Well, from time to time some of you have asked me how I go about preparing my sermons each week. Many of you know that our scripture readings each Sunday come from the Revised Common Lectionary. It's the lectionary that most Christian churches around the world follow. And I absolutely love that on any given Sunday around the world, most Christian churches are putting their focus on the very same readings.
Now what I do is, every Monday morning, I take the Gospel reading from that upcoming Sunday's lectionary. And I begin to pray with it. And then that Gospel passage kind of lives with me throughout the week, not only in my morning prayer time, but in my thoughts throughout the week, it kind of becomes like my spiritual food for the week.
And I'm always so amazed to see how God nourishes me spiritually through the beautiful gospel stories of Jesus. And the past three weeks, these resurrection stories have really fed me spiritually. I think they are some of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. I mean, who among us doesn't want to experience what those first disciples did? Who among us doesn't want to experience the presence of the risen Christ in our midst, the presence of the Divine Love, which calls us by name, and says to us, you are holy and precious in my sight, you are my beloved.
Now notice in these resurrection stories the past few weeks, the disciples don't recognize Jesus at first, the person they're talking to doesn't look like the Jesus they remembered. But when Jesus calls them by their name, they have an Aha! moment.
So if you remember, Mary Magdalene, outside the tomb, she thought she was talking to the gardener. But when the gardener says, “Mary,” her eyes are open, and she realizes it's Jesus. And then if you were with us last Sunday, remember, Thomas doesn't believe. But Jesus appears and says, “Thomas, come touch me, put your hand in my hand, feel my side.” And we see the same thing in today's story. Jesus calls Simon Peter by his name, not just once, but three times.
The thing that moved me the most when I was praying with this Gospel passage this week was the setting. Simon Peter went back to where he was three years ago, to when he first met Jesus. If you remember, in that story, Jesus was calling together his first disciples. He's just beginning his ministry, and he wants to call together a team. So he goes to the sea, and he's talks to fishermen. Simon was was among those, and he says, “Leave your boats and your nets on the shore, come and follow me.” And they do.
Now, back then, three years prior, Simon Peter was just Simon, the fisherman. But then during the three years when he was following Jesus, he and Jesus became so close, that Simon became like Jesus's right-hand man. And that's why Jesus said, I'm going to give you the name “Peter,” because Peter means rock. And he says to him, you are going to be the rock, on which I will build my church.
Now, I want to interject something here, because I want to make sure this is clear. This statement has been confusing to many Christians. Jesus was not trying to build a new church. Jesus was not trying to establish a new organized religion called Christianity. He wasn't instructing Peter to go out and build little structures with steeples.
The word that is used in the Bible for ‘church’ is a Greek word, Ecclesia. And what it means literally, is to call people out. He's really instructing Peter to go out into the neighboring towns, and to call people out of their homes to form an assembly of people to have a new way of life, a new way of living and loving and being. And so what he's saying to Simon Peter is ‘You are going to be laying the groundwork, the foundation for continuing my teachings.’ And of course, Peter would go on to do exactly that.
But do you remember where Peter was? When Jesus was arrested? He was hiding in fear. And when the authorities found him, they said, ‘Where's your friend? Where's Jesus? We're here to arrest him.’ And what does Peter say? ‘Who? Jesus, never heard of him. Don't know that guy.’ And Peter told the authorities this not once, but three times.
And that's why, when I was praying with this resurrection story this week, I actually got moved to tears. Because I thought, Peter has returned to where he was three years prior, before he even met Jesus. And I imagine what he must have felt like, he must have felt so shameful, so full of guilt that he he denied and rejected his friend. So sad that his friend had been crucified. He must have felt so dismayed, so hopeless.
And so what does he do? He tries to go back to the way of life he had before he knew Jesus, he tries to go back to being a fisherman.
But notice, it doesn't work. He can't catch any fish. When we follow this way of love, this way of life, this way of being, we can no longer go back to the person we were before. Notice what happens. Jesus appears on the shore. And he says, Simon, Peter, son of John, do you love me?
And did you notice he didn't just say it once?
He said it three times.
And that was on purpose. Because he said it once for each time that Peter rejected Him. Jesus really wanted Peter to know, ‘I love you. I am not coming back to scold you for rejecting me. I'm letting you know that I am with you always. And in all ways.’
I think that's so beautiful. And it reminds us that the presence and the power of the risen Christ is there for us as well, in our times of shame, and despair, and hopelessness. The power and the presence of the risen Christ can transform us with that love and forgiveness.
