A Spirituality Project for a Sedentary Age

4_walking_prayer_exercisesIn 2017, 64% of Canadians were overweight or obese. This has major health implications.

I used to be part of that statistic, and for years I tried and failed to do anything about it. Somehow, three years ago, I managed to take off a huge chunk of weight, but it’s still a struggle for me to keep it off.

I’ve spent most of my working life in a sedentary occupation. I’m a priest, so I sit at a desk, or sit in people’s homes, drinking coffee and eating cookies and talking. And praying. I’m encouraged to spend 45 minutes to an hour each day in prayer, using a Daily Office developed by Christians in much more active times, when just staying alive meant people had to use their bodies way more than they do now, so the need to add more physical activity wasn’t so urgent.

But times have changed.

A few years ago David Hansen wrote a book called Long, Wandering Prayer. Dave is a long time advocate of combining prayer with walking. I wonder if he might be on to something? Given that we are physical as well as spiritual creatures, and that health of body and spirit is intertwined, maybe we should be looking at redefining the Daily Office to include walking?

Older forms of the Office (like the traditional Book of Common Prayer) had relatively few variables. The Office was easily memorized, and once committed to memory, those prayers were yours for good. Even today, I can pretty well pray BCP Morning Prayer from memory (without the psalms and readings of course).

More recent Office books have vastly increased the amount of variable material. But maybe we’re going in the wrong direction. Maybe we should be exploring simple forms of prayer that could be easily memorized and then used as a framework for extemporare prayer—the aim being to encourage people to take their prayer times out on the walking trail with them every day. These days audio Bibles are common too, so listening to the Bible could easily be combined with walking.

Imagine the health benefits if those 45 minutes of daily praying were spent moving my body on a walking trail? Also, personally, I find it easier to connect with God walking through trees and fields than indoors, so it’s a double win.

I think this could be a vital spirituality project for our sedentary age. What do you think?

God is Working His Purpose Out (a sermon on Acts 16.6-15)

Why are you here in this church today? 

After all, the majority of the people of Edmonton aren’t in churches this morning. And fifteen years ago, the majority of you weren’t here at St. Margaret’s—I know, because I was here and most of you weren’t! So how has it happened that you are here this morning, a part of this community of faith, come to worship God and learn the way of Jesus with us?

I sometimes ask that question myself! How did I get to be the rector of St. Margaret’s? After all, I was born in an industrial city in the English midlands. How did I end up married to a girl from Ontario, and how did it happen that we’ve spent our entire married lives in the west and the north? And how, after twenty years in rural ministry, did I become the pastor of a suburban parish like St. Margaret’s?

As I was reading our passage from Acts for this morning, I found myself wondering whether Paul asked himself a similar question. What on earth was Paul doing in the city of Philippi? He was a young Jewish man who had gone to Jerusalem to be tutored by the famous rabbi Gamaliel. He had a deep devotion to the law of Israel and the traditions of the Pharisees. According to those traditions, Jews were to stay away from Gentiles, who were not God’s chosen people. But now Paul found himself in a city in the province of Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece—a city that was a Roman colony, a city with so few Jews that there wasn’t even a synagogue where they could gather for prayer. I wonder if he asked himself, “What am I doing here?” And we might ask the same question this morning: what on earth was Paul doing in Philippi? 

We can begin to answer that question by making a general statement: Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, trying to persuade people who were not Christians to put their trust in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.  

Why was he doing that? He was doing it out of obedience to Jesus. Every single gospel writer tells us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus sent his disciples out to announce his good news to people everywhere and call on them to turn to him as their Lord and Saviour. For example, in Luke Jesus says repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, (Luke 24:47) and in Acts he tells his disciples, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)

Paul had become one of those witnesses. On the road to Damascus he’d had a supernatural encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus. He’d heard God speak to him with the voice of Jesus, and God had called him to become a missionary for the gospel of Christ. And he’d been faithful to that call, travelling all over the Mediterranean world announcing the good news and challenging people to turn from their previous allegiances and become followers of Jesus.

