Who Am I To Stand in God’s Way?

Scripture: Acts 11:1-18

A few years ago I decided I was going to read the book of Leviticus.  I had managed to make it through about 25 years of being a Christian, four years of a Religious Studies degree, and three years of seminary without ever reading Leviticus, except in bits and pieces.  And there’s good reason for that because Leviticus is honestly pretty boring.  When you read Leviticus you come across a lot of passages such as this: “When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil.  If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, unleavened….If your offering is grain prepared in a pan, it shall be made of choice flour in oil.” (Lev. 2)  I slogged through a lot of passages like that.

For the record, Leviticus also has some pretty good stuff in it: Be sure to leave some of your harvest for hungry people to glean, it says.  Don’t steal.  Judge fairly.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Laws like these should stop us in our tracks whenever we try to separate the Old Testament God from the New Testament God as if God just completely changed God’s mind in the middle.  Nope; God pretty consistently wants love and justice from us all the way through.

Still, these nice-sounding laws are all mixed together with laws governing what we call the Jewish purity system, which is what Leviticus is known for.  These laws govern what kinds of food are clean and unclean.  For example, Leviticus 11 tells us that the Israelites may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews the cud, like cows.  They may not, however, eat any animal that only does one or the other, like the camel, which chews the cud but does not have a cloven hoof, or the pig, which does have a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud.  I could go on.  This will be important later.  The laws also govern what kind of people, under what circumstances, count as clean and unclean, like someone who has touched a dead body, or a menstruating woman.   And they govern how unclean people can become ritually clean again, often by waiting a certain number of days, taking a ceremonial bath, and sometimes getting checked out by a priest.  And these laws implicitly or explicitly separated Jews from Gentiles, who would not have followed the same laws.

It’s hard to know exactly where all of these laws come from or why they exist.  Some of them, like the dead body one, seem to make sense from a public health perspective, in a time without antibacterial soap.  Some may reflect a queasiness over things that don’t fit squarely into one category or another, like animals that have cloven hooves but don’t chew their cud.  We don’t always like things that don’t fit into our boxes, and so we call them unclean.  Taken as a whole, though, what these rules do provide is a sense of identity: those who follow them are set apart from those who don’t, and remind them that they serve a God who is different from other gods.

There are certainly still people today who try to follow all of these rules to the letter, mostly Orthodox Jews.  Most of us who are not Orthodox Jews probably find the whole system to be pretty primitive.  Purity laws, we say, even if they made sense for ancient people, certainly don’t anymore.

And yet I remember one of my college professors making the case that we do still have purity laws of our own.  Some of them might make sense from a public health perspective: you don’t shake someone’s hand if they’ve just sneezed in it, for example, or you have to take measures to be “clean” again.  Some of those unspoken rules may be dubious, like if we are uncomfortable shaking the hand of someone who has HIV.  Some of them may reflect our continuing fears about mixing things or people who don’t fit in our boxes: who can drink from a water fountain, for an older example, or who can use a certain bathroom, for a newer one.  We have our own ideas as a society about what laws should govern our interactions and separate us from one another.  Sometimes these boundaries are secular, and sometimes they are religious.

And what today’s Scripture tells us is that sometimes God needs us to knock those barriers down.

The story begins in chapter 10 with a man named Cornelius.  Cornelius is a Roman, a Gentile, and that means there are certain purity boundaries that must be kept between him and Jewish people—for example, eating together.  Cornelius, the story goes, is also a good man.  He’s a God-fearer, which means he probably hangs out around the outside of his local synagogue and prays and supports its work.  He reveres the Jewish God, but he is not, himself, Jewish.

One day an angel comes to visit Cornelius and the angel says, “God has seen the good works you do; send your people to Joppa to go find a man named Peter and bring him back here.  He has some news for you.”

Meanwhile, Peter is in the city of Joppa, staying with someone named Simon the Tanner.  Simon the Tanner, by the way, may have also been ritually unclean, because a person who tans leather works with dead animals.  So Peter may already be playing fast and loose with some of these boundaries by staying at his house.  But Simon the Tanner is, at least, Jewish.

At noon, Peter goes up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray.  It’s lunchtime, so he’s hungry, and as may happen to all of us once in a while when we’re hungry, Peter starts seeing things.

What he sees is food.  He sees a large sheet being lowered down from heaven, and on this sheet are all kinds of animals, both the clean ones and the unclean ones.  And Peter hears a voice and it says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

But Peter is a good Jew, just like Jesus was, and he knows the difference between clean and unclean animals, and he’s not about to eat the ones he isn’t supposed to eat.  So he objects: “No way, God, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.”

And the voice says: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

This happens three times, and then Cornelius’s people show up at the door.

From a modern, Gentile perspective, nothing in this story seems terribly shocking.  It seems silly to us that God would arbitrarily make distinctions between food we can eat and food we can’t eat, even though it’s apparently edible.  We think, of course along the way someone had to realize that these arbitrary rules weren’t actually the point of what God wanted from us.  But Peter wasn’t being silly.  He was a good, religious man.  He got his beliefs about these things straight from the Bible itself.

