Monday, April 19, 2010

Agapas me? . . .

Peter, do you love me? Have any kinder and more emphatic words ever been spoken? Perhaps you have forgotten the context; after all, we are on Easter 3 and our Lord’s question is partially a response to Peter's actions of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. You remember, of course: Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crowed. Though Peter denied it, and though he stood ready to fight for Jesus' freedom in the garden of Gesthemene, Peter does in fact deny that he is a friend, companion, or knowledgeable at all of Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine the guilt? Can you imagine the personal sense of failure experienced by St. Peter? Given some of your questions on Low Sunday, and given that this exchange between Peter and Jesus is preserved by Scripture, I am certain that you do. I know I do. We are, after all, human beings. We are full of sin, not the least of which is that longing desire to be among those humans who did not need a lot of God's grace from just a few weeks ago. We want to believe that we are, basically, good people. The scourging, the mocking, the punching, and much of the ridicule were for the really bad people in the world. You know them: the murderers, the thieves, the abusers -- those that really hurt others. The bad people who do not gather in worship with us. And yet, here we are, discussing St. Peter and his failure before Christ. Why?

I can think of at least two reasons why this exchange between the Risen Lord and Peter takes place. On the one hand, Peter is restored by the very One whom he betrayed. Can you imagine Peter's personal sense of failure in light of the Resurrection. The shoulda/coulda/woulda's have to weigh heavily on him. "Gosh, He really was the Christ. He really was the Son of God. Man, I should never have slept in the garden. I should never have doubted in the storm. I should never have denied him before His death." You and I might experience those same feelings of unworth. Perhaps you have found yourself at work, listening to a care or concern of coworkers. You felt the compulsion to speak His truth into the situation, and His Gospel, or perhaps a prayer, and you chickened out. Who wants to be known among friends as a Jesus freak? Who wants to be known as the religious guy or gal who prayers about everything down the hall? We want desperately to be normal and to fit in. Yet we recognize that failure for what it was, a failure to do as our Lord commanded us. Perhaps you have found yourself trusting in things other than Him. Maybe, instead of letting Jesus bear your burdens and loads, you have found yourself seeking to drown your cares in the arms of a lover, in the chemical high of a drug, in the bottom of a jar of your favorite alcoholic drink. We want desperately to believe that He is sufficient to meet our needs, yet we find ourselves turning to everything but Him to ease the pain, to bear the burden, to forget our cares. We ignore church so we can “rest up” or “exercise by playing golf” or intellectually stimulate ourselves by staying home to “read the paper.” In a very real sense, Peter represents us. He has failed miserably, and Jesus will redeem him. In fact, only Jesus can redeem him, just as only Jesus can redeem us.

And so, on the shore, Jesus asks Peter three times "Do you love Me?" Three times Peter failed Jesus (three times recently, that is), and three times Jesus reaches out His hands in love to His disciple. And look at Jesus' response to Peter's answers. "Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep." The past is already forgotten, and the restored Peter is commissioned by the resurrected Messiah of Israel to go forth and feed God's flock. Often, Israel is presented by Scripture as God's flock, and Peter is told to go and feed them. Peter is instructed to go and feed them, young and old. He is told to tend their needs. And just like that, Peter is restored. He has a mission. He has a command from the very One whom he betrayed. He is restored to a dignity which he could never achieve on his own. He knows he is forgiven and sent out in the name of Jesus to care for His chosen people. And look at the transformation! An inelegant speaker will speak out in Acts, and thousands will be drawn to the Gospel (though, lamentably, crowds will at times be stirred up against the good news Peter has to proclaim). A former fisherman will begin to interpret the torah in the light of Christ for the religious leaders of his day and even for us. A former denier of Christ will, when push comes to shove later in life, refuse to recant his faith before the powers of the world and die as a martyr for that Lord who restored, redeemed, and commissioned him to be a bearer of good news!