So biblical faith is missionary to the core; it always has been. And if you think about it, that’s part of the answer to the question, ‘Why are you here this morning?’ Some of us came to faith in Christ gradually, as a result of our parents’ witness. Some of us had a conversion experience that brought us out of darkness into the light of Christ. But in both cases, the only reason we’ve been able to respond to the Christian message is because missionaries brought it within earshot. We wouldn’t be followers of Jesus today if it hadn’t been for the work of those missionaries. And we in our turn are called to pass it on to others, just as Paul was doing.

So it’s worth asking ourselves the question “What’s my family tree of faith?” If you were raised in Christian faith and grew into it gradually, how far back can you trace Christian commitment in your family? I don’t mean just nominal Christianity; I mean real commitment to Christ. And if you are an adult convert to Christianity, who are the people that God used to bring the message of Jesus to you? They are a big part of the answer to the question, “Why am I here today?”

So Paul was in Philippi as a missionary, to share the gospel and challenge people to turn to Christ. But we can go on to make a further statement: Paul was in Philippi because God had clearly and explicitly directed him to come there, even though it wasn’t in Paul’s original plan.

Paul had originally planned this trip for two reasons: to revisit churches he’d already planted in what is now southern Turkey, and then to move on to new areas. He had a pretty clear idea in his mind of the route he wanted to take. But look at what happened in Acts 16:6-8:

‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been expressly forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.’

Troas was on the extreme north-western coast of Turkey. Now look what happens next in verses 9-10:

‘During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”. When we had seen this vision, we immediately tried to cross over into Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.’

This was a huge step. They were crossing from Asia into what is now Europe. They were crossing from a region where there were a lot of Jewish synagogues to an area where Jewish people were much fewer and further between. And their first stop when they got into Macedonia, the city of Philippi, was not just any ordinary city but a Roman colony – that’s to say, it had been founded as a place where retired Roman soldiers could settle. You would think those retired soldiers would be pretty unlikely to be interested in the story of a Galilean carpenter who’d been executed as a rebel against the emperor!

If I was Paul I might be tempted to say, “God, this doesn’t make sense. We had a perfectly good plan to move into new areas where we had every reason to believe people would be receptive to the gospel. Instead, you’re guiding us to a place where it seems very unlikely that people will be interested in Jesus. Are you sure this is a good idea?” But Paul didn’t say that. Instead, he responded immediately to God’s guidance. Paul knew from long experience that God knew what he was doing. And I’m sure Paul had discovered what many generations of Christians after him have also discovered: the evangelism you don’t plan often works better than the evangelism you do plan, especially when it’s guided by the Holy Spirit!

I’ll give you an example. Some ago our Diocese of Edmonton began putting a lot of emphasis on congregations having ‘Mission Action Plans’. We were encouraged to look at the needs of our neighbourhoods and plan ways we could reach out and serve our communities in the name of Jesus, and also share the gospel with them. So here at St. Margaret’s we had a number of meetings and conversations with different groups and people in our parish, and then we took what we heard and distilled it into a Mission Action Plan. If I remember correctly there were about seven or eight different initiatives that we set out in that plan.

But you know what happened? About two thirds of what we planned didn’t work. We tried to get people to come to coffee mornings to share their faith stories and no one showed up. We tried to organise a Vacation Bible School and couldn’t get volunteers. On the surface, it looked quite discouraging. But something else was happening; a lot of new people were coming to our congregation, and a lot of them were bringing babies with them. I got the sense that our parish was starting to grow. And at the end of the year, when we added up the numbers, our average Sunday attendance had gone up dramatically. 

This is the way God seems to enjoy working. You know the old saying: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!’ Of course, we have to plan, but the chances are good that the future is going to turn out very differently from what we had in the plan—and that’s nothing to be afraid of.

