There are some places where the distance between heaven and earth seems to narrow. They’re often called thin places.
I first heard that term several years ago as I was approaching Iona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. To reach Iona, you have to take two ferries and cross the desolate Isle of Mull. I had struck up a conversation with a man who, like me, was headed for the restored medieval abbey where we would be spending a week on a spiritual retreat. He looked out over the barren windswept fields with the sea glistening in the background and said to me, “This really is a thin place.” As the week went by, I discovered what he meant. Living in that abbey, which was established by the Irish monks who brought Christianity to Scotland, where Christians had been martyred by marauding Vikings, which had been renovated during the 1930s by unemployed masons from the slums of Glasgow, and which resonated with prayers of the faithful who came from all over the world, it really did feel like the distance between heaven and earth had shrunk. It was easier to pray, easier to feel God’s presence. That’s what my companion meant by calling it a thin place.
Maybe you’ve been to a thin place. Perhaps this sanctuary is one for you. Maybe the prayers and the songs that have echoed off these walls have brought heaven closer. Maybe one of your thin places is church camp where you first felt the warm glow of God’s Spirit inside you, or maybe it’s a lakeshore or a mountaintop where you feel closer to God.
Surely that hilltop outside Jerusalem where Jesus left his disciples was a thin place. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. They stood there looking up after him, transfixed in that place where heaven and earth intersected. Then two men clothed in white came beside them and asked why they were standing there looking up into heaven. Jesus had told them to go from there to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth to tell what they had seen over the past three years. That thin place wasn’t a stopping place.
One of the assurances we have when we leave the places where we feel close to heaven is that Jesus goes with us when we leave those places. According to the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus left his disciples he told them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How is it that Jesus, who was taken away, can still be right with us? How can Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, be part of your life and mine, our host at the communion table, our comforter and our guide in the daily grind of this earthly life? How can he be all of those things for us if he’s ascended to the right hand of God?
That mystery that God is both present with us and absent from us is often depicted in the Bible with a cloud. God led the Israelites through the wilderness by guiding them with a cloud. They would camp someplace for days or weeks to rest and regroup, then when it was time to move on, the cloud would appear to lead them on their way. God summoned Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments by covering the mountain with clouds and speaking to him from the clouds. The Old Testament prophets depict God coming to earth on clouds, and in New Testament prophecies, it is promised that Jesus will come again on clouds. You can see a cloud. It’s obvious to the sight. But clouds also hide. You can’t see through them. That’s why they’re so often a symbol of one of the great mysteries of our faith.
Any time we talk about heaven, we’re talking about a mystery. A mystery, in the biblical sense, is something we can’t completely understand. The reason we don’t understand it isn’t that we don’t know enough. The reason we don’t understand is because it is something that we are incapable of understanding. I might say that it’s a mystery to me how a neurosurgeon can do brain surgery, but it’s not truly a mystery. The facts on how to do brain surgery are available to me and to anyone who wants to learn them. In theory at least, I could understand brain surgery if I had the aptitude and applied myself to learning about it. A mystery, on the other hand, is something that we don’t know because we aren’t capable of comprehending it. Other people, even those to whom we’re the closest, will always be something of a mystery. Even if we know our loved ones’ thoughts and habits and desires, we can never know what it is to be another person.
Heaven is a mystery because we are incapable of grasping it fully. We know it is there, but it’s like it is covered by a cloud. One reason we want so badly to understand it is because we want to know what is like for those who have died. The night my mother called me to tell me my father had died, the first thing she said when I answered the phone was, “Dad’s in heaven.”
I really believe that, but what does it mean? Does going to heaven mean that we’re transported to another world where we keep on living as we do now but in another dimension? Jesus told the thief from the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” That’s what Colton Burpo claimed happened to him in the book Heaven Is for Real. He told his parents that he went to heaven and met his great grandfather, his sister who had died in the womb, and they welcomed him to another life.
Or does going to heaven mean that we enter into a kind of suspended animation outside of the dimension of time where we wait until we are raised at the last day and are given new, heavenly bodies? That is what Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that dying is like planting a seed that rests until the time it puts on its new, heavenly body. Death is something like sleep. “Listen,” he writes, “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
But just because something is a mystery doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it. It doesn’t mean that a mystery can’t have a profound effect on our lives. Jesus told his followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. A witness is someone who tells what she or he has seen and heard. A witness bears testimony to what they know. The disciples knew Jesus. They had seen him perform signs and miracles that showed what God’s heavenly reign is like. It’s a place where there is no pain or suffering. Jesus showed that when he healed people. It’s a place where there is no hunger or want. Jesus showed that when he fed the hungry. It’s a place where there is no prejudice or discrimination or exclusion. Jesus showed that when he touched the lepers and welcomed the outcasts. It’s a place where there is no death. Jesus showed that when he was raised the dead.
