Sunday, September 10, 2017

“HOW BIG IS GOD?”

 A sermon based upon Acts 10: 34-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
14th Sunday After Pentecost, September 10th, 2017,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)


You’ve probably heard the joke about a kindergarten teacher who was observing her classroom while they drew pictures. Occasionally, she would walk around the room to see each child’s work.
“What are you drawing?” she asked one little girl, working diligently at her desk.
The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl replied, “They will in a minute.” 

What does God look like?   How do, should you, should we, imagine God?   Way back in 1961, Anglican minister J.B. Philips wrote a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small.”
His point was simple, yet profound: Too many Christians have a view of God that is way ‘too small’.   Philips wrote about both ‘destructive’ and constructive ways to understand God.   Destructively, we limit God by imagining God like a ‘policeman’, a ‘grand old man’, someone who thinks like our ‘parents’, or some like a ‘pale’ wimpy Galilean.    These kinds of images make God more like our image, rather than our image like God’s image. 

The second part of Philip’s book points to more ‘adequate’ understandings of God.  He suggests we should imagine God by focusing on what God focuses on.  We should try to image, not what God looks like, but what God desires and does.  The primary focus of the biblical God, he suggests, is on the beauty that is more than skin deep, a goodness that is good for everybody, and the truth that is always rooted and grounded in love. (See “Your God is Too Small”, by J.B. Phillips, 1961). 

J.B. Philips insights about imagine the true God echoed what the great little prophet Micah once wrote: “He has told you, o mortal what is good and what the Lord requires: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).   We best imagine God, by what he desires and what we should do.  But if we are not careful, we can still succumb to our very human tendency to ‘put God in a box’.  At time, Christians have mistakenly put God in a Catholic box, an Anglican box, a Methodist Box or a Baptist box.  Today some still put God into their own, non-denominational box, or even only in a Christian  or a merely ‘religious’ box, even though it was a non-Christian, Jewish prophet named Isaiah who told us that God’s way are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8).  It has always been an occupational hazard for humans to try to imagine God without limiting God. 

What we are given in our Bible is never an image, nor even one ‘picture’ of God.  Instead, we are given a story of how Israel’s God is at work in our world through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit and the Church.  In our text today from Acts 10, we see how God was at work stretching the spiritual imagination of Simon Peter.  The Holy Spirit led Peter to Joppa to an Italian soldier’s house, whose name was Cornelius.   Unbeknownst to Peter, God was already at work in this non-Jewish man’s life in ways that Peter would never have imagined on his own.  

What we see is this story is that Cornelius was a good,  God-fearing man, but he wasn’t Jewish and he knew little about being ‘Jewishly’ religious.   In short, Cornelius was a Gentile, a pagan, an outsider, one of ‘them’, or even as the man Jesus called them, he was another one of those Gentile ‘dogs’, just like the described to the Canaanite woman.  For the most part, Gentile dogs were ‘unclean’ and unworthy  to have God’s food, meant for his own children, thrown to them (Mark 15:27).   

But now, in this text, after the life of Jesus, but through the Spirit of Jesus, God is still at work, doing even ‘greater works’ based on what Jesus did.   Even Jesus himself didn’t show us ALL of God.  Some Christians may not want to imagine this, but God the Father, who ‘sent the Son’ is ‘one’ with the Son, but he is still to be distinguished from the Son.  As one of my teachers once taught me, “Jesus takes us right to the ‘heart’ of who God is, but even Jesus, as God’s Son, didn’t show us all there is to God. “ On the cross, Jesus finished what God sent him to do, but Jesus never finished what God has sent the Spirit to call and commission us to do.   With God there is always more.  Can you imagine that?

…THE MESSAGE HE SENT TO THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL…. (v. 36).
This story about God revealing himself as ‘more’ that who we imagine God to be, goes all the way back to one of the very first stories of the Bible.  It was when people were still living in small, family tribes, rather than in big people groups or nations.   Even way back then, the true God was a God who was bigger and larger than the people who was working with and working through. 

And this understanding of a God who always stretches the human imagination continues to haunt the Bible’s story, right up to the New Testament story of Jesus and the Birth of the Church.   If God’s people had ever settled on making God only ‘their God’, God would have become a ‘God too Small’ or only a ‘God in a certain kind of box’, as he still is in many minds today.   However, the biblical God, the true God, Israel’s God, and the God of Jesus Christ, has always been a God who is, as one philosopher has said,  is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived.’ As I learned in Christian philosophy class, only when God is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived”, God is and remains, God (based on Anselm). 

Turn to Genesis 12 and read in the first three verses how the true God is a God who is always more, always stretching the human imagination, and always taking God’s people on a journey to more, not less.  You remember the story.  It’s the story of the call of Abraham.   Read this brief word again and consider how God was leading Abraham to God’s more; more of God, more for Abraham, and more for the world. 
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3 NRS).

The message of ‘more’ in this text is not confusing.  It is the simple message of the God who calls Abram to ‘Go….to the land’ he will be shown, so that God can ‘bless’ Abraham, making Abraham a ‘great nation’ so that Abraham  can also ‘be a blessing.’  Those who ‘bless’ Abraham’s faith, will be ‘blessed’.  The goal is that ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.  Now, that’s a lot of ‘more’ for a little tribe given a desert land on the back side of nowhere.   How could something like this ever be possible?  How could the ‘faith’ of one person end up becoming a way to ‘bless’ ‘all the families of the earth?

Back in 1990, after I had decided to become a missionary to work with ‘The Foreign Mission Board’ (now International Mission Board) of the ‘Southern Baptist Convention,’ I felt I needed all the preparation I could get.  I knew that Southern Baptists could prepare we well, but I wanted to know what other mission groups were doing and had done.  I chose to go for a week of training at the “Overseas Mission Learning Center” located in New Haven, Connecticut.   It was located at Yale Divinity School and part of my time there was to do some mission research in the Yale Divinity Library, one of the largest missionary libraries in the United States. 