So Paul hadn’t planned to be in Philippi, but God had brought him there. Twenty years ago I definitely wasn’t planning on moving to a city, but God brought me here too. And a few years ago some of you probably weren’t even planning on being followers of Jesus, let alone being members of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church! But God was at work guiding our steps, and here we all are today!

So we’ve seen that Paul was in Philippi as a missionary of Jesus Christ, and that he was there because God had clearly guided him there. But there’s a third thing we can say, too: Paul was in Philippi because of Lydia. Look at verses 13-15:

‘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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper 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. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. And she prevailed upon us.’

Luke tells us Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’, which probably means she was one of the people at that time who had gotten tired of the gods of the Greek and Roman world and had begun to worship and obey the God of Israel. These folks were always fertile ground for Christian evangelistic activity, and Lydia was no exception.

But note how Luke phrases this: ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’ (14b). This seems a little strange to us. We tend to stress the human side of things—the fact that I chose to be a follower of Jesus—but there’s another way of looking at it, a way that stresses divine initiative: I am a Christian because of the work of God.

We’re treading on holy ground here, on the mysterious intersection between God’s work and our response. To us, it seems as if we’re dealing with two opposite ideas that can’t both be true. If we human beings have free will to accept or reject God’s invitation to follow Jesus, then God can’t be in control of the process. On the other hand, if God is the one who opens our hearts to hear the gospel and respond, then we can’t have genuine free will, can we?

We need to be careful about using human logic when we’re dealing with God. After all, God being who he is, it’s not surprising there are some things in the mind of God that I can’t understand! And in this instance, the truth is not at one extreme, or at the other extreme, or in the middle, but at both ends. Yes, Paul went to Philippi to preach the gospel, and through his preaching God was inviting his hearers to use their free will to choose to become followers of Jesus. Yes, God opened the heart of Lydia so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. Both of those statements are true. God had prepared Lydia to receive the gospel, and God had brought Paul to Philippi so that she could hear and respond to the gospel. God was working his purpose out, as he always does.

Which brings us back to the question we started with, ‘Why are you here at St. Margaret’s this morning?’ We might say we’re here because of the missionary work of people long ago, or because our parents shared the gospel with us. We might say we’re here because our last church wasn’t too inspiring. We might even say that we’re here because we got out of bed on the right side this morning and the kids didn’t give us too much trouble as we were getting ready!

None of this would be wrong, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of the truth is this: you’re here this morning because God has brought you here. Behind the human chain of events that led you here this morning is the unseen hand of God at work. You’re here for a reason. And I wonder what truth God is opening your heart to pay attention to this morning?

And let’s take this one step further. You are not only Lydia in this process; you’re also Paul. God doesn’t only want you to hear and respond to the gospel; he wants you to share it with others too. Even now, in your life, God is at work bringing you into contact with people who he has prepared to respond to the Christian message. Who is the person God wants you to invite to church? Who is the person God wants you to begin a spiritual conversation with? Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to people and listen to God. God’s the one who is at work here, but he’s chosen to ask us to co-operate with him in this work. So let’s pray for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, so God can indeed work through us, drawing other people to himself.

Two Conversions (a sermon on Acts 11.1-18 for May 19th)

A friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, likes to run ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ groups; he invites people of no faith, or very uncertain faith, to come together and have conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. One of the interesting things he’s discovered is that when he presents what he thinks are good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group aren’t particularly moved by them. But when he asks if anyone in the group has had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural, heads started to nod all around the room! 

We are in the Easter season, in which we celebrate our belief that Jesus is alive and active in the world today. This has implications for how we see our work of spreading the gospel to others. If Jesus is alive and if he is the Son of God, it stands to reason that he’s at work long before I arrive on the scene. And experience would seem to bear this out. Spiritual hunger is alive and well in the world today. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God. 

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I also remember Reg Bibby saying once that a large percentage of people are willing to admit they have unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority don’t believe they can get those needs met in churches. 

