May 1, 2022, The Third Sunday of Easter

May 1, 2022
The Third Sunday of Easter
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

From the Gospel according to John, “(Jesus) said, ‘Follow me.’” I speak to you in the Name of God the Father, God the risen Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    One of my practices when stuck in traffic, is to read bumper stickers. Many of them are quite funny while others are downright crude. I find more often than not, most vehicles sporting vulgar stickers tend to have others proclaiming their Christian faith with words like “Follow me to (such and such) Church.” Makes me wonder what message is preached at such churches. Nevertheless, one particular bumper sticker caught my eye a few years ago and its message has stayed with me ever since. It simply read: “If you love Jesus: Do Something! Any fool can honk.”

   I thought of that bumper sticker when studying and praying over today’s scripture lessons. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostle’s describes the dramatic conversion of St. Paul. It was so dramatic that this one-time zealous persecutor of the Church in the name of religion saw his whole life turned upside down. He was forever changed by his encounter with the risen Christ whom he came to know and proclaim as “the Son of God;” the “Lamb of God” worthy of all praise and worship as described in our reading from the Revelation of Jesus Christ. 

Truth be told, I am sure many folks envy Paul’s conversion experience. (I know I do.) Because the reality is most of us have not had such a dramatic encounter with God. And yet, we, too, have come to confess that Jesus is God’s Son and Lord of all not because of an experience of signs and wonders, but by faith alone: faith that caught our attention not by a bumper sticker, but simply by the life example of someone who truly followed the Christ. An example that turned us around.

     The late Desmond Tutu was once asked, “What was the turning point in your life?” He thought for a moment and then responded, “I think I was 9 years old. I was walking down the street with my mother who was on her way to work as a housekeeper – she was wearing her maid’s uniform – and a priest came towards us. A white man. Dressed in his black cassock, white collar, and black hat. And as we neared each other, he looked at my mother, doffed his hat and said, “Good morning ma’am” and continued on his way. Desmond said that moment changed his life forever. For a white man in Apartheid South Africa to doff his hat as a gesture of respect for a black woman was for Desmond, a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ. That Priest’s faith urged him to do something, to be an example of what it means to follow Christ. Desmond went on to become Archbishop of South Africa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner but on that morning in Johannesburg that priest didn’t know who Desmond would become. He was just living his faith. He was following Jesus. He saw Christ in Desmond and his mother and they, in turn, saw the living Christ in him. That’s how communities are changed. That’s how churches grow. That’s how people come to faith in Christ because they see that faith transform the whole of our lives, not just part of it.

    This morning’s Gospel reading is a record of the first conversation between Peter and the risen Lord Jesus. John tells us this is the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples, but on this occasion, John writes down what they talked about. Now, we know there was always bickering among the disciples. The gospels tell us how they argued about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God, who would be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand in heaven, who was the more faithful witness, who did the best deeds and so on. So I cannot help but think that the other disciples gathered that morning on the seashore were thinking, “Oh, Peter’s gonna get it now!”

Peter, whom Jesus called, “the rock” and “upon this rock I will build my church”; Peter, the prince among the apostles, is the same guy who had not only run away at the crucifixion, but in Jesus’ darkest hour, had denied even knowing him not once, but three times. If the memories of his cowardice wasn’t hard enough to bear, Jesus rose from the dead and Peter has to look him in the eye. Even the setting of today’ story is unique: Jesus is standing beside a charcoal fire. The last time Peter stood by a charcoal fire he denied his Lord. The disciples watch as Jesus finally confronts Peter. I see them nudging each other and quietly saying, “He’s gonna get it.” And they wait.

     Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He asks him not once, but three times. There is a sense that there is a lot more being said in this conversation than our ears can hear. Remember Peter you were asked three times if you knew me and you said “no.” Do you love me? Remember when I said someone would betray me and you said, “I will never betray you?” Do you love me? Peter! Remember all those times you didn’t hear a thing I said? Remember? Do you love me?

Peter responds, “Yes, I love you. You know I love you. Of course I love you.” (Jesus answers), “Then feed my sheep.” If you love me Peter – if you really love me – do something about it! Feed. Tend. Prove it. Not like last time, this time mean it and demonstrate it in your life … “Follow me.”

     “This isn’t the first time Jesus told Peter, ‘follow me.’ But this time it is different. This time there’s no room for denial. This time Peter is to follow Jesus all the way: in love, in ministry to others, in spreading the Good News of the Gospel, in life, and in death” (Rick Morley, Reflections). And this exchange between Jesus and Peter begs us to come face to face with our own fears and denials, our struggles with what it means to be a Christian today. See, loving Jesus is more than a warm feeling inside of us or heavenly thoughts. It is more than a bumper sticker. We need to live it, to do it, to feed, to tend, to follow Jesus all the way.

     I find one of the difficulties for contemporary Christians confident in the resurrection and the eternal grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy of God, is that somehow our Christian faith has simply become a part of who we are – a slice of the pie as it were, that is next to all the other slices that make up our whole being: our careers, our families, our leisure, our hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with devoting time and energy to whatever.  But Jesus says to “Follow me” means not making room for him in our busy schedules, but rather, that our whole life should become immersed in him. He must become the whole pie of who we are, not just a part.

As people of God, we need to remember that following Jesus Christ is not about what happens here on Sundays. We gather in order to renew our spirits an nourish our souls so that we are better prepared to what? Go back out into the world and be Christ in our communities. Following Christ is best demonstrated not by coercing teammates into having no choice but to pray on a 50-yard line in front of everyone, or to insist a captive crowd on airplane join you in singing Easter hymns. No, following Christ is best demonstrated in the checkout line at Food Lion, or when someone cuts us off in traffic, or takes our parking space. That’s when following Jesus has its greatest impact for it is in how we respond to everyday life that makes a difference to and for others. That’s when people see Christ in us – not just on Sunday but the other six days of the week – and seeing Christ in us encourages others to open the doors of their hearts and invite this same Jesus to transform them and our communities, as powerfully and as lovingly has Jesus has transformed us and continues to do so one person at a time. That is how our world is changed through everyday encounters with those committed to truly following Christ.

     Friends, this story from the Gospel according to John tells us that following Jesus is a commitment that has to permeate every moment of our lives, in the checkout line, in traffic jams, at church and at home, standing on a seashore or on a mountain top. Like that South African priest so poignantly demonstrated, following Jesus is more about what happens Monday through Saturday than on Sunday. It’s about what happens, about how we choose to uphold and embody  God’s values, about the integrity we demonstrate in our lives, all 365 days a year.

   Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me” … and he did! And the church became the living body of the risen Christ - one person, one community, at a time. May our gracious God continue to challenge us to truly understand and live more fully into what it means to follow Jesus every moment of our lives and, thereby, see just how deeply the risen Christ can still transform this world and us, today. Amen.