Back in my middle school days, during the summers I often attended a Christian camp on the Mississippi Gulf coast. It was for all ages, so there were little kids, teens, and adults in attendance. For a week we all lived together immersed in fellowship activities, Bible studies, and worship, and we had access to a beautiful beach. The week culminated with a worship service that included an opportunity to publicly recommit our lives to Christ.
The week was a powerful religious experience. The sense of God’s love and presence was so real! At the time, it felt life-changing. But after making the long drive back home, returning to the routines of daily life, and certainly by the time school started, the experience began to fade as things went back to “normal.”
I’ll bet that many of us have had similar experiences. Whether it’s going on a retreat, attending a workshop, participating in a worship service, or in any number of other ways, it can feel like God is the most real thing imaginable and that our lives will never be the same. Then after a few days or weeks, we find ourselves back where we started, and the original power of the experience becomes a memory.
Something similar has happened in today’s Gospel reading.
It’s now been perhaps a few weeks since the awful events of Good Friday and the glorious miracle of Easter Sunday. The disciples have personally encountered the risen Jesus on two occasions. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. They watched as the man they had followed and loved for three years was arrested, tortured, and executed as a common criminal. They knew that his dead body had been laid in a tomb. They had cowered in fear for their lives, certain that the same authorities that killed Jesus would come for them next. And in the midst of their fear and grief there was guilt and shame for having betrayed and abandoned their master. It seemed that the power of darkness had won.
And then their world was turned upside down. First, it was a strange message from some of the women who had discovered Jesus’ tomb empty. Strangers had told them that he had risen. And then Jesus appeared to them. He was not a ghost or a phantom. He was truly alive again as a whole person. God had raised Jesus from the dead. And by raising Jesus from the dead, God had begun the work of fulfilling the ancient prophecies of creating a new heaven and a new earth, a world no longer held in bondage to the tyrannies of disease, death, and decay. In a surprise move that nobody expected, the light of life had defeated the darkness of death.
By encountering the risen Jesus, the disciples had been raised from the depths of despair to the glorious heights of joy, new life, and renewed hope for the future.
But somehow, after a few weeks, that initial experience - and the feelings of euphoria and sense of purpose it brought - began to fade.
And so one day Peter said to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing. Want to come along?”
By going fishing, Peter was not taking a break for a favorite hobby. Instead, he was going back to his old way of life as a fisherman. It’s almost as though the past three years of following Jesus, and the joyful experience of meeting him alive again after his death, had never happened. For Peter was returning to the life he knew before he ever met Jesus, a life he was comfortable with, a life that wasn’t always easy and certainly required hard work, but was at least more predictable than following a rabbi who whips up controversy, creates enemies among the powerful, and then gets crucified.
But Jesus wasn’t going to let Peter slide back into the old status quo. He had other things in mind for Peter.
And so Jesus showed up again, revealing himself to be the source of abundant life with the disciples’ miraculous catch of fish. And then, in an act of humble service and hospitality, Jesus invited the disciples to share breakfast, cooking fish and breaking bread with them on the seashore.
Just as Peter denied knowing Jesus three times while warming himself at a charcoal fire, Peter now expressed his love for Jesus three times over breakfast at a charcoal fire. Jesus offered Peter forgiveness, restored fellowship with him, fed and nurtured him, and then commissioned him. Jesus transformed Peter from a lowly fisherman into a shepherd of the sheep. Jesus empowered Peter to become a leader within the household of God who would nurture, feed, lead, and guide others along the pathway of discipleship, energizing and spreading a movement for God’s kingdom that would change the world.
On any given day, we may not always feel it. It may not seem real. Or maybe it once did but that seems like so long ago. Or there may be doubts and questions about it that give us pause. Or we may suffer from a lack of self-confidence that makes us hesitant to fully own it.
But the truth is this: to encounter the risen Jesus, to share his death and resurrection in baptism, to be fed by him in the Eucharist, to receive his forgiveness and love, is to be changed from the persons we once were.
The old way of life governed by anxiety, driven by self-centered protectiveness, and fearful of being vulnerable enough to open our doors and our hearts to anyone and everyone - including especially the strangers in our midst - that way of life died with Jesus on the cross.
And with the resurrection of Jesus, a new way of life has been born - a life governed by love and trust, driven by the desire to share the Good News of Jesus, and open to touching and being touched by the lives of anyone we meet in the hopeful expectation that such encounters will tear down walls of fear and mistrust, and widen the circle of love and fellowship in God’s kingdom.
You and I may not share the same status as those first apostles whose preaching and teaching transformed the Roman Empire and ultimately changed the world. But, like Peter, we are called by God to use the gifts we’ve been given to care for and feed the flock of Christ.
What that looks like will differ from person to person. It may mean teaching a Sunday school class, or being a teacher in our Day School. Or serving as an usher, a greeter, or an acolyte. It could mean becoming a Lay Eucharistic Visitor who takes the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and the shut in. Or serving as a lector or chalice bearer. Or serving on the Altar Guild or singing in the choir.
But it’s not just about particular works of church-related ministry. Responding to Jesus’ call to watch out for each other, to care for each other, to feed and nurture each other, and to welcome everyone as He welcomes us is a full-time, comprehensive way of life. It’s about being changed into persons who think more about the needs of others than ourselves. It’s about being disciples of Jesus Christ.
Thinking this through, Christian author Thom Rainer says that we need to recover “the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.” He writes:
“We join our churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us. … [But] God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks. He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel.”
Many of you are familiar with a prayer attributed to St. Francis. It beautifully summarizes the heart and soul of what it looks like to follow Jesus. As I share this prayer with you, I invite you to listen carefully to the words. Meditate on their meaning. Let the words speak to the depths of your heart and soul. And, like Peter, I invite you to be open to hearing how God is calling you to let go of old ways of life to embrace the new resurrection way of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand.
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.