Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16
9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

I’ve never done a sermon series, but if I did…

Seven Sundays on the seven deadly sins? Unless the first Sunday is sloth, then the whole thing falls apart.
Four Sundays on the four cardinal virtues? How would I approach temperance?
Twelve Sundays on the twelve disciples? Imagine 12 minutes of golden silence on the Sunday dedicated to St. James the Less, of whom we know absolutely nothing.
Forty Sundays on temptation, rain, and desert wandering? Imagine Manna Sunday, Quail Sunday, or The Lord Sends Poisonous Snakes on those who Complain Sunday.

This is week two of our look at the Book of Acts, with week three just around the corner. You will recall that Dr. Skinner of Luther Seminary gave us the overall theme for these sermons, namely, “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world.” I ended last week with “strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.”

So we continue to explore this post-Easter world, a world described by St. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Think of it as our foundational document: part history, part theology, and part biography, if the subject of the biography is the Holy Spirit. It describes the movement toward a universal church, and the early characteristics of that nascent church. Finally, it gives context to the letters of Paul, describing the kinds of people and situations that Paul seeks to address.

It’s a lot to take in. And so, we adopt an approach that’s found in the name itself, looking at the book one act at a time. Today’s act, the journey to Macedonia, is much more than a travelogue filled with vexing Greek place names, ably read by Sylvia. It’s a bit of a sign of what’s to come: movement into Europe, movement into Gentile territory, and movement closer to the heart of the Roman empire. You hear it in a note that Luke shares—”we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district”—a detail that will be even more important next week.

For today, it’s one step at a time. Another vision, another voice urging action, and a journey to follow. Paul and Silas put out to sea, and follow the Spirit’s bidding to Phillipi. Like the old spiritual, they head down to the river to pray, and they spoke with some of the women who gathered there. Among them was Lydia, a dealer in fine cloth, and a woman of faith. She responded to Paul’s message of new life in Christ, accepted baptism, opening her home to Paul and Silas.

It’s a simple story, and like all simple stories, we need to look again to find meaning. On one level, the action is in the verbs: begging Paul, putting out to sea, finding a place of prayer, Lydia listening, the Lord opening her heart, she and the members of her household baptized, and inviting the apostles to her home. The Spirit moves, the Spirit is all about movement, and the movement is always toward new life.

But what about the understory, the smaller details that can reveal some of what the Spirit is doing? So to begin, it has been suggested that Philippi had no synagogue, so a spot near the river became the gathering place for the Jewish people of the town.* Paul is recognized as a visiting rabbi, and given the opportunity to speak. The Word falls first on the women of the community, led by Lydia, described with some intriguing clues.

First of all, her name is a place name, Lydia being a nearby province, which may suggest that she is a former slave. She has a trade, or business as a successful trader (the text is unclear) and she is the head of a household. She has control over her home (based on her ability to invite these men to stay with her) and doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. She may be a widow, but the text is silent on this. We can say with certainty that she is a leader in her community and the head of a household.

This might be the moment to unpack this idea of the household, and the extent to which it defines life in this time and place. For this, I’m leaning on the work of Richard Ascough, who teaches at a good school. (I can’t actually name the school, because I would then be obligated to sing to you in Gaelic and move about. There is no time for this.) Dr. Ascough wants us to see and understand Lydia as a collectivist rather than an individualist, and the bearing this has on the moment described.

So what’s the difference? Maybe I’ll start with the individualist column, which we already know, since we live it every day. You know, then, that you’re part of an individualist society when:

You look out for yourself first, and your family
You are defined by your personal attributes and your choices
You have numerous friends, and different styles of friendship
You teach your children to be independent and think for themselves.
You assume you are equal to others

Now we can turn to a collectivist society, the society of Lydia, and Paul, and his companions:

You are loyal to an extended group: clan, village, or other source of identity
You are defined by group attributes, and conformity to group norms is paramount
You have fewer friends, but the few you have are longer lasting and include more obligations.
You teach your children to adhere to the group, learning "communal sensitivity and cooperation."
You know where you rank in the group, and you value the stability of hierarchy

As you digest all this, we can summarize by saying that without knowing a lot about Lydia, we can know a lot about Lydia. She is a loyal member of her community: synagogue, guild, and household. She adheres to the norms of her group, but she has a role in setting these norms, as a leader. She is part of a tight knit group, co-religionists, fellow merchants, those who live and work in her household. Her role would be to foster cooperation and remind others of their obligation to the success of the group. She is a high-ranking member of her particular hierarchy, again, in the synagogue, guild and household.