While Cornelius’s people are standing in the doorway asking for Peter, Peter hears the voice again.  It says, “There are three men downstairs looking for you.  I’ve sent them.  Go with them without hesitation.”  So Peter goes and greets these strangers at the door, and he invites them in, and in the morning, he goes with them to Cornelius’s house.  And when Cornelius tells him about his own vision, and why he’s sent for Peter, Peter says, “Now I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  And he tells everyone there about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descends on all of them, Jew and Gentile, and everyone gets baptized that day.

You see, it was never really just about food.

Again, from a modern, Gentile perspective, it’s a nice story but it’s also a story with a fairly obvious moral.  Of course, we say, God is God of everyone, not just of one ethnic group.  Of course, we say, it was God’s will all along that the good news be for us and not just for the Jews.  And it’s certainly true that some of the Hebrew prophets describe visions of people from all nations coming to Mount Zion to worship the one God together.  But on the other hand, Peter, the Peter who believed in making distinctions between clean and unclean and Jew and Gentile, wasn’t a bigot.  He was a good, religious man.  He got his beliefs about these things straight from the Bible itself.

And still he had to have ears to hear when God said to him, this isn’t what I want from you anymore.

After this experience Peter has to go back and explain himself to the rest of the church.  The Christian church, at this point, is still a Jewish entity, and some people are pretty unhappy that he’s gone and eaten and stayed with some unclean Gentiles.  So he tells them everything that’s happened, in the speech Mary read for us today.  He tells them that the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone in that house, even the Gentiles, and he says, “If God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we first believed in Jesus, then who am I to stand in God’s way?”

Then everyone gets quiet, and then someone says, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  We all get the same shot at this.  We all receive God’s grace, and God’s judgment, equally.

For the church, it is life-changing stuff.

Of course, as we might imagine, it wasn’t actually as easy as that.  The rest of Acts and many of Paul’s letters attest to the fact that Jewish and Gentile Christians did not always just make up one big happy church.  They thought they were better than each other.  They fought about what the conversion requirements for Gentiles who wanted to be a part of the church should actually be.  Our ideas about each other simply don’t usually change that fast, even if God wants them to.

I was reminded not long ago that this year marks the 60th anniversary of women being granted full clergy rights by the Methodist Church—it wasn’t the United Methodist Church, yet.  Before then, there were certain rules and boundaries, spoken or unspoken, which governed the role of men and women in the church.  Women, for sure, were active in the church, as women always have been.  They could sometimes even preach. But they couldn’t be appointed by the Bishop as the pastor of a church.

To many of us, not least myself, this seems at best like an old-fashioned idea, which it was, of course, and, at worst, pretty discriminatory, which I’d argue it was too.  Of course, many people at the time, and still, would say that their beliefs on the matter came straight from the Bible itself.  “Women should remain silent in church,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34.

One of my colleagues recently edited and published a transcript of the 1956 General Conference meeting where everything changed for women in the Methodist Church.[1]  It’s fascinating to read, and maybe what was most fascinating to me is that the debate didn’t actually focus on what the Bible said or didn’t say, but on more practical matters.  I want to give you a little idea of how that debate went.

As the debate opens, two representatives from the Standing Committee on Ministry give the majority report.  The committee has spent the last four years studying the issue of women in ministry, so they get to make a recommendation.  They recommend that women be included in all provisions of the Discipline related to ministry “except that only unmarried women and widows may apply as candidates to the traveling ministry or continue therein.”

As a matter of principle, one representative says, we can’t object to women in ministry.  On the other hand, churches might not want to accept women being appointed as their pastors.  So this is a good compromise.

Another man stands up to give the minority report, the dissenting opinion.  He says that because realistically churches aren’t going to be open to receiving female pastors, we shouldn’t change our policy at the moment.  “Let’s be practical,” he says.

A delegate stands up to make a substitute motion.  He suggests that women should be able to be ordained and appointed to churches, but they shouldn’t be guaranteed an appointment at a church the way male pastors in the Methodist Church are.  The Bishop should make “all reasonable efforts” to appoint a female pastor, but if he can’t, oh well.

There’s some debate on how much of a burden should be put on the Bishop and the District Superintendents who have to appoint ministers to churches, whether they can handle it, and whether it’s actually preferable for female pastors to be married or single.  There is some debate about whether clergy rights for women would hurt the order of Deaconesses, which is a way women can already be in ministry.

Then a delegate named Henry Lyle Lambdin from Newark stands up and he asks, “Is this Conference prepared to say in the Year of Our Lord 1956 that no woman, however well qualified educationally, whatever demonstration she has given of gifts and grace and loveliness, that no woman shall be called of God to spiritual leadership within the Annual Conference?”

In other words, if God gave them the same gift that God gave us…

Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Later another delegate echoes him: “Members of the Conference, let us not be confused on this issue.  The principle is this: does Jesus Christ treat women as children of God, entitled to the same privileges and rights as a man?”

Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Apparently nobody thought, in 1956, that things were actually going to change.  But God showed up on that debate floor at General Conference, and by the end of the voting on various motions and amendments and amendments to the amendments, the Bishop announced that the motion had been adopted: “Women will have full clergy rights, rights equal in every way to the men.”

