Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: Pastor Mark

Practical, Holy, Middle Road of Grace

John 21:19-30

After these things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. This is how he showed himself to them. Gathered there were Simon Peter, Thomas who was also called the Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, the Sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” And they went and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus came and stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He said to them, “My children, you haven’t any fish, have you?” They said to him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” So they cast it and they were not able to haul in the net because it was full of so many fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Simon Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was Jesus, he put on some clothes for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. The others went in the boat, bringing with them the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land; only about a hundred yards off.

When they had come ashore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring with you some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. But even though there were so many fish, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Now, none of them dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they new that it was Jesus. He came and took the bread and gave it to them and he did the same thing with the fish. This was the third time he had appeared to them since he had been raised from the dead.

After they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time, Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” A third time, Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter, upset that he had asked him a third time, “Do you love me?,” said to him, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. When you were a child, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you chose to go. But when you grow old you will stretch out your arms and others will fasten a belt around you and lead you to places that you may not choose to go.” (He said this in order to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

That’s a lot of Gospel for today, considering the small portion at the end of it all that I want to look at.  I don’t want to talk about the fishing or the breakfast or the net that didn’t tear or why in the world Peter fishes naked.  I just want to look at that last little bit where Jesus talks about Simon Peter’s youth, his old age, and then invites him, simply, to “Follow me.”

I got an invitation, a week or so ago, to attend my college roommate’s daughter’s high school graduation. … I wish you were as surprised by that as I was. People, this means I have a friend who has a daughter that’s graduating from high school in just a few weeks. This means his daughter is an adult. This means my friend is old enough to be the Father of an adult. This means – I think – that I’m old enough to be the Father of an adult. Theoretically.

My friend’s birthday was a couple days after the invitation came and we were texting back and forth about the surprise of it all – about how old he is; about what our kids are up to; and I wondered about whether I would/could/should try to make it over to Ohio, for the graduation party.

It may seem strange to you – and a stretch – but I thought about that invitation when I read about the one from Jesus to Peter at the end of this long Gospel story. I connected the two because of the way Jesus compares Peter’s younger days to the old age he knows is coming.

See, this friend of mine who’s old enough to be throwing a graduation party for his daughter is a fraternity brother of mine, and there was a time when one of us would call about a party and there was no wishful thinking or debate, even, about “would,” or “could,” or “should” we make it to that party. The answer was always “yes,” and “when,” and “where” or “I’ll be right over.” Just like Jesus told Simon Peter: when we were young we fastened our own belts, we made our own plans, we did our own thing; and we did it all when and how and where and if we wanted to – or not.

Nowadays, of course, there are spouses to consult, and calendars to check, and children to consider, and careers to manage. And all of that is nothing, really, to the way it will be one day, for so many of us, I know. Jesus goes on to point to a different future for Peter, too, when he predicts the way he’ll die – with his arms outstretched, being led around by people and taken to places he won’t choose for himself.

We won’t all die martyrs, led around in the way Jesus warns Peter about, but if you’ve ever cared for an aging parent, or tended to a sick loved-one, visited a nursing home, even, or if that kind of future isn’t too far off or too hard to imagine for you, you know what it means to be at the mercy of others – whether you like it or want it or need it or not.

So after Jesus imagines both of these extremes for Peter – the freedom of his youth, on one hand, and the hardship of his later years, on the other – I wonder if he isn’t suggesting a holy, middle road of grace, somewhere in between the two, when he says then, simply, “Follow me.” It seems Jesus is inviting Peter – and the rest of us, whether we’re 1 or 100 – to a holy road, somewhere in the meantime; somewhere between our own way and our own wishes at one extreme, and the way and the wishes of the world around us, at the other.

And it seems to me, that middle road of grace looks something like the life of faith and the way of discipleship we’re all trying to follow as Christian people on the planet.

Between what used to be and what is to come – in the meantime – “Follow me,” Jesus says.  In the meantime, find the middle way of God’s love and “feed my lambs.”  In the meantime, don’t rely fully on your own understanding…don’t follow every whim and every way that feels good to you…don’t just do your own thing, especially if it’s done at the expense of someone else.  In the meantime, feed my lambs – follow me.  In the mean time, tend my sheep – follow my way.  In the meantime, feed my sheep – follow my will …and your life will be blessed and better because of it.

This middle road of discipleship is one of those ways, for me, where God’s call for us is as holy as it is practical. And this middle road is one of the ways this life of discipleship can be as comforting as it is challenging. This middle road, in the meantime, calls us to do some amazing things by the world’s estimation – like love one another, like forgive our enemies, like turn the other cheek; like choose humility over pride; like choose grace instead of judgment; like choose peace instead of war; generosity instead of greed, forgiveness instead of grudges, and more.

