April 13, 2008
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth and I have this fun and simple game we occasionally play with one another called “How much do you love me?” I’ll begin by saying, “Hey Elizabeth, how much do you love me?” and Elizabeth will reply, “I love you more than all the people in the world who have to scoop up cat litter.” I laugh and then say to her, “That’s a lot of love.” Then Elizabeth will ask, “How much do you love me?” and I’ll say, “I love you more than all the people in the world who get ice-cream headaches.” And she’ll giggle and say, “Wow, that is a lot of love!” Sometimes there’s a twist to the game and Elizabeth will ask me specifically if I love her more than a certain thing. This past Thursday she asked: “Do you love me more than you hate cleaning the bathroom?” And I responded with an emphatic “YES, without a doubt!”
This is, of course, an example of the type of romantic and friendship love Elizabeth and I have shared in our four years of marriage. But the silly banter also points to a deep and abiding love that we’ve been given by God-a love that we’d always choose over any one thing because our relationship is more important and valuable than any of the material possessions we own. We love each other more than the things, and the game Elizabeth and I play is a way of remembering the importance of that love over all else.
Jesus uses the same type of approach with Simon Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius in Galilee. After finishing a breakfast of fish and loaves, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus never explains what “these” means. The common theory among scholars is that Jesus is saying, “Do you love me more than these disciples love me?” as a way of determining whether Peter is willing, more than the other disciples, to go the extra mile to create the Church. Going that route, though, raises questions about whether Jesus gave preferential treatment, considered certain disciples to be the greatest among them or thought that those who loved him more would get the most work done. And that doesn’t seem to fit with the Jesus we’ve grown to know earlier in the Gospels-the Jesus who interrupted the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest and explained that the greatest is not the one sitting in a chair of power at the head of a table, but the one who serves.
A more likely interpretation of “these” is the fish. Not the breakfast of fish but rather the big catch of fish that Peter has spent all night looking for and finally receives after Jesus tells him to cast the fishing nets on the right side of the boat. Peter has been a fisherman all his life and never once has he seen so many fish, so many that the nets don’t even break like they should. This is the elusive catch fully realized, the capstone of life-long fishing career. It doesn’t get much better than this for a fisherman, especially a blue collar Jewish one living in Roman occupied Galilee. There’s nothing more for Peter to achieve and that’s when Jesus asks the question, “Do you love me more than these fish you’ve caught, this big catch and this career you’ve had as a fisherman?”
It’s a valid question that Peter seems to have forgotten. Jesus’ fishing tips to Peter and the disciples in the beginning of John 21 alludes to a similar story in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Taking a break from the crowd of people pressing in on him to hear God’s word, Jesus gets into a boat belonging to Simon Peter. He teaches the crowds for awhile and then tells Peter “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter answers, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” After doing so, Peter and the other fishermen caught so many fish that their nets began to break. They signal to another boat to come and help haul in the fish and after they fill both boats, the vessels start to sink. Upon seeing this amazing sight, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knee and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus says to him, “Do not be afraid; for now on you will be catching people.”
Peter’s new calling is to be a disciple of Jesus and a true fisher of men, of people. And yet according to John’s Gospel, good ole Peter-in the midst of Jesus’ resurrection revealed in two appearances to the disciples-decides he’s going fishing! Peter is going back to the trade he was called away from. The trade in which he previously dropped his fishing gear to follow Jesus.
Peter, however, did stray a bit prior to this encounter with the risen Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. Shortly after Jesus was arrested by the Roman authorities, Peter vehemently denied knowing Jesus three times. I imagine when that cocked crowed and Peter realized what he had done, he went away full of sadness and shame. Maybe Peter feels he is no longer worthy to be a disciple and chooses to return to the only thing he knows how to do, which is catch fish.
Love of Jesus is required of every disciple and all play a role in the care and nurture of the community of faith. Thus what do we learn about ministry from this exchange, about the practice of caring for Jesus’ sheep? For one thing, it is clear that ministry is entrusted to forgiven sinners, less-than-perfect people, who undertake this work “not to earn the forgiveness and acceptance that has already been given, but as a way of expressing gratitude for the gift of grace, and as a way of living the new, resurrected life we have received.”