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not—in fact, there are signs it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced the church has anything worthwhile to offer them—at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace was invited. They didn’t wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians—not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too—saw it as part of their Christian journey to pass their message on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them—apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas—went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the good news and planting little communities of new disciples. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem. Many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.’  

I can imagine how that happened. These early disciples moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary disciples were excited about Jesus. They believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier—so interested that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

The early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they weren’t so quick to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to. In Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. To many Jewish Christians, it made no sense to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians—but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey all the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. And all of that was beforethey could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story but let me remind you of the first half.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.’ (10:2) This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship the ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that, and now he’s a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unusual story in the ancient world. Here and there the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods, and they were attracted to monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name: they were called ‘God-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

Acts 10 tells us Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying. Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice. “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the light going on in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food—unclean Gentiles—maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message. Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: he is Lord of all, and all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles! Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they baptized these new Gentile disciples.

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative. God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius. God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals. And when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!” (Acts 11:16-18).

 In this story we can see two conversions taking place.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (10:34-35)

Note what Peter doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, “Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are.” This man has already been on a spiritual journey. He’s left the gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the one Creator God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now. God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did notsay to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are.” He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) The Lord of the church wants people to turn from their previous allegiances and become his disciples, and it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait.’” He said “Go.”

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. But in fact, Jesus is not an unattractive figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood—this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve invited non-Christian friends to church, and some of them have told me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it was a huge thing. It meant those early Jewish Christians leaving their comfort zone, crossing the barrier and going to the outsiders, and discovering to their amazement that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

‘Do You Love Me?’ (sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter on John 21.1-19)

In the early 1970’s Keith Miller wrote a superb little book called The Taste of New Wine, in which he told the story of his encounter with Christ and his experience of the grace of God. This was followed by several other books, and he also began to travel and speak at Christian conferences and retreats. He was involved in the ‘Faith Alive’ movement, which was a mission movement amongst lay people in the Episcopal Church in the US. As an intelligent and committed Christian layman, Keith was a huge gift to the church and God used him to bring many people closer to Christ.

But there was a price to pay, and ironically, the man who had often encouraged people to slow down and take time to love their families found that he was unable to do that himself. He had his first extra-marital affair in 1974, and eventually in 1976, after a time of struggle and counselling, Keith and his wife were divorced. He faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. Many years later, I heard him say, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of Christian ministry in the future, it would only be through the grace of God and not through any expertise or strength of my own, because I had none. I felt I had nothing left to offer to God.”

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? I wonder if you’ve experienced some spectacular failure in your Christian life that has left you thinking, “Well, that’s the last God’s ever going to want to see of me!” Or perhaps it hasn’t been anything really spectacular at all—just a sense that God couldn’t really use you, because you don’t measure up to your idea of what a really good Christian ought to be.

If you’ve ever felt like that, you can understand how Simon Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of all the disciples, Simon Peter was the one who had promised most strongly to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters,” but Peter protested, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” (Mark 14:27, 29) In John’s Gospel Peter said, ‘“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times”.’ (John 13:37-38)

I think some of us instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve felt like there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for Jesus. Maybe we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God has seemed so real to us, when the Holy Spirit has seemed so close, when the joy of Jesus has come flooding in. Maybe at that moment we found ourselves thinking, “This is it! It’s me and God together, and nothing can stop us now!”

Did Peter honestly feel that, deep in his heart? Maybe—or maybe he just liked to sound confident, to impress the others. But whether he really felt it or not, later on that night harsh reality broke in for him, and he discovered that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.

He was brave at first! When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him as the guards led him to the high priest’s house. He even went into the courtyard and stood there for a while with the servants and the others. John’s Gospel tells us they were warming themselves around a charcoal fire. But there, Peter’s courage ran out. When he was confronted and accused of being a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times to save his own skin. And then he ran away.

