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Third Sunday of Easter (2)
René Descartes is famous for the statement, “I think therefore I am.” Someone was visiting the southern part of our country and saw this bumper sticker: “I fish, therefore I lie.” Well, fishermen in all parts of the country have that reputation.
One rule of fishing is that you have to be smarter than the fish or at least smarter than the game warden. A young man in Tennessee was fishing on one of the TVA lakes. He was stopped by a game warden as he was leaving the lake with two large buckets of fish. The game warden asked, “Do you have a license to catch those fish?”
“Nope,” the young man replied. “These are my pet fish.” “Pet fish?” the warden asked. “What do you mean, pet fish?” “Well,” said the young man, “Every night, I take these fish down to the lake and let `em swim around for awhile. Then, I whistle, and they jump right back into my ice chests and I take `em home.”“That’s a bunch of hooey!” said the warden. “Fish can’t do that.’T he young man looked at the game warden for a moment, and then said, “Here, I’ll show you. It really works.” “I’ve got to see this!” said the warden. The young man poured the fish into the lake and stood and waited. After several minutes, the warden says, “Well?” “Well, what?” says the young man. The warden says, “When are you going to whistle and call `em back?”“Call who back?” asked the young man with a grin on his face. “The FISH,” replied the warden!“ What fish?” asked the young man.
Fishermen are famous for their creativity.
Our gospel for the day takes place after the resurrection. It is another example of how the disciples struggled with the news that Christ had risen from the dead. Rather than being out on the highways and byways of Judea telling the good news that the Lord had risen, the disciples had gone back to their boats as if the time they had spent with Christ had never happened. It still was not real to them. How could their friend who was dead for three days now be alive? They were as lost as a ship without a rudder.
Even the fishing was bad. They fished all night, says the writer of John’s Gospel, and they caught nothing. Early the next morning, however while they were still in their boat they saw the risen Christ standing on the shore. They didn’t realize it was him. Christ called out to them, “Friends, have you caught any fish?”“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” Now every fisherman will tell you that location is important in fishing. Today’s fishermen use sophisticated fish finders to locate schools of fish swimming far beneath the water. But the disciples had no such device. Still, what difference could it possibly make if they didn’t move their boat, but only threw their nets on the other side? Maybe if Jesus had pointed them to a nearby cove, or had told them to work their way down the shore a few hundred yards, but the other side of the boat? Still, they did as he said and when they did, the net was so full they could hardly bring it in.
I don’t believe that Jesus telling them to fish on the other side had anything to do with the location of the fish. It had much more to do with who Jesus is. The disciple John understood that, for he said to Simon Peter, “It is the Lord!”
As soon as Simon Peter heard this, he jumped into the water and swam toward shore. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish. When they reached shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus told them to come, have breakfast. John says that none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
When they had finished eating, Jesus turned to Simon Peter. “Simon son of John,” Jesus asked, “do you truly love me more than these?”“Yes, Lord,” Peter answered, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” And a third time Jesus asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” John tells us that 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.”
It’s hard to escape the symbolism, intended or otherwise. Peter was warming himself by a charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard when he denied three times that he even knew Christ (John 18:15-27). Now sitting around a charcoal fire where Christ has prepared their breakfast, the risen Lord asks Peter three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Is Jesus giving Peter a chance to redeem himself?
Twice when Peter says, “Lord, you KNOW I love you,” he uses the form of “know” that means “intellectual knowledge of a fact.” The third time, Peter uses the word “know” he uses a form that means “knowledge gained through experience.” (1) There is a difference, isn’t there? You and I might know a fact because we read it in a book. It’s something else to have lived it. In this encounter with Christ we can see Peter’s understanding of Christ move from his head to his heart, from an intellectual knowledge to an experiential knowledge.
Scholars also point out that the first two times that Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus uses the verb agape God-like love. But the third time Jesus asks the question, he uses the verb phileo brotherly love. Peter replies each time with the verb phileo. Surely Christ knew that this was Simon Peter he was talking to. Simon was a fallible man, just as we are fallible people. Was he capable of God-like love? Are any of us? Certainly he could strive for it. That’s all Christ asks of any of us, that we strive for agape God-like love. Then when we arrive at phileo, brotherly love, it will be genuine.
It is the first question that Christ asked that is the most puzzling. The first time he asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Is Jesus asking: “Do you love me more than you love the other disciples?” That may be, for truly we are to love him above all others. Or is he asking: “Do you love me more dearly than the other disciples do?” Here again, this interpretation is certainly possible. Jesus always expected more out of Peter than he did the others. Or is he asking: “Do you love me more than all these fishing implements? (meaning, Do you love me more than your present lifestyle and identity?) (2) Certainly this is valid as well. After all, Christ was asking Peter to give up everything else to follow him.