What we know from our past affects the way we receive the future, even if we know that the future won’t be exactly the same. I look forward to vacations at the beach when the whole family gets together. I look forward to it because I remember how wonderful it has been in the past – the dinners with all our loved ones around the table, the warm afternoons reading a novel, morning walks along the shore, the fun of building sandcastles with the children. But I know the next time we get together it won’t be exactly the same. There won’t be anyone there from my parents’ generation. The children will have new interests. Things that fascinated them in the past they’ll find boring. I know enough from experience to look forward to what is ahead, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is going to be like.
That’s kind of how it is with heaven. Jesus has shown us what it is like. But it’s not just something that we wait for in the future. For all its mystery, heaven is still accessible to us in an imperfect way. 1 Corinthians 13 says that now we see as in a mirror dimly. C.S. Lewis appealed to our imaginations in his Narnia Chronicles when he depicted that parallel universe where Aslan reigned and was accessible to children through the door of an old wardrobe. Whatever heaven is like, Jesus is there, preparing a place for us, and all the while abiding with us in this life of flesh and blood, of schedules and deadlines, of weariness and frustrations.
Prayer is how we stay connected with that mystery. When the disciples left that hilltop where they saw Jesus taken off in a cloud, they returned to Jerusalem where they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Prayer is how we acclimatize ourselves to that other realm. It’s how we learn the language of the holy, stay in touch with the reality of heaven so we’re not limited to the reality of earth.
If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know that it’s not enough to study about it. It’s not enough to learn the grammar and memorize the vocabulary. You have to immerse yourself in it if you’re really going to understand it and be fluent in it. Ever since my daughter announced her engagement to a Spaniard, I’ve been studying Spanish. For twelve years I’ve been taking classes, watching Spanish movies. Every day I spend ½ hour reading Spanish out loud or writing in Spanish. But every time I visit my son-in-law’s family in Madrid I can keep up with what they’re saying for about two minutes then I’m lost. Once I attended a first communion party for a niece. 50 people were there, few of whom spoke English. In typical Spanish fashion, lunch wasn’t served until 4 p.m. When I first arrived in the restaurant, I could hardly understand a word anyone was saying. But the more I heard them talk, the more I tried to talk with them, the more I understood what they were saying. By the end of the party, I could understand about 30% of what was going on, but if I’d stayed there and immersed myself in the language for a few months, I’d get better and better. To understand the language and the culture, I’d have to live in it and immerse myself in it.
That’s what the disciples were doing in that upper room as they waited for the Holy Spirit to send them out into the world. They were immersing themselves in the language of heaven. They were living in that mystery so they could go out and tell the world that there is another realm, another existence. There is another dimension that’s different from the one we’re used to.
We aren’t in heaven yet, but because we know Jesus, because we belong to him who lives in heaven, we aren’t bound by the fears that keep us from living like heaven is our true home. Jesus promises that in heaven there is no fear, so why should we be afraid of anything? Sure, we still live in this world so we have to take precautions. We still have to strap our children into their car seats, get our regular medical exams, provide for our families and our retirement. But we don’t have to be afraid of living in a way that bears witness to Jesus. We don’t have to be afraid to tell the truth when telling a lie looks like the safest thing to do. We don’t have to be afraid of standing up for the poor or the oppressed when doing that puts us at odds with the powers that be or costs us some of our wealth. We don’t have to be afraid of losing our lives because we know that when we lose our lives to Christ, that’s when we find ourselves. Congregations can try new things, new ways of reaching out and doing ministry. Even our most cherished ways of doing things, those things that have brought us close to God through the years, are passing away and are just a glimpse of what Jesus has in store for us in the heavenly realms.
Any place that we encounter Jesus can be a thin place, a place where heaven and earth come close together. It can be a hospital bedside, the soup kitchen, the very spot where you’re sitting now. Any place that you encounter the love and mercy and justice of Jesus is a place where heaven and earth are a little closer, a thin place where Jesus meets us coming and going.