Gench also says that “it’s worth noting that Jesus’ question is not “do you love my sheep?”:
Sheep or fellow disciples are not always loveable and whatever love we have for them will not sustain us in ministry. We will not persevere in shepherding tasks unless the love of Christ is our motivation. Ministry is grounded in that love-a love that is lived out in the practice of caring for Jesus’ sheep. Moreover ministry clearly entails doing for others what Jesus has already done for us. Thus it is after breakfast, after feeding Peter, that Jesus calls him to feed other sheep…Only as we are nourished and tended by Christ are we able to nourish and tend to others.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who died from an assassin’s bullet 40 years ago this month, was daily challenged with the command to nourish and tend God’s sheep with the love of Christ. He once preached that one doesn’t have to like someone to love them:
There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them, but Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.
This way of loving others, even those we don’t know or don’t like or who we consider enemies, is referred to in some cultures as namaste, which means “I honor the Holy One who lives in you.” For Christians, it means seeing the image of Christ in others and recognizing that they are deserving of Christ’s merciful and redemptive love. That type of loving is not easy. It can be very challenging to love others with Christ’s love when the world tells us to do otherwise. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, author and activist Shane Claiborne tells of a time he and some friends were sharing Christ’s love with the homeless in Philadelphia when they ran into trouble with city authorities.
A few years ago on Dr. King’s birthday, Philadelphia passed anti-homeless legislation that made it illegal to sleep in the parks, illegal to ask for money and illegal to lie down on the sidewalks all over the city. The reason for the law was to crack down on the homeless hanging out in Love Park, a historic site in Philly known as a visible, safe and central place for the homeless to sleep and to receive food and clothing. The city passed an ordinance banning all food from the park and began fining people who would distribute or share food with the homeless.
Shane and a hundred others decided to challenge the unjust law by throwing a party in Love Park for the homeless. They worshiped, sang, prayed and served communion, which was illegal. Most of the police, however, sat back and watched, not daring to arrest anyone, especially during communion. And then as Shane tells it, “we continued the ‘breaking of the bread’ by bringing in pizzas. It was a love feast, and then we slept overnight in the park with our homeless friends.”
Shane and his friends continued the practice for several weeks until one night, as they were sleeping, the police circled the park and arrested everyone. The police, though, were sympathetic and agreed the law was wrong and that folks shouldn’t be arrested for sleeping. The city and the district attorney thought differently and tried to push for jail time, thousands of dollars in fines for numerous charges, and hours and hours of community service!
Surprisingly, the judge ruled in favor of Shane in his friends saying, “What is in question here is not whether these folks broke the law; that is quite clear. What is in question is the constitutionality of the law. The constitutionality of the law is before every court…If it weren’t for people who broke unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedom that we have. We’d still have slavery…These people are not criminals; they are freedom fighters. I find them all not guilty, on every charge.”
Loving others with Christ’s love can get us in trouble and sometimes getting into trouble in the love of Christ changes things, like the law and people’s hearts. Loving others with Christ’s love also can literally save other people’s lives. Consider the story of Jason Ray, the University of North Carolina mascot who died after being struck by a car during the 2007 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament in New Jersey.
The young man not only loved others in life but also in death: A few years earlier Jason decided to be an organ donor. Simply by indicating on his license that he wanted to donate his organs in the event of his death, Jason has saved numerous lives over the past year.
Kenneth Williams, a 57-year-old retired aircraft engineer with a degenerative disk disease-that had left him unable to brush his teeth, comb his hair, roll over in bed or lift up one of his five children without pain-now has a new spine and can do many things pain free! All thanks to Jason’s bone chips which doctors used to fuse Kenneth’s spine.
According to the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, 114 allografts from Jason’s tissue have been provided to hospitals across the U.S. and Canada. The recipients come from 24 states, from New York to Hawaii, and range from Tedie Marie Harper, a 13-year-old Oklahoma girl who suffered from scoliosis, to an 80-year-old Minnesota woman who underwent a fracture repair. Two recipients had their limbs salvaged because of Jason. Four received tissue for a new ACL. Twenty-five recipients received tissue for spine surgery. And tissue is still being preserved for another 50-70 future recipients.