I’ll never forget my surprise, not only about being in that grand library, but about trying to find a book about on to be a faithful Missionary.  There were thousands of volumes of books by missionaries doing all kinds of scientific experiments, social work, and many other kinds of humanitarian work around the world.  But there was very little to be found about ‘how’ to do missionary work.   What was there, in tons of old books, was a record of how through the years, almost since the beginning of the United States, missionary after missionary, from almost every main denomination, had gone into the world, risking their lives and giving their lives, all in the name of Jesus, not to simply build churches or make the world more ‘religious’ (that too), but to ‘bless the world’ in whatever way they were gifted to do, all in Jesus’ name.   At first I was taken aback, thinking that this was all wrong.  But the more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to realize that this was exactly what Jesus would do.  Jesus would not have gone into the world to ‘make a name’ for himself, but Jesus would have gone into the world to be a blessing.  Jesus would have helped, have healed, and have rescued and saved people, by blessing them in the name of the one, true God.    That is what I learned that it meant to be a missionary.  It is the same now, as it was since Abraham; God calls his people to be ‘blessed’ and ‘to be a blessing’.   God’s people are always looking for how God is up to more; how they can ‘be blessed’ so that they can ‘be a blessing.’

“HOW GOD ANOINTED JESUS OF NAZARETH” (vs. 38)
The next great advancement in the human understanding of this God is ‘more’ and is always doing ‘more’, come from the writing of the greatest Hebrew Prophet, Isaiah.  Isaiah’s prophecies not only span the life of the prophet, they go beyond his life.   Even Jesus based his own calling and ministry on Isaiah’s words.

There are many important images of God, and the ‘more’ that God was up to, in the writings of Isaiah, but perhaps the first one was most important.   It was how the prophet came to understand God’s calling upon his own life.   In the year that his ‘King’ named Uzziah died,  Isaiah says that he ‘saw the Lord siting on a throne’.   In that vision he heard God’s declared to be, “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  He then realized that before God he was ‘lost’, being someone with ‘unclean lips’ living among people unclean ‘lips’ and lives.   Still, the next word he heard is most amazing.  This holy God does not destroy Isaiah, but he calls and commissions Isaiah, calling out with his own voice, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”   It was Isaiah who answered this call, saying, “Here am I, send me!”   (Isa. 6:1-8). 

My wife will tell you that this is one of my favorite texts in the Bible.  I preached from it in Revival meeting after Revival meeting, in the first years I was preaching.   The title of my message was, “Why God to Church?, which I picked up from a very great preacher. What this text taught me, and should teach us still, is all the right ingredients of true worship of God; including seeking God, confessing sin, answering God’s call to take God’s message to the world. 

But what is behind all that is going on in this text is not simply what God was asking Isaiah or us to do.  The main ‘message’ of this text is what God was doing when he called his prophet.   The kind of God that called and commissioned Isaiah is the same God who also sent his son Jesus.   This God is the God who is always moving forward, always calling people to more, always loving more people, and who is already at work to and ready to do more through those who will serve him, right now.   

This ‘more’ that God is ready to do is exactly why Jesus chose to read from a text from Isaiah, chapter 61, when he began his public ministry.   Turn in your Bible and you can read for yourself what this ‘more’ is, that Jesus came to do.  As you read it, let it surprise you a bit, just like I was ‘surprised’ when I went through Yale’s mission library.  Can you see or hear it?   According to Luke, Jesus read:  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,      19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."    20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.     21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."   (Lk. 4:18-21 NRS).

After Jesus announced to the people in his own ‘hometown’ that ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ was upon him to do ‘more’, do you know what happened next?   They ran him out of town and they even tried to kill him, their own home town boy.  When he read the Bible and said, “Let’s do this” more than God has called, not just me, but us to do, they would rather have murdered Jesus, then and there, than have answered God’s call in their lives, or even realized God’s call on his life.   In short, they preferred to have “God” in their box, than to have a God who was alive and well and at work in their midst, calling and having his “Spirit’ upon one of their own.

What about us?   Are we ready for the God who calls us to do ‘more’ and to ‘be more?’  Are we any more ready for the God who shows us the ‘more’ we can do and the ‘more’ we can be?   And this ‘more’, as we also see in Isaiah, and in Jesus too, more than anyone else, is not just a ‘more’ for us, but it is also a ‘more’ for others too.  The God who calls to ‘bless us’ is always about us being a ‘blessing’ to others too.  In the life of Jesus, as Luke continued to describe it, we see this ‘blessing’ only beginning to open up, as Jesus sent his own disciples, 70 of them on their very first mission task.  We call it ‘The Mission of the Seventy’, as told in Luke 10.   This was another one of my favorite texts to preach on, when the Seventy return to Jesus, rejoicing that ‘Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!”   Jesus then announces his own vision:  “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening” (10:18), affirming that he has given them ‘authority’ over ‘all the power of the enemy’

 But an even greater reason they should rejoice, Jesus adds, is because, by becoming God’s missionaries and doing God’s ‘more’, they ‘know that their names are written in heaven’ (10:20).   The only true affirmation or assurance of knowing the true God or of having the truth of God in us, is when we want the same ‘more’ that God wants.  Recently, I read that in the early church, after Easter, they used to have parties to celebrate the trick that God played on the devil, as God raised Jesus from the dead.  The joke was put on the devil because when the devil thought God’s work ended, it was really just started.  By raising Jesus, and sending Jesus’ disciples into the world to preach the ‘good news.’ God beat the devil at his own game.   This is a great trick, but the joke falls back on us, not just the devil, if we don’t keep taking this ‘good news’ to the world.    This brings us back finally, to our text in the book of Acts.  

