The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.

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Worshipping before the Shepherd’s Throne

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Read the Revelation Reading)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection! We are half way into the 50 day season of Easter. And for the past three weeks, we have stuck close to the events of the early days after the empty tomb. Jesus meeting the disciples and Thomas behind locked doors. And Jesus meeting Peter and others on the beach, calling Peter to feed his sheep.

Yet, the 4th Sunday of the Easter begins to move us along from the early resurrection moments. Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of the Easter has been observed as Good Shepherd Sunday… a day to be reminded of our Shepherding God calling us into God’s great flock. We hear familiar readings like Psalm 23 and we hear Jesus use familiar sheep and shepherd images in John. And as church folk, we love those quaint images of Jesus with a fuzzy sheep… usually on some oil painting found in a church basement or at grandma’s house… Yet, Good Shepherd Sunday has a deeper sense that it is moving us along in the story of resurrection. From resurrection moments to resurrection community.

And so we hear also from Revelation, John’s vision of the great multitude, the great flock before the throne of the great shepherd at the end of time.

A few decades on from the resurrection, and the first communities of Christians, of Jesus’ followers, were struggling in Roman society. They were social outcasts because they refused to follow the social order. It was essential in the Roman world to know where you belonged. Society was divided up by class, ethnicity, gender, occupation, citizenship, language, and religion. And those early church communities were marginalized because they had this inconvenient habit of declaring that under the One God of All, there was no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. They rejected a world that saw gods in everything, mountains and bubbling springs, the sun and moon and stars, in war and harvest, in nature and animals. They worshipped the one God of all things who died on the cross and rose again on the third day.

This was a threat to the Roman Military cult who believed the essence of their success at conquering new lands was that in each new place they came to conquer, they adopted and prayed to the local mountain gods or river gods or whatever kind they found for victory on the battlefield – and they go it.

For a community living under oppression, marginalized and ostracized, sometimes even sent to the coliseums to be eaten by lions, the Revelation of John provided a vision of God’s great promise of reconciliation… the unity of God’s people worshiping before the throne, the Shepherd’s one great flock.

This great unified multitude gathering before the One God’s throne is as counter-cultural today as it was for early Christian communities. We too live in a world that encourages us to look around for people who are like us, who resemble us, and to fear anyone who doesn’t. We constantly navigate the many and various divisions that categorize people. Whether it is which political party we support, what religion we practice, what education level we have obtain or job we do, what the colour of our skin is or the gender we identify as or generation we belong to, what sports team we cheer for or tv show we are fans of. Our world is just as divided and categorized as the ancient world. And the narratives, the stories that we are told push us to fear those who are different, those who don’t belong to the same tribes and groups we belong to.

The idea that we belong to one great multitude is one that goes against most of what we are told by the world around us.

And so it is no wonder that when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd, we hold on to the images of shepherd staffs and fuzzy lambs. We love those paintings of a kindly Jesus holding a little sheep in his arms. We want to be comforted, we want to hear that we are one of the sheep, one of the people who gets to be a part one of the most important groups we can think of.

Yet having just come from the cross and empty tomb, from Thomas seeing the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, from Peter’s shame being met by Jesus’ compassion over a breakfast of fish on the beach… is fuzzy sheep and kindly shepherds where we have been headed with all of this?

If we are honest, the radical inclusive of God’s kingdom is something we don’t usually want to imagine. The idea that those whom we fear, those who are different, those whom we often would rather keep out and keep away from, are actually a part of us can make us uncomfortable. A great multitude of people full of those who we struggle to imagine as being anything but other from us is hard to grasp.

So it is no mistake that the place and time that this great multitude comes together is not the end of time, but a moment that we know all too well.

My seminary internship was in Calgary, and I was placed in fairly affluent congregation in a neighbourhood just a few blocks from the University. Recently, the C-Train, Calgary Light Rail transit system, had just added a stop close to the church. And one of the consequences was that this sleepy neighbourhood was all of a sudden accessible from anywhere in the city. Many poor and homeless figured out that begging in the burbs was more profitable than downtown. And the church’s back porch and beneath the spruce trees in the yard became convenient places for homeless folks to sleep off a high. This also meant that from time to time, this mostly affluent congregation would welcome some of Calgary’s poorest to worship.

As the intern, one of my usual roles in worship was to serve the common cup at communion. Since most people chose individual cups, I often stood back and watched people coming and going from the altar rail. In those moments, it seemed like a glimpse of the great multitude. As people came to rail, there were oil executives and bank mangers next to retirees and school children. Ex-CFL players alongside teachers and retail managers. Homeless people next to engineers and nurses, people who had lived in the neighbourhood for 80 years next to new immigrants.