So I find it easy to imagine the conflicting emotions in Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday, as the reports of meetings with the risen Jesus start to come in. The gospels actually hint that on the Sunday afternoon Jesus appeared privately to Peter, although no one has ever recorded the details of that meeting. But I would guess Peter probably felt the same way Keith Miller did, after his marriage fell apart because of his own bad choices: “If I’m ever going to have any sort of ministry after this, it can only be because of grace, not through any expertise or strength of my own,” In fact, I’d be surprised if the idea of grace even entered Peter’s head at all. I expect he thought he was finished, plain and simple.

And so we come to the story recorded for us in today’s gospel. We don’t know exactly when it happened. It would have been some time in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, but the exact chronology wasn’t important to John.

In the story, some of the disciples have gone fishing on the lake, but they’ve caught nothing all night. In the morning as they come in to shore someone is standing on the beach, and he calls and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they catch a huge amount of fish—a hundred and fifty-three, says John, but the net wasn’t torn. Peter swims to shore, convinced it’s Jesus, and so it turns out. Jesus is standing on the beach beside a charcoal fire. Once again, the New Testament uses the specific word for a charcoal fire, and don’t you think the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to that night—that painful, awful night—when he denied Jesus three times? And then Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. ‘Simon’ is his original name. ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’, but the rock hasn’t turned out to be quite so rocky after all. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16, 17)

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses for love in the Greek language is ‘agapé’. As I’ve often said, this is not a feeling love, but an action love, the sacrificial love Jesus showed by giving himself on the cross. But when Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” the Greek word John uses for love is ‘phileo’—a lesser word, more about friendship than committed and sacrificial love. The New English Bible translates it “Yes, Lord, you know I am your friend.” Of course, Jesus and Peter would have been speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don’t know what the exact nuances were, but we can guess that Peter is feeling a lot less self-confident now. “Lord, you know everything,”he says to Jesus—and we can guess what he means. Lord, you know what I did. You know how weak I am. I can’t pretend to be anything other than a failure.”

But Jesus isn’t finished with Peter. Peter was always an enthusiastic follower, the sort of guy who volunteered for all the jobs without looking in his calendar, the sort of guy who would always speak up, even if his brain wasn’t quite in gear yet. And Jesus warmed to that. Jesus loved the enthusiasm and wholeheartedness of Peter’s discipleship.

But now Peter has gained another priceless qualification—an awareness of both the true cost of discipleship, and his own weakness. He now knows that following Jesus can cost you your life, and he now knows that he should be careful about promising what he can’t deliver. And Jesus is quite up front with him about where this path is going to lead. He tells him quite plainly that the day is going to come when he, Peter, will also be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then Jesus says to him again, “Follow me.” (v.19)

So what’s it like for us ordinary, fallible human beings—who have let the Lord down, not once but many times—to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Nowadays our encounters with Jesus tend not to be as dramatic as in those early days after his resurrection. We don’t live in that forty-day period when Jesus was still walking the earth in a physical resurrected body, inviting people to touch his wounds and to watch him as he ate and drank in their presence.

And yet the New Testament tells us that a meeting with the risen Lord is still possible for us, in a spiritual or mystical sense. Paul talks in dynamic language about it: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’ (Philippians 3:10) He even talks of us being ‘in’ Christ, and Christ being ‘in’ us, and he prays for the Christians in Ephesus ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ (Ephesians 3:17) This will happen, he says, as we are ‘strengthened in (our) inner being with power through (God’s) Spirit.’ (Ephesians 3:16)

So what’s this like? Well, of course, it’s a joyful thing.We read in today’s gospel of these poor tired disciples who’ve been fishing all night long, and then, completely unexpectedly, on the advice of a stranger, they suddenly have a bumper catch of fish. Maybe something like that has happened to us, too. Maybe we were starting to get interested in Jesus, and we started reading his story in the gospels. Maybe some command of his spoke vividly to us, and we thought, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before! I’m going to try that out.” So we did—we ‘cast our nets to the right side of the boat’, so to speak—and to our surprise it worked out well. Maybe a relationship was healed, or we found strength to do something we’d never been able to do before. We were amazed and excited, joyful and fearful. We thought, “Wow—I’m playing poker, not solitaire! There really is someone else out there getting involved in my life!” And this realization wasn’t just scary—it was joyful too.