"I …UNDERSTAND….GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY (vs. 34)
After doing this quick survey of the Bible’s story, which is also the gospel’s story,  we need to come to ‘understand’ exactly what Peter came to understand.   Our text explains that as Peter witnessed God as work in a stranger, an outsider, a Gentile and a pagan who ‘feared God’,  this is when Peter came to understand something more and most important about God.   Peter came to understand that among peoples of the world, God shows ‘no partiality’ (vs. 34).

Now, this new ‘understanding’ has big ramifications, both for Peter’s understanding of God and for Peter, and the rest of the disciples of Jesus too.   This means that God is not limited by one group of people, one religion, or one understanding of God.   The true God of the Bible is more than anyone humans have ever understood.  As Peter explained,  “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable….”   This means that Jesus came ‘preaching peace’ not just among the nations, but also among the ‘religions’ and the ‘religious’.   This also means that Jesus is ‘Lord of all’, not because he is denouncing love found in anyone else, but because Jesus came to reveal a God who is love, and God’s kind of love is always more, never less.

But the most important ‘understanding’ of this God who is more is that “he commanded us to testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”   The point Peter is making is the point I want to make to us today.   The God who is always more, is a missionary God, who calls us to be a missionary people to people everywhere.   This does not mean that we are better than anyone else, or that Jesus puts down anyone who loves and fears God.  What it does mean is that if we want to be more, do more, we must understand, love, serve, and ‘testify about him’  and to envision and obey this God who is more, because he is a God who wants to do more through us.  

Our God is a missionary God.  If we are not on mission with him, then whose “Spirit’ do we have?   If our God is not at heart, a missionary God, then our God too, is a God who is too small.  This ‘too small God’ is never a Great God, because he is a ‘dead’ God.  He is a God who was dead, even before you ever tried to take him out of your box.  He was ‘dead’ because he is only in YOUR BOX.  


So, if you want a ‘living God’,  will you join Abraham, Isaiah, Jesus, and Peter, and Paul too, to follow the God who can take your out of your shell, and give you the more you could never have with a God in a box?   I hope you will.   No, I know you must.   Only a missionary God is the God of more, who can be ‘the judge of the living and the dead’ (v. 42).  Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Do You Love Me?”

 A sermon based upon John 21: 15-22
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
14th Sunday After Pentecost, September 10th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #12)

After JFK was assassinated, Jackie Kennedy did an interview with Life magazine.  During that interview she revealed that her and her late husband’s favorite musical was “Camelot”.  Since his death she had been saying one line from that musical score over and over in her mind: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot for one shining moment known as Camelot.” 

In the British legend, Camelot was the name of the Medieval Castle and Kingdom of the mythical King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  Although some claim there a actually was some sort of ruler who defended England against invaders from the Saxons, this has never been proven.  Richard Burton once played King Arthur and sang about that mystical, mythical kingdom of what might have been, but is gone forever: Camelot.

At least to some of the disciples, the Kingdom of their Messiah must have seemed like “Camelot”.   The life of Jesus, at least on earth, was over.  The preaching of the nearness of the kingdom had gone silent.  The immediate hopes of the establishment the Kingdom in Jerusalem was gone: “There was a spot, for one shining moment called Camelot” could have been their song too.  This is exactly how the gospel of Luke concludes, with two disciples talking about what might on the road to Emmaus.  And even though Jesus has shown himself to be alive and present among his immediate disciples, as their resurrected Lord, many, many questions still remain. 

So what did Simon Peter do with all this upheaval?   He went fishing.   Perhaps he’s still trying to figure it all out.   Then, for a third time, and now as a stranger on the beach, Jesus appears to help Peter and the disciples make a very large catch of fish.   After they share breakfast together, Jesus asks Simon Peter a most intimate question:  “Simon…, do you Love me more than these?”

DO YOU LOVE ME…?
As we come to this final question of Jesus, we consider a question that wasn’t just meant for Peter, but is also for us.  This question of Christ still sounds in human hearts, even after all these years.  It could be translated: “Do you (still) love me?” After all that has happened?  After all that hasn’t happened?  With all that might or will happen, do you, can you, will you, love Him more than these other things?

For Peter, ‘these things’ refer to his fishing business.  Fishing is what Peter was doing when Jesus found him, and fishing is what Peter is still doing to make his living.  There is nothing wrong with fishing, either as a pastime or as a career.  Peter was a fisherman; Matthew a Tax Collector, Luke was a Physician, and Paul a Tentmaker.  The apostles and disciples had their jobs, careers, and duties to perform in life too, just as we all do.  But the question that continues to come to us in the midst of all we do to ‘make a living’ is what do to ‘make a life?’ It other words, what will we do that makes life worth living?   What will bring us the joy, purpose, and the fullness of life?    

One thing we may already know is that it only is the answer to love’s question that has the potential to transform everything we do.   Perhaps the depression that Jackie Kennedy experienced right after her husband “Jack’s” assassination came because this ‘love’ question was never settled between them.  She said she knew Jack loved her, but he had mistress after mistress during their marriage.  She said she knew he would always come home to her.  And she said, as an excuse, that this was the way many men were in that day.  Was it, really?  I can’t help but think that it was the unanswered question about love, about devotion, about faithfulness and even about righteousness that still loomed over her like a dark shadow, long after his death.  Did he really love me, more that he did the others? 

