Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sermon: Easter 3

25 April 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: John 21:1-19 (RCL)

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia!

At the risk of making every belly in the sanctuary grumble, today’s Gospel text makes it necessary to talk about food. The disciples are fishing – not for a day of relaxation and recreation, but rather they are working the night shift in their small business: fishing in order to supply the market with food.

The risen Jesus appears to them from the shore, and gives them a suggestion as to how to increase their yield. Jesus is repeating the first miracle that Peter was ever to see Jesus perform, telling Peter to cast his nets on the other side. This divine déjà-vu reveals to the disciples that this mysterious figure on the shore is the risen Jesus. Out of respect for the Lord, Peter dresses himself modestly and dives into the water to meet Jesus. By the time Peter and his associates have brought their bulging net with 153 fish back to the beach, Jesus has already fired up the grill and invites the disciples to have breakfast with him.

And notice that Jesus not only issues the invitation to eat with him, Jesus himself serves the bread and the flesh of the fish with his own hands: “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them.” John calls this sharing of this Lord’s meal a “revelation” – as this was the third time that the resurrected Jesus “was revealed” to the disciples. The grammar in this sentence is not an accident – it makes it very clear that this revealing, this revelation, was carried out by God himself. Notice that the sentence has no subject. Biblical writers do what our composition teachers tell us not to do – write sentences without subjects – as a way of telling us the subject is God. God does the revealing. The disciples only receive what God has revealed in Jesus’s sharing of the meal with them. Just as when we discern the Lord’s Body and Blood, we do so because God himself reveals this reality to us in the meal we share with Jesus. Every Lord’s Supper is a revelation of God, a revealing to us something that remains hidden to those outside the church.

Now, if all this food-talk were not enough, the Evangelist next tells us about a conversation Jesus has with Peter right after breakfast. This conversation has to do with food. Jesus tells him to feed his sheep. Jesus uses food as a metaphor for Peter’s work as a pastor. With all of this talk of food, do you suppose St. John is up to something – something other than making us all think about what we’re going to eat after church today?

John is the same evangelist who spends a good bit of time quoting Jesus when he calls himself the Bread of Life. In his Gospel and his other New Testament books, John attacks those who claim Jesus is only a spirit, as opposed to being a true, flesh and blood man. John is the evangelist who quotes Jesus’s shocking and scandalous quote that whoever would be a follower of our Lord must eat his flesh and drink his blood – a sermon that would cost Jesus a 30% decrease in his congregation. (Fortunately, Jesus didn’t have district and synodical officials to call his attention to more successful church growth strategies.)

St. John overwhelms us with presenting Jesus as more than a spirit, more than a rabbi, more than a philosopher. John presents Jesus to us in no uncertain terms as God who is in the flesh. And the greatest way to prove your solidarity, your “realness” with the people around you is to join them in a meal. Jesus routinely eats with human beings. He does what no spirit does – he puts food in his mouth, chews, swallows, and digests. He does what no ancient pagan god does – he walks up to a table and sits down to a meal – not only with pious religious folks, but also with thieves and prostitutes. Jesus eats, he weeps, he gets angry, he speaks, he listens, he bleeds, he dies. He does what every mortal does. He also goes beyond mortality by rising from the dead. And yet, even the risen Christ is still human, still one of us. He proves this by continuing to sit at table with mortals and puts cooked meat, the flesh of a fish, into his mouth, chews, and digests – thus continuing to bring creation itself into the Godhead.

And we Christians continue to bring the Godhead into ourselves, as we eat the flesh of our Lord, who continues to come to table with us mortals, with us sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and thieves. Jesus eats with us, and also “feeds his sheep” through the ministrations of the men who are called and ordained, like Peter, to render this service. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who feeds his sheep. He is the Good Shepherd who takes care of his flock with “under-shepherds” like Peter, like all pastors, who feed and care for Jesus’s precious lambs. The word “pastor” means literally a shepherd. This is why bishops of the church are often seen with a curved pole called a crosier. Although they tend to be fancy, they are a ceremonial reminder of the common shepherd’s crook, a hooked stick used by shepherds to herd the sheep. Every bishop, every pastor, is given the same charge as St. Peter, to tend Jesus’s lambs and to feed Jesus’s sheep.