Loving others with Christ’s love can even fight diseases and transform entire communities a world away as 13-year-old Austin Gutwein of Mesa, Arizona discovered a few years ago. He writes:
In the spring of 2004, I watched a video that showed children in Africa who had lost their parents to a disease called AIDS. After watching the video, I realized these kids weren’t any different from me except they were suffering. I felt God calling me to do something to help them. I decided to shoot free throws and on World AIDS Day, 2004, I shot 2,057 free throws to represent the 2,057 kids who would be orphaned during my day at school. People sponsored me and we were able to raise almost $3,000. That year, the money was used by World Vision to provide hope to 8 orphan children.
From that year forward, thousands of people have joined me in a basketball shoot-a-thon called Hoops of Hope. By doing something as simple as shooting free throws, Hoops of Hope participants have raised over $325,000 (for villages in Zambia). The children left behind by AIDS now have access to food, clothing, shelter, a new school and finally, a medical testing facility.
This year’s goal is to raise enough money to build a second medical lab in Twatchiyanda, Zambia and provide caregiver kits and bicycles for caregivers to ride. The lab combined with caregiver kits and bicycles will help to keep parents healthier and alive longer so they can provide for their children.
Spending time in the city park feeding and sleeping with the homeless; donating organs so others can live healthier lives; shooting basketball hoops to improve the lives of AIDS victims in Africa, are amazing illustrations of how people are called to feed and tend Christ’s sheep, to love Jeus more than “these,”-more than our cars, our bank accounts, our social status, our job successes, our stuff.
I realize, though, that these particular acts of shepherding and feeding others with the love of Christ, may seem too overwhelming for us to begin to duplicate. Not all of us have the energy or resources to love in the exact ways that Shane Claiborne, Jason Ray, Austin Gutwein or even Martin Luther King Jr., has loved.
And yet Jesus calls each and every one of us to love others in our own ways and styles. We don’t all have to build schools in Africa or go to jail for the homeless or donate organs or lead civil rights movements to love others with Christ’s love. Many in this congregation tend and nourish God’s sheep and lambs with Christ’s love through some very simple, humble and powerful ways like:
Making hundreds of desserts for the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and spending a day with those veterans, listening to their stories and playing games and painting faces with their children.
Assemble care packages for troops in Iraq.
Helping a refugee family from Burundi by volunteering to teach English, hooking up a computer in the home, and providing transportation and financial assistance.
Spending a Saturday doing home repairs for a blind woman in Wheaton through Rebuilding Together.
Teaching, nurturing and supporting the children, youth and adults of the church through Sunday School, Enrichment, Music and Youth Ministry Programs. And providing a brunch to recognize those teachers and leaders.
Throwing baby showers for members of the church staff who have recently had babies or are expecting babies.
Developing relationships with the EWE Church of America, an immigrant congregation.
Having coffee with a friend who feels brokenness in their life.
Welcoming visitors and new members and making sure they are nourished in the life of the church.
Providing care to those who are sick or who have lost loved ones to illness.
Making baptismal promises to support Brian Scott and Suzie Shaw in the raising of their child Catherine Adventure Grace in the love of Christ.
That is ministry grounded in Christ’s love and lived out in the practice of tending God’s sheep, of seeing others in the image of Christ’s love. Our purpose for living, our true calling is not to slave over tedious 9 to 5 jobs or run around trying to complete a series of mundane tasks. Like Peter, we are called to do more than just catch fish and we are called to love more than just the things we have. We are called to be fishers of people, shepherds of the flocks. We are called by Jesus to nourish others with every part of our being, with the love of Christ that flows through our veins. We are called to tend, to feed and to follow. Anything less is meaningless. …
Namaste and Amen.
Encounters With Jesus-Studies in The Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench, 2007
The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne, 2006
“A year after his death, the memory of Jason Ray still lives” by Wayne Drehs, ESPN, http://www.espn.com, March 26, 2008
Austin Gutwein’s story and Hoops For Hope, http://www.hoopsofhope.org/