Friday, September 27, 2013

Jesus Catches Peter

Text: John 21:1-19
14 April 2013
St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge


The 21st chapter of the Gospel of John feels tacked on. In chapter twenty, the resurrected Jesus appears twice to his disciples, appearing in their midst despite the locked door. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. He brings doubting Thomas back. He turns their fear, weakness, and doubt into joy, boldness, and faith. And then the writer seems to bring it to a close, ‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). One might expect to be able to put the book down at this point. What a neat resolution! But, no. Just like the risen Jesus keeps turning up where he’s not expected, the story continues.

‘After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias’ (21:1). From John’s account, they spent at least two Sundays in Jerusalem, but now they are much farther north, by the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus resolved Thomas’ doubts, they might have spent the whole week walking down from Jerusalem. The topic of conversation shifted on their journey from the mundane to the miraculous, but Peter, despite the joy and wonder of two Sundays of Easter surprises, has a shadow over his face. A charcoal fire, rekindled each morning by the cock’s crow, still burns in his memory.

Their long journey done, still troubled, the night fast approaching, Peter looks out over the Sea upon which he had made his livelihood before Jesus came. ‘I am going fishing,’ he says matter of factly (21:3). The six others with him rise to the challenge: ‘We will go with you,’ they reply (21:3).

And all night they labour. They cast the nets. Nothing. They laugh about it at first, but then silence falls on the boat. As the hours toil on, they continue trying, again and again. Casting, retrieving. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. They strip nearly naked because of the heat and the work, but nothing they do helps. As the sun rises in the East, the cock’s crow can be heard across the hundred yards of water between them and the shore. The charcoal fire of regret rekindled in his breast, Peter pauses a moment … but then labours on.


‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with friends.’ ‘I wish I had let myself be happier.’ Palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware compiled these ‘top five regrets of the dying.’ At the end of life, with the clarity that comes from hindsight, more than anything these are the regrets she heard from people in her care.

From Peter’s experience, we might modify one of these. Not, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings,’ but, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to tell the truth.’ And isn’t this a regret that we all carry around with us? Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid of losing his life. We deny Jesus as well, but for different reasons.

We live in a world of compromise. Too often, we slide into habits of neglect and denial. We neglect our duties to God and to one another. We deny with our lips and our lives that Christ has made us his own in Baptism and the breaking of bread. As a result, we learn to lie, to dissemble, to do what it takes just to ‘fit.’ But, when we come to the end of our lives, will we regret not having the courage to tell the truth about ourselves? Will we regret the relationships we have lost as a result?

As we watch Peter struggle with the regret burning in his chest, we too are reminded for the need to seek and know God’s forgiveness. John’s Gospel seems like it could have ended in the room with Jesus’ two appearances, but it can’t end until this one relationship is resolved, until Peter has the opportunity to tell the truth. Until then, he, and we, will continue in our troubled labour, catching nothing, because we don’t yet understand what the whole thing means.


 Peter spent the whole night catching nothing, but Jesus catches Peter on the first throw.

Daybreak, and a man on the beach. He asks if they have had any luck in the night, then he tells them to cast the net on the other side. As they pull the net in, the little boat tips to one side. Fish fill the net, and they cannot haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved leans over to Peter and says, ‘It is the Lord’ (21:7)! Before anyone dealing with the nets can realize it, Peter is dressed and overboard, swimming towards the shore.

When the others reach the shore, there is a charcoal fire, cooking fish. Bread lies beside, and Jesus invites them to share their catch. Peter helps pull the net up. 153 fish. Not one tear in the net. ‘Come and have breakfast,’ Jesus says. Peter eats, but the firepit reminds him of the other firepit. The courtyard. Three denials. Jesus’ look of betrayal.

After breakfast, Jesus calls Peter aside, and he asks him three times, once for each denial, ‘Do you love me?’ Each time, Peter replies that he does. Each question fuels the fire in Peter’s chest, until the third time when the pain becomes unbearable. Hurt, he replies, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’

‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus responds. ‘Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’ (21:18). Then, Jesus says those two words again, the two words he used to start their relationship, and the two words that will restart it: ‘Follow me.’ Peter may have fished all night, but Jesus, the fisher of men, catches Peter, and brings him home.