We understand who we are by the groups we belong to. The core of our identity is shaped in childhood by the family we’re part of. One of the key developmental tasks of adolescence is defining who we are in a world that offers us many options. Joining clubs, teams, or cliques is all part of sorting out and shaping our identity. Am I a jock or a geek, do I identify with the band or the stoners, how widely can I distribute myself among different groups that reflect a part of who I am? Those are important questions we deal with as teenagers, and that’s why parents plead and pray that their teens become part of networks that are positive and healthy. It’s why they want to know who you’ve been hanging out with after school.
And of course it doesn’t stop once we become adults. Just think how you define yourself by the groups you belong to and how you live your life guided by the claims they put on you. Your family, your country, the Steeler Nation – they all have a claim on you.
In his letter to those early Christians Peter reminds them that they belong to a group that is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” By the time this letter was written, Jesus’ followers were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They lived in different countries and belonged to different ethnic groups. Some were wealthy and powerful and highly educated. Some were poor and illiterate. They belonged to trade guilds and political groups. Some were slaves and belonged to other human beings. But what they had in common was far more significant than all their differences. They belonged to the group God had chosen to continue the work of Jesus, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God by proclaiming God’s marvelous works. Whatever other groups they belonged to, the one that defined them above all others was this holy nation chosen by God.
Now, these days we’ve developed some skepticism about group identity. We’ve seen too many examples of how it can be manipulated by powerful leaders for selfish ends. We’ve heard too many stories of group-think causing people to give up their freedom or do horrible things in a crowd that they’d never do on their own. Some of you grew up in religious communities that squeezed the spiritual life right out of you, and you’re skeptical of any kind of religion that that has a formal organization. It can be tempting to think of our relationship with God as something purely personal that can thrive outside of a group of other Christians. Many people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” They mean they’re constructing their own faith outside of any formal community that practices rituals or teaches creeds.
Peter is reminding us that we can’t be followers of Christ without being part of a community that’s larger than ourselves. He describes those who believe in Jesus as stones, the building blocks of a spiritual house. And yet, to make it clear that we’re not faceless, mindless rocks, he calls us living stones. That’s a strange metaphor, a contradiction in terms. I’ve never seen a stone that’s alive. But that reflects the mystery and wonder of what he’s trying to convey. We belong to a group that gives us our identity as Christians. At the same time, we don’t lose ourselves mindlessly in this group. It’s by belonging to the group that we find who we truly are because we’re valued and loved for our own unique character.
David Brooks wrote a column last week that reported on disturbing study of working-class men. Researchers interviewed people who have been left behind by the gig economy and feel isolated and alienated. In those parts of the country where the economic malaise is strongest and the opioid crisis is acute, the bonds of community seem to be fraying the most. People claim to be religious, but they are loosely attached to their churches. “Their conception of faith is so individualized that there is nobody else they could practice it with. They pray but have contempt for organized religion and do not tie themselves down to a specific community. ‘I treat church just like I treat my girlfriends,” one man said. “’I’ll stick around for a while, then I’ll go on to the next one.’” Peter’s description of the community of faith is so much more than a placed we stop by occasionally on our way to constructing our own personal faith.
Like the stones that make up a building, each one relies on the other. Each one gives strength to the others even as it receives strength and support. When one can’t bear the weight on its own, the others bear the load for it.
Have you ever come to church on a Sunday and felt spiritually dry, as if there were no life in your spirit and everything was flat? And then as the people around you sing the hymns and bow their heads in prayer, as you join the line to come forward to receive communion or as you hear the choir sing the anthem, you feel that you’re lifted up on their songs and prayers. You leave feeling closer to God because you’ve been lifted up by the worship of others.
Once I visited someone in the hospital from another state. She was in town for major surgery. She told me how she could feel the prayers of her church half way across the country giving her strength and courage. I have a friend who is trying to discern what God wants her to do with the next phase of her life. She’s asked people in various parts of the country to keep her in their prayers, and she says that she can feel those prayers. She’s facing her uncertain future with a confidence that’s grounded in something stronger than her own anxieties and worries.
After Mother Teresa died, many were surprised to learn that she suffered from some real crises of faith. There were long periods of time when she did not feel God’s presence as she ministered to the poor in the streets of Calcutta. Many people have those dark nights of the soul, yet they keep on serving God because they know that they are carried on by the faith of others. They’re part of God’s people who have received mercy, and when they can’t believe, they rely on the other living stones to carry them in faith. They know that their lives are secure on the cornerstone of faith, Jesus, and he is far more reliable than our fleeting awareness of him.