The Methodist Church, by the way, was the first major denomination in the US to grant full clergy rights to women.

I’ve mentioned off and on, and in fact mentioned two weeks ago during our Conference-wide day of prayer for our 2016 General Conference, which is coming up next month, that we are facing another big debate which has the potential to be life-changing for the church.  This debate revolves around the related questions of whether the United Methodist Church will allow same-sex marriage and whether we will allow the ordination of LGBT people.

Now.  Is every aspect of this upcoming debate directly comparable to other times the church has faced such questions? No.

Is the only faithful reading of Acts 10-11, the story of Peter’s vision, one in which you come out on the same side of a particular issue that I do?  No.

But is the story relevant to the conversation today?  Yes.

Sometimes God needs us to knock down the barriers and boundaries that we’ve set up to separate one from another.  Even when we’ve set them up as good religious people for good religious reasons.

And lest anyone think that this is only a political thing, only a big-church thing, there probably isn’t one of us here, myself included, who couldn’t stand to reflect on the ways we make distinctions between ourselves and other people, separating “us” from “them.”  Whether these distinctions are racial, or economic, or moral, or religious—Christians and Muslims; Trump supporters and Bernie bros; the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor; the kind of people we’d think to invite over for dinner, and the kind of people we wouldn’t—we, not unlike our ancient brothers and sisters, like our boxes, and we like to construct our world with certain rules and boundaries that ensure that people stay in them.

But sometimes God needs us to knock those down.  The church would not be here otherwise.

Is God calling us to knock down some barriers now?

And if so—who are we to stand in God’s way?

[1] http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2016/04/13/the-debate-that-changed-the-church-60-years-of-clergy-rights-for-women/

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The Good Shepherd

Scripture: John 10:1-15

I don’t really know much about sheep.  I’ve been to a petting zoo a few times.  I used to like taking a walk in Colonial Williamsburg, when I lived there, and seeing the sheep roaming around in their field at the end of Duke of Gloucester street.  I would try to pet them too.  That’s about as far as sheep and I go.

I’m told that sheep are dumb.  A friend of mine who used to live in a rural community told me that when sheep give birth, the afterbirth is fluorescent orange.  This serves a good evolutionary purpose, she said, because apparently otherwise the sheep might not even realize it had just given birth.  But when it sees the fluorescent orange, then it knows to turn around and find the baby lamb and start taking care of it.  This kind of fits with our general image of sheep, blindly following whoever happens to be in front.  Nobody likes to be called a sheep.

I’ve also read that sheep aren’t as dumb as we think.  I actually found a website called sheep101.info, so you can go look up some fun sheep facts later.  This site mentioned a case of some sheep in England who learned to roll themselves across an 8-foot-wide hoof-proof grate in order to go steal food from some unsuspecting townspeople’s gardens on the other side.  You have to respect that.  Sheep can, apparently, find their way through a maze and then improve their time as they learn their way through that maze.  Again, maybe not so dumb.  I can’t say for sure.

I often feel like I’m missing something when Jesus tells stories about sheep, since like I said sheep don’t play a very direct role in my life.  The people who first heard these stories could maybe catch the nuances of them in a way I can’t, or at least in a way that I have to go to sheep101.info to look up.  Sometimes I wonder what metaphors Jesus might have chosen instead if he were here on earth telling stories today.

When I read today’s story, sometimes called the Shepherd Discourse, I understand that we are supposed to be the sheep.  Jesus, depending on what part of the metaphor we’re in here, is either the gate to the sheepfold, or more famously, the Good Shepherd himself.

The other thing I can pick up is that smart or dumb, one thing sheep have going for them is that they know their shepherd’s voice.

“The shepherd,” Jesus says, “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

I read that line this week and I thought, I don’t know if sheep are dumb, but if it’s true that sheep are dumb, maybe you have to be simple like a sheep for things to seem that simple at all.

The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice.  They hear it and they follow.  Other people try to come in and wrangle the sheep, the sheep realize it’s the wrong voice and they don’t go anywhere.  If you’re part of the flock, you go with the shepherd.  It’s as simple as that.

In nature, maybe.  In human life, maybe not so much.  Because the thing is, for those of us sheep who aren’t so fluffy and woolen, it can be hard to recognize the voice of Jesus when Jesus is calling.  We can read it in the Bible, but in our everyday lives, we have to be able to recognize it when it’s not in front of us in red letters.  That is not necessarily an easy thing.

When Jesus gives this speech, he’s not actually talking primarily to the people who are in, part of the flock.  He’s talking to the religious leaders and those who can’t accept who Jesus is or why he can do the things he can do.  He’s just healed a man who was born blind, in the last chapter of John, and been subjected to some sharp questioning.  Jesus seems to rebuff them by saying don’t worry: you may not know who I am, but my sheep know me.

And still, I consider myself one of his sheep, and I’m not always sure I do.  Do I recognize Jesus’ voice?

The problem is, I think, that there are always so many other voices speaking to us at the same time.  I mean this both literally and metaphorically: people may actually be telling us which ways we should be going in our lives and which paths to follow and what is good.  And sometimes the messages are more subliminal, voices that whisper rather than yell, so we don’t even know we’re hearing them but their message becomes ingrained in us.