It is hardly surprizing, then, that Paul finds Lydia. This is not a chance encounter on the beach: this is an itinerant rabbi finding an important member of the community, the person God has decided Paul will engage. The narrative is shy on details—Lydia was a worshiper of God and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message—but it opens a small world of meaning where a leading woman becomes the first to accept the Good News of Jesus.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to highlight a related issue that is a much longer sermon. Dr. Ascough is quick to note that if you said to Lydia “hey, I’m so happy you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour,” she would stare at you and be dumbfounded. In collectivist societies, there is no such thing as a personal Lord and Saviour. There is salvation in the group finding new life in Christ, later described as “the church,” but there is nothing personal about faith—it is always collective. Loving your neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children—these are collectivist endeavors in the individualist society where we find ourselves.

Permit me to rant for a moment, because the events unfolding at the top of Mount Everest right now symbolize the tragedy of individualism. People are literally stepping over the dead bodies of fellow climbers to reach the top. And there is a traffic jam, leading to more deaths, but people persist—because of this meaningless and highly individualist pursuit. It is the perfect storm of wealth, achievement and personal fulfilment, and people are giving their lives for it. It is an extremely far cry from what we’re trying to do: Loving our neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children. These climbers need help, not to reach the top, but to see that they are beloved children of God and their lives have meaning far away from the summit.

Back to St. Lydia, first convert on European soil, leader in her church and community, dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited her new friends into her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And Paul needed no convincing. Her household expands to include these travelers because her heart and home were open to a message of new life: that Jesus lived and died for them and lives again in the lives of the faithful.

So I guess we’re in the middle of a three-part series on the Book of Acts. Next week we will see Paul and Silas land in jail, and learn about all the trouble that follows. And we will meet Lydia one last time, welcoming a couple of former jailbirds back into her home, because that’s the kind of thing she does. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

From the “you know you’re old when” file, I asked my son about House.

Not the dwelling, not the show, but the musical genre. My satellite radio is constantly trying to lure me away from TV-news-on-the-radio to various music channels—like House. I can’t recall Isaac’s exact definition, something like ‘mellow electronic dance music’ or some something like that, and popularized by artists such as Deadmau5—that’s mouse spelled in German with a 5 instead of an “S.” Oddly, Deadmau5 lives near Lang, so maybe Lang would be a better person to ask about electronic dance music. Our picnic is sounding more interesting all the time.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more. So there is Techno, with the same four-on-the-floor beat as House (not sure what that means) but with more “atonal samples and dystopian atmospheres.”* Or Dubstep, with a two-step beat and a sound that has been compared to “demon growls” or “a blender full of pennies.” I don’t think they’re selling it very well.

Finally, there is Trance. If House and Techno had a baby, in Germany, in the 90s, it would be called Trance. The name more-or-less describes the genre, with repeating phrases that can put you into, well, a trance. It’s obviously not for driving. I share all this because the passage Bob read includes a famous example of a trance, and because I presume you are planning the rest of your weekend, and it may include a little clubbing.

So what about Peter’s trance? The words we heard this morning—the trance and the blanket covered in creatures—is an exact retelling from the previous chapter, events that happened in the home of Simon the Tanner, and involve a certain centurion named Cornelius.

Chapter 10 begins with a vision: Cornelius is a God-fearing member of the Italian Regiment, attentive in prayer and generous to the poor. God speaks to Cornelius and says “send for a man named Peter, who just now is in Joppa, staying in the home of Simon the Tanner.

Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter is hungry, and waiting for the noon meal to be served. He retreats to the roof of Simon’s house to pray, and he falls into a trance. The heavens open and down comes a blanket, held by four-corners and covered in “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.” Then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter said. “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
The voice spoke from heaven a second time and said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Pondering his vision, doubtless still hungry, the Spirit speaks a third time and says ‘Peter, there are three men downstairs waiting for you, so go with them, for I have sent them to collect you.’ Greetings are exchanged, the words of the Spirit are shared, and the next day they set off. It’s 33 miles from Joppa to Caesarea where Cornelius is posted, so after a couple of days on the road the group arrives.

Peter enters a full house. Cornelius has gathered family and trusted friends, and Peter addresses them all: ‘You are well-aware,’ he begins, ‘that it is against our laws for me to visit the home of a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. For this reason, I came without objection. May I then ask you, then, why you have invited me?’

