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May 25, 2016, 9:03 AM

Faith Under Fire


by Sandy Bach

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.  (Acts 16:16-34 NRSV)

There are slaves and there are slaves.

There are slaves trapped in mental illness; slaves to addictions; slaves captured by lust for other things that get in the way of their relationship with God.

The slave girl in our story certainly is enslaved.  Luke doesn’t even tell us her name.  She probably has a mental illness; some suggest schizophrenia.  It has given her the ability to read people’s fortunes.  Whether they are true or not, probably doesn’t matter, as long as she continues making money for her owners.

She is owned by others; she has no freedom; she is locked in her illness.   Perhaps her fortune-telling skills tend to be truthful, because she definitely recognizes Paul and Silas accurately: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

She’s also a pest.  Day in and day out she catches up with Paul and harangues the crowds with her words, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She’s relentless.  Paul and Silas try to slip out the back door and through the alleyways.  There she is, waiting for them.  They leave home early, she’s there.  They leave home late, she’s there.

No matter what they do, she continues her tirade: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Finally, Paul can stand no more.  Is he angry at a system that uses women like her for profit?  Is he embarrassed?  Is he tired of her stocking him?  Or has her voice finally gotten on his last nerve?

We don’t know, however he puts up with it for several days before he finally turns to speak, not to her, but to the demon.  “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to come out of her.”  And it does.  This side-lined slave girl continues to be sidelined in our story.  We have no idea what happened to her.  Did Paul do her a favor by releasing the demon from her or not?  I truly hope she found a place in the house church that Lydia supported.

With her healing, though, we’re led to the next group of slaves:  her owners.  They are slaves of the almighty denarius ; slaves of wealth; slaves of fear of anyone who doesn’t look and act like them.  They're anger and fear won't permit them to marvel at the miracle of healing.  No, these men have to be dealt with!  They gather Paul and Silas up and take them before the magistrates.

And here we meet the next set of slaves.  Government officials enslaved by power and stature.  They can’t dismiss the charges or they’ll appear soft on crime.  Perhaps, they too, are afraid of others who aren’t like them.  Caught up in the trappings of their position, they, too, are unable to marvel at a miracle of healing.

Then we meet the jailer.  He holds the keys to the freedom that his prisoners long for.  But, as the holder of the keys, he is enslaved to Rome’s military who will not go leniently if he loses prisoners.

Finally, we hear a little bit about the prisoners.  Those who have done things to hurt society, they, too, slaves.

Slaves of disease and illness; of money and wealth; of power and stature; of job and career.  Only two men in this story aren’t slaves to society: the prisoners, Paul and Silas.  They remain in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, singing hymns and praying.  Don’t you wonder what the others in the prison are thinking?  Yet, the text tells us they listened.  It's as if they listened and heard the message.

We’ve experienced earthquakes quite a bit the past few years.  I remember an earthquake that touched my home in the dark of night.  It scared me; I didn’t know what was happening.  But that earthquake was only a rumble next to the one that hit Philippi that night.  It shook the foundations; would the roof fall in on them?  Look the doors are standing open.  And how did my chains come loose?  Quickly the jailer comes from his nearby home to check on the prisoners.

His worst fears have come to pass: the jail is unlocked and the prisoners have surely escaped.  He’ll do the honorable thing, but he’ll do it his way.  He’ll fall on his sword.  Paul figures it out and calls out: “We’re all here!”

And that was Paul and Silas’ testimony: they didn’t run.  They stayed where they were, not because they were guilty of anything, but because they were men of faith who would see this difficult situation through.

People of faith are like that.  They see slavery in all walks of life: fear of immigrants; fear of Muslims or African-Americans or anyone who doesn't like them; fear of our quickly changing world; love of money, prestige and power; love of anything that impedes their relationship with God.  People of faith identify enslavement both in themselves and in others.

People of faith pray to God for release from those demons in themselves and others.  And they keep praying, trusting that transformation is happening, day by day.  They see the world around them from 30,000 feet and know there’s a better way to be.  They read about Jesus and try to emulate him, even the hard stuff like eating with sinners and tax collectors.