These voices tell us things like:

-Look out for #1.  If you don’t, no one else will.

-You’re not good enough.  Maybe this is a voice that comes from within as much as without.

-Or, maybe, on the other hand, you’re entitled.  I think of Ethan Couch, the teenager who initially was found not guilty of killing four people while driving drunk because his lawyer claimed he was suffering from “affluenza.”  He was sentenced to two years in jail this week for violating probation, by the way.  Usually it’s not so extreme.  Usually it’s more insidious than that—you’ve worked hard.  You deserve to have everything you want.  Your own experience justifies everything.

-Or, the voices tell us, you’d finally be happy if only….if only you made more money.  If only you lost 20 pounds.  If only you were in a relationship.  If only you got a better job.  If only…

These are messages the world sends us, constantly, silently and out loud.  The sheep run from the thieves and bandits, whose voices they don’t recognize.  But do I run from these voices?  Or do I slowly begin to absorb them, and believe them, and follow them?

Maybe not every message the world sends us is bad, either.  But how can we actually hear and recognize the voice of Jesus in the cacophony?

Recently Jon and I have been looking at buying a house in the area.  We’ll need more room than we have in our one-bedroom apartment once the baby arrives in September.  One of the struggles we’ve faced as we’ve weighed our options is how much to consider what school district a potential home is in.

When you look at a house on Zillow, it tells you what elementary school your child would go to and it gives it a number, 1-10.  Some of the schools near houses we’ve looked at have really low numbers next to them.  When the only information you have is a number, it’s hard not to see that and feel uncomfortable.  On the other hand, I know that those numbers are based primarily on test scores, and that they probably have a lot to do with how rich the families are whose kids go to that school, and often, how white they are, and how much English they speak at home.  Some people have told me to remember that there are often good teachers at “bad” schools, and bad teachers at “good schools.”  Other people have told me that my first responsibility is to do what’s going to be best for my child, and not to try to singlehandedly correct our societal sin of educational disparity.  It feels like a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be a good parent and a good citizen and a good person.

I don’t share that to invite more voices into the cacophony—there are enough—but because it’s made me wonder: is Jesus speaking in the midst of it all?  And how would I know?  Whose voice am I really following?

Sometimes, I think, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking the voice we like the best and that feels the most comfortable is the voice of Jesus—that God wants for us all the things we want for ourselves.  There is surely a danger there of creating God in our own image, of using God to justify and even divinize our human greed and fear.

Although sometimes, maybe, the opposite is true: it can be easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the voice we would most like to follow couldn’t possibly be the voice of Jesus.  God, we may think, always calls us to the thing which is more uncomfortable, the thing which doesn’t seem like as good a fit.  And to be honest that probably isn’t right either.  Because Jesus himself says, the thieves and robbers come to destroy us, but the Good Shepherd comes that we may have life and have it abundantly.

I don’t have any big secret to share with you all on learning to recognize the voice of our own shepherd.  If I did, maybe I would be better at it, but to be honest, that just sounds like some kind of magic diet pill.  In real life these things don’t come by magic, they come by practice, and probably a lot of trial and error.

The first way we can begin to start sorting out all the voices to find God’s in the midst of them all is through prayer.  I admit that as much as I try to take moments in worship to encourage silence, and the practice of things like centering prayer and listening to God, that when I pray it’s often with a lot of words.  It’s hard to truly be silent—but I do believe that sometimes we need to clear out all the extraneous voices, which are sometimes very loud and insistent, to be able to hear the voice of Jesus, which is sometimes very soft but persistent.

I also believe we have to go to the Bible.  I used to like the kind of thing where I went to God with a question and opened the Bible up to a random page to see what God had to say about it, but now I think that’s more treating God like a fortune cookie than anything.  So that’s not what I mean.  What I do mean is that we know what the voice of Jesus sounds like in Scripture.  We know that he tells us to love our neighbor and our enemies; to serve one another; to give sacrificially and to find life in more than just our possessions; we know that he tells us to welcome the stranger and care for the sick and visit the prisoner and feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

The Bible doesn’t directly address every situation or decision we are going to encounter in our lives, but it’s always worth asking: out of all these voices calling me to follow in all these different directions, which one sounds the most like the Jesus we meet in Scripture?

And finally, I think we have to rely on each other.

We may hear Jesus saying different things.  That happens a lot: it’s the reason churches split.  And in the end, when it comes to our own personal life situations and questions, other people can’t decide for us.  But other people, especially people of faith and wisdom, can challenge us to see things in new ways.  They can recognize our gifts in ways we can’t, and they can sometimes re-formulate our struggles in ways we had never thought of.  They can point us back to the voice of Jesus in Scripture that may help us hear it in our lives, though preferably without presuming to know exactly how it applies.