Cornelius explains his vision—the Spirit who commended his devotion to prayer and the poor—and the command to summon Peter. “So I sent for you immediately,” Cornelius said, “and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Peter shares the words we heard in Easter Sunday: God loves those who fear God and do what is right, from every nation. God sent Jesus, anointed with truth and power, but the people could not receive him. He died on a cross, but God raised him on the third day, becoming life to those who believe. As Peter spoke, the Spirit descended on the household, members and guests, and all believed. “No one,” Peter said, “can stand in the way of their baptism. They have received the same Spirit we have.” He then baptised them in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit made is seem so easy. A word here, a vision there, and trance thrown in for good measure. And it turns out that this, indeed, was the simple part, because our lesson this morning comes with the sub-title “uh-oh.” Word of the whole episode has reached Peter’s colleagues at Church House (in Jerusalem) and they object: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?”

Peter’s response is simple: tell the story, emphasize the places where God (in the Spirit) has acted, and defeat them with one question—”So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Matt Skinner, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. Professor Skinner spoke on Acts 16, the time Paul and Silas land themselves in jail, and the parallels between that story and this story are striking. They are both stories about “hospitality in the homes of the newly baptized,” stories where “strangers become friends,” and stories where God saves surprizing people—jailers and centurions—as we look on in wonder.**

Reading through the Book of Acts—according to Dr. Skinner—we can see “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world." A member of the occupying army is welcomed into the household of God. A jailer witnessed the power of God as chains are loosed and the prison door is thrown open, and then the jailed asks, “what can I do to be saved? Even the Ethiopian eunuch—perhaps the best modern equivalent would be a member of the trans community—is embraced by St. Philip. Remember the end of the story?

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And nothing can stand in the way, as Philip baptized him immediately.

It is the questions—Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? What can I do to be saved? What can stand in the way of my being baptized?—it is the questions that define what becomes possible in the post-Easter world. And the answer is anything—with God all things are possible. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.

I’m still thinking about Peter’s trance, and the extent to which he entered that altered state to see a vision of a new world. In a world without sirens and horns, blaring televisions or electronic dance music, maybe you needed a trance to move from a relatively quiet world to a place where the Spirit could speak. For us it might be simpler, maybe just some silent prayer to open ourselves to the Spirit. And what would we hope to hear, what vision might we see?

Like Acts—the other time the church was confronted by so much confusion and indifference—it may be a glimpse of what God is already doing around us. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved. Amen.

**Festival of Homiletics, 2019, Minneapolis.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

I decided to get a jump on my summer reading, so I bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

The first problem is page after page of redactions, entire pages made up of a large blocks of black ink where the words are supposed to go. On one hand, I got more ink, so that’s good, but on the other hand, fewer words, that’s bad. And I have already spent too much time trying to guess what’s under all that ink—to no avail. And of course, after Carmen handed me my new book, I couldn’t resist saying, “hey, what did you do to my new book?” Who know redactions could be so much fun?

(Just as an aside, my friend and colleague is a pastor in Iowa, and he experienced some illness last year. He’s a funny guy, so he’s in the hospital and he says to his wife “I really hope that your next husband is healthier than me.” Without skipping a beat she says, “I’m not sure what Robert’s health is like.”
“Robert! Who’s Robert?” he says.
“Robert Mueller, of course.”)

I think of it as a 448 page trip down memory lane. That time Comey went to the White House and felt compelled to make contemporaneous notes. The meeting the Oval with Kislyak and Lavrov. Or the time Flynn lied to Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. Is it collusion or obstruction, or both?

(Just now you’re thinking that this is the strangest Mother’s Day sermon is human history, and you struggle to see how any preacher could possibly make a link from Mueller to Mother’s Day. But I think I know, so let’s look.)

First of all, consider Mike Pence. He’s the conservative governor who was selected to join the ticket in an effort to solidify support from the religious right. And he succeeded, partly by convincing his co-religionists to keep their eye on the prize—conservative judges—and partly by making a Bible-based argument for supporting the ticket.

The argument is to point to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conqueror of Babylon, the very king who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. For Pence and for others, the parallels seem too clear to ignore: Cyrus was pagan, normally someone you ignore or revile, but he became an instrument of God’s desire to return the people to the Promised Land. Isaiah even calls Cyrus a messiah, an anointed one, sent to save the people.

So in a remarkable misuse of the Bible, conservative Christian voters were told that even though their candidate seemed to represent everything a good Christian should avoid—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—they should set this aside because he might be a modern-day King Cyrus. And if you think all this might be a bit of a stretch, remember that the Prime Minister of Israel made the same point about Cyrus the Great, in the Oval Office, after the election.