Pastors feed the sheep with the Word of God – just as St. John was instructed to eat the scroll in the Book of Revelation. As God himself revealed to Moses, we are fed “not by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Our pastors also feed us the Lord’s Body and Blood, inviting us on our Lord’s behalf to: “take eat, take drink.”

Just as the fall of man came about by eating, so also our redemption comes to us by eating. Just as the Book of Genesis opens with a food-laden Paradise, so the Book of Revelation closes with a New Jerusalem, a new promised land rich in luscious fruit, centered on the Tree of Life – from which we will eat with God and the Lamb for all eternity.

In this private encounter with Peter, Jesus has forgiven Peter’s sin of denying his Lord. The threefold nature of Jesus’s question: “Do you love me” reminds Peter of his painful threefold betrayal. Like Judas, Peter’s faith was shaken. Using the weapon of fear, Satan had gotten his way with Peter. But unlike that of Judas, Peter’s faith is restored to him. Although Peter sinned, he never stopped believing. Although his faith was a dimly burning wick, our Lord did not blow it out, but rather fanned the flame, reigniting Peter’s faith, allowing him to confess and to receive the Gospel anew. Peter is renewed, and Jesus restores his ministry. Once again, Jesus invites Peter to service as a disciple and as an apostle: “Follow me.”

And with this invitation, with this fanning of the flame, comes a cross. For while Peter saved his own hide during our Lord’s passion, there would come a passion of his own, and a cross awaiting Peter later on. This doesn’t only apply to St. Peter. For in our first lesson, the Lord says regarding St. Paul: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

The life of the Christian – and especially the life of a Christian shepherd – is a life lived out under the burden of the cross. To take up Jesus’s invitation “follow me” is to end up like Jesus at Golgotha, and from there, into a tomb.

But let us never forget that the pain and shame of the cross do not have the final say. Death doesn’t get the last word. For this very lesson was taught to Peter, to all pastors, and to all Christians, from the mouth of the resurrected Christ. Just as a cross awaits all of us in life, and death itself waits for us at the end of our own walk through our own versions of the passion, our own stations of the cross – let us keep in mind that a resurrection lies on the other side. And as St. John testifies in our second lesson, part and parcel of this resurrection is a feast, a feast of victory, in which we join (today, and forever) the thousands of thousands, the myriads of myriads, the church militant on earth, the church triumphant in heaven, angels, archangels, and all the hosts of heaven singing: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”

This is the feast of victory for our God, alleluia, now, and in the age to come, world without end. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Sermon: Easter 2

18 April 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: John 20:19-31 (RCL)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Texts such as today’s Gospel provide preachers with what we call today: “information overload.”

Look at what we encounter in these thirteen verses: the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of Absolution, the Power of the Keys, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, Holy Ordination and the Office of the Ministry, the nature of faith, and the purpose and power of Holy Scripture. Our text also presents us with several contrasts: life and death, fear and peace, belief and unbelief, forgiveness of sins and the retaining of sins.

My Goodness! Where does one begin? How about at the beginning?

Just before our text opens, Mary Magdalene has just seen and touched the risen Jesus. She has testified before the disciples, but they are skeptical. Their lack of faith results in their fear: expressed in their being huddled up behind closed doors. This is not a very glorious start for the first eleven pastors of the church: cowering in a room with no risen Christ, no gospel, no Holy Spirit, no ordination, and no courage. This is a far cry from St. Peter’s later preaching in our first lesson, who, even as a prisoner of the Jews, defiantly proclaims the gospel, vowing to obey God before men. This is also quite a contrast to what we find in our second lesson: St. John’s fearless confession and proclamation of Christ, even in the latter days of his life, as an exile on a hostile island by order of the Romans. Eleven of the twelve apostles would be martyred by the enemies of Christ. All twelve would become bold and fearless preachers and witnesses of Jesus Christ.