Parker Palmer, who writes a lot on the subject of vocation, talks about the idea of a “Clearness Committee,” which comes from his Quaker tradition as far back as the 1660s.  In this practice, one person brings a problem or a struggle they are having before a group, along with any background information and any ways they might be leaning.  It’s the group’s job, then, not to give advice, but simply to ask “honest, open questions.”  No cross-examination, no “don’t you think…” but questions that allow the person struggling to clear out the “interference” and really listen.[1]

I’ve never formally been part of something like this before, though I’ve certainly gone to trusted friends and pastors when I can’t tell one voice from another myself.  But I would hope that this is the kind of thing we could do for each other, as we all try our best to listen.

Here is another question: does the voice we are listening to tell us “You are mine”?

There is another story Jesus himself tells, of a shepherd who had a flock of a hundred sheep, and lost one.  And that shepherd left the whole rest of the flock to go find that sheep and bring it back, and the shepherd rejoiced when the sheep was found.

There is good news in that for me, because I believe it means that when we do get confused and follow the voice of the thieves and the robbers and the rest of the world, it’s still the Good Shepherd who comes after us with his crook and wrangles us.  And then he puts us on his shoulders and carries us back to where we are supposed to be.  And he would lay down his life before he let me wander off to a place he couldn’t get me back.

My lack of voice recognition may make me a bad sheep, but when Jesus is my shepherd, all is never lost.

[1] http://www.couragerenewal.org/clearnesscommittee/

A Second Chance for Peter

Scripture: John 21:1-19

“I’m going fishing.”

Any other time in Peter’s life, it wouldn’t have been a remarkable statement.  He was born, after all, to be a fisherman.  His father was a fisherman, and his father before that.  Peter was born with strong arms meant for hauling nets and the smell of lake water oozing from his pores.  His childhood had been spent in his father’s old wooden boat, casting and hauling, a life lived among fish.

And even that day, it was an unremarkable statement.   In fact you could say it was remarkable only for its complete unremarkability—after everything that had happened.

The Lord he served and loved, the teacher he had devoted three years of his life to, who had given him the power to perform miracles, the one he had believed was the Messiah, who was destined to be the savior of Israel—he had died.  And not just died, but died a horrible death, an ignominious death, the kind of death that made it seem as though he had never had any power at all.

And then, as if waking up from a nightmare, he wasn’t dead anymore.

Peter had seen the empty tomb himself.  He had run there with The Disciple Jesus Loved when Mary had told them.  The body was gone and the linen graveclothes folded in a corner.  It was so strange, like a dream, but Peter hadn’t known then what it meant.

Jesus showed up, that evening, as the disciples huddled in that upper room, scared of the crowds and scared of what was happening and scared that nothing made sense.  He had scars in his hands and his side, where the nails had been.  It was him, even though he seemed different—but of course he was different, because he wasn’t dead anymore.  Peter and the others had rejoiced to see him.  That could have been the end of the story.

But somehow, fast forward a few days, maybe a week, and there was Peter back in Galilee, and he was going fishing.

Fishing, like none of this had ever happened.

There are those who say this is the fault of the storyteller, who put this story in the wrong place, because clearly after everything that’s happened Peter shouldn’t be back in Galilee; he and the others should be in Jerusalem, waiting for their mission to begin.  All of this with the fish happened earlier, some say, and it came to us all jumbled up.

That could be, but I can’t help but wonder if it was all just too much.  You can imagine how for the disciples that past week or two must have felt like an emotional rollercoaster: they laughed, they cried.  On Thursday they faced their own cowardice.  On Friday all their worst fears came true.  On Saturday they started to accept it; maybe they even began to feel a slow, subtle wave of relief wash over them, because it was over, and even though it had been wonderful, it had been hard, too.  And then there was Sunday, and an empty grave, and the folded graveclothes; and then it was Sunday evening, and Jesus, who had died, showed up alive.

And Peter and the others rejoiced and all, of course they did, but…

It was just a lot.

And maybe the only way to process it all was to go home to Galilee, and go fishing.  Because fishing made sense.

And then there was the rest of it, the part that Peter would rather not talk about at all, even with the others.  Especially with the others.  The part that if he closed his eyes really hard he could almost believe it didn’t happen.  Maybe that was the real problem here.

Because Peter was a failure.

Peter was the one who had promised he would love Jesus the most.  The most.  He was the first one to say the words “We know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69).  He vowed he would never turn away, even when the others did, even when the teaching got difficult, even when following got hard.

It was in the Upper Room just that week before when Peter had refused to let Jesus wash his feet, for those very reasons—he knew who Jesus was.  Jesus was too important for that, and Peter was there to serve!  But when Jesus told Peter he had no share in Jesus otherwise, Peter reversed course: “Then wash all of me, Jesus!” he said.  Poor Peter, always so eager to do and say the right thing, almost to a fault.  Almost as if he feared he wouldn’t be loved otherwise.

It was that night in that room that Peter told Jesus he was ready to lay down his life for him.  He hoped Jesus would be touched, even impressed.  But Jesus wasn’t impressed.  Instead he said to Peter that before the rooster announced morning, Peter would have denied him three times.

And that was the part that haunted Peter wherever he went.  That was the memory he went to Galilee to escape, even after Jesus wasn’t dead anymore.  Maybe Jesus was alive and maybe God had been at work in all of it, after all, but Peter couldn’t stop hearing those voices: “Surely you know this man.  You’re a Galilean, aren’t you?  Surely you’re with him.”

