to be done, moment-by-moment throughout life. Abiding life is decision and commitment and work. It is a high, and sometimes hard calling; but it is the only one worthy of you.

Jesus says that if we abide in him and his words abide in us we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us (John 15:7). If you want to see what that looks like in a human life – Jesus’ words abiding in a man and that man living the abiding life, working out his salvation with fear and trembling – you could do worse than look to Francesco di Bernardone – Francis of Assisi. This man, who stood to inherit so much at the beginning of his life, owned practically nothing at its end: a tattered, brown robe distinctive of his order and a Gospel book. Even then, he did not so much own the Gospel book as it owned him; Jesus’ words were his life.

Francis took a most simplistic approach to Scripture; he obeyed. He took Scripture not as a document to be studied but as a script to be acted. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” Jesus told the rich man (Mt 19:21, NIV). Francis did just that. Sending out the Twelve to preach the good news and herald his coming, Jesus instructed them, “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff” (Mt 10:9, NIV). Francis traveled in precisely this way: penniless, unshod, and “carefree in the care of God” (Lk 12:22, MSG). “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12a, NIV), Francis read and for the sake of the Gospel endured the mockery of Assisi, the anger and persecution of his father, and the betrayal of brothers in Christ – all with rejoicing. Perhaps the greatest commentary ever written on the Gospel – and certainly on the Sermon on the Mount – was written not in words, but in the life of St. Francis.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” Jesus promised. And what did Francis wish?

Most High Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. And give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom, and perception that I may always do what is truly your most holy will.

This was Francis’ wish; this was Francis’ prayer.

We look at Francis and see what he gave up. Francis saw only what he gained by abiding in Christ. We look at Francis and see extreme poverty. Francis saw only great riches acquired through a most laudable exchange: the things for earth for the things of heaven, the things of time for the things of eternity[3]. We look at Francis and see radical extremism. Francis saw only the abiding life – the call of every disciple of Christ. How can we live like that? we ask Francis. How can you not? he asks us in return.

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Zusya once said, “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?” I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?”[4] Surely, we will never be asked, “Why did you not live as Francis lived?” I pray we may never be asked instead, “Why did you never live when I came that you might have life – abundant life, abiding life?”

To have the very life of Jesus flowing through us, giving us life, cleansing us, healing us, transforming us, making us fruitful to the glory of God: this is the abiding life and this is what we are meant for and called to – this and nothing less.


[1] Life after life-after-death is a phrase used frequently by Bishop N. T. Wright to emphasize the bodily resurrection of the believer and his eternal life in the new heavens and new earth, cf. Rev 21. He distinguishes this from the more prevalent misconception of a disembodied existence in heaven.
[2] Emile Zola, French novelist and critic.
[3] From Laudable Exchange, John Michael Talbot.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sermon: Good Shepherd Sunday (4 Easter/3 May 2009))

Sermon: 4 Pascha – Good Shepherd Sunday – (3 May 2009)
(Acts 4:5-12/Psalm 23/1 John 3:16-24/John 10:11-18)
Feed My Sheep

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christos anesti! Alithos Anesti!

We are now near the midpoint of Pascha: a bit more than half way to Ascension, a bit less than half way to Pentecost – a between time that calls us to reflect on what has happened and what is yet to come. The church has contemplated these events for two millennia – in prayer and hymn, in sacred art and architecture, in liturgy and theology – and still they are no less mystery than in those first forty days between resurrection and ascension. Often after teaching the crowds in parables Jesus would draw the Twelve aside and ask, “Have you understood all these things?” This is such a moment when Jesus calls the church aside from the headlong, joyous rush of Pascha to ask, “Have you understood all these things, and do you know what I have done for you?” Like the Twelve we say, “Yes, Lord.” Like a master teacher who truly knows his students, Jesus explains anyway.

“I am the good shepherd,” he says, invoking a central image in Hebrew experience and scripture: God as shepherd of Israel. The patriarchs understood. As Jacob prepared to be gathered to his fathers, he blessed his grandsons in the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who had been shepherd to him.

“May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
the Angel who has delivered me from all harm –
may he bless these boys” (Gen 48:15-16a, NIV).

The poet Asaph understood as he sang to the Lord a psalm, a plea for deliverance.

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock,
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved (Ps 80:1-3, BCP).

The prophets understood, Isaiah chief among them as he looked forward to the end of exile and the advent of the Messiah.

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
and his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (Is 40:10-11, NRSV).