Clearly, this is a moment to review this idea of messiah. In our passage, Jesus’ religious critics want to know if he’s messiah. In Isaiah 45 we read about Cyrus as messiah, and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, they continue to wait. So how do we sort through all this? Just now, some of our Lenten study friends are remembering that just such a question came up, so they can go to their happy place for a moment while we look at this idea of messiah.

To begin, messiah simply means “the anointed one,” associated with kingship of the human and historical variety. David is considered the greatest king, anointed and given the promise of an enduring line. The Babylonians had other ideas, of course, so the idea of an Israelite king become a future hope, and eventually a messianic hope—in the sense that God will anoint another king to rule over them.

At the same time, the Bible begins to give the anointed king divine qualities, using language like Son of God (Psalm 2) as an honourific. So we have the idea of a messiah, a divinely anointed king, and he have the name “Son of God,” an important marker of divine authorization. Add this to the language of the Son of Man: beginning in Daniel and expressing a future hope someone more powerful than an angel (and in human form) would come on the clouds to liberate Israel.

So by the time Jesus arrives, the hope of salvation is described in a number of ways: Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, righteous branch (of the Jesse tree) and so on. And it follows that Jesus fits the part. When Jesus says to the twelve “but who do you say that I am?” we get Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Which brings us back to our passage. When asked if he is the messiah, he says “I told you that, but you didn’t believe me”—
and then he does two things. First, he reminds them that everything he has been doing should be proof enough that he comes from God, and second, he talks about sheep. I’m going to talk about sheep in a moment, but I want to underline here that the language of messiah is less important to Jesus than it might seem. Titles have a role to play in the story, but Jesus wants to people to see God at work through him and he wants to discuss sheep.

First, one final word on messiah. You may have noticed that within the mainline church we tend to use the word ‘messiah’ less than in other traditions. And the reason is simple: for our Jewish brothers and sisters, Messiah has yet to come. In many ways, it is a conflict that troubles the heart of both religions. Either we are mistake or they are mistaken. And this is so deeply dissatisfying that liberal Christians (and reform Jews) tend to say we’re both mistaken: we say that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah after all, and Reform Jews focus on a messianic age rather than an individual figure.* As compromises go, it’s a good one.

So we’ve looked at the messiah question, so what about sheep? Listen again to part of our passage, and I think we’re hearing the language of relationship: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow one will snatch them out of my hand...nor can anyone can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I am one with the Father.”

This is the Good Shepherd, tirelessly searching for the lost sheep, speaking that we might recognize his voice, and related to the Most High because Jesus and the Father are one. In other words, a relationship. The religious critics were busy trying to trip Jesus up with questions of messiahship and such, but Jesus just wanted to talk about the things God was doing, and the relationship God-in-Jesus wants to have with each and every one of us.

So we’re still trying to get from Mueller to Mother’s Day, and of course we have to talk about Confirmation too, since Olivia and Jenna are equally confused about how all this fits together. Truth is, we already have the answer: Jesus wants to talk about the things that God is already doing, like moving young hearts to join the church, and he wants to talk about relationship, like the lifelong relationship with the Christian church that begins (and continues) today.

Olivia and Jenna, you have made a profession of faith and helped us remember our own promises, but the real action today is relationship—joined to this fellowship and the Good Shepherd who makes us one. We hear his voice speaking through others, we know him through the good work of others, and we follow—together—never walking alone.

So one final piece in this puzzle: Mother’s Day. But before I share perhaps my favourite scholarly quote, I want to caution you on the misuse of scripture. It is a grave error to suggest that God would lift up a reprehensible person to further a narrow and intolerant agenda. And our role as believers is to vehemently make the counter-argument: that we serve a God of love and mercy, who lifts up the vulnerable, and seeks a just sharing of all the world’s resources. God works from below, through relationship, and by placing us in the midst of human need.

So here is the quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether, let’s call it a Mother’s Day card from the Bible:

In the story of the Exodus we find that the first acts of rebellion against Pharaoh are those of women. The mother of Moses refuses to obey the decree to kill her newborn son and hides him in the bulrushes. The sister of Moses seizes the opportunity to save him by presenting him to the daughter of Pharaoh who comes to the river to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter also disobeys by accepting the Hebrew child and bringing him up as her own. Thus a conspiracy of women takes place across class and ethnic lines to save the child who will be the liberator of Israel. (Women-Church, p. 43-44)

May the things that God is doing in our midst be never more plain than today, and may you remain bound, one to another, in sacred relationship, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21
14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Apologies if you rushed here this morning and missed breakfast, but I want you to think about your comfort food.