Three times, they had asked.

And three times, in response, his own voice: “No! No! No!”

He had said he would follow to the death, but when it came down to it, he had run.  Peter was a failure.

So maybe that was why he found himself back in Galilee that day; maybe that was why he got back in that boat, to see if it was possible to go back to a time when he wasn’t a failure, he was just a fisherman.

Peter knew the truth, you see: even if Jesus was alive, Peter didn’t deserve any good news.

Whatever mission Jesus had in mind, surely he knew Peter would fail at that too.

So he was going fishing.

 

The others came with him and they fished all night.  It was good to be out again, casting nets, getting wet, fighting the wind.  It was good, hard work, the work Peter was made for, and for a while he let himself get lost in it, just like he had wanted to.

Only there weren’t any fish.  By morning, they were tired and frustrated, and they began to remember how this old life had left a lot to be desired, too.

And then there was a stranger by the shore, yelling to them.  “How’s the catch?”  He called them children, which was annoying, especially since they hadn’t caught anything at all.

“Try the other side,” the stranger called.

Peter must have rolled his eyes, because after all, there were only two sides, and it’s not like they had forgotten to try one of them.  That was pretty condescending.  But he was tired and didn’t really feel like fighting with a stranger 150 yards away, and the others shook their heads, and they threw the net to the other side.

And suddenly there were So. Many. Fish.

“It’s Him,” whispered The Disciple Jesus Loved, grabbing Peter’s arm.  “I think it’s him.”

And before Peter knew what he was doing, he had wrapped himself in his coat and jumped into the water, swimming to shore.  Because he may have been a failure.  He may not have been worthy of any good news.  He may have wanted to escape his own memories.

But he did, after all, love this man.

 

Even this seemed normal again—breakfast, like they had eaten together so many times.  There was bread and there was fish, like there always was, in abundance, when Jesus was around.  Even this began to feel like old times, and Peter began to feel better, comfortable again in Jesus’ presence.

Until breakfast was over and Jesus said his name: “Simon son of John.”

And a chill went up Peter’s spine, not because there was an edge to Jesus’ voice—there wasn’t—but because maybe this was it, time for Jesus to call Peter out on his failure and his cowardice and all his big talk; to tell him that the work he had for all of them to do wasn’t for Peter, he had to be able to trust them, you know.  And because Jesus had called him “Simon.”  Once, Jesus had said he would be Peter, the Rock.  It seemed like a long time ago.  It was the day Peter had dropped everything to follow, left those nets on the shore for the first time.  But of course he wasn’t the Rock anymore.  Not after everything that had happened.

Peter braced himself as Jesus continued, “Do you love me more than these?”

More than these?  More than the other disciples?  More than The Disciple Jesus Loved?  There was a time when Peter would have said yes, unequivocally, I love you more than all of them.  I love you the most.  The most.  But that was before everything, because if that was true, would Peter have run, like the others?  Did you deny even knowing someone you loved the most?

But Peter did love him, so he just said, simply, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”  And he hoped to God that Jesus would know it was true, underneath it all.

“Feed my lambs,” said Jesus.

They sat in silence a moment, Peter’s brow furrowed as he tried to figure this out.  He knew fish, after all, not lambs.

“Simon son of John,” Jesus said again, in a minute.  “Do you love me?”

Peter swallowed.  Jesus didn’t believe him after all.  “Yes, Lord,” he said, a note of defensiveness creeping into his voice this time, “you know I love you.”

“Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said, this time.

Silence, again.

“Simon son of John,” Jesus said again, and Peter had a feeling he knew what was coming.  “Do you love me?”

“Lord, I love you!” Peter cried.  He tried to stop himself from bursting into tears.  I love you, he thought; I’m a failure, I’m a coward, I’m worthless, but I love you, don’t you know that?  Please tell me you know that, despite everything!

Jesus just smiled a little and said, “Feed my sheep.”

Three times.  Peter sat in the sand wiping a stray tear from his eye when all of a sudden something clicked.  Three times.  Three times, Jesus had asked.

“Do you know this man?”  “No.”  Three times.

Three times: “Do you love me?”

And this time, his answer was the right one.

Suddenly Peter realized that this was his second chance.  In his mind he went back to another conversation, in that same Upper Room, that same night Jesus had washed their feet.  “Love one another,” Jesus had told them, “as I have loved you.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

“Feed my sheep,” he said, now.

And Peter realized that his work was just beginning, that if he loved the people Jesus loved, if he fed them and tended them and cared for them the way Jesus had done, then the world would know that he loved Jesus, this man he had once denied.

Maybe it would take him places he didn’t want to go.  And maybe it would be hard.  Maybe it would hurt sometimes.  But Jesus had come back to life to give him a second chance.  Peter may have been a failure, but somehow Jesus needed him, him, to do this work of loving people.

He may have been a fisherman in his bones, but he loved this man, so by God he would get out there and he would feed some sheep.