We see that joy and excitement quite clearly in this gospel reading. When Peter realizes it’s the Lord standing there on the lakeshore beside the fire, he can’t help himself—he leaves his companions in the boat to look after the fish, while he jumps in the water and swims ashore as fast as he can. How like Peter! But we shouldn’t imagine the others didn’t feel the same way. They may not have been as demonstrative as Peter, but they must have felt their hearts leap for joy too, when they saw the Lord they loved.

But it’s not just about joy; it’s also about honesty, because an encounter with the risen Lord is also an encounter with our own true selves. In fact, I would say we’ll be unable to have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord unless we’re willing to reveal our true selves to him—or rather, that the genuineness and depth of the encounter will depend on how genuine we’re prepared to be with him. “Lord, you know the whole story, you know I’m your friend, but you know I’ve failed you too. I can’t hide anything from you.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? God wants to have a relationship with me—the real‘me’, not the fake persona I create to impress the people around me. This is not rocket science! The Old Testament people knew it well. They wrote psalms asking God to curse their enemies, or complaining about how God had abandoned them, or lamenting their own wickedness. They weren’t putting on masks and pretending to be holier than they really were. No—their prayers are the prayers of people who know God sees the secrets of our hearts. ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden.’

That’s what we need. No alcoholic can make any progress through the Alcoholics Anonymous program until they’re willing to start with Step One: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.’ You never get past that awareness. Week by week you go to the meeting and start by saying, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic.” Imagine if our liturgy asked us to do that each time we gathered together: “My name is Tim and I’m a sinner.”

Oh, right—it does! “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.” Trouble is, it’s too easy for those words to roll off our tongue. Truly meeting with the risen Jesus—truly following him each day—will confront us as never before with the reality of our own weaknesses and failures. But the good news is, those weaknesses and failures aren’t news to him. He already knew Peter would deny him three times, and he loved him anyway.

So the risen Jesus meets Peter on the shores of the lake, reminds him of that threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and then asks him again three times, “Do you love me?” Despite his failures, Jesus gives Peter a new job description: “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16), “Feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and now he invites Peter, the failure, to share with him in that shepherding ministry. And at the end of the paragraph, after warning him about the price he will pay, he says to him again, as he did when he first called him, “Follow me.” (v.19)

That’s the third thing about an encounter with the risen Lord: if it’s real, it will lead to a deeper life of discipleship, of following Jesus. In other words, we’ll be asking Jesus each day to teach us to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. And we’ll do this, knowing there will be a price to pay. Not everyone in our life will be jumping for joy because we’re following Jesus, and some of them will let us know about it, in no uncertain terms. We may not have Peter’s experience of paying with our lives for our allegiance to Jesus, but there’ll be a cross for us to carry too. And we’ll accept that cross joyfully, because we know it’s worth it. As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

So yes, it is possible for us—even today, even though we have failed the Lord many times—it is possible for us to know the risen Lord as he lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. He knows we’ve failed him and let him down, but this need not disqualify us. Failure wasn’t the end for Simon Peter, and failure isn’t the end for us either.

So don’t count yourself out. Don’t say, “Because I’ve done this or that, I’ve disqualified myself and Jesus could never want to have anything to do with me or use me to serve others.” Don’t say, “I don’t have any qualifications he could use.” Jesus knows all about your failures and he isn’t asking you about your qualifications. He has one simple question he wants to ask you: “Do you love me?” If the answer is “yes,” then we’re in business.

Do you love him? Are you his friend? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions any of us can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer we could possibly pray this morning may be Peter’s prayer of total honesty: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I’m your friend.” It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s an honest answer, and with that honesty, we’re on the road to a genuine relationship with the risen Lord.