Every week, we turn up on the doorstep of this church, and the same thing happens. We get the opportunity to sit, to listen, to worship, and to reflect. Some of us will be here this morning with the feeling that we have been casting our nets all week and catching nothing. But, when we get out of bed, get dressed, and swim the 100 yards to these doors, we always find the charcoal fire. We always find Jesus waiting and asking, ‘Do you love me?’

Jesus asks this question in the context of the love he has already shown for us. The Jesus who asks about our love is the Jesus who having loved his disciples, loved them to the end. He is the one who washes our feet. He is the one who draws us up out of the waters of Baptism. He is the one who feeds us with the meat of his Body and drink of his Blood. Every week, we pull up on this shore, and Jesus greets us. ‘Are you hungry? Eat.’

And there are some days, not just Sundays, when Jesus pulls us aside. He points at the fire of regret burning in our chest and asks us to tell the truth. ‘Do you love me?’ he asks, and he keeps asking until we have heard the question and until we have really answered it. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

‘Feed my sheep.’ We may have spent the last week denying Jesus’ love for us and our love for him. We may have stood around the firepit, or the water-cooler, and denied him. But, Jesus’ love for us overwhelms those regrets, and he asks us to treat this week differently. ‘Feed my sheep,’ he says. Take the time to live like Jesus’ love for you is true. Take the time to serve your colleagues, your neighbours, the people you meet on the street. With your words and with your life, tell the truth about yourself: Jesus caught you, has caught us. And with the 153 other mismatched fish in this one big net, we are being drawn into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own for ever. At the end of our lives, may we be the people who can say, without regret, ‘I have loved Jesus, and I had the courage to tell the truth.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I: "On the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, 1891"
II: "Wheelchair," by Craig Toron
III: Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias, by James Tissot.
IV: "Diocese 1," by Ben Earwicker (Garrison Photography, Boise, ID;

Monday, September 02, 2013

SERMON: God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken

Hebrews 12.18-end
25 August 2013
All Saint's, Cottenham

It was AD 79, and the sky was burning. Stones and ash flew into the air. They soared over 20 miles straight up. Every second, 1.5 million more tons of ‘molten rock and pulverized pumice’ were added, and the fall-out over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum was devastating. Mount Vesuvius exploded, ‘releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy’ of Hiroshima. Over 16,000 people died. It was so devastating that only two extant letters recount the explosion. Despite the horror of 79, and despite the fact that Vesuvius is the ‘only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years,’ over 3 million people still live nearby. ‘It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.’ (heavily borrowed from Wikipedia,, 2013-08-19).


Thousands of years earlier, the people of Israel trembled before another mountain. The author to the Hebrews describes it vividly: blazing fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, the sound of a trumpet, a voice that came from the mountain causing everyone’s knees to buckle, which caused them to beg it to be silent. The mountain was Sinai. It was the mountain that Moses climbed to receive the Law. He entered into God’s presence, out of the sight of the people, and stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, being instructed, being given the Law on tablets of stone.

And the sight was terrifying. The people had no leader. The mountain looked like it would erupt at any moment, and Moses had commanded that no one should touch the mountain. For, it was holy, set apart. To refuse this command would be to refuse the God who gave it through Moses. The people were receiving the Law from God, a great gift. But they were receiving it from God, their judge. The earth shook with his judgment. ‘Indeed,’ the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear”’ (12.21). For those at the foot of the mountain, nothing was stable. Nothing was sound. All they could see was the sky alight with fire. They were afraid.


Fear is a valuable human emotion. Now, most of us don’t like to be afraid, but fear does protect us from things that might hurt us. In fact, it’s the potential for harm that triggers fear in the first place. I personally have a hard time with edges. I can nudge myself near them slowly, but it takes a lot of willpower. The sensation makes me want to freeze in place, or take several steps back from the edge.

Fear is valuable. It protects us from things that might hurt us. And if fear is generally valuable then when the Bible talks about the fear of God, what does that mean? In short, to fear God means to treat God with the respect that God deserves. Right now, off the coast of Cape Cod in the United States, there is an infestation of great white sharks. They are there to feed on the exploding seal population. The locals have learned to treat the sharks with respect, to keep their distance, to know their limits, and to not go out dressed like seals. To fear the shark is to respect it.