What does ‘faithful’ love look like?  How does faithfulness to Jesus Christ look like? Can we, for ourselves, ask and answer this question without any form of reservation:  “Do we love him, more than all those other things?”   This is not just a question for Simon Peter and this is not just a question that happened on a day we gave our hearts to Jesus the first time.  This is a question that must be answered by every generation and by every Christian, each and every day, by comparing our love for Jesus with all those other things we also treasure.  Do we, Do I, Do you, still love Jesus more than these?

I find it to be a unique, remarkable, unmistakable and essential part of the Christian faith that at the very center is a big question about ‘love’.   I can’t recall anything this personal in Islam about loving Mohammed or Allah.  I also can’t recall anything about loving Buddha in Buddhism or loving Krishna in Hinduism.  But beginning with later Judaism, and beginning with the book of Deuteronomy, we find Israel being commanded to ‘Love the Lord Your God with all you heart, soul, and strength.’ (Deut 6:5).  The Jesus of the Gospels picked up on this Commandment to ‘love God’ as the greatest commandment of all.  And even though Jesus clearly explained that “God so loved the World …”(John 3:16), Jesus now reminds Peter, and us, that is not just God’s job to love us, but it is also our job to love God ‘with all our heart’, and ‘more than these.’  ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus asks.  Jesus is not like Jackie Kennedy; he does not allow any other lovers.  So, before the next chapter in Peter’s life, and before last chapter too, Jesus wants to clear the air, once and for all?  And his question is not just for Peter, but also for us: Do we really love Him more than anything else?

FEED MY SHEEP
And if we say we do love him, how do we know?   “The demons believe and tremble” James says.  “Many say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I say (Mat. 7:22; Luk 6:46), Jesus said.   We say we love him, but how does our love for Jesus show to be more than mere words?   Jesus doesn’t seem to trust words.  Once he told the religious of his day: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (Jn. 5:39-40 NIV).  You can read, do, and say all kinds of religious things, you can do all kinds of good things, but you may still leave the question of daily devotion and love unanswered.   Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”  And three times Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you!”   Was that kind of exchange really necessary?   Did the resurrected Christ need to be pressing this point this hard?   Peter had denied Jesus not once, but three times, but Jesus is not trying to rub it in, but to ask the question as a way of forgiveness and redemption: “Peter, do you love me!  Peter, do you love me?  Peter, do you love me?   How can I know?  How will your love be proven so that it is more than words, more than past feelings, and more than something that never really was true?    

It is often said that if you have to ‘prove’ your love to someone, love is already lost.   Of course, that can be true.  If married people, couples, or families are always demanding for prove of love to each other, there really could be something terribly wrong.  And what might be wrong is that love is not being proven in the day to day activities, relationships, work and the stuff of life. 

In Philip Roth’s acclaimed Novel, American Pastoral, Roth tells the tragic story of a Jewish man (the Swede he was called), whom everyone in High School thought would have a beautiful life.  The Swede was a star athlete, went into this father’s successful business, married an Irish beauty queen, and then had a beautiful daughter.   But as the story unfolds, his beautiful daughter develops a terrible stutter; ends up rebelling against her parents.  The daughter, who is his ‘daddy’s girl’, gets drawn in to an activist group of the turbulent 60’s.  She makes bombs that actually kill people.  She runs away from home and goes into hiding.  She never comes home.  Her parents are devastated.  The beauty queen mother loses her mind.  As she heals, she cheats on the Swede.   The Swede finally locates his daughter, but she still doesn’t come home.  There is really no home left to come home to.  

As the novel (or movie) ends, a few friends are gathered around the Swede’s casket.   He has apparently died somewhat prematurely, at 62 years of age.  His friend, who became a writer, narrates and summarizes this sad moment: “Everyone thought his life would be the most likely to be showered with blessings, but we were wrong.”  The scene closes with the fugitive daughter in disguised, approaching the grave from the distant.  You are left wondering whether she realizes that her Father’s love, that was never ending, has been proven to her beyond all her adolescent doubts.  (http://www.npr.org/2016/10/15/497864544/new-american-pastoral-movie-is-a-60s-tale-still-relevant-today).

Somehow, someway, and someday, love has to prove itself.   The world Peter dreamed of, hoped for, and expected had fallen apart.  Even Jesus Christ the Messiah and his undying love was not the way Peter had imagined.  But now Peter stands, not beside the tomb, but before the Risen Lord and there is only one question that matters.  This question is not: Why did you deny me? Look, how you failed, or even the victorious, “It’s finished”, over, and completed.”   None of this matters now.  Even our failures, hang-ups, letdowns, or defeats don’t matter, as long as we can pick up the pieces and truthfully, hopefully, and personally answer love’s question: “Do you love me?” 

A very personal Christian faith requires a very personal answer.  Faith gets personal, because faith is personal, and the answer of faith must be personal too.   And if you do still personally and specifically love Jesus, does your life, your work, your goals, your dreams, and what you do each day, from here on out, does it prove your love for him?  Jesus died of a broken heart to prove God’s love for us.  We don’t have to die of a broken heart, like Jesus or like the Swede, but we do have to a change of our heart, allow our heart to be challenged, and be willing to answer the call to follow God’s heart, if we want to prove that we really do love God because of his love for us.

What Jesus tells Peter he must do, to prove his love, from here on out, is to “Feed” and “Tend” Jesus’ sheep.  Only Peter’s actual, active answer to God’s calling upon his life, can prove his ‘love’ is more than a feeling and not just words.   “If you love me,” Jesus says, then you must renew yourself to doing in your life what you say with will do with your lips.  Peter, if you love me, you’ll be catching people, not just fish.  Peter, love is something you do.  And if you love me, love is something you must do for me.