People of faith testify to the love of Christ by simply being.  Their actions speak louder than words.  Their love crosses the divides of race, gender, culture, economy and stature.

When the jailer met Paul and Silas in that jail cell, free in more ways than one, he wanted to be a part of that.  “Tell me what I need to do,” he asked.  And his first response to his new life of transformation was to care for the prisoners.  He brought them into his home and tended their wounds.

What challenges have you faced?  What challenges you today? What have you done in the past to remain faithful in your response to the challenge?

Prayer.  So easy that it’s almost too easy.  Or is it?  Sure, we can pray for the ordeal to be over.  However, resting in prayer and learning to listen for Christ’s voice brings about understanding and insight.  Resting in prayer brings a sense of peace and well-being, knowing that no matter how it turns out, God will not abandon and God is still in charge.

Talk with others who have come through a similar situation.  Someone you can trust who can help you remain faithful and will remain in prayer with you and for you.

A friend recently suggested to me that people don't go to church because they think they have to get their lives in order before they're good enough to enter.  If they only knew!  If they only knew that sitting in those seats and pews are slaves to all manner of ailments.  If they only knew that what they see are people who aren't good enough, but come anyway.  If they only knew what awaited them: hope, forgiveness, healing, acceptance.

There are slaves and there are slaves.  Today, I pray that you can honor that part of you that is captured and hurting.  Recognize it and honor it and spend time with God.  Live into hope.  Trust that healing will come.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 2, 2016, 10:19 AM

Gospel Hospitality


11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[a] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.  (Acts 9:11-15 NRSV)

So far, in our two-week journey through Acts, we’ve encountered some interesting people with engaging stories.  Peter is summoned to Joppa for the sake of a woman whose ministry is caring for widows.  He brings her back from the dead.

Peter is then summoned to Jerusalem to answer for his actions in ministering to and eating with Gentiles.

Visions abound.  The Holy Spirit is active.  People from all walks of life are led by the Spirit to be converted: women, gentiles, Romans, the wealthy.  The Spirit is able to overcome road blocks: gentiles hostile to Jews, Jews doubting the gentiles, discussion and debate, even dissension in the church.   It would seem that nothing could get in the way of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit.

Today we meet Lydia: a woman, probably a gentile and she’s wealthy.  She seeks more in her life, though.  Her spiritual life craves God.  So she meets with other women by the river to pray.

Meanwhile, Paul and his associates are attempting to spread the gospel.  They travel through Asia, repeatedly blocked by the Holy Spirit from preaching.  They arrive on the coast of the Aegean Sea opposite modern-day Greece.  They endeavor to enter an area close by.  “No,” says the Spirit.  “Not here.”

Ministry is like that.  We show up with a great plan and enthusiasm and energy only to have our hopes dashed.  The Holy Spirit has blocked the way, always with good reason.  It takes awhile for us to understand that reason, though.

Just as Paul decides to sit tight, he has a vision.  Lots of visions appear in Acts.  What visions have you experienced?

This vision essentially says, “Your ministry is in Macedonia.  Get going.”  The next few verses indicate a sense of urgency in their travel plans: from Troas across a peninsula to Samothrace Island and then they land in Neapolis.  (I’m told that this is the same journey the Syrian migrants take to find a home in Europe.)  From there a short journey to Philippi.

They settle in for a few days.  Come the Sabbath, they head for a place of worship.  What led them outside the city gate?  What drew them to the river’s edge?  They know they’ve arrived when they see them:  a group of women.  Paul crosses all kinds of barriers to minister to them.  They are women, at least one is wealthy and they’re gentiles.  He begins to speak.

Lydia is among the women.  She’s from Thyatira, a city known for its production of purple dye. Purple is the color of royalty and it’s illegal for anyone outside of the royal family to purchase it.  She’s a unique woman; wealthy and successful, able to move in a world completely dominated by men.  That day she arrives at the river not knowing her life is about to change forever.

Paul, on his way somewhere else and blocked at every turn meets Lydia and helps her fill that need in her spiritual life.  What were the chances they’d meet up in Philippi?  Pretty good, if you consider the Holy Spirit is at work.

As I said, a lot happens in Acts by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Barriers of race, gender and economic means are crossed.  The church becomes a place for Jew and Greek, men and women.  And next week we’ll learn about the barrier of slave and free.