And David understood – perhaps David understood best of all – for

[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them (Ps 78:70-72, NIV).

David, the shepherd of the people of God, understood God to be his Shepherd. And so, David’s great shepherd’s psalm rings with a beauty and truth and authenticity that speak across the millennia.

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;

For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Ps 23, NKJV).

God as shepherd: no other image so deeply and indelibly formed Israel’s understanding of the Lord – the Lord who led Abram from his father’s house in Ur to become the father of nations; the Lord who delivered Abraham’s children from bondage in Egypt and led that flock forty years in the wilderness, bringing them at last to a land flowing with milk and honey; the Lord who raised up the shepherd David to shepherd the flock of God; the Lord who gathered his scattered flock from among the nations and brought them home from exile.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Moses and David; the God of Isaiah and all the prophets. I am that good shepherd,” is what he meant. And as startling as that claim surely was, what he does to the image of the Shepherd of Israel is more startling still. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NKJV). None that have gone before – neither Abraham nor Moses, neither David nor Isaiah – could possibly have understood this, could possibly have understood the death of their Shepherd and their Lord. It is only from our position near the midpoint of Pascha that such a radical change to the image of shepherd begins to make sense. Jesus, the good shepherd, did indeed lead us into the valley of the shadow of death, as David foresaw. And there, he laid down his life for the sheep. The rod and staff that comforted us were none other than the beams of the cross upon which the good shepherd died. And in his death, through his death, he prepared a table for us – a table laden with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – a table spread in the presence of our ancient and now defeated enemies: Satan and sin and death and hell. He anointed us there with the oil of gladness, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely with goodness and mercy he prepared a place for us, a place where we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And he sent us on along paths of righteousness to green pastures and still waters, places that restore the soul. He sent on us while he remained behind in that valley, in that shadow of death.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.” And here Jesus resurrects the image of the fallen shepherd and brings it forth in glory. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again,” (John 10:11, 18, NKJV). The images twist and turn and transform one into another: the good shepherd becomes the Lamb of God who gives his life as a ransom for many and then takes it up again to become the Lamb upon the Throne and to receive the praise of all creation:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:12, NRSV).

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said, and now, at this between time near the midpoint of Pascha, we begin to see what he meant. The sheep – all the fallen, image-bearers of God, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, Jew and gentile alike – were scattered. In the wisdom and mystery and grace of God, the Good Shepherd came among them, led them through the valley of the shadow of death, and laid down his own life for them. In taking up his life again, he called all the scattered flocks to himself that there might be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16), that all might return to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls (1 Pe 2:25).

Why did he do this? Love. It is the only answer given and the only answer that makes any sense of this mystery. “By this we know love,” John writes, “because He laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16a, NKJV). And this same love that binds us as one flock to the one shepherd binds us also to one another, so that John continues, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16b, NRSV). Don’t make this commandment – and, yes, it is a commandment – bigger than it is. It is a commandment kept mainly in the small things, in the hidden martyrdoms of life, as John makes clear. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help” (John 3:17 (NRSV)? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the prisoners: this is what John means, this is how we lay down our lives for one another – in a thousand small ways, in a thousand hidden martyrdoms. I wonder where John got such an idea?

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me' (Mt 25:32-40, NIV).

What a twist on the ancient image, that now the sheep are to becomes shepherds for one another: leading one another to green pastures and still waters – to places that restore the soul; walking together through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil because God is present, not least in the love and fellowship of a brother or sister; preparing a table, breaking bread, and pouring wine; showing goodness and mercy – all done for the least of the sheep by the least of the sheep, all done for the Good Shepherd.

Once Peter stood where we now stand, at the midpoint of Pascha, though he had no idea that Ascension and Pentecost were to come. He still had one foot in his past so he decided to do what he knew best; he got his boat and nets and went fishing. If he hoped the distraction would ease his mind and help sort things out, he was mistaken; it was a miserable, long night with no fish to show for his effort. John takes up the story.

4Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered.
6He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught."
11Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep” (John 21:4-17, NIV).

Jesus pulls out all the stops here, reminding Peter of their shared experiences: the miraculous catch of fish, the feeding of the 5000, the institution of the Eucharist – and all this to restore Peter to his role as shepherd. “Feed my sheep,” is Jesus’ command to Peter, first among the Apostles, rock upon which the church is built. “Feed my sheep,” is Jesus’ command to us. “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

And now,

20May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21, NIV).