But the story does not end with Peter's perspective. As most of you know, I just spent a few days listening to some amazing scholars at Wheaton. The best known of those speakers was N. T. Wright, a bishop in our Anglican church. Part of our jobs as Christians, he often teaches, is to figure out the why of the historical Jesus. Put another way, you and I are called not to think of Jesus as a theological concept floating around in our heads or in space above us but as, if we are believers, the Son of God who came into the world, for the sake of love, to redeem the world. And is there a better passage that demonstrates the truth of John 3:16 than what we read this week? Jesus meets us, every single one of us, where we are; then, and only then, does the transformation of our lives begin. The Scriptures teach us about God as much as they teach us about others who are not that different from us. What do we mean by this? Think of Jesus' questions. Agapas me? Agapas me? Phileis me? Twice Jesus asks Peter if he unconditionally loves Him. Twice, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him in a sacrificial way. Twice Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him as God loved His people Israel. Each time Peter declares Jesus to be his friend: philo se. Jesus is speaking in godly love terms, and Peter can only think right now in terms of friendship. It is not surprising that Peter answered in these terms. Outside Israel, no one in the ANE, not even their gods, could be conceived of loving unconditionally, of loving sacrficially, of loving in any way that resembled God's love. We are told, and we confess, that though He was fully divine, Jesus chose rather to empty Himself and take the form of a slave. John, who begins his Gospel story with the teaching that the Word was in the world, but that the world did not recognize Him even though the world was made through Him, ends his account with the reminder to each of us of the efforts to which God will go to reach us.

Nicole's lovely choice of a Gospel hymn should remind us of the truth of that statement and His effort to reach us. “it was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of thee” and "twas not so much that I on thee took hold, as thou, dear Lord, on me.” Such is God’s love for all of us that He tries to meet each of us where we are, even when we do not recognize Him, even when we question whether He exists, even when we have previously denied Him or persecuted Him. Peter is no different. Ok Peter, I hear you. You cannot yet love Me sacrificially, unconditionally, as I deserve, but I will restore you and I will come down to your level. Then, through the bestowal of My grace, and because this is where you are, my dear friend, I will teach you to agapas me. I will circumcise your heart and make you born of My Father’s will and not of natural descent.

Brothers and sisters, you and I have failed Him miserably. As we will confess in a few short minutes, we have done things we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things those things which we ought to have done. But the glorious news is that He did not come to judge us. He did not come to condemn us and leave us where we were, dead or dying. Just as He did with Paul, with Mary, with Thomas, with the Samaritan woman, with the lepers, with Zaccheus, and everyone else whom He encounters in Scripture and in life around us, Jesus reminds us that He comes to where were are. He empties Himself, pours out Himself to reach us. And He comes to where we are to shape us, to redeem us, and to commission us to do his work: to proclaim His saving grace to a world that, so often like us, knows it does not deserve such hope, such a lofty promise. Thanks be to God you and I have met Him, and thanks be to God that He uses people like you and like me to reach others in His name and share that joy that lasts not just a lifetime, but for all eternity!

What if you have not come to believe? What if, sitting there, you find yourself wanting to believe, but unable to overcome your unbelief? Perhaps you deem yourself too unworthy of His love, too far in debt ever to be freed by a holy, just, and righteous God. Brother, sister: hear His words of grace this morning. Hear that invitation which He has offered you every moment of every day of your entire life. Listen for that invitation and accept. Follow Him, and watch what He will accomplish through and in you as you are sent forth to bear witness to His immeasurable love and His unmerited grace. Follow Him and let Him make of you in the lives of others a Peter, a Paul, a Mary, or simply a saintly version of yourself in the lives of those around you.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Behold, things are being made new, even us . . .