It’s in Acts that we learn of the origins of Deacons: those chosen to serve the widows and others in need.  Today we learn another important part of the life of the church:  that of radical hospitality.  Lydia prevailed upon Paul and his entourage to stay at her home.  She has responded to God’s call on her life.  Now she responds to this call by caring for the messengers of the Word.

Plans blocked by the Holy spirit.

Leaders pointed in a different direction.

Ministry to non-Jews and women.

All leads up to radical hospitality. One could well ask, “What is this first century church coming to?”

In our 21st century church of declining members, churches closing, the increase of no church involvement or belief, one may well ask, “What is Christ’s Church coming to?”

I suggest the church is becoming better at listening to the real needs of people and are learning to pay attention to the Holy Spirit.  I suggest that the vision of the man of Macedonia pleading and saying, “Come over here and help us,” is that sector of our society labeled, “spiritual but not religious.”  These are the Lydia’s who don’t know what church can be and that there is living water here for their thirsty hearts.

What is this 21st century church coming to?  What I believe is this:  the Spirit is still active and God isn’t finished with us, yet.

So, we can sit in sack cloth and ashes and immerse ourselves in gloom and doom.  Or we can be a part of God’s plan, discerning the call of the Holy Spirit and reaching out to those whose paths cross ours.  And when we meet up with them, we can be authentic, caring Christians who meet people where they are and honor their pain and their joys.

And that’s how we begin to offer gospel hospitality.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Are there barriers that you’ve erected from those who aren’t like you?  Are they appropriate barriers or not?
  2. What would it look like for us to reach out to the “spiritual but not religious?”
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April 24, 2016, 7:04 PM

Transforming Change


by Sandy Bach

5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven... 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  (Acts 11:5-9;17 NRSV)

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Well, I’m human, for one.  I’ve lived through six decades, each one stranger than the last.  I live in an age that has adapted to a new form of warfare; truth has become relevant;and exponential change everywhere I turn.

In my opinion, that’s enough reason to hinder God.  I would never want to discover that I’m getting in I God’s way.  But, the truth is, I probably do it on a regular basis.

Perhaps, though, we could learn more from the times when we didn’t hinder God.

Several years ago I decided to wander through my favorite bookstore.  I could always find a good book there and simply wandering the aisles was pleasant.  After an hour of wandering, no book was found to be bought.  Somewhat surprised, I left the store.  Just as the door closed behind me, I saw her coming into the store.  Melanie.  We hadn't seen each other in years.  We took the next half hour catching up on our news.

Then she asked me about a situation that had occurred in my life a few years back.  We talked for a while and I share that the pain was still with me.  I had failed as a parent and was trying to find a way to forgive myself.  I can't remember what Melanie said that day, but her words began the real healing of my broken heart.

Before we parted ways that day, we both acknowledged that we had been led to this place in front of the book store.  I will always see that as the work of the Holy Spirit: that I was brought to a place where Melanie could begin my healing process.

When have you sensed the Holy Spirit alive your life?

From the time Jesus met Peter on the beach and asked him, “Do you love me?” three times, we’ve had glimpses of a stronger man, more determined to serve our Lord and growing in maturity and power.  The more he experienced, the more he grew.

Was he excited to return to Jerusalem and meet up with friends in the faith?  Was he surprised at his welcome; or, rather, lack of welcome?  “What are doing eating with those people?  They’re not like us, Peter.  They’ll defile our faith.  We’ll lose our center.  Besides, what they eat is yucky.  It’s just not right.”

Peter could have responded with argument; with theological debate; with anger.  Instead, he shared his story and brought them in to the scene for them to experience it themselves.  By the end of the story, they must have felt as if they had been there with Peter, seeing that sheet lowered down from heaven from its four corners; sensing the Holy Spirit empowering him to enter into the gentile world and share the good news.

“How could I hinder God?” asked Peter.

“You couldn’t,” replied the rest of the apostles.  This wasn’t the end of the debate, though.  Eventually, there would be the first Jerusalem Council and they would have to discern how best to welcome gentiles into the faith: through circumcision, or not.