It was as if Sunday had meant new life for Jesus, but today, that day, there on the shore, it became true for Peter too.  He had thought he would go back to his old life, but instead Jesus invited him into a completely new one, invited him to live in the power of resurrection where the old things, even the really big ones, didn’t matter anymore.  The past was the past, and God’s work started new.

“Follow me,” said Jesus, and this time, Peter was ready.

The Necessity of Prayer

Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-21

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Nothing is more important to Christian living than prayer. Prayer is one discipline that you must absolutely master. As Christians, we are taught that prayer is the most powerful way to experience God. Yet, for most of us, our prayer times are a constant struggle. Often dry and empty, irregular and uninspiring. Therefore, we have no choice but to learn how to pray. As a church, we have no choice. We must learn not just how to pray, but learn to pray. If we don’t, we won’t make it. We may close our doors, or may remain a struggling shell of past glories.

I have always known that Jesus prayed. But, as I study his life and ministry, the more convinced I am that His whole life was taken up by prayer. He spent most of his time praying, and never did anything without prayer. He was a prayer radical. It is obvious from the way Jesus prayed that He understood that everything depended on prayer. For us to be God’s people in the world, we must begin to pray like Jesus did.  By God’s grace, we can do it. We must do it.

Imagine your doctor informed you that you had a terminal illness. You only had a few weeks to live, except, there was a chance that a particular drug could dramatically alter your circumstances. If you strictly followed instructions, one pill a day, you can live a normal, healthy, and prolonged life. The only condition is that you don’t miss a day or you would die. Would you forget to take it? Would you rely on somebody else to remind you? Would you consider it an unnecessary burden?

The answer is NO. You would not miss a day. You would reorder your life to make sure that doesn’t happen. You would set up reminders everywhere. Sticky notes on your refrigerator, calendar, Smartphone, you would download apps. It’s once in a lifetime opportunity. You can’t mess it up. You would do extraordinary things to make sure you stick with it.

That’s exactly what prayer is. Prayer is the lifeline available to us. It is the antidote to the worldly troubles we face. It is our connection to eternal life. Prayer is the foundation and the pillar that holds our faith-lives together. As we face the overwhelming challenges of our times, without prayer, we are not going to make it. This world is so broken, so fallen, so unjust, so greedy, so corrupted, so bigoted, and so unstable that we cannot make it without prayer. We won’t make it. We can’t.

That is why Jesus prayed consistently and commanded his followers to pray, so that they do not give in to temptation. In this world you will have trouble. Prayer is the only tool that can help us endure and overcome such evil.

Last week we celebrated Easter Sunday, and we continue in that season of celebration. We firmly confessed “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Christ has overcome the world, triumphed over sin and death. By His grace we have been saved through faith. And, how did Christ do it? He did it with continuous prayer.  Jesus’ life and ministry was saturated with prayer. His death punctuated by prayer, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Even after His resurrection, we see Jesus still praying as He broke bread with the two disciples he had joined on the road to Emmaus. After He prayed, their eyes were opened and they recognized the presence of God among them. Prayer is an eye opener to God’s presence among us.  How can we think that prayer is unnecessary? How can we be so casual about it?

Why is Prayer such a Challenge?

Prayer is hard work. It demands discipline and training. We see in Luke 11:1, the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus then taught them the Lord’s Prayer. I am sure they saw him praying, everyday, but they still found it challenging to pray. Even after he taught them, there is disappointing evidence of failure at praying. So, we are not the only ones to struggle. But Jesus did not tolerate their prayerlessness. He rebuked them and still taught them.

We have wrong information on prayer. Few people take the time to study prayer. Often the majority rely on information from others, testimonies, and sometimes from books written by people who don’t even pray. “Try these seven steps and all your prayers will be answered.” But, we end up disappointed and frustrated. So, we quit and wait for a crisis.

What you know and what you don’t know both affect your life significantly. What you do and what you avoid doing determine your results. Above all, your habits are ultimately responsible for your success and failure in every aspect of your life. Be it, your relationships, career, ministry, finances, physical body, happiness, and your prayer life. These can be summarized as Knowledge, Behavior, and Discipline.

What is prayer?

Prayer is what connects us with God. It is both a personal conversation and an encounter with God. It is more than just words spoken at God, highlighting our list of needs, anxieties, pain, frustration, and desires, even though these can be and are often part of our prayers. Prayer is our response to God in conversation. God is the initiator of that desire in us to reach out to one who is higher than us.  We are all created in the image of God, which means that we are wired to both reflect and relate with God. Prayer is our response to God’s desire to be knowable to us.

Rev. Tim Keller, author of the Prodigal God defines prayer as a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God. Therefore, our amount and accuracy of this knowledge will greatly affect our prayer life. As Christians, this accuracy is verified through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. For Methodists, this is verified through Scripture, church tradition, reason and experience. Prayer must always resonate with the gospel of Jesus. In most instances God is speaking to us through the scriptures and waiting on us to respond.