We should know that this is not just a question for Peter.  It is recorded in the gospel so because it remains a question for all those people of faith who come after Peter.  If we love him, how will we and should we prove it?   This is the question that our true love for Jesus will never let escape without an answer?  As the romantic poem goes: “How much do I love thee, let me count the ways!” (Elisabeth Browning).   Well, how can you count them?  How can you count them this past year, this past week, or in your plans for the week to come?  How can you ‘count the ways’ that your love for Jesus gets translated into the ways you are now living your life? 

A recent religious cartoon in the Biblical Recorder had an interview, with one person inviting another person to church.   The person being invited answered, “Just because I don’t come to church, don’t pray, and don’t read my Bible, doesn’t mean that I don’t love Jesus.   The person doing the inviting responded, “Well, if you don’t go to church, you don’t pray, and you don’t read the Bible, how can you know that you love Jesus?”   Now, I know and you know that you can go through all the right motions, and love can still be dead.  You can even remain faithful to someone in a marriage, and love can be dead.   Couples often don’t take care of their love.  Christians can keep coming to church, read their Bibles, and pray; yet their ‘love’ has gone cold.  Many people can answer the love question, by saying, “Well, I have my faith?”  or “I’ll do my Jesus thing on my own”, or “I have my own religion, thank you?”  “Lord, You know everything“You know I love you”, Peter says.   But Jesus says, “Do you?  Really?  Then, prove it!  Feed my Sheep!”  And do you notice how Jesus commands, “Peter, feed MY sheep, not YOUR sheep!”  The true answer to love’s questions is not an answer that comes on our terms, but it is an answer that is given only on Christ’s terms.  This is how true love always, on the terms of the one who is loved.

YOU MUST FOLLOW ME
In a world of individualized, self-centered religion, personalized religion, this love question must be answered personally, but it must be more than a personalized, self-centered, self-focused, or self-motivated answer.  Why is this important?   Why is it important that our answer to love, be more than only ‘my’ or ‘your’ kind of answer?

Recall that one incredible scene in the award winning musical about struggling, persecuted Russian Jews, Fiddler on the Roof.  After Tevye and Golde have raised all their children; after they have done all they could do to be good parents, good people, and faithful spouses in a dangerous, threatening, changing world.  One of the new struggles they had to face, was that their daughters wanted to marry for love, rather than have their marriages arranged.  This was difficult for the conservative, orthodox, traditional Jews.  But after their final daughter was about to wed, Tevye turns to his wife Golde, and asked her, with musical score; “Golde, It’s a new world.  Love.  Do you love me?” 
(Golde)  Do I what?
(Tevye)  Do you love me?
(Golde) Do I love you?  With our daughters getting married And this trouble in the town.  You're upset, you're worn out!  Go inside, go lie down!  Maybe it's indigestion
        (Tevye)  "Golde I'm asking you a question..."   Do you love me?
        (Golde)  You're a fool.
         (Tevye)  "I know..."  But do you love me?
         (Golde)   Do I love you?   For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
         Cooked your meals, cleaned your house.  Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
(Tevye)  Golde, The first time I met you  Was on our wedding day
I was scared…. And my mother said we'd learn to love each other and now I'm asking, Golde, Do you love me?
         (Golde)  I'm your wife.
         (Tevye)  "I know..."   But do you love me?...
        (Both, in musical union) It may not change a thing, but even so after twenty-five
          years, It's nice to know.

Our own ‘personal’ answer to God’s love is even more than ‘nice to know’.  After Jesus has asked Peter the ‘love’ question and near the end of their very intimate conversation, Jesus reminds Peter of what is still to come, for him, and probably for us too.  “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." (Jn. 21:18 NIV)

It sounds very much like a Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge moment, when the Ghost of Christmas future reminded Scrooge that he’d change his negative attitude, because one day, someday, and perhaps in the not too distant future, he is going to get old and die.  With the negative attitude he has now, no one will want to care for him, remember him, or even less, mourn for him, unless he changes.   In a similar way, the Risen Jesus is reminding Peter someday, he is going get old, have limitation, then die too.  But death is not really mentioned, nor is it the problem.  The big crisis to come in his life is that he is going to lose his freedom, his ability to choose or control his life.  What are you going do then doesn’t matter, because your life will be more about what you are not able to do, than what you are.

“Follow me” now Peter.   This is what Jesus challenges.  This is the only answer of love that makes sense.   But it’s not just about doing what you need to do now, because someday you won’t be able too.    What Jesus is saying is that Peter, if in love you will follow me know, even when it is hard,  because your faith and love is true, when that day comes,  true faith and true love, will hold you, sustain you, and enable you,  even when it seems you have little life left.   Simon Peter, prove your love for me now, so love will carry and sustain you, when you’ve got nothing else left, but love.

Most of don’t like to go into nursing homes, because of reminders just like this: “someone else will dress you and lead you where you don’t want to go.”   I’ve been going into nursing homes and hospitals all my life, but never really face my own coming day of weakness, until I had those five ‘foot’ surgeries between 2008 and 2010.  Most of that time, I was unable to walk, confined to getting around with walkers, scooters, crutches and a boot.  I didn’t spend much time in a hospital, but I did spend too much time confined to home.  After wearing an artificial fixator, an instrument that was like a ‘halo’ around my leg and foot for almost 6 months, I started having anxiety attacks, especially when I got on elevators, had to ride with someone else driving, or when I had to wait in waiting rooms, for felt myself being restricted in many other ways.  Seven years later, I’m doing much better now, but I still get a bit nervous on elevators, or become impatient in tight situations.    
The lingering emotion, thought, or feeling of all this, is that it is all a foretaste of the ‘test’ of faith, trust and fortitude that is still to come.  We are all being tested this way, and as I discovered, the love in my life now, will be the ‘love’ that brings me strength and hope then.  This is why love is the question, the only question.   For without love, bearing any kind of load in life can become unbearable.   You’ve seen it haven’t you?  Young or Adult people not doing their job, not bear the load, not taking command of their lives.   It’s someone that is almost impossible to do, unless you have and can give love.  When we know we love, have loved, and will be loved, life can be hard, but we can endure, we will withstand and bear the great burdens of life. 