The Spirit has certainly been alive in this building the past few years.  Our congregation has grown in numbers, but more than that, we’ve grown spiritually and we’re open to new things that God is doing in the life of the church.  Most recently we opened our doors to our Methodist brothers and sisters.  For two-and-a-half years, they’ve nested in our building so they can continue in ministry without the enormous burden of building upkeep.

We didn’t move quickly, though.  With the diligent and faithful work of a parish council made up of members of both of our congregations, the potential road blocks were removed.  Our relationship has grown stronger.

Now a new opportunity emerges for the Methodist church.  With the announcement of their minister being moved to a new charge,  they are looking at several possible options:

Ongoing pulpit supply

Tent maker pastor.  Someone who works for a living and serves the church on a limited basis.

A lay pastor, licensed by the Methodist Church to serve part time.

Retired Minister.  Again, part time, but someone willing to keep their hand in during their retirement years.

Federating.  Two congregations with one pastor: me.

That’s where we come in.  How do we discern the Holy Spirit speaking to us on federating, with the possibility of being one church some day in the future?  Where to begin is the first question and the answers are as many as our creative minds can come up with.

This past week, I encountered a vision during my mediation time.  I pictured our two congregations worshiping together once or twice a month at 11:00.  A worship committee made up of representatives from each congregation meeting weekly to unpack our bulletins.  What is the order of worship for each church?  Why do we do it that way?  What holds meaning for us?  How might we create an order of worship that speaks to everyone in the pew?

The Methodists could see my particular style and learn my theological beliefs with an eye to determining if they could live with me as their preacher. And, think of twice the number of people worshiping together in this place!  You could sing those hymns as loud as you want!

Peter’s vision led him to new places and opened him up to new ideas.  The word of God spread quickly because he refused to hinder God.

My vision may never take place, and I’m okay with that.  Its purpose has been to open me up to new possibilities.  I look forward to the future, however it may turn out.  I invite you to envision the future as well, whether it’s as a faith community joined with another in worship and ministry, or moving forward as separate congregations.

What if? Is the question of the day.  Be open to the Holy Spirit as you imagine what God holds for us in the future.

Peter asked the question, and now it’s our turn to ask it.  Who am I that I could hinder God?

Let’s move forward together in love, ministering to God’s people wherever they may be.  Let’s move forward in faith, knowing that we won’t be abandoned, but guided by the hand of God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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April 18, 2016, 10:30 AM

Marks of a Healing Community


by Sandy Bach

36-37 Down the road a way in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, “Gazelle” in our language. She was well-known for doing good and helping out. During the time Peter was in the area she became sick and died. Her friends prepared her body for burial and put her in a cool room.

38-40 Some of the disciples had heard that Peter was visiting in nearby Lydda and sent two men to ask if he would be so kind as to come over. Peter got right up and went with them. They took him into the room where Tabitha’s body was laid out. Her old friends, most of them widows, were in the room mourning. They showed Peter pieces of clothing the Gazelle had made while she was with them. Peter put the widows all out of the room. He knelt and prayed. Then he spoke directly to the body: “Tabitha, get up.”

40-41 She opened her eyes. When she saw Peter, she sat up. He took her hand and helped her up. Then he called in the believers and widows, and presented her to them alive.

42-43 When this became known all over Joppa, many put their trust in the Master. Peter stayed on a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.  (Acts 9:36-43 The Message)

Tabitha
She’s a faithful disciple with the heart of a deacon. Her ministry is in the care of widows – one of the most vulnerable in the community. Word of her works has spread some distance in both the gentile and Jewish communities. She is not one of the poor, but a woman with an upper room, which tells us that she is financially well off.

She’s an important member of the Christian community and a god-send to the widows. Every day she risks her economic stability and possibly her own health for the sake of those in dire need. Every day she is empowered by God to serve.

Sadly, though, she gets sick and dies. Was it due to a lack of self-care or something else? Whatever the reason, all faith communities know that even when ministry is going well and thriving, none of us can escape heart ache.

The Disciples
They worship God and listen to Jesus’ voice. They are willing to submit to the authority of Peter. They know him to be a healer. They need healing, a funeral service, and, most of all, a pastoral visit.