And there are some strikingly practical ways to go about this – practical ways to follow Jesus, I mean – practical ways to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep and whatnot. We talk about them as “Marks of Discipleship” around here when we talk about “GROWing in the Word,” “SHARING our money,” “TELLing others the good news,” “PRAYing daily,” “WORSHIPing regularly,” and “GIVING of our time and abilities.” And these marks of discipleship – each of these ways of following Jesus – are as practical as they are holy.

I don’t want to debrief each of them now, but I do want to tell you what I mean about this practical… holy… “in the meantime” sort of stuff with a few examples.

In my younger days, giving financially was never a priority – and seemed an impossibility, really. My money was my money and I did what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted with every penny of it. And, to be honest, it was rarely faithful, hardly wise, and never did a thing for anyone else but me.

But I’ve learned over the years – ever since I’ve seen it work in my own life and around here – that the practice of tithing (giving 10% or more of your income away for the work of the Church in the world) is as practical as it is holy. It’s a discipline. It’s a practice. It’s following God’s way. And when we do it…if we do it…not only do we “feed some sheep” as we go, we also gain a holy perspective about how much we really need, how much we actually have, and about how God blesses us with every bit of whatever that is – not just for us, but for the world around us, too.

And, like I said, giving money is just one of the many ways we try to follow Jesus, around here.

If we pray daily we’ll eventually stop praying for our own concerns and our own needs. We’ll begin to pray for others and we’ll learn to listen to God’s power and presence in our lives and be informed and encouraged by that day in and day out.  (Even the call to prayer is as practical as it is holy.)

If we use our God-given abilities – our musical gifts, our artistic craftiness, our knack for teaching children, our skills with woodworking or tools, our love for the written word, our penchant for a hard day’s work, whatever – for the sake of the kingdom, we become more of who God created us to be and the world is blessed, and fed, and changed because of it.  (Again, this following Jesus stuff is practical and it’s holy, when we get it right.)

My point is, when it comes to following Jesus, to living life as disciples, we can act like children (or fraternity brothers, for that matter!) – doing what we want, when we want, thinking only of ourselves, acting only for our own benefit and blessing.  And we can do all of that until it’s too late, until the time comes when we can’t do anything anymore – for ourselves or for anybody else. But Jesus invites us today, just like he did Peter, in the wake of Easter’s resurrection, to follow a better way; a different way; a holier way; a practical way, too – right here and right now – that benefits us and that blesses the world, all at the same time.

And all of this following – the way, for followers of the crucified, resurrected and living Jesus – is meant to be a way we choose – not because we have to, but because we get to – to be accountable to the God of our creation; to be beholden to the maker of heaven and earth.

It’s like choosing to be accountable to someone you love – a good friend, a husband, a wife, a child…it’s not always easy; it’s not always fun; sometimes it requires more than you feel like you have to give; it takes work; it requires sacrifice; it demands selflessness; it can change you from the inside out. But once you choose that kind of accountability – or once it chooses you – your life, your way, will never be the same.

And all of this is something like what the good news of Easter means to do for us.  When Jesus started showing up for those disciples after his death and resurrection (behind locked doors, like he did last week, and on beaches for breakfast, like he does this morning) he was reminding them – revealing to them and to the world – that God had chosen to do this amazing thing: to love and to redeem and to save the whole lot of us from the beginning of our lives, until the end, and even throughout eternity. 

And God’s great hope is that, in the meantime, because of God’s choice to love us, we might choose to love God back – to travel this middle road of grace and faith and discipleship – to be blessed by the journey, and to bless the world in return.


The Living and The Dead

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb taking with them the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, but they didn’t find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.

The women were terrified and they bowed their faces to the ground. But the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead. He’s not here; he is risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must suffer at the hands of sinners, be crucified and rise again on the third day.” Then they remembered these words and, returning from the tomb, they told all of this to the eleven and to all the rest.

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But their words seemed to them an idle tale and they didn’t believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking inside, he saw the linen clothes lying there. And he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I want to have a little fun and start with some optical illusions and see what we can see, together. This first one is a classic, I imagine most of us have seen before. I remember seeing it for the first time in my High School Psychology class:

Easter - OLD and YOUNG.jpg

(Some see an older woman, some see a younger woman; Some say that may depend on your age.)

Easter - Profile.jpg

(The way he’s looking depends on the way you’re looking, perhaps.)

Easter - Cat.jpg

(How many say the cat is walking up the stairs? How many say the cat is walking down the stairs?)