Comfort food, for those of you visiting this planet for the first time today, is the food you reach for when you need more than nutrition. It’s that warm feeling you get when you tuck into something familiar and comfortable. At our house there is something about the lunchtime combination of grilled cheese and tomato soup—comfort food.

And there are obviously lots of variables—culture, memory, circumstance—all of which determine your comfort food. It’s also highly subjective—one person’s comfort food might sound odd or unappealing to someone else. But that’s the nature of comfort, it depends who you are and how you were made.

Related to comfort food is the idea of a comforting friend, the person you turn to for support or well, comfort. For some this will be someone who really understands you, or won’t judge you, or doesn’t need a long explanation to understand what you are saying. Maybe you have different friends for different areas of concern, one for kvetching and another for sharing something good. In this era of posting and forwarding, you might see some pattern—certain stories sent to certain people—knowing that what you send will be appreciated.

And then, of course, there are comfort activities, that thing you do when you have a particular need. Maybe you’re too tired to do anything else, except your comfort activity. Maybe you’re stressed out and you know which activity will calm you down. Or maybe it’s like your comfort food—tied to memory and circumstance—an activity that transports you to a different time and place and gives you a sense of comfort.

Like fishing, for example. The reading Kathy shared is part of an extended narrative that begins back home, some days after Jesus first appeared to his disciples. John picks up the story:

Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Even with John’s sparse telling, you get the sense that they are engaged in a comfort activity: “I’m going out,” Peter said. “We’ll go with you,” they said. Back to the water, a familiar place and a familiar activity. They obviously can’t turn back the clock, return to whatever moment was happiest or most comfortable, but they can sit in the boat, with the friends that remain, and do something as natural and familiar as breathing. And then the dawn breaks.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

Then Jesus said, “Cast your net on the other side and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul in the net because there were so many fish.

Suddenly this story about friends finding comfort in the familiar transforms into something else, this miraculous catch, too many fish to haul into the boat. Suddenly the unexpected breaks into the familiar, and it doesn’t take the beloved disciple long to figure out what is happening here.

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

I don’t do sermon titles, but if I did, it would have to be some variation on “Fishing Naked with Peter.” Interesting that in 1611 (the old King James) Peter is naked, but by the middle of the last century the translators can’t bring themselves to describe him as naked, then in the latest translation (NRSV) he’s naked again. Later, when someone asks you the theme of the preacher’s message, what will you say?

Back to our story. Jesus said, “bring me some of the fish you have caught, and Peter obliges: 153 large fish in the net, yet the net was not torn. “Come and have some breakfast,” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” But they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Now we get to the comfortable heart of the story. He broke bread and gave it to them, and likewise he shared some grilled fish. Simple elements transformed into a heavenly feast, one the body of Christ and the other a sure sign of the Kingdom, 153 fish in the net. 153, then, is the number of abundance, the number of the inexpressible generosity of God. The unexpected breaks into the familiar: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

But the meal is only the beginning. We’re back to the part that Kathy read, certainly one of the most emotional conversations in scripture. Jesus was known for emotional conversations, the rich young ruler, the woman at the well, Nicodemus by night— but this one is different. This one is an extended version of that conversation I expect we have all had at one time or another, the conversation that can be summarized simply as “are we good?”

What John records, of course, is more complex—a threefold dialogue in a threefold movement—that seems to take the familiar (the need to be reconciled) and transform it into something unexpected. Listen again:

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

By the third time this questioning repeats, we should know that something else is happening here. The answer to “are we good” is an obvious ‘yes,’ having been granted a window on the love between Peter and the Lord. It might seem cliche to say that Jesus was Peter’s comforting friend, but here it becomes clear. The darkness of denial has lifted, and now they can resume this remarkable partnership, a fisherman from the Galilee and the Lord of All.

This might seem the most likely place to end, but I want to add more one unexpected element to the familiar end of John’s Gospel. And that has to do with the miracle of scripture. Time and time again we have talked about finding yourself in the Bible: imagining yourself in a parable, seeing yourself among the twelve, guessing your reaction when standing on holy ground. But in John 21 we get to enter the conversation, with a different kind of comforting friend: the comforting friend who asks the questions we need to be asked, the comforting friend who sees what we can’t see, the comforting friend who knows there is much more in store for us.

“Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

Our comforting friend, the ultimate comforting friend, is calling us to fill this role for others, for this is how we glorify God and bring the Kingdom to them. First we accept these words, and then we bring them to others.

May the God of the unexpected find us and make us new. Amen.