As I was killing time this week, reading, waiting on orders of worship to finish printing, and waiting on a baby to come, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Bishop Wright regarding the nerve of Christian theologians and historians. In one of his writing for the week, Bishop Wright commented that we have become timid in our proclamations about Easter, forgetting both the promises made to the people of God and our heritage. Bishop Wright went on to remind his readers that what occurred that first Easter morning was a real, physical, bodily resurrection such as the world had never seen before. To be sure, Jesus' body was different. He can walk through locked doors; He is sometimes not recognized by His disciples. But, He clearly embraces some of them, He shows them His wounds, and He sometimes eat with his disciples. He is changed, but He is not raised in their mind or simply a spiritual figure. Why does it matter and why should we never forget it? Because the empty tomb testifies to each one of us here gathered, and all those who hear the story, that God has the power to redeem all things. If He can raise a man up after three days of death, what can He not do? Every other miracle that we consider pales in comparison to God's victory over death. In fact, historians and skeptics will go out of their way to look for explanations for perceived miracles. Some may seem plausible. The Red Sea parting was caused not by God but by a volcano erupting on the north side of the Mediterranean and the resulting tsunami. Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out by a volcano rather than God. But the Resurrection of Jesus is a miracle on a different order of magnitude! All skeptics can point to is mass hysteria and mass hallucination as a "rational" explanation for what the disciples experienced, as if a hallucination such as that could ever explain why people gave up their lives as martyrs, as if a hallucination could ever explain how this small core group of witnesses founded a religion that has swept the world, as if a hallucination can experience the peace of God that so many believers claim around the world, and with which I will bless you at the end of this service. You and I always called to live in faith that the tomb was empty. It was emptied so that you and I could be enlivened by His life giving Spirit and testify to His love, His mercy, and His power.
How does this play out in the world? I was reminded of it and our role yesterday. As many of you heard, Karen and I celebrated the arrival of Joshua Patrick yesterday. It was, like all births, an amazing day. Sarah and Amanda joined us in the room for Joshua's birth. Karen's labor was, and I say this as a man who never experienced labor pains, relatively quick and easy. One push, and he was born. We made the appropriate calls. Many of you gathered were on the receiving end of that joyful news and celebrated with us. But, a few hours later, our joy turned to worry, frustration, and anger. As I was bringing the little ones into the hospital to see their new brother, I overheard the nurses griping about a doctor. The doctor from Iowa City who read the EKG for the baby in 25, our room, was trying to locate one of our doctors. I will spare you many of the details, but there was a problem with Joshua's heart. He had a severe arrhythmia. Every three to five beats, Josh's heart would skip a beat. Well, the doctor was finally located and Joshua was hustled down to the nursery for another exam. I went with him, but I was not allowed in the room -- never a good sign. Well, here I am, pacing the hall, helpless to do anything for my son. I am shut off from even knowing what is wrong. And, I have enough knowledge and experience to be dangerous. While this examination was going on, I was demanding answers from God. We were not trying to conceive Joshua, why would You allow this to happen? But during my railings, I was simply reminded of Easter. I would fuss, and our Gospel lesson would pop into my head. And so, I finally listened and determined to accept this as one who lives in the reality of the empty tomb.
After about 70 minutes, the doctor came out to speak with me. After some apologies, he admitted he was not sure where to begin. I told him to just give me the facts. He saw my cross and asked if I was a Christian. I told him I was, and so he took a deep breath and unloaded his news. Admittedly, he was as loathe to give it as I was to hear it, and, he interrupted himself a couple times to remind me that he did not do this very often (let's face it, who gets stuck working on Easter weekend?). When he finished, it was clear we would have a long road ahead of us, and it was clear that, although Joshua's untimely death was not likely, it was by no means something that we would be able to ignore for the first few months. I thanked him for his concern and his care for Joshua, and I headed back to the room to talk to Karen. I could imagine her fears and worries as I was gone over an hour. As I turned to walk, the doctor thanked me for being patient with him. He commented that when Christians hear terrible news, there is a difference as to how non-Christians hear bad news. I reminded him that it was because we had a hope. I said I would likely struggle, and I would likely grieve, but the promise of this weekend, in particular, was that God could redeem all things, even the possible death of a newborn son. The doctor as if I thought God had willed it. I told him "of course not." "How can you say that with such certainty in light of everything I just dumped on you?" he asked. I said, "Because the events of Holy Week, the death on Good Friday, and the resurrection of Easter testified just how much God loves us and how much he wants to be our Father. Things like this happen because sin is in the world. God wants us to love Him, but He will never make us love Him. And so, because He gives us free will, we sometimes experience the consequences of our sins or the sins of others. But this, the way we experienced life, was never what He intended nor what He has promised." The doctor replied that I had given him much to think on. In a bit of gallows humor, I replied that I was glad to have returned the favor. And so I turned to head back to my family and especially my wife.