But for now, on this day, at the beginning of our text, they’re a sorry lot. What changes everything for them, leading them from fear to peace, from disbelief to faith, from stunned silence to stunning proclamation, is encountering the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in his Word and in his Flesh. This incredible transformation does not come from within themselves, not from their own courage, not from pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, nor from their reading of popular self-help books. No, it comes from outside of themselves, from Jesus, who, on this day, shares with the disciples his very Body and Blood. The Lord Jesus appears bodily to them, and blesses them with words from his mouth. And it is his blessing “Peace be with you” that indeed gives peace. When God speaks, things come into being: “Let there be light, and there was light.” When God speaks a blessing, a transformation happens to those who hear it and receive it. We see an immediate and startling change in the disciples. Let there be peace, and there is peace.

But Jesus isn’t here just to say “hello,” show off a few scars, and get caught up on old times. He’s not there merely to give comfort to his frightened friends. He has urgent business at hand: the proclamation of the Gospel to the entire world. This is a mission ordered by his Father, and one which Jesus delegates to his apostles, who are, in turn, to lead the church: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” This word “to send” is literally “to apostle.” Jesus is here on this day to give the apostles their calls into the Holy Ministry. They are called to be evangelizing bishops. But Jesus doesn’t simply give them their marching orders. Look at what he does, he breathes on them, bodily giving them the Holy Spirit. And with this ordination, the Lord authorizes the apostles to forgive sins – something the Pharisees claimed that only God could do. Of course, they were right – only God can forgive sins, only God himself can die on the cross and atone for our sins, and only God himself can, and does, send sinful, imperfect, but redeemed men to forgive sins in his name. In addition to this happy task, Jesus also gives his ministers the somber duty of withholding forgiveness from those who refuse to repent. Jesus gives his church’s pastors the power of the keys – one key to open heaven, and the other key to close it, one to free, and the other to bind.

For whatever reason, the apostle Thomas was not ordained with his classmates. In fact, when he returns, he is still in a state of disbelief, while the other apostles had been given the gift of faith. Jesus graciously appears to Thomas, not merely speaking to him, but rather letting Thomas touch his body and handle his bloody wounds. This holy and supernatural – but also earthly and physical – contact brings about Thomas’s beautiful confession echoed by thousands of Christians throughout the centuries during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the pastor elevates the Body of the Lord and the people repeat after Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

While John is on the topic of faith-building, he rounds out the discussion by filling us in on the purpose of Scripture. It’s not primarily genealogy, history, science, poetry, ethics, etc. – though one will find all of these things in the Bible. But John gets right to the point: “these things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, Scripture, just like the Sacraments, actually creates faith. The Scriptures are a supernatural manifestation of Jesus, a means through which he breathes his spirit into all of us and gives us everlasting life, a life that overcomes fear, disbelief, and even the power of death itself.

And this is the crux of the matter: by faith, we have life. Not by our own works, our own righteousness, or by our own power. No, by faith. But faith in what? In ourselves? In money? In worldly power? No, in Jesus. And how does Jesus come to us? In his Holy Word and in his Holy Sacraments. And where to these come from? From the men our Lord authorizes to preach the Word, baptize, absolve, and distribute the Lord’s Supper. And what is given in these gifts? Faith that our sins are forgiven. Faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the crucified savior. Eternal-life-giving faith. Jesus is the giver of the faith, and the object of the faith, who also works through faith. The relationship between faith and Jesus is a “gracious circle”: Jesus gives us faith, and this faith points us to Jesus.

As St. John, one of those first twelve pastors, proclaimed in our second lesson: Jesus is the one who “was, who is, and who is to come.” He is also the “Alpha and the Omega,” that is, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

When you boil it all down, it’s all about Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the crucified and resurrected one who comes to us in the flesh and in the Word, who gives us faith, and through that faith, eternal life. And when we have the assurance of eternal life, we can afford the luxury of courage, we can be bold to proclaim the Good News. By faith we can touch the Flesh and Blood of our resurrected Lord, knowing that his Body and Blood take away our sins and make us immortal. And in such faith, both in Christ and from Christ, we can pray with the church of every time and place:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, refresh me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O good Jesus, hear me;
Within Thy wounds hide me;
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee;
From the malicious enemy defend me;
In the hour of death call me,
And bid me come to Thee
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
For all eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.