The most interesting part of the story, however, is its climax, “Feed my lambs” and then, “Feed my sheep.” Who are Christ’s sheep and lambs, and what did Christ mean that Peter was to feed them? And what does it have to do with us?
I believe it has something to do with the fact that Peter would go on to become the leader of the church at Rome, the most influential congregation in the early church. Peter was its first pastor and its indisputable leader.
Jesus is telling Peter to take care of the church. Jesus often referred to people, especially his people, as sheep and himself as the Shepherd. In John 10:27, we read, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” 1 Peter 5:1-2 tells us “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God . . . .” In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the leaders of the church at Ephesus to “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock . . . to shepherd the church of God . . .” The church is Christ’s sheep. When Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” he is not only speaking to Peter, he is also speaking to his universal church. This is the number one purpose of the church to feed Christ’s sheep. That may sound elementary. It may sound somewhat unexciting, even boring, but it is the primary task of this church. Have you ever noticed that doing the work of the church is sometimes boring?
Mark Allan Powell in his book Loving Jesus tells of being at an outdoor rock festival. He met a young man there with pink hair and multiple body piercings. The young man was waving his hands above his head and singing of his love for Jesus. Powell talked to this young man. “I love Jesus so much,” the young man said. “Jesus is my life, man, my whole life!” Powell asked him what church he was from. The young man looked puzzled and answered, “No, man, I don’t really do church, you know. It’s Jesus, that’s what it’s about. Just Jesus.”
Powell goes on to quote a professor who says that the number one reason church is unattractive to people in their teens and twenties is, “It’s boring!” In today’s entertainment-saturated environment, being boring is a serious offense.
Powell tells about encountering another so-called Jesus freak in Austin, Texas. Powell says that he envied the young man. “He was just living in the joy of the Lord, reading his Bible every day and praying to Jesus and speaking in tongues and playing Christian rock on his stereo.” When Powell asked this young man about church, the young man didn’t write it off, but he did say that he hadn’t been able to find a congregation where he felt like he fit in. “The church where I’m a member,” the young man said, “it’s like something out of an old back-and-white TV show. You know, ‘Ozzie and Harriett’ or ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Everybody dresses up in suits, and they play this music that doesn’t sound like anything on the radio and the preacher talks about things that have nothing to do with my life, and, I don’t know, it’s just . . . boring!” So, he said, he didn’t go.
Powell asked him about finding a different church, but the young man said he didn’t know about denominations and didn’t really want to get into all the different doctrines and stuff, so he just didn’t go anywhere. “Maybe when I’m older, I’ll get more out of it,” he said. “Or maybe the church will, you know, lighten up or something.”
Powell asked him, “Do you love Jesus?” “Yes, I do,” the young man said, “I love him with all my heart.”“ Would you die for him?” Powell asked. “Yes, I would.”“You would die for him,” Powell concluded, “but you won’t be bored for him?” Powell went on to say, “This is what I think the Lord wants you to do: I think that Jesus wants you to get out of bed every Sunday morning and go to the Ozzie and Harriet church and just sit there for one hour, being bored. Do it for him. Call it ‘bearing your cross’ if you like. Just do it.’” (3)
Of course, some of Christ’s most prized sheep are outside the church. In fact, most of the world’s people fall under the lost sheep category the one sheep that the Shepherd leaves the “ninety and nine” in order to find. This is also a primary task of the church. We need to reach people for Christ who have never even thought about him.
Did you know that in 1271 A.D, Niccolo and Matteo Polo, the father and uncle of Marco Polo, visited the Kubla Khan, who was at that time the ruler of China, India, and all of the Eastern world? It’s an amazing story.
The Kubla Khan, the leader of the eastern world, was attracted to Christianity. He said to the Polo brothers, “You . . . go to your high priest and tell him on my behalf to send me a hundred men skilled in your religion and I shall be baptized, and when I am baptized all my barons and great men will be baptized and their subjects will receive baptism, too, and so there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts.”
Astounding! This is where most of the world’s people live today China, India, the Orient, and Kubla Khan was offering to help Christianize it all. However, for thirty years nothing was done in response to the Kubla Khan’s request. Then only a handful of missionaries was sent! Too few, too late. Think how different the world might be today if only the West had responded. (4)
We are such a parochial people sometimes. We ignore the world outside our own borders. “Feed my sheep,” says the Lord. That means take care of the church, but it also means going out to find those sheep outside the flock, wherever they may be.