Back in 1987, Will Willimon lost his friend and pastor colleage, Grady Hardin to cancer.  He told a crowd of new students and parents how he learned that his friend was in the final grasp of the Enemy, called death.   He told how Grady called him, saying, "Thanks for asking me to preach. That will be last sermon I will preach."
"Oh, but there are ways", .... "There is therapy. You are fortunate to be here at Duke. Chemicals, radiation, things to be done."

For the next weeks, Grady did battle with the Enemy. The pain increased, the cancer spread, wasting him, leaving him half of what was. But each time we entered Grady's room with solemn faces, even in pain, Grady found something to celebrate, something  to elicit laughter even when we wanted to cry.  “In those moments,”  Willimon said, ‘You could almost hear the Enemy, pacing the floor outside. Waiting for the people in white coats to be done, waiting for the preachers and the former students and the friends and family to be done with their stalling and get out of the way.

“His day came, despite everything, on a Friday in June.  Grady's ordeal, which began on the First Sunday of Lent was over on Pentecost. The Day when God' s Spirit descended found Grady's spirit ebbing. The Enemy paced, paced back and forth, growing  impatient now, ready to pounce.  Through his last breaths, Grady led in prayer.”  Can you believe that?  The dying man led in prayer?  The prayer went:   "Lord, support us all the day long  Until the shadows lengthen, And the evening comes, And the busy world is hushed, And the fever of life is over, Then, of thy great mercy, Grant us a safe lodging, And a holy rest, And peace at the last;  Through Jesus Christ our Lord."   Willimon concludes: “The door opened and there stood the Enemy -- with the most forlorn look you ever saw. He reached into his quiver, to finally do the deed, and was embarrassed to find there only rest and peace at last. And Grady roused briefly, stared the befuddled Death in the eye and said, "Free, at last, thank God,  free at last."  Death's great victory, just ruined. Five days later they gathered at Duke Chapel and sang Easter victory songs.  (https://repository.duke.edu/download/duke:316626).

What can love for Jesus do for Jesus?  Probably nothing; at least as far as we can tell.  What can love for Jesus do for you, or me?”  Probably everything.  We may not see it now, but one day we will.  As a song goes:
And all fire and flames took all we trust we're kicking up dust. Stations fade just like they do.  Oh, time will tell, we always knew.  Oh, time will tell, we always knew.   


Time will tell, so answer what you must, now!  Do you love him?  Then, follow him, show him, get closer to him, and let Him know, so you will know, that your love is true.  Do you love him?  Of course you do, so live for him, follow him, and when the time comes, you will also be ‘free at last’.  Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Friends, Haven’t You Any Fish?”

 A sermon based upon John 21: 1-14
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
13th Sunday After Pentecost, September 3rd, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #11)

Charlie Lyne wanted to solve one of few remaining ‘ungoogleable’ mysteries.   He made a 14 minute documentary for the British Guardian News to discover whether or not people had something ‘fishy’ in their family history.

Charlie got this idea from his friend, Casper Salmon, whose grandmother once invited all the people to come together at her place, if they lived on her Welsh island and had names related to some sort of Fish.  They would also be given the type of fish of their last names.   Some of the people who showed up had names like Mr. Salmon, Mr. Whiting, Mrs Crab, Mr. Mullet, Miss Bass, and many more; the Herrings, the Trouts, and the Anchovies, etc.   His grandmother got the phone book out and called up all the people on the Island with “fishy” last names. 

Taking his grandmother’s cue, Charlie decided to do a brief documentary to try and sort out the truth behind this ‘fish story’.   What he discovered is that all these folks with fishy last names where to come together as part of a large publicity stunt to advertise the grand opening for the Anglesey Sea Zoo Aquarium, which was the only Aquarium in England dedicated just British species fish.   In a day before Internet, 24 hour news,  or Facebook, the “Fish Story” made a big enough “splash” to get the word out.   And the Aquarium is still operational today.  http://www.firstshowing.net/2017/watch-fish-story-short-film-discovers-the-truth-behind-a-fishy-tale/

Today, the question of Jesus we are considering is also a “Fish Story” of sorts.  It’s part of a story containing two very important questions asked by the resurrected Jesus.   Both of these stories form the epilogue to the gospel of John.  They bring the beautifully written, very personal, intimate gospel to its conclusion, but are much more than after thoughts.  These two stories contain the two important ‘mission’ and ‘ministry’ questions the church of Jesus Christ could be asked to answer.   The first one, which we consider today is: “Friend, haven’t you any fish?”.

I’M GOING OUT TO FISH…
This ‘fish story’ starts with the number one, biblical fisherman, Simon Peter.   What is most unusual, or perhaps very usual, depending upon your perspective is what Peter does after encountering Jesus having been raised from the dead.  He goes fishing. 

Now, if you’re fishermen, you probably wouldn’t find this ‘strange’ at all.   Most fishermen will tell you that fishing is how they best handle stress and/or relax.  Perhaps this is what Peter is doing.  Perhaps he’s going fishing to clear his mind and process all of the very ‘heavy’ happenings that have been going on in Jerusalem the last three years.   Peter is going to the beach, that is ‘The Sea of Galilee,’ to take a break from it all.  Or maybe, we Peter is going back work.  After all, he was by trade, a fisherman.