Against the God who made Mt Sinai smoke, we are like ants. So small compared to someone so big. If God were against us, he could crush us at any moment. When we think about God, it is right to be afraid. Our God is a fearsome God, one who must be treated with respect.


To the people huddled in fear at the base of Mt Sinai, the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest … but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.18, 22a). ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…’ (12.28). God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

And what a different picture this kingdom is to Mount Sinai. Those at Sinai stood under God’s judgment, but those who come to Mount Zion see something different. As Hebrews says, they come to ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12.22-23). There is no anxiety here. There is joy and celebration and homecoming.

Why do they see these things? Because, Hebrews says, they also come ‘to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (12.23-24). Those who gather at Mount Zion gather because God did judge the world. He did make it shake with terror that Good Friday as Jesus hung upon the cross. And Jesus’ blood, which speaks a better word than Abel’s, speaks for us. It is part of God’s new covenant with the world, a new covenant which will see the ‘spirits of the righteous made perfect’ (12.23).


Looking back at the author to the Hebrews’ language in this passage, what strikes me is the joyful description of those who gather at Mount Zion. I’m tempted to see it as a description of heaven, a description of the life to come. It is, in a way. Those are all things we believe we will see at the Resurrection of the Dead. But, wait. The author says, ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.22). This is past tense. This is something available to people now.

This passage presents us with a choice. We start out at the base of Mount Sinai, trembling in fear. That fear might be the rightful fear of a just God. It might also be all kinds of other fears that plague us. But, the Scripture invites us on a journey. It says we don’t have to live outside the mountain of God’s judgement. We don’t have to live in constant dread of an explosion that would pour down fire and brimstone on us. We can come to the mountain of God’s love, where innumerable angels dance with joy. And the mountain of God’s love is the mountain upon which three crosses stand. It is the mountain out of which Jesus exploded that first Easter Sunday. It is the mountain at which we gather with joy each Sunday to climb together.

It is no mistake that every Sunday we join the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in proclaiming, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.’ This is our calling. This is our duty and our joy. Our God is a consuming fire, burning away all that keeps us from being the people he wants us to be. As we climb the mountain together, we are part of the spirits of the righteous being made perfect.

The Scripture gives us a choice. Will we climb Mount Zion, or will we continue in fear at the base of Mount Sinai? It is up to you. Heed the voice that calls from heaven, and give your life to Jesus Christ in faith. The party the angels are throwing is always a ‘welcome home’ party. Brothers and sisters, welcome home.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Repost: The Adventures of the Post-Relevant Church

I was looking back through the archives and ran across this piece from April 2011. It was written when I was working for a small parish in Toronto, and I still think it is applicable. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

My wife, Dr. Monique, and I have great conversations. One day recently, as we discussed my recent Contra Factum post on collared evangelism, she said something that jumped out at me: "Welcome to the adventures of the post-relevant church." Wow, what a phrase. It hit precisely the right note.

So, yes, welcome to the adventure.

The evangelicalism that I grew up in was concerned with 'relevance.' We had to make the Gospel relevant to our culture in order to fulfill the great commission. In college, this concern metamorphosed into a preoccupation with 'context.' The context determines everything, we thought, and it even gives us the incentive to frame the Gospel story in completely different ways, even in ways that our fathers and mothers in faith might be unable to recognize. See, for example, the growth of the megachurch movement, or the absence of the cross from many seeker-sensitive churches, or the equation of worship with emotional experience.

What I realized going to seminary is that evangelicals share the concern with relevance with their sworn enemies: the liberals. They both agree that the Gospel has to be translated into a new key in order to be relevant to the world. They only differ on the amount of 'translation' they are comfortable with.

The problem is that neither camp has done relevance well. When you step back from both the evangelical and liberal attempts to contextualize the Gospel and really look at them, you can see how severely dated they always already are. We in the churches are always find ourselves about 15-30 years behind the curve. That curve is being established in the classrooms of Ivy League universities and the halls of power, not in the Christian popular press.

The crux of the issue is that 'context' and 'culture' are moving targets. By the time that we can publish the book on being relevant to the culture, it has already moved on. As soon as we think we've become relevant, we find ourselves irrelevant again because that to which we calibrated ourselves has already changed.