Christ seems to pay particular attention to those who are young. Note that his first instruction to Simon Peter was, “Feed my lambs.”
Did you know that most of the people who give their lives to Christ do so when they are young? We can never give too much emphasis to teaching boys and girls and being responsive to the needs of young people maybe even going to the point that we do everything in our power to making worship less boring. Young people are at the very heart of what it means to be the church. Maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus’ disciples had gone back to their nets after his resurrection. He needed to focus them again on their more important task, fishing for men, women, boys and girls.
There is a silly story about a little boy who came to Sunday School late. His teacher knew that he was usually very prompt and asked him if anything was wrong. The boy replied no, nothing was wrong, that he was going fishing but his dad told him that he needed to go to church. The teacher was very impressed and asked the boy if his dad had explained to him why it was more important to go to church than to go fishing? “Yes he did,” said the boy. “He said he didn’t have enough bait for both of us.”
Well, someone needs to explain to that father what Jesus meant when he said, “Feed my lambs” and “Feed my sheep.” Worship is important, for grownups and for children. Sunday School is important. Telling others about our church and inviting them to come to church with us is important. When we do these seemingly small, insignificant things in Christ’s name and at his command, the world will be one day be changed. “Do you love me?” “Feed my lambs.” “Feed my sheep.”
- Harper Study Bible, Harold Lindsell, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1972), p.1622.
- The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol.9, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. (Zondervan, 1990), p. 202.
- (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) pp. 128-130. Cited by Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john21x1.htm.
- God’s Little Devotional Book for Graduates (Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, Inc., 1995), p. 269.
Third Sunday of Easter (1)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr during the Second World War, says it so poignantly, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Tradition holds that the Apostles died in the following manner: Matthew suffered martyrdom by being slain with a sword at a distant city of Ethiopia. Mark expired at Alexandria, after being cruelly dragged through the streets of that city. Luke was hanged upon an olive tree in the classic land of Greece. John was put in a cauldron of boiling oil, but escaped death in a miraculous manner, and was afterward banished to Patmos. Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downward. James, the Greater, was beheaded at Jerusalem. James, the Less, was thrown from a lofty pinnacle of the temple, and then beaten to death with a fuller’s club. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Andrew was bound to a cross, whence he preached to his persecutors until he died. Thomas was run through the body with a lance at Coromandel in the East Indies. Jude was shot to death with arrows. Matthais was first stoned and then beheaded. Barnabas of the Gentiles was stoned to death at Salonica. Paul, after various tortures and persecutions, was at length beheaded at Rome by the Emperor Nero.
Polycarp (A.D. 70-155) was bishop of Smyrna and a godly man. He had known the apostle John personally. When he was urged by the Roman proconsul to renounce Christ, Polycarp said: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” “I have respect for your age,” said the official. “Simply say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ and be set free.” The aged Polycarp pointed to the pagan crowd and said, “Away with the atheists!” He was burned at the stake and gave joyful testimony of his faith in Jesus Christ.
Tertullian said it well: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
How many times have we borne witness to this scene? Men and women of the Gospel attacked by their enemies for preaching the resurrected Christ? How many times have we seen this inevitable and inimitable skirmish between the horizontal and the vertical, the spiritual and the carnal, the things of man and the things of God? How many times have we seen this scene within and without the church, where servants of the Lord who have confessed with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead are confronted by those of the unsaved who want to give strict orders to “keep your mouth shut and not teach in his name”?
Here Peter and the apostles are confronted by the Sanhedrin and the high priest who issue this command, which in reality was a threat to keep silent. The high priest, his henchmen, and their Roman overseers would later gang up on the apostles to scare them into shutting their mouths about the risen Christ.
“How can you talk about a Christ that is risen when we just killed him? He is dead! He is dead! He is dead! We killed him and we will kill you if you don’t keep your mouth shut! How dare you speak about a man that we have silenced, that we have put to shame; a man that we hung on the cross and saw take his last breath? How dare you talk of a man whom we humiliated, crowned with thorns, made carry his own cross, pierced his side, stole his garments, and made a public disgrace? How dare you stand before us, Peter, and tell us that this same man is risen? That this same man whom we saw laid in the grave is now alive and living? What is this Peter? To say that he is risen to us is an act of treasonous revenge. How can you say that a man that we are responsible for killing now lives? Is this some kind of threat? Are you mocking the powers that be? For if you say he is risen, we take this to mean that he is coming back for those of us who were responsible for killing him! Your resurrection pronouncements are really, Peter, not innocent spiritual verbiage, but a declaration of war on the enemies of Christ! We command you to shut your mouth! We are giving you strict orders to keep your mouth shut! We do not want to hear anymore of this man’s teachings!”
