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 Tag: Discipleship

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.


All or Nothing Faith

Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy in a lot of ways, and it’s come to my attention in the last couple of weeks, yet again, much to my chagrin. I was reminded of it most recently when I got onto a health kick and began to get into an exercise routine, which I started again after some time, a few weeks ago.

And if I’m going to exercise, I’m going to run, not walk. And if I’m going to bother, there’s going to be some distance involved – a few miles, at least – even if I haven’t stepped on a treadmill for, say, 6 months or more. And if I’m going to exercise, I’m also changing my diet. There’s no sense bothering with all of that time and energy, sweat and tears, and so on if I’m just going to undo it all with a large fry. So I cut calories and do without sugar and drink water by the gallon and so on and so forth.

And then I’ll hurt myself – strain my back, let’s say – to the degree that I can barely walk or stand up straight without groaning or find a heating pad hot enough to take away the pain, whatever. And I’ll have to stop running…or walking, for that matter… because why bother? And if I’m not running who cares about what I’m eating…so back come the calories and the candy and the snacks and the sugar and all the rest.

And this ridiculous character flaw shows up in other ways, too. If I can’t clean the bathroom from top to bottom, why bother just scrubbing the shower, even though it could use it? (So I don’t do either, often enough.) If I’m not going to move all of the furniture to get at every inch of carpet, why run the vacuum at all? (So I don’t.) If I’m not going to cook a full-fledged meal for everyone to sit down and enjoy, why not just grab some chips and salsa and call that dinner? (Which I do, far too often.) It’s a character flaw. And it can be ridiculous. And, as you might imagine it’s not one of my wife’s favorite things about me.

Anyway, when I read Jesus’ words from this bit of his Sermon on the Mount, I feel like he’s describing some kind of an Olympic-level regimen for discipleship and faithfulness. And it makes me tired and it wears me out and it makes me not even want to try. It seems impossible; it’s certainly unlikely; it may even be downright unfair to expect this kind of dedication, this sort of complete devotion, this total, all-or-nothing commitment to the ways of God as he describes them.

After all, he sets the bar of faithfulness so high in what we get for today, who could live up to his standards? In verses 21-26, he lumps anger and insult into the same category as murder. In verses 27-30, he puts a wandering eye under the same umbrella as adultery. And in verses 31-32, he makes divorce and adultery one-and-the-same – as far as many people I know are concerned, anyway. And, of course, the corresponding punishments for not living up to it all are extreme – tearing out eyes and cutting off hands, and so forth. Most of us are in some “deep kimchi,” as my high school history teacher used to say.

And I know we can’t minimize this. We surely can’t disregard it out of hand, like my all-or-nothing attitude tempts me to. (If I can’t honor all of it … in full … with perfection … why bother?) But we can’t believe, either, that Jesus is advocating we actually lop off our limbs and pluck out our eyes or otherwise punish ourselves with guilt and abuse every time we falter or fail.

See, I don’t think Jesus means to be holding up an impossible standard, just for the fun of it. And I don’t think Jesus is testing our willingness or ability to actually be perfect as some Christians might be inclined to suggest. I don’t think Jesus is setting the bar for faithfulness so high in order to see who can endure the most intense, grueling, deprived life of discipleship. Nor do I think Jesus ever means to make faith like an exercise in something we can fail at or succeed in. Where would the grace be in any of that?

What I think Jesus means to do, is to encourage us and challenge us and inspire us in as many ways as possible so that we’ll live faithfully in ways that bless us and that bless the world in return.

I think Jesus – in this moment with his disciples on the hillside – is like a loving parent…like a trusted partner…like a model coach who pushes his most trusted followers in ways and to places that they – and we – might not get to without some encouragement and challenge. What he’s calling us to are lives that shine the light of God; that usher in the Kingdom; that bring to bear upon the world, a better way of grace. And that kind of kingdom-living isn’t easy, pretty, or perfectly managed – but it doesn’t mean we don’t try… that we don’t set a high standard for ourselves and each other, nonetheless.

In other words, for people celebrating and searching for the kingdom of God among us, we can’t let murder be the minimum standard by which we govern our anger – what we post on Facebook or whisper behind backs matters. We shouldn’t let adultery be the standard by which we measure faithfulness to our partner – the way we talk about and treat women matters. The way we talk about and treat men matters. And we shouldn’t let divorce come as an easy solution to problems in a marriage – because love and forgiveness and reconciliation are worth the work.

So, Jesus holds up a higher standard, not because he wants to see us fail – or because he knows that we will – or because this life of faith is an all-or-nothing endeavor. What Jesus does is raise the bar of faithfulness for us because he knows that we and the world will be blessed by every effort we make at living into those faithful hopes and expectations, even when it’s hard; even when we don’t do it perfectly.

It’s why we do what we do together as believers in the church.  I think our life together here is meant to be a training ground for grace and discipleship that helps make us fit for the kingdom of God we’re called to experience and bring to bear on the world out there.

When we talk about praying it’s not to get the words just right so we’ll get what we want or all we think we need. When we miss the chance to pray as we should, it doesn’t mean we refuse pray as we ought when the next opportunity arises.

When we encourage and challenge each other to give our money away, it’s not just to pay the bills or to build a building. It’s to grow generous people. And just because we can’t give it all, doesn’t mean we don’t give any. Just because we can’t give as much as so-and-so, doesn’t mean we don’t give as much as we can or know we should.

When we talk about practicing our faith, in any way, as children of God, it’s not because we are – or ever could be – done, or perfect, or better than anybody else in the eyes of our creator. It’s because we will be blessed…and able to bless others; it’s because we will be fulfilled…and able to fill the world; …and it’s because we will be forgiven, even when we don’t.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – and today’s words, as hard as they sound on the surface – are all about living, as disciples, in ways that aren’t always easy, or comfortable, or popular. And we will fail…, or come up short…, or leave so much left undone, more often than we’d like. And, it might be tempting to wonder “Why begin?” or “Why bother?”

But in those moments our answer is an “all-or-nothing” kind of thing, only it has nothing to do with our efforts, or our energy, or our success, or our failure. It has everything to do with God’s effort and God’s energy and God’s faithfulness in Jesus. The only “all-or-nothing” that matters here, is God’s “all-or-nothing,” which says always says “no, no” to our sin and brokenness and failure, and “yes, yes” to our forgiveness and love and second-chances in all things by amazing grace. 


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