So what are we left with? An adventure: the adventure of the post-relevant church. We have to stop allowing our churches to act like self-obsessed teenagers; instead, we need to embrace the fact that context just happens. It happens every moment of every day, and it is only in the faithful response to the context in which we actually find ourselves (not in the context imagined for us by the think-tank in Michigan) that the real adventure happens.

We can't catch up with the culture. All we can really do, as Andy Crouch says, is be culture-makers ourselves. Our work is to create a context, to create a space in which God may be found, and to invite others into it in order that they might become relevant to it and therefore relevant to God. (This is the meaning of Baptism, is it not?) In other words, we can only be relevant by being a little strange, by keeping our own council, and by showing hospitality to people who find that the Gospel we proclaim is the scent of life and not the stench of death.

What does the post-relevant church look like? I don't know yet. I think it will probably look different everywhere that faithful men and woman struggle to fashion themselves in the image and likeness of Christ. For me, I think this will mean wearing a collar, introducing myself to strangers, and inviting our parish's neighbours into the life of Christ's Church through Baptism. It will mean talking about sin and grace and encouraging active participation in the sacramental life. It will mean forgetting about myself for a while and just allowing the church where I find myself to be the church that it is ... and the church that it will become. In other words, this is un-self-conscious Christianity, unconcerned with 'relevance,' just concerned with being alive in Christ wherever he has put us.

In this adventure of the post-relevant church, I think we will find that relevance, like context, just happens. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

SERMON: Jesus Gives Simon a New Name

Text: John 1:29-42
Date: 20 January 2013
At: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

I grew up watching Batman, specifically reruns of Adam West’s 1970’s camp-fest. It had red phones and bad puns and lots of running in place in front of projected backdrops. Delightful. But, in 1992, everything changed: Batman: The Animated Series began its three-year run. The Animated Series was dark. It was gritty. The stories where sometimes campy, sure - it’s Batman after all - but, they had a depth to them that made them popular with people well outside their target demographic. Part of this was the voice talent of Kevin Conroy who voiced Batman and Bruce Wayne. Conroy brought something profound to the role. When asked what the key to the character was, he replied: Batman isn’t the mask. He’s the real person. Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman hides behind. Whenever you caught a glimpse of the batsuit tucked beneath Bruce’s business suit, peaking out was the real person, not the mask. When things got interesting or strange, Batman’s true self emerged onto the stage, the hero in black.

In our Gospel lesson this evening, things have certainly gotten interesting and strange, but Simon has not emerged. Lots of things have been happening on the banks of the Jordan, but Simon just isn’t there. John the Baptizer, full of fire and smoke, proclaims a baptism of repentance. A leather belt holds his camel-hair chasuble in place. It is rumoured that he eats locusts and wild honey. He calls out Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. He makes enemies and baptizes the multitudes. His preaching seems to draw the whole of Judea to the Jordan River, but Simon isn’t there.

On top of that, the world is changing. John the Baptizer sees the carpenter Jesus walking to him and proclaims, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ Not only that, but John sees the Spirit descend on Jesus. He knows and proclaims that this Jesus is the one who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. He proclaims, ‘And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The world is changing. John proclaims Jesus the Messiah, the chosen one of God who will reconcile Israel and finally bring peace. It is the long-awaited hope. The world is changing, but Simon isn’t there.

Even Simon’s friends and family are there. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. He takes them to where he is staying, and they sit with him, chatting, talking, learning, their hearts growing heavy and light with the excitement of it all. It dawns on them as they talk, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ The River Jordan is brimming with people, the world is changing, and Simon’s friends and family get to see it. But Simon isn’t there.

Six years ago, I attended a large, Christian student conference. It focused on mission, and this year in particular it showcased the International Justice Mission, a group who, according to their website, ‘is a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.’ They get lawyers to leave their well-paid jobs to go do something spectacular, even heroic, in the world.

U2’s lead singer Bono addressed the conference. He talked about how he used to pray that God would bless his work. He would pray and pray and pray, but things wouldn’t happen. Then, he realized that he was doing it wrong. He needed to stop asking God to bless his work, and he needed to find the places that God was already blessing and go there.