Now, sitting here, you and I might think that such was the end of God's grace that day. He had used Joshua's heart to speak into the life of a doctor. And who better to place in that doctor's life than a priest struggling with his son's problem? I mean, if we can't have faith in the redemptive power of God, we are in the wrong business, right? But little did I know that the rest of the story would involve each one of you, some of who are teared up now and full of worry for my family, and I was reminded how great God's grace truly is.
After I had talked with Karen, I gathered up the kids and headed home. I asked what they wanted for Easter dinner, since mom and Joshua would be in the hospital. They opted for grilling. Some wanted brats, others burgers, others chicken, and others steak. So, in a weird move on my part, I stopped at Hy-Vee. Most of you know I do the bulk of my shopping at Wal-Mart, and I typically get my meat at Fareway. But, Hy-Vee was on the way home, and I was worn out, physically and emotionally. I would pay extra to be done faster. I left the kids in the car (this would take only a minute) and headed in. As I was looking over squash and zucchini, this big man came up and stood a few feet to my side. As I would walk to collect my next item, he would announce "Get out of the way, man of God coming through." This guy was big. He was easily 6'3" and 280 pounds. I would walk and he would announce and ask people to get out of my way. Truthfully, I was in no mood to be mocked. If I was ever going to successfully call down a holy fire in real life, it was going to be on this guy mocking me. So, at the meat counter, I asked him what he was doing. "I am announcing your presence so that others may step aside and let you through quickly." "Why?" I asked. "Pastor, I know who you are. You may be trying to hide in the midst of us, but I know you. You lead that little church over on West Central. Your church feeds us at the Salvation Army with real food. Your people do that Angel Food month in and month out, no matter how rude and how obnoxious we people are. You guys are always taking up items for those poor women and children who are beaten by losers. You all give your Angel Food extras to other shelters or Food Pantries and give them the grateful thank you's. You have paid for my electricity one month. You helped a friend with rent and laundry. You bought this other guy I met work boots for a new job. And you have an uncanny knack to figure out the scammers, and you help without looking down on us or humiliating us. Heck, we see your pain when all you can offer us is a prayer, as if a prayer is unimportant to us. In short, pastor, I don't want you wasting time doing mundane things like shopping. You have a much more important job. Your job is to teach your people about God so that they, in turn, can reach out into this community and draw others into His family. And on this weekend especially, that's what you should be doing because so many will come for their one visit a year, knowing they need Him, but not knowing whether He's real or whether He cares." So we continued our shopping. I silently gave thanks to God that people do see what we are doing, and I gave thanks that my shopping list was shorter than usual.
Brothers and sisters, on this weekend we gather to remind ourselves of the power of God. This weekend we remember that God can accomplish all that He purposes in our lives. He can even redeem our deaths. But, brothers and sisters, we also gather this weekend to remind ourselves that we are made alive, truly made alive by His death and His resurrection. I give thanks to God that I am called among a group of people who try to live each day of their lives as if that tomb was really empty, and I give thanks to God this morning for strangers in our midst reminding us of our faithful witness. But, as my herald at Hy-Vee mentioned yesterday, perhaps some of you wonder. Perhaps, like the doctor yesterday, you wonder whether it's true and whether it's important. Brothers and sister seekers, there is not greater testimony to God's power and God's purpose than that empty tomb which Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John accounted in our lesson today. The new creation has begun! God has started reshaping all things to begin working the way He intended. To be sure, this recreation will not be completed until His return, but He has invited you, me, and everyone whom we encounter in our daily life and work to participate in His glorious work. Why not look and see for yourself and claim that inheritance your loving Father in heaven wants you to have. To be sure, it takes courage, it takes strength, it takes humility, and it requires a willingness to be patient as he works out His purposes. But, in the end, is their anything or anyone who can offer you anything that compares?
Christ's Peace,