Today we have Carleen Farabaugh from the York Benevolent Association with us. Most of the good work that a church does we do in partnership with other organizations. There is a network of people of good will spread throughout our community who work to improve the lives of our neighbors. We believe that God’s Spirit works through all those communities of good will, that it’s in our community connections that we experience the love of God that lifts us beyond ourselves and draws us into Christ’s mission of sharing God’s love.
For a number of years I volunteered with the World Communion of Reformed Churches. That’s the organization of 180 Presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Most of those 80 million Presbyterians live in the third world. I attended their annual executive committee meetings because I was helping them get a funds development effort started in North America. The 30 people in attendance were from 6 continents. We would begin each meeting checking in with each other and giving a brief update on the state of the church in his or her country. The first meeting I attended, in Geneva, Switzerland, made a powerful impression on me. The first to speak was a professor from Columbia, South America. Speaking through an interpreter, he told how his country was being debilitated by narco traffickers, but the churches there are able to stand up to the drug lords and rogue militias because of the support they get from Presbyterians from the US who would go to Columbia for two weeks at a time to as accompaniers. They would go to villages out in the country and live among the members of the church. Their presence as foreigners protected the peasants from the violence of the narco traffickers. It was dangerous for the North Americans, but it gives the Columbians strength knowing that they’re not along, and the church is thriving with that kind of support.
A pastor from Rwanda told how leaders of his church are working alongside leaders from the church in the neighboring Congo to help mediate peace in the civil war that is raging in Congo. There was a report from China about the churches that are overflowing on Sunday mornings in that country where Christianity was once forbidden. A Christian educator from Lebanon shared her church’s concerns about the upheaval sweeping the Middle East. While we in the US were rejoicing that dictators were being toppled, she said that the Christians in those lands are worried that those who replaced the ruling despots may not be as tolerant of Christians. The dwindling number of churches were doing all they could to care for the victims of war. Toward the end of the circle, a pastor from Germany reported on his situation that is similar to one we know. The church in western Europe, even more than in the United States, is shrinking in numbers. Its influence is waning. Like us, he’s concerned about the future. He said that he needs to hear the stories of the church in Africa and Asia and South America because they remind him that his struggling church isn’t the entire story of the Christian faith today.
The individual, personal relationship that each of has with the Lord is a precious thing. Jesus loves each and every one of us and knows the number of hairs on our head. And because he loves us so, he joins us to the whole household of faith. He gives each of us a part in the glorious work he started on Easter, the work of proclaiming the new creation where each one has received mercy and is precious to God. Our lives matter to Jesus, and because we matter, he joins us with all those who love him to form a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s chosen people.
We’re not in this
by ourselves. The folks around us aren’t perfect. We get annoyed and frustrated
with them sometimes. But Jesus, the cornerstone, holds us up, and when we need
it, the Holy Spirit touches us through those imperfect Christians who show us
our place in that royal priesthood of living stones, made perfect in our
weakness by him.
 David Brooks, “The Rise of the Haphazard Self,” The New York Times, May 13, 2019.
On this Mother’s Day I’d like to talk with you about families, especially the importance of families for those who follow Jesus. Most families begin with a wedding. I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve officiated at over the last 40 years, but presiding at a wedding is one of the more gratifying things about being a pastor. I still get a lump in my throat as I stand by the groom and watch the bride walk down the aisle. Standing there I sometimes think back to my own wedding, and what a happy day that was. I remember the weddings of my son and my daughter, and and what a mixture of nostalgia and joy I felt. But it’s more than sentiment that makes a wedding special. Two perfectly competent adults, doing very well on their own, stand before God, their family and friends and make a pledge to serve and to sacrifice. They promise to give themselves freely to each other, to stand by each other in joy and in sorrow, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do they part. There’s no better example of the kind of love God showed us in Christ than the love that sustains marriage.
When two people embark on a Christian marriage, they start a family. Whether it includes children or it’s just the two of them, they’re creating a place where they’ll practice what Jesus proclaims. A Christian family is a model of what Jesus intends for the church. It’s a place where relationships are based on what you give, not what you get, on how you can serve rather than how you can be served.