Now, Peter, of course, would go out and do as Jesus said, ‘Go feed my sheep, go be a fisher of men.’ And so what does that mean for us as progressive Christians? We heard a little bit about that, in our words of Integration and Guidance this morning that Chris Glazer wrote. What does it mean for us as progressive Christians to evangelize? Are we supposed to go out into the world and catch people for Christ? Are we to bring them into our church and convert them? Is that what it means?
Well, as I said, Jesus did not want us to convert people to a religion. He didn't. Jesus was a Jew. He was a very devout Jew. He loved being Jewish, and participated in all the Jewish rituals and traditions. So if you want to go and convert people to the religion of Jesus, well then convert them to Judaism. Jesus never heard of Christianity.
Jesus wanted us to convert ourselves.
Now, if you were with us last Sunday, I was talking about how Christians today want to go out and convert people, because they're so certain that they have the answer. Christianity is the only way, and they're so certain of it, that they want to go out and convert people to save their souls.
My friends, we do not need to go out and save people. We don't. People do not need saving. People need to be loved. We need to go out and love people unconditionally. Which means exactly the way they are. That's how we evangelize. We are going out and loving people the way Jesus loved. We are following his way of life. That's what he wanted us to do, not form a new religion, not build churches with steeples. But to love unconditionally, to forgive one another, to serve one another, especially the least of these.
That's why this Ecclesia is gathered every single week. You know, I love that song that we sometimes sing in church that says, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel the mighty power in the grace, I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face. Surely the presence of God is in this place.
It's so true. You feel it when you're in this church. And that's why we invite people to come to Douglas UCC. That's why we say come and see what's happening here. It's not because we're trying to convert them. It's not because we're trying to save their souls and ensure their place in heaven. We want to extend to them this extravagant welcome, this inclusive love, to let them know that they are holy and precious in God's sight.
That's what it means for us as progressive Christians to evangelize, to share that good news with the world.
Now, in recent years, we keep seeing articles that are written by so-called experts about how the Christian church is dying. All the people are leaving churches and the church is dying.
I don't believe that. But what I do believe, is that the Christian church needs to change if it's going to continue to survive. And I recently read a really wonderful book, which is called Rescuing Jesus. And it was written by Deborah Lee. And in that book, she says this.
“I don't see the church disappearing. I see the church changing radically. Churches that are able to invite and include and celebrate the diversity of humanity – those are the ones that will survive. The ones that can't do that, the ones that continue to make church have our boundaries, about who's in and who's out. Those churches are going to become relics.”
I love that. And I believe that. And so my friends, in this season of Easter this season of new life, let us be people who continue to extend that inclusive welcome to draw the circle, or to draw the net ever wider, so that we can welcome that those 153 different species, different types of people, to our church. To include everyone. Because when we put our focus on that oneness, our church will not only continue to survive, we will thrive.
So let us spiritually feed ourselves and feed one another so that we can bring about the Kin-dom of Heaven, right here on Earth.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
When Jesus called some of his disciples, who were fishermen, he told them he would make them “fishers of men.” He used a metaphor for their calling that they could readily grasp. A net is flexible, stretching to include as many fish as possible. In today’s Gospel – a resurrection story from John – Jesus tells his disciples on which side of the boat to cast their net. From his vantage point on shore, he had the perspective and vision they lacked. When they drew in the fish, we are provided an exact count: 153 in total. Jerome, an early interpreter of this story, suggested that the number of species of fish known in the time of Jesus was 153. Whether that’s true or not, I like the implication that this is an inclusive net and this is a most diverse school of fish. As progressive Christians who are sometimes embarrassed by our aggressively evangelical siblings, we might ask ourselves, “How good are we at fishing for people?” We pride ourselves at the diversity of people we welcome. But how many people are we actually “catching”? Can we summon the same audacity to “fish for people” that we do when collecting signatures on a petition or protesting prejudice and injustice? The late seminary professor, George Edwards, was adamant on calling himself “a liberal evangelical,” declaring passionately that he would not surrender the term “evangelical” to conservative Christians. We, too, are “evangelicals,” bringing the good news of progressive Christianity to those who don’t profess the certainties of earlier generations or of present-day fundamentalists. More and more progressive Christians are finding a voice to express their faith in terms that transcend narrow doctrines. No longer embarrassed to be Christians, they are “catching” like-minded people everywhere who share their desire to be filled with the good news of justice, peace, and radical welcome.
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