How familiar are these words to those who proclaim his resurrection? The enemies of Christ issue their threats for the servants and saints of God to keep their mouths shut. For to talk of resurrection is to speak with a freedom that man did not originate. This kind of power can only come from God, for man has the power to kill but does not have the power to resurrect those who have been killed in his name.
We see this familiar scenario time and again, where the devil and the enemies of Christ issue threats to his servants to keep their mouths shut under the strictest orders. The caveat is really a veiled death threat.
I have seen it even in the church where servants of the gospel, the priests, are threatened by powers and principalities in the church, admonished and warned to do things man’s way and not God’s way. This confrontation between man’s way and God’s way is the continuing conflict in the church and is the axis of the power struggle of darkness and light.
Some people want to run the church man’s way rather than serve the church God’s way. Man’s way says we don’t talk about the dvil because he has gone out of style. We don’t believe in basic Bible study because it is too fundamental. The “strict orders” create a perpetual confrontation between people who say “what we do and don’t do” rather than ask “what God wants us to do.”
I have heard the story of one priest being confronted by parishioners because the gospel was preached on sin, fornication, adultery, and theft. “We are not used to hearing those kinds of sermons and we would rather you preach on love and forgiveness than on sin. We don’t want to hear any of your damnation sermons.”
What nerve! What audacity to have the gall to tell the priest what to preach! I have heard of laity who have been confronted by other laity because they were being “too holy,” or “too biblical” or “too spiritual.” Some churches have become so accustomed to doing things man’s way that they are completely subversive of God’s way.
There are always forces that seek to compromise the power and efficacy of the gospel. There are always forces that seek to negate and prevent the gospel of truth being preached in full measure. The devil always gives strict orders on God’s truth so that truth which ultimately disarms him and puts him on the run cannot go forth. There are always oppositional forces that are threatened by the gospel of Christ. They are threatened by a message of liberation and freedom, threatened by reconciliation and forgiveness, or threatened by the word of faith and truth. These forces are especially threatened because the gospel compels critical self-evaluation, and many of us are not willing to look squarely at ourselves.
The history of Christianity is replete with those saints of old who were willing to stand and proclaim the truth boldly and outright. They could not be silenced by the opposition. They refused to be cast under the spell of silence when God’s truth needed to go forth. We can see Peter and the apostles standing against the Sanhedrin and the high priest proclaiming Christ crucified and Christ risen! We can see Dietrich Bonhoeffer sitting in his jail cell saying, “No,” to Nazi tyranny and saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
We can see the countless men and women, known and unknown, who have stood on hallowed ground and said, “No” to evil and “No” to those men and powers who wanted to mute their allegiance to Christ with their veiled threats of terror and death. We can see them in, the church of Russia and the other communist societies that threatened death for being Christian.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians proclaims in chapter one, verse ten, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
We are called to serve God and man, but a time may come when we must choose between them. As Abraham Lincoln once responded to the question is God on the side of the North with the response, Are we on the side of God? Will we side with those who want us to give up the fundamental tenets and power of our faith? Will we side with men when it means persecuting and destroying others in the name of religious belief?
Will we side with men or God when it comes to doing what is right, moral, and just? Are we willing to stand for the truth, die for the truth, and do what God has called us to do, or will we sit in sniveling silence? Will we compromise and sell out our faith? Will we side with those who are wrong because we fear for our own lives? Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders because we have been told to do so?
Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders in face of corruption, our own sin, discrimination, persecution, annihilation, destruction, famine, pestilence, iniquity, drought, hunger, disease, racism, poverty, hatred, psychological and sexual abuse, sexism, ageism, classism, genocide, homicide, fratricide, and suicide? Will we keep our mouths shut under strict orders about a risen Christ who lives in the present age? The same Christ who was raised from the dead who walked on water and healed the sick?
Shall we keep silent about the Christ who can raise us from our graves of doubt, hopelessness, faithlessness, and despair? Shall we keep silent in the face of those forces of opposition that still seek to mute and kill his spirit that lives within us? The same forces that killed him were defeated by his resurrection. Those same forces of cynicism, evil, and terrorism seek to kill him today through our forced silence about what he has done in our lives.
Are you complying with the strict orders to keep your mouth shut about the risen Christ, or are you proclaiming his resurrection in the fullness of his glory? Are you obeying man or are you obeying God? Have you given up, or are you standing up for the one who has stood up and given his life for you and continues to give us life even now? Are you keeping your mouth shut under strict orders, or are you standing and proclaiming the truth in Christ’s name?