I came across a good example of that. A while back I learned about stage coaches in the 19th century Texas. In the days of the stagecoach there were three classes of fare. They didn’t have to do with where you sat, because there wasn’t much room in a stagecoach. The fare you paid determined what you did in case of an emergency. In those days the roads weren’t paved, and it was all two strong horses could do to pull a stagecoach on a flat smooth road. Your class of ticket had to do with what you did when the coach got stuck. If you had a first class ticket and the stagecoach got bogged down in mud or faced a steep incline, you got to stay on board while the drivers pushed and strained to free the coach. If you paid the second-class fare, you would get out of the coach and walk around the mud and wait until the coach was dislodged. If you paid third-class fare, you got into the mud and helped the driver push until the coach was free.
Jesus stood first-class on its head. In God’s realm it’s the first-class passengers who get out and serve. It’s the third-class folks who are the ones who stay in the coach. Jesus demonstrated that when he gathered with his disciples on the night he was arrested. Before he talked to them about loving one another, he showed them what he meant. They had arrived at the upper room at the end of a long day. The streets of Jerusalem weren’t paved. They had been walking around in sandals so their feet were hot, tired and covered with dirt. The common practice in those days was for dinner guests to remove their sandals when they arrived at the home of their host. The servant of the host would wash their feet. It was a menial task – touching someone’s feet, washing them with water, and drying them with a towel. We rarely practice it in churches today because most of us feel uncomfortable with it. But Jesus, in the role of the servant, washed his disciples’ feet as they arrived for dinner. Peter protested. He said he would never let his master wash his feet. But Jesus said that if Peter wanted to have anything to do with Jesus, he must let him wash his feet.
Look what Jesus’ serving got him. Judas, one of his disciples, left the room to go betray him to the authorities who later that night arrested him, humiliated him, and the next day had him executed. It couldn’t get any lower than that. But what does Jesus say about his impending humiliation? After Judas leaves to set in motion the betrayal and the death, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
It’s in serving and giving himself that Jesus glorified God because that is the essence of who God is. You can know something of God by observing God’s power and might. You can see God’s handiwork in the glorious spring sunshine, the majestic panoply of the stars and the night sky, but you don’t really know God until you know God’s character in Jesus. The nature of God is love, love that gives and serves. God’s love is what we see in the life, death, resurrection and glory of Jesus. You know people belong to Jesus when they practice that kind of love. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And what better place to practice God’s love than a family? Sometimes there’s no more challenging place to love.
Jesus told his disciples to love all kinds of people. He told them to love their neighbors as themselves. He told them to love their enemies. Those are hard instructions. But in his last instructions to his disciples, he told them to love one another. These people had been living with each other for three years. They’d eaten together, slept together, scraped out a living together. They had quarreled with each other. On their way to Jerusalem, some of them had been fussing about who would be the greatest when Jesus brought in his kingdom.
Our enemies and our neighbors we can love from a distance. We can help them but we don’t really have to know them. But we know our family, warts and all. What they can hide from others, we see. We know when their guard is let down. We don’t have much say in who belongs to our family. You can choose your spouse. That’s the only member of your family you can choose, and even then you’re in for some surprises. You can’t choose your parents. You can’t choose whom your siblings are going to marry. If you have children, you can’t choose their character or their personality. You can influence and guide them, but you can’t determine what they’ll be like. In a family, we’re supposed to love someone the better we get to know them, whether we like them or not.
In all those ways Jesus’ followers are like a family. “You did not choose me,” he once told them, “but I chose you.” That’s one thing that makes the church different from any other organization to which we belong. We don’t choose who belongs, God does. We don’t have the privilege of being with only people we like or agree with. God brings the church together, like a family, to practice being like Christ. We practice forgiveness, encouragement, unconditional love for each other, and love for the world.
That’s why, for so many, their mothers are their primary teachers about God. God is very much like a mother. Think of all the things a mother knows about her child. Yes, she knows how bright and sweet and beautiful he is. But she also knows about his dirty diapers, his illnesses, his tantrums. She knows the mistakes he’s made and the ways he’s taken her for granted. Yet who loves someone more than his mother? Who is always going to be there, always ready to do anything for her child at a moment’s notice, even one of the greatest acts of love, let him go, share him with the world, and let him pursue the life God has in store for him? That’s the way God loves us. And that’s how God wants us to love one another.