Now, the words from those guys in the dazzling clothes at the tomb in this morning’s Gospel, had me wondering about optical illusions and about the tricks our eyes can play on us – and our heads and our hearts, too. And their question is convicting and powerful and covers a lot of ground – when you consider it through the eyes of faith:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It seems, almost, like a rhetorical question, because they don’t seem to wait for an answer. Those guys in the be-dazzled duds, go right to reminding the women that Jesus had told them all of this would happen – that the Son of Man would be crucified at the hands of sinners, that he would die, that he would be buried, that he would rise again. “Remember how he told you…?”

Which they do, of course, finally; and it sends them back to where they came from telling the apostles and all the rest what they had found – or not found, as it turns out: That Jesus had risen. That death was defeated. That God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and love had won the day. Just as he had told them it would.

So back to that question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” I believe it’s more than just a rhetorical question for those particular women in that particular tomb at that particular time. It’s a question for the ages, really. It’s a question for us, still. And it’s one I want to wrestle with and be challenged by this Easter and more often, in the days to come.

Because we do – too much of the time – look for the living among the dead, I think. I don’t mean we’re rushing to tombs, or hanging out in cemeteries, or pal-ing around with ghosts, of course. I don’t mean that life is a series of optical illusions or mind games or magic tricks, either. But, if by “life” we mean joy and value and peace of mind and hope for the future and self-worth and meaning… than I think we go looking for that kind of life in all the wrong ways and places, too much of the time.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I’d say, because it’s hard not to. I’d say because the world around us does its damnedest to make us see what isn’t there – life where there is none, I mean: joy and value, peace and hope, self-worth and meaning where none of those things can actually be found.

Joy in our Social Media feed; Value in our net worth; Peace through politics; Self-worth measured against the opinions of others and the list goes on, right?

We value money and things and stuff. We self-medicate. We over-work. We keep up with the Joneses. We strive for perfection and admire it in others. We are addicted and numb and going through the motions and holding grudges. We are pointing fingers and keeping secrets and talking behind backs. We are afraid of children of God who look or live or believe differently than we do. We are okay with the status quo. We avert our eyes from the suffering of our neighbor. We look out for Number One at the expense of Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on.

Why do you…why do we…look for life and the living, among the dead and death-dealing ways of the world around us?

Because, just like those first followers of Jesus, we forget. We need to be reminded every once in a while about the places from whence real life comes.

Which is why I’m glad we’re here, today. What God does for us at Easter, is turn the tables on the ways of the world. In Jesus’ resurrection we’re meant to see the world through God’s eyes again. We’re meant to see that life comes from the ways of Christ. Real life comes from sacrifice and selflessness. Transformed life comes from humility and hopefulness. New life comes from graciousness and gratitude.

And the really good news of Easter is that, in God’s kingdom – which is alive and well among us, even now, people – life can come, even from the places that feel dead, to us; defeated; lost; failed; whatever you want to call it, or however it is you’ve experienced it, maybe.

Those of us who’ve been to Haiti or have heard the stories, find life in one of the poorest places on the planet every time. Our Agape ministry found some new life just Monday night on Indy’s east side, sharing food and friendship with some prostitutes like they do every month. Some of us experienced more than a little bit of life that same night in the prison up at Pendleton – a place where some light shined in the darkness for the inmates and for the rest of us, too, while we worshiped together.

Because of Easter’s good news – and thanks to those women who first heard and shared it so faithfully – we actually can, now, go looking for life and the living among the dead places of this world, and find it there.

I want to show you another picture of some upside down styrofoam plates.

Easter Plates Final.jpg

But then I want to tell you that one of these plates or bowls is right-side up. And once you find it, all the others will be right-side up, too. (Cool, right?)

God’s grace and love, God’s forgiveness and mercy and promise for new life trump the world’s judgment and sin and death every time – and twice on Easter Sunday. And when we remember that, everything is turned right-side up for us.

Because God has defeated even death for our sake, we are invited to see the world in a new, hope-filled, life-giving way. Because God promises new life to us, not just on the other side of the grave, but every day that we draw breath on this side of heaven – we are called to stop looking for life in all the wrong places.

Because of Easter we are allowed to see all things and all people – and to see ourselves, too – through the lens of resurrection.

And when we do that, God’s hope and intention and joy will be to see us live differently because of it: to forgive our neighbor; to love our enemy; to care for the other; to broaden our circle; to take risks in sharing the same grace and love and mercy we long for, ourselves; and to stop looking for life in the dead and deadly ways of the world – unless it’s our plan to shine the promise of God’s new life into that darkness for the sake of all creation.

Amen. Alleluia. Happy Easter.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.