But this is counter-cultural advice. We get told that the heroic thing is to find our passion, or to follow our hearts. We look deeply inside of ourselves to find meaning, to find hope. We pray that God will bless us, that God will do something to us, not realizing that we, like Simon, might just be in the wrong place. We might not be where the River Jordan is overflowing and the world is changing. We might just not be there.

We keep looking inside of ourselves hoping to find an answer. It’s almost like we’re looking through our buttons trying to find the bat-suit, something that might make us heroic, something inside that might validate our existence. But, all we find there is flesh. The real us is the mask. John the Baptizer is baptizing the multitudes in the wilderness, but we aren’t there.

One of the two who followed Jesus is Andrew, Simon’s brother. They heard John’s cry ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ and they start following Jesus. After a bit, Jesus catches on. He turns to them and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ The sputter, ‘Rabbi,’ which means Teacher, ‘where are you staying?’

Jesus’ reply isn’t a treatise. It certainly isn’t theological. It is elegantly simple: ‘Come and see.’

They join Jesus for the day and at about 4:00 in the afternoon, their hearts heavy and light at the same time, something dawns on Andrew. Simon, his brother, isn’t there. How can he be missing this? He gets up and finds Simon. He tells him, out of breath, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ And instead of getting into an argument with Simon about it, he makes him come and see, just like Jesus did.

As Andrew and Simon approach the place Jesus is staying, the sun is setting. Jesus looks up and stares at Simon. There is something there in Jesus’ face, a knowing. Without introduction, Jesus says to him, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas.’

Andrew stifles a laugh. Cephas means ‘rock,’ and Simon is certainly not that. He has a tendency to prevaricate under pressure. Sometimes he even just lies. He wasn’t there at the Jordan to see the world changing, and now Jesus names Simon something he is not. Jesus gives Simon a new name.

We keep looking inside ourselves to find the answer, but Jesus’ tactic is slightly different. He gives us a new name, a name that names us something we are not yet.

But first there is an invitation. ‘Come and see,’ Jesus told Andrew and his companion. Stop looking inward to find yourself. You won’t find a bat-suit there. You’re not now a hero. ‘Come and see’ is an invitation to a journey. The journey makes us stop asking God to bless the work we’re already doing, and it causes us to look ahead to the work that God will have us do, to get up off of our seats and follow Jesus into that place that God is already blessing, into that work which is bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

There is something that is often not understood about the Christian life: our pursuit of self-actualisation is not a pursuit to uncover something already within us. It is a pursuit to uncover that which is put ahead of us. Simon, that prevaricating loser, was called ‘the Rock’ by Jesus. In the story, he goes on to be anything but a rock, culminating in those three treacherous denials on the night of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t pointing to something that was true about Peter. He was pointing to something that would be true if Peter set out on this journey after Jesus, if he came and saw in response to Jesus’ invitation.

There is something of the ontological about this in Christian thought. St. Paul says, ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3). The self that you know now is the mask. It covers what you really are. But, what you really are is out ahead of you. You are on the way to meeting yourself. The Apostle continues, ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory’ (Col 3:4).

This understanding animates much of Christian moral teaching, especially the Christian understanding of virtue. We train ourselves now into the future life of the Kingdom of God, precisely because we are on the way to becoming who we really are. We can’t rely on our feelings sometimes. We have to ‘fake it until we make it.’ But, the good news is this: Jesus gives us a new name. He points to us, knows us, and says, ‘You are mine, and because you are mine, you are the Father’s. Come and see what I have for you.’

In our Old Testament lesson today, the boy Samuel is advised to say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ What if we took that prayer for our own? What if we, in moments of quiet or moments of doubt, started repeating this short prayer? ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ We would be putting ourselves in a position to hear Jesus’ voice, to hear him calling us by a new name, to hear him saying, ‘Come and see.’ ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

And though we sometimes poke through our shirt to see if we can find the mark of a hero underneath, the Christian story says that there is a different path. As we follow Jesus on his way, the Way of the Cross, we find it none other than the way of life and peace. We can be heroes, but only if we follow the one who saves us and loves us, only if we give up looking within and look to Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith. In so doing, we will become saints. In so doing, we will become like Christ, the hero we all long to be.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

**Image from Wikipedia, accessed 21 January, 2013.