But that love isn’t just for us and our well-being. There’s another way Jesus wants his followers to love as he loves us. Early in his ministry he told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God came to us in Jesus because God loves the world. The love we have for each other shows God’s love to the world. God forms this community of love called the church for the sake of the world. He told his disciples to love one another so the world would know they belong to him.
And that’s true of Christian families too. When two people are married in a service of worship, they’re affirming that, before they belong to each other, they belong to Christ. When we belong to Christ, we participate in his mission of showing the world God’s love. A Christian family is a place that prepares and equips its members to serve others in the name of Christ. It’s not just a shelter from life’s difficulties. It’s a place where its members practice Christian love so they can love the world as Christ loves it.
Last week Jean Vanier died. He was a Canadian who after serving in the navy earned his PhD and taught in university. In 1963 he was in France and visited an institution for mentally disabled men. It was a dark, depressing and violent place, but Vanier also found something there that was beautiful and mysterious. The men asked if he would visit again. “Behind those words,” he said, “I sensed a great cry: Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?”
Vanier bought a house in a small town outside Paris and invited two men to live with him. One had meningitis as a child, and could only speak about 20 words. The other, who had encephalitis, talked over and over about the same things. Both were physically disabled.
By living with them, Vanier began to understand what it meant to be human. “Before meeting them, my life had been governed from my head and my sense of duty,” he said. “They brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”
Vanier went on to form l’Arche, which is French for the ark, a network of homes where people with mental disabilities lived side by side with fully abled people to form communities of care and support. Today there are 154 communities in 38 countries. Another network of homes, Faith and Light, has 1500 homes. Henri Nouwen, the prolific Christian author, lived his final years in a l’Arche home and wrote about how powerfully he saw God’s Spirit at work there.
That’s the kind of love our families should nurture in us, a love that reaches out beyond itself for others. God has many ways of creating family. We care for each other in our families so we can have the strength, the faith, the support to follow Jesus out into the world he died for. We love each other so we help each other achieve our highest calling, to take our place in the family of Jesus.
Jesus said, “By
this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” And family is where we practice.
 John Claypool, “First Class Jesus Style,” 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program #3919, February 11, 1996 (www.csec.org).
The disciples were back in Galilee. They’d seen the risen Jesus twice in Jerusalem, so they knew he was alive. But they still didn’t know what to make of it. They weren’t sure what to do next. So they went back to doing what they had done before, what was familiar and reliable. They went back to the Sea of Tiberius, also called the Sea of Galilee, and to the work they’d left three years earlier.
We often do that when we don’t know what else to do. We go back to what is familiar. It’s like a young adult moving back home when he can’t find the right job. It’s like going back to the work you know when the new career doesn’t take off. It’s like giving up on your diet when life gets too stressful. When we don’t know what else to do, we fall back on what we know.
So those disciples went back to fishing, the work they were doing before Jesus called them away. And it was in that familiar place, that place where they went to regroup and start over, that Jesus came to them and called them again.
They fished all through the night, but they caught nothing. Right after the sun came up they saw a man standing on the beach. It was Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him. He asked if they’d caught anything. They said No.
Jesus has a way of first showing us our need for him before we can see him right in front of us. Usually we have to recognize our weakness before we’re ready to accept his strength. How many of us have come to know him because we reached out to him when there was no place left to turn? That’s why we begin every worship service with a prayer of confession. We take a moment to remember our need for Jesus before we approach him in worship.
Jesus told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. They did, and they were not able to haul it back in because there were so many fish.
Now, if you were reading the gospel of John in one sitting, you’d notice that this overflowing abundance is a theme that occurs over and over. Back at the very beginning of the gospel story, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. He didn’t just change a couple of bottles. He made 180 gallons of wine. Later on, when the crowds who had come out to hear him needed food, he fed 5000 people using only five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s probably no coincidence that he did that on the shores of that same lake, not far from where they were that morning. It’s like the gospel writer is saying to us, “See? Do you get it? Jesus not only provides, he provides in abundance.”
The disciples got ashore and Jesus told them to bring him some of the fish they’d just caught. He already had fish cooking on a fire for them, but he asked them to bring him some of the fish he had provided them. That’s how it is with Jesus. He provides us with all we have, then he asks us to give back to him what he’s given us so he can remind us how he provides for us. That’s what we do every Sunday in the offering. We give back to Jesus what he’s already given us so he can use it to give more good things to us and to the world. We do that at this communion table. We give thanks to Jesus for giving us bread and wine, we offer it up to him, and he comes to us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup and fills us with his Spirit.