But can go back to life ‘as usual’ after you have personally encountered the risen Christ?  You do have to make a living, but how different might life seem after you have had a life-changing and life-challenging experience that still makes your legs weak, your head spin, or your heart skip a beat?   I can imagine entertaining a once ‘dead man’ could be an experience just like that.  You would need a few ‘vacation days’ away just to ask and try to answer for yourself: “Just what does this mean?”

One of the major problems of our times is that people take ‘vacations’ that are not actually vacations.  They go away and return home even more tired than when they left.  That same Guardian Newspaper who sponsored the ‘Fish Story’ ran an article a few years back, entitled “The Exhaustion Epidemic”.  It says that today we generally have more money, better health, and better jobs, but our lives are becoming more complicated and more stressed than ever before.  We live at a ‘breakneck pace that seems to never sleep.’  How long will our advances in health hold out?

 In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that human civilization has gone through three major cataclysmic shifts – and he thinks we're currently in the change from an industrial culture to a globalized one - and each wave we go through has been associated with some kind of ill health.  The stress and exhaustion doctors see in patients now are similar to those known to middle-class England at the beginning of the Industrialization in the 18th century. (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/dec/03/healthandwellbeing.features).

Besides seeing the beginnings of declines in physical health, a society that is always in a hurry to do everything, know everything and have everything, brings increased emotional pain due to the loss of a spiritual life.  When we lose the ability to slow down, be quiet and reflect, and yes, even worship, we soon see increased personal, relational, societal, and spiritual problems too.   Mark Taylor, writing in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” quotes the Verizon commercial which says: “Welcome to a world where speed is everything” or the Hitachi Computer add which says, “Speed is God, and time is the devil.”   In “real” time, life speeds up until time itself seems to disappear---fast is never fast enough, everything has to been done now, instantly….Speed is the measure of success.”   But what is always lost, as everything speeds up is time itself; time for family, time for friends, time for children or time with elderly parents, and yes, of course, time for God.

Ironically is was just a few years ago, with the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices, during the last 1960’s and 70’s, that many were predicting a new age, in which people would be drawn together in a ‘global village” where they were be freed from the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to build community, solve social problems, and pursue greater interests.  In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a 4-day work week, and a decade later, a Senate subcommittee heard testimonies predicting that by the years 2000, Americans would only be working about 14 hours a week.   (http://www.chronicle.com/article/Speed-Kills/149401).

What happened?  Well, what happened is that we used all that speed to go after more; more experiences, more knowledge, more entertainment, and more stuff.  And what did we get?  We got more boredom, less wisdom, less fulfilment, and too much stuff with no room left for much of anything else except what we want in the moment.   “Today’s young people are not merely distracted, the internet and video games are actually re-wiring their brains,” Taylor writes.   It won’t be long until we will have new diseases, new disorders and new medicines, including much more Ritalen to try and slow down our children’s brains so they can focus and think.   Did you see the news flash recently saying that an alarming number of young men seemed to have stopped looking for work so they can give their full attention to video games?  I guess they are all planning living off a nation that goes to war where they have skills to win the game (http://nypost.com/2017/07/08/were-losing-a-whole-generation-of-young-men-to-video-games/).

The world is not the only one who is filled with a lot of busyness that’s is not always healthy.  We in the church can also get so busy doing the good we want to do, that we forget to do the good we need to be doing.   Might it be a good thing, in our time, just like Peter does in the gospel story, to stop to focus and figure things out.   Peter makes by taking time.   He goes on a retreat---not just to fish for the sake of fishing, but to fish for figuring out what life means now and what he and the disciples of Jesus are supposed to do next.   Peter has to figure things out, because after meeting the risen Jesus, everything has changed. 

THROW YOUR NET ON THE RIGHT SIDE…
Perhaps the most important learning Peter does on his ‘fishing trip’ is that he learns that by himself, even with all his skills, he can fish all night and still catch ‘nothing.’   Peter is a very experienced fisherman, but what he is learning here is not about fish, but about his own life’s mission and purpose.   And the mission that Jesus has called him into is a mission that he will not be able to accomplish in his own strength, or based on his skills alone.   The mission Jesus has called Peter and all the disciples to is a mission to ‘fish for people’.  This is a mission that will be impossible, in their own strength.   This is a mission they will have to pause and learn to be the most important thing they will ever be called to do with their lives.

“Friend, have you caught any fish?”  This question would have never come out now, without Peter’s own failure; both on the boat and in the city, where Peter denied Jesus three times.  Even his failure was grooming Peter to answer the right question that pointed him back on mission to follow the one who called him. 

Perhaps today, in this busy, hurried, distracted and world, with our fast paced lives, we too need to hear Christ’s question to everything we are doing at church, and in our own personal lives at Christ-followers:  Have we caught any fish?   The call of the gospel to ‘fish for people’ has not changed, will never change.   In fact, the need for being an evangelistic church on an evangelistic mission may be more important now, than it has ever been before.   And it is our own failure to reach people, to catch people, to win people or even to influence people--even though we may be trying just as hard as Peter was---might help us renew and revitalize the most basic of all tasks the church has been called to do: Fish for People.

If we do take time to consider what it might mean to be ‘fishers for people’, we also need to learn, like Peter did, that there is a wrong side of the boat to fish from and there is a right side.  And the right side of the boat to fish from is the side that Jesus determines, not the side or way we determine on our own.   This might be the most important lesson Peter learned on his whole trip; not how to fish, but HOW NOT TO FISH---that is, based only on his own efforts, his own habits, his own understanding, or only with his own skills.  What finally brought Peter success was when became willing to listen to a voice that was not his own.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson in evangelism for all time, then and now.  I don’t think there is ever really an exact ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ method of fishing for people, as long as the method includes actually listening to people and hearing their problems, their hurts, their hungers, and their needs.  The gospel can never be reduced to something we say, until it is first something we see, hear and feel.  When we are fishing for people, in ways that really catches people’s attention, the church must remain open, willing, and flexible enough to hear, listen and obey the voice that leads you to move out of your own ways, habits, comfort zones and established forms.