Prayer is growing in intimacy with God. The more we spend time in prayer our knowledge of God deepens, and we become more Christ like. Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians shows us some personal functions of prayer. Prayer:-

  1.      Enables the Spirit of wisdom and revelation (understanding) to invade our lives
  2.      Increases our knowledge of God and of ourselves. A personal knowledge of Christ will undoubtedly change your life.
  3.      Opens the eyes of our heart (subconscious mind or inner spirit) to be enlightened in order to be – hopeful of his calling for us; and – to see the promises of our glorious inheritance. 

An accurate knowledge of God helps us discern a prophetic and positive outlook of the future, instead of a vague optimism or shallow self-induced positive thinking. Human minds cannot by themselves discern and understand spiritual things no matter how smart they are (1 Corinthians 2:14). Only by the influence of the Holy Spirit (Spirit of wisdom and revelation) are we capable of obtaining the conviction and assurance of salvation. There are no gimmicks.

As children of God we have access to the blessings that come with this revelation of our glorious inheritance through Christ Jesus. But, we cannot know and appropriate these blessings without a commitment to fervent prayer. This knowledge does not come simply by intellectual engagement (pub theology) and attending church on Sunday. Some things are learned experientially. You have to do it to know it. You can’t teach a child to walk by simply reading to her a Baby walking manual for Dummies. You have to guide the child to do it. With the guarantee that there will be times of stumbling, falling, and bruises along the way. It will not always be pleasant, but without doing it, death will occur. The child’s muscles will atrophy. And she will never learn the joy of walking.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to the church today. Most denominations are in sharp decline. The Church’s spiritual muscles have atrophied. No longer holding the same authority as a moral guide. Instead, the church is now seen as a sell-out, a political bicycle that anyone can use to ride up the Capitol Hill. The church is in trouble because we have lost the art of prayer. We have lost our moral right to shepherd the nation. We are no longer God’s prophets, but are now self-seeking salesmen in profits’ clothing.

The necessity of praying without ceasing has been lost. We must recover the art of prayer or we will not make it. We cannot afford to be comfortable with the status quo. Prayer must be the foundation of our Christian life, not an optional item. We must spend time praying and seeking God’s guidance.

Our prayers not only influence us, but they also impact other people. Jesus prayed at the tomb of Lazarus not for his own sake, or even for the sake of Lazarus, but for all those who were present. In that instant, prayer was a tool for evangelism. The bible records that many marveled and glorified God. Not just because of the miracle, but because of the connection of the miracle to Jesus’ prayer. If you really want to change the world, begin to pray.

How do I improve my prayer life?

Make prayer a priority. Prayer is not an option for a Christian – it is life. The moment you stop praying, you stop growing and start dying. If your prayer life is starving, your spiritual life is malnourished. It doesn’t matter whether you read the entire bible, from genesis to revelation, or engage in social justice or church activities. Your prayer life must inform all these activities.

Do it even if it feels awkward and poorly timed or inconveniencing. Motivational Speaker, Les Brown said it well, Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.” Don’t be afraid to do it badly until you build the muscle. God’s grace is sufficient to see you through.

Find other people you can pray with. John Wesley spoke of accountability groups or covenant discipleship groups. Sometimes all we need is a little encouragement, a little push, and a little accountability. Find a co-worker, classmate, neighbor, Facebook friends, etc. The church can facilitate this by starting a prayer meeting or finding opportunity for corporate prayer. But, you also need to pray as individuals privately. Don’t wait for a church program.

Pray more than once a day, until you develop the habit. Daniel prayed three times a day – Morning, Noon, and Evening. There is nothing wrong with having a routine or specific schedule. All that is required is discipline. It will be uncomfortable at the beginning. Stop making excuses that you are a morning or evening person; all this is just your habit.  Habits are not scripture, they can be changed.

There is Power in public prayer. I will never take for granted the power of public prayer. When I was in college, one of our fellow students died of sickle cell anemia. She had been an active member of Chi-Alpha Christian fellowship and was an inspiration to many. Her death was so sudden and it shook the faith of many of us. We had prayed for her healing the night before, when she was not feeling well. Yet, she still died. It was difficult to understand what had happened, why God didn’t answer our prayers. Perhaps God did answer, but not just the way we wanted. We wanted her healed.

What I can’t forget is what happened at the funeral. I was asked to say a prayer for the family, and for all of us, before we left. It was a simple and short prayer. I can’t even recall the contents. But, as we were getting ready to leave the house, the brother came rushing to me. Holding my hands tightly, he said, “thank you brother. Thank you for praying. I don’t know you or how well you knew my sister. But, something happened to me when you were praying. I was angry at God, and at my sister. I am not a practicing Christian, but I vowed that I would never step in a church building or listen to any Christian talking about God ever again. But, then you started saying exactly what I was saying inside. It’s like I was hearing myself in you. Something in your voice convinced me that God was listening to you. And when you finished, my heartfelt light, my anger is gone. God has touched me. He heard my cry. Thank you, brother.”

Prayer changes things. Prayer changes us. Prayer changes how we see things and it opens us up to a completely new kingdom. “Let your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Prayer is the only sure connection we have with God. It signifies our complete dependence and trust in God. It is not an option. Prayer is that life saving pill that you need to take daily. Prayer is an absolute necessity for every Christian. We cannot substitute it for anything else. We must learn to pray. We have to.

Amen.