Peter
Last week we met up with Peter on the beach. Unable to make ministry work, he went fishing, doing something he knew well. Several disciples followed him. After breakfast with Jesus, he had a heart-to-heart talk with him and realized that his love for Jesus was too deep to ignore Jesus’ lambs and sheep.

So, today we meet up with a transformed Peter. Having received the Holy Spirit, he has preached and healed; despaired of Saul’s persecution of the Church; learned of Phillip’s successful mission in Samaria and is all too familiar with Stephen’s stoning in Jerusalem. He has his days of walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” and days of seeing Christ glorified in word and deed.

He’s in Lydda when two men arrive and ask him to come immediately. We read that he, “got up and went with them.” He arrives and allows himself to be taken to the upper room where Tabitha lays, lovingly prepared for burial. He sees much: the love and respect of the widows; the respect of fellow disciples; the clothing she made day after day; and grief: heart-wrenching grief.

So, he puts everyone out of the room. He kneels and prays, perhaps remembering being with Jesus when Jairus’ daughter was brought back to life; or perhaps he remembers the raising of Lazarus from the tomb. He kneels and prays. This is God’s activity; he’s only the channel.

Then he turns to her and says, “Tabitha, get up.” Tabitha opens her eyes and sees Peter. Then she gets up with Peter’s assistance. Peter invites the disciples and friends back into the room where he shows them not what he had done, but what God had done.

The Widows
They have lost their means of support and so they’re marched off to the fringes of society to live by begging or gleaning or other ways we don’t even want to talk about. They are less than human, walking the streets in shabby clothing, begging off of others and being shunned: Get a job! Don’t be so lazy! Whew! Have you taken a bath lately?

One person, Tabitha, sees their situation and fights to make their lives a bit better. They receive fresh, clean clothing; perhaps even a place to bathe. They learn about this Jesus who ate with sinners and stood up for widows and the orphans.

They are a community of believers and for the first time in a long time they belong. They know love that cares for each other and love in the form of self-respect.

Tabitha gets sick and dies. Their grief is bottomless. Where will they go? What will they do? They simply can’t return to their former lives, but what else is there?

What are the marks of community today? You have to look in the right places to find them because this is an age where individualism is one of the most important characteristics. To find true community, your best chances of finding it in the best sense of the word is in a church.

Church community stands together. They sacrifice precious time to see that the family sitting in a loved one’s funeral can return to Fellowship Hall for a hot lunch prepared with love. They pray for each other over and over again, knowing that a cure may not be imminent, but healing is possible in countless ways. They welcome the stranger with open arms and no expectation that the offering plate will be fuller, but that the life of the church will be.

Church community weeps together. After the 9/11 attack on our nation, the one place you found many Americans was in church praying for peace, for the families of the victims and for each other. Community weeps together when one of their own dies. They weep together over the unfairness of disease and war and social injustice.

Church community celebrates together. Whether it’s a celebration of a member receiving their first service animal, or the anniversary of the congregation, or simply a pot-luck meal.

And in this age of cherished privacy and a stiff upper lift, they’re not afraid to call each other and ask, “How are you doing?” And then settle in for the lengthy answer.

That was the community of Tabitha’s day. And sometimes, thank God, we find it today.

We live in a world changing constantly: a world where the loudest voice gets heard; where one disease is wiped out only to have another new virus emerge; where the ones who aren’t like us aren’t trusted by us; where we suffer and weep behind closed doors.

This is a world that can be difficult to live in. But, it’s a world that Jesus is active in, providing communities like that of Tabitha’s and looking to a God who provides victory over death and calls us into new and transformed life daily.

We are in the world, but we are not of it. We live and work and play in the world, but we worship God and demonstrate a love that tries to model Jesus’ life.

Tabitha became ill and died. So important was her work and her life, that they sent two men to Joppa to find Peter. Peter was the agent of healing and bringing life back.

But this story isn’t about Peter or even Tabitha. This story is about a God who reveals God-self in may wondrous ways.

And it’s a story of a community who refused to be of the world. They believed in the risen Christ and walked with him daily. Their faith inspired their work and their love and refused to let anyone be left to work things out alone. They knew their dilemmas and refused to not believe in a God who could bring healing in many different ways.