It is often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, that isn’t working and expecting different results.  That may be one way to describe, but insanity in evangelism, or fishing for people, is doing things which seeing who is right in front of you and needs you to really listen.  Recently I read of a newspaper reporter who was doing a report about a Mental institution that had just opened in his community.   The director was telling the reporter about the mental ‘test’ they gave to interview possible new clients.  This test would show how mentally alert the candidate was or wasn’t.  The director explained how they would take candidate into a room, show them a bath tub full of water and then give them the choice of a teaspoon, a teacup, or a bucket to empty the tub full of water.   “You would use the bucket,” right?  The reporter answered.   “Um, the director said, “No, you should pull the plug on the drain.  Exactly, which bed do you want, the one at the window, or near the wall?”


That’s a funny story, but it points to the church’s failure to see what’s right in front of us.  It’s insane to speak the gospel, until we listen to the need of the person we are talking to.   What will work, in reaching people today, may not yet be fully known to us, but it will certainly never be known if we don’t listen and learn the voice of the stranger.  We learn in the end that the voice of the stranger is the risen Jesus.   The gospel says that the voice of the needy stranger, the least of these, is always Jesus.

Whose voice we listen to, whether ours or theirs, determines which side of the boat we fish and how much we catch.    This is proved true over and over again.  Years ago, a young preacher in California got my attention when he spoke of the typical person he wanted his new church to reach in the community.   He got together with church leaders, wrote down all the needs, characteristics, realities of the people outside the church (not needs of those on the inside), and proceeded to plan their ministry based on the people they wanted reach and be their church; not based on the people who were already in the church.   Several of the people on the committee said that he shouldn’t do that.  They wanted the church to meet their own needs, first; not the needs of the community needs.  Those people ended up leaving the church.  When the majority of the church made the decision to listen to the voice and needs of their ‘stranger’, “Saddleback Sam” and they proceeded to build the church around him and her, the church grew into what today one of the largest churches in American, called Saddleback Church.   Rick Warren is the pastor and attributes the growth of this church to learning to listen to other voices besides their own.

Now, I’m not saying we need to be like Saddleback, nor grow as large.  What I am saying is that this is the same kind of lesson Jesus was teaching Simon Peter (and the church) on his fishing trip.  If you really want to catch fish, the kind of fish God has called us to catch, then you have to be willing to admit your failure, change your tactics, and most of all, you have to listen to another voice besides your own.  When you listen to their voice---the voice of lost sheep, the lost son—and the ‘least of these’, then you are listening and hearing voice of the risen Christ.  And when you listen to Christ as the stranger, you are doing what the church was originally put here for.  “The church is the only institution in this world established for people who are not yet members.” If the church in still not running rescue missions, it has ceased to be the church that Christ called into being. 

COME AND HAVE BREAKFAST
But catching fish is not the end goal.  Eating the fish is.   That’s why in the final scene we have the ‘stranger’ on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast on a open, charcoal fire.  The smell must have been wonderful for a fisherman to smell; who was himself hungry after hauling in such a big catch of 153 fish.  A lot of people have wondered what the number of ‘153’ represents.  The best answer I’ve ever heard or read, is that the 153 fish represents 153 fish.  It was such a large, big catch at one time, that should have, but didn’t break the net that the disciples had to count each and every one.

We too, must remember, when we answer the voice of Jesus to ‘go fishing’, that each and every person, or ‘fish’ we catch matters.  Even though we want to catch more fish; it’s always because of the fish who need to be caught; rather than the bigness or smallness of the catch itself.  Every person matters.  Every need matters.  Every way we share our faith matters.  Every moment matters.  Each way we try to fish counts and each fish we meet counts.  That’s why numbers matters; not because of the numbers, but because of the people whom God loves; and we must love and reach out to, because God love them and us to.

It is not accident that at the center of every church are two pieces of furniture; the pulpit and the table.  The pulpit is where the truth is told; and the truth that matters most is that Jesus wants everyone, people from every race, nation, tribe and even religion, to be at the table.  Make no mistake the picture of Jesus cooking breakfast for the disciples is the example for the disciples to be preparing the meal of love, grace, and mercy for the world.   

I verbally shared this at one church, but now I’m writing it down and sharing it with both church.  Back in July, the Baptist State Paper, known at the Biblical Recorder, had a great article written by its editor, Alan Blume.  After telling how the Southern Baptist Convention continues to grow in the number of churches, he also shares statistics about how our churches continue to decline in baptisms.   We are doing well at starting churches, he says, but we are not doing well at reaching people.  As he comes to the close of his article, he suggests that part of our problem may be that, up to now, we’ve done too much ‘judging’ sinners, instead of following Jesus’ example to be ‘a friend of sinners’, as he was called, by those who did not approve. (https://brnow.org/Opinions/K-Allan-Blume/July-2017/Jesus-a-friend-of-sinners).

How do you and I become friends with sinners?  Well, you certainly don’t expect the preacher to catch them.  “Church, you need to start fishing from another side of the boat.” In a much more biblical way, you could invite those unchurched, strangers ‘strangers’ to come to your house and share a meal, Blum says.  You could actually try to become their friend around the dinner table.


Wow!  Who would have ever thought of something as simple as that?  Listen, really listen; not just to be, but to the voice, you will learn:   “Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. (Jn. 21:12 NRS).  When you make your table, the table of the Lord and you share, it’s amazing how, when, and where Jesus shows up.   Amen.