And it’s not just with our offerings. It’s what we do with our lives. It’s what Jesus asked of Peter after breakfast.
Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Jesus knew the answer. Peter knew that Jesus knew. “Yes, Lord,” he replied. “You know that I love you.” Maybe Jesus was asking so Peter could assure himself how much he loved the Lord. Peter would certainly have reason to doubt himself. That night when Jesus was on trial, Peter stood outside in the courtyard and denied three times that he knew Jesus. Now Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to affirm his love. Here was yet another sign of Jesus’ overflowing love. Peter had seen it in the abundance of water changed to wine. He had seen it in the five loaves of bread that had fed the crowd so abundantly that there were twelve baskets left over. He had just seen it in the haul of fish, 153 to be exact. And now he felt it in this profusion of grace, not just one chance to put things right with Jesus, but three times for Peter to tell Jesus that he loved him.
And not only to say it but to show it. Jesus invited Peter to show his love by joining Jesus in his work. Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep.
Some would think that the way for Jesus to keep showing his love for Peter would be to keep showering him with more stuff – more wine, more bread, more fish. Jesus could have given Peter all those things we’re told make life worthwhile, all those things we’re supposed to strive for to achieve happiness. Jesus could have given Peter wealth and power and prestige. He could have given him those things people dream they’ll have if they win the lottery. But all of us have heard stories of people who have it all and yet are miserable. The people who seem to have it all and seem to actually enjoy life are the ones who leverage their wealth and power for the good of others, people like Bill and Melinda Gates who have dedicated their fortune and their lives to eradicating disease and educating children.
Joy and satisfaction don’t come from having but from giving, and that seems to have little correlation with how comfortable and well off you are. Some of the most joyful people are those whose circumstances are the most difficult. I heard an interview the other day with some Nigerians. Their country was recently ranked the happiest country in Africa. It’s still below countries in Europe and North America on the happiness scale. There is widespread poverty, and they have to deal with militant groups like Boko Haram. But these people who were interviewed said that they take joy in the gift of each day. They find satisfaction in helping those around them who are in need, and there are many. I’ve worshiped a few times in Presbyterian churches in Africa, and the joy on the faces of those Christians is unlike anything you’ll ever see on the face of someone sitting in front of a screen.
John Calvin, one of our spiritual forebears, said that we should hold on to the things God gives us the way we would hold a thistle. You hold a thistle lightly. If you hold it tightly, it will hurt you. The things we have we hold lightly. We enjoy them for what they are, for how they can enhance life. But if we cling to them we harm our souls. If they are blown away, then we know our life doesn’t depend on them.
Jesus’ greatest gift to Peter was the call to feed his sheep. That is Jesus’ greatest gift to us. How do we do that? In large part it’s in the attitude we take toward others. It’s an awareness of those whom others overlook. It’s in the way we relate to people, not out of deference to their position or their influence, but out of deference to them as reflections of the image of God, the image in which each person is made.
For some of us, feeding Jesus’ sheep involves making a conscious effort to get out of our comfort zone. Jesus told Peter that what he would get for his faithfulness was an end to his life that was similar to what happened to Jesus. His faithfulness to Jesus would lead him into the hands of those who would tie him up and take him where he did not wish to go. That’s not where faith leads all of us, but it can lead to places we’d otherwise avoid. Lots of times, for us, that is through the church. There are plenty of places many of us would never have gone if our calling as a deacon hadn’t taken us to the bedside in a nursing home or our response to an invitation from the mission committee hadn’t taken us to a neighborhood we’ve never visited to work on a Habitat house or to the homeless community to serve a meal.
Not everyone is physically able to go out. Some of us feed Jesus’ sheep in the way we encounter the people who come to us every day, relatives or friends or helpers. Some of us have a part in feeding Jesus’ sheep in the abundance of our prayers, joining with the Holy Spirit in lifting up this world for which Jesus died.
Right after Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, Peter turned and looked at one of the other disciples and asked Jesus, “What about him?” Jesus said, “If I have different plans for him, what is that to you? Follow me!” Each of us hears Jesus’ call in a different way. He knows each one of us. He showers each of us with blessings we can’t begin to count. And he calls each of us to join him. “Follow me,” he says. And that is our abundant joy.