Where are the Tabitha’s today?

Who do we know who is turning the world upside down?

Who are the ones who refuse to accept the status quo?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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April 10, 2016, 4:59 PM

Feeding Faith


by Sandy Bach

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.  (John 21:15-17 NRSV)

Strange things happen in the Gospel of John.  Water becomes wine at a wedding; water turns to living water for a broken woman in enemy territory.  People are resuscitated back from life.  Jesus describes himself as "Bread of Heaven", "Vine", "Good Shepherd."  And just when you think you've completed reading the entire Gospel, you turn the page to find an epilogue.

Why?  In Chapter 20 we read of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and then to the 10 disciples.  Finally, he returns to the 10 and this time Thomas is present.  One look at Jesus and he describes who Jesus is, "My Lord and my God."  There are a couple more sentences that bring this Gospel to a very good conclusion.  But, it appears that we need one more story.

While Jesus visited the disciples in chapter 20, he breathed the Holy Spirit on them and gave them their sacred commission:  "As the Father sent me, so I send you." (20:21b)  They have the Holy Spirit to guide them and the commission to go out in ministry.

So why do we see them sitting on a beach at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee)?  Not only that, they go fishing!  Is this what God called them to do?  Fish?  I think the answer is clear when we read that they fished all night and didn't catch a thing.  Along comes Jesus.  "Children, you have no fish, have you? Try throwing your nets on the other side."

Competent fishermen would have known what to do.  I wonder if they're stuck.  Stuck in seeking a vision for their ministry; stuck trying to fish without giving it thought; stuck trying to figure out where to go from here.

Sure enough, going with Jesus' suggestion to try doing it a different way, they quit fighting the task and do as he suggests.  They catch a lot of fish.  The net is heavy and just as they're ready to pull it into the boat, the disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes Jesus.  "Look!  It's the Lord!"  A comical scene ensues when Peter throws on some clothes, plops himself into the water and manages to get ashore.

Jesus has fish and bread waiting for them on a fire and suggests they bring some more from their catch.  They eat together as they had so many times before, only this time it's a sacred meal.  A sacred meal that resembles the Great Banquet in the Kingdom of God.  After breakfast, Jesus and Peter have a conversation.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord. You know that I love you."

"Feed my lambs.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

"Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."

"Tend my sheep.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

Now Peter feels hurt.  Does he remember the three times that he denied being one of Jesus' disciples?

"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

"Feed my sheep."

The third time Jesus asked the question, Peter completely commits himself to Christ and his mission.

That mission isn't to be found on a fishing boat.  There's only so much time left in Peter's life and he's been called by God to serve in the world spreading the good news.  He has his mission now and his vision: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep.  Somehow he seems to understand because as we read about the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter becoming a strong leader and a powerful healer.

So why the need for the epilogue?  I suggest three messages for you and I today:

  1.  Jesus calls us and feeds us.  We're not alone when we're serving him and his people.
  2. Jesus offers forgiveness and grace.  It's good to know that because we will mess up with denials and betrayals and running in the other direction.
  3. There's no escaping Jesus.  Whether hiding behind locked doors or out on a fishing boat, Jesus finds us.  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?  (Psalm 139:1-3, 7 NRSV)

 Perhaps your relationship with Christ is a close personal faith with him like that of the Beloved Disciple who reclined at Jesus' side at mealtime.  Maybe your sense of call is more like Peter's, that of continuing Jesus' acts of justice and mercy.  Chances are that your faith is a blend of the two along a continuum between the two.  Understanding your relationship with Jesus, how are you fed by him?  How do you keep your relationship with him alive and thriving?  Some ideas include: prayer, time alone in mediation with him, Bible reading and study.  You may also consider how you serve others in your particular community.  Whether through your local church or other organizations, how do you work for justice and mercy as an expression of your love for Christ?

If you're wondering if you're doing enough, begin in prayer and stay at it until you receive an answer.  You may be surprised to discover that your life is a reflection of your love.

If not, God will point you in a direction.  However, you may have to fish on the other side of the boat, rather than doing it the same way all the time.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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