Despite all the ways in which we seek to divide ourselves, to find ways in which we are different, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back as we all came to the table in the same way. Hands open and empty, we are given bread and wine… God gives us the Body of Christ to make us the Body of Christ. As a seminary prof once said to us, “Swirling around in the cup are all your brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Good Shepherd Sunday and the great multitude gathered before the throne tells us a story of God’s desire for us that is very different than any story we hear the other days of the week. It is a story rooted in this gathering that we belong to right here and now. It is the gathering of God’s people before the throne… it the story of God gathering us, and all creation before the word, before the waters, before the bread and wine.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not just a gentle shepherd holding a fuzzy little sheep, but a God who is gathering us, all of us, all the varied and different kinds of us… gathering all of us up into the great multitude worshipping before the throne. Worshipping before the throne of the one who has come to die with us, and who shows us the way to resurrection and new life…

To new and resurrected life in the one great multitude, God’s great flock to which we now belong.

Peter, Do you love me? Yes Lord, I am your friend.

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way…

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…” (Read the whole passage)

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection. Two weeks into the season of Easter, and we meet the disciples again in the hours and day following Jesus’ resurrection. Last week, Jesus came to them in a locked room, breathing life and peace back into his lost disciples. And now we get to the denouement, the part of the story that comes after the drama and tension, the part that wraps it all up in a nice happy ending. Or at least that is how it is supposed to go.

For the first time in the Gospels the disciples know the end of the story, they finally have caught up to us, they now know what we have known since Christmas morning – that there would be crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples now know that the story of the Jesus ends with life despite death, empty tombs despite crosses. The disciples know this miracle, this Good News, but they are back fishing. Back to their old lives, back to what they knew before this Jesus guy ever came into the picture – Peter leading the way.

And still Jesus finds them, and tells them how to catch fish and they do. As if they needed more proof of who the Messiah is, Jesus gives them yet another sign. And then calls them over for breakfast.

In the early morning hours. The first pinks and purples of the sun are showing in the sky. There is a fire glowing on the beach, the smell of fish and toast. The sound of waves lapping up onto the sand. Its maybe the first peaceful moment in days. There are no words spoken, simply the smell of the fresh seawater, and the dancing shadows of firelight. And as Jesus and Peter lay on the beach, having eaten breakfast, still under the dark of night, Peter cannot help but be reminded of another fire in the dark that he visited.

Lost in thought and memory, Peter stares into the flames. Jesus is the first to break the silence.

“Simon son of John, do love me more than these?”

Its a question that snaps Peter back to the present, a question that cuts right through to the heart. We know this question, and we have asked this question.

Maybe it’s the question of a child to parent. “Do you love me mommy?” “Do you love me daddy?” Maybe it’s the question spoken into a cell phone well into the night, “Do you love me enough to come home from work?” Maybe it’s a question asked after a fight between a married couple on the edge, “Do you still love me?”

We know this question and we have asked this question, because it’s rooted in our insecurities. It’s rooted in the insecurities we see in others. Do I really love them? How can they love someone like me?

Without hesitation, Peter answers back “Yes Lord, you know that I am your best friend!”. Peter does not respond with the same love that Jesus asked the question with, instead Peter uses a lesser and different love.

Jesus simply says, “Feed my lambs”.

Peter keeps staring at the fire, he can’t bring himself to look at Jesus. He doesn’t know where this question is coming from, but in the glow of the fire he can imagine the look on Jesus’ face. A sad, disappointed look. A look that cannot forgive Peter. A look of betrayal and abandonment.

A second time Jesus breaks the silence, “Simon Son of John do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?”

The question cuts deeper this time. Peter knows why Jesus is asking. This is not the first time Peter has been huddled around a fire in the darkness. This is not the 2nd time that Peter has been asked this question, but the 5th. And the first three answers he gave to the sound of a rooster crowing, “I do not know this man.”

Jesus asks do you love me enough to give your life – agape in Greek, and Peter couldn’t even acknowledge that he knew him the first three times, and now he can only respond in friendship – Philias in Greek, not the deep love of self sacrifice, not agape.

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we don’t want to hear, and that is painful to ask. The answer can be frightening. It demands self examination and exploration of feelings we may not want to deal with, emotions we don’t want to experience. It also reminds us of our betrayals and the times we abandoned those around us. When we have failed to live up to promises, when we have failed to be anything more than self-centered.

And again, without hesitation Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that you are my best friend!”.

Jesus simply says, “Tend my Sheep”.

The wound is now as fresh in Peter’s heart as it was when the rooster crowed the first time. When that 3rd denial came out of Peter’s mouth, he knew what he had done, and now he is reliving it… reliving it in front of his teacher and best friend, in front of Messiah, the one that Peter could not bring himself to believe in when Jesus said, “I will be raised up on the 3rd day”.

Again, Jesus breaks the silence. Peter knows what is coming and it hurts to bone. “Simon Son of John, do you even consider me a friend?”.

It’s the last nail, the final blow. A last strike that we know and that we have felt. The final words of a friendship, the death of a relationship, the last words between two people who will not speak again. Without looking, Peter can see the face that asks this question. A face stoically set on concluding affairs. A face that is seared in our minds each time we have hurt a loved one beyond repair, beyond forgiveness.

This time Peter takes a breath, and staring into the flames, struggling to say something, struggling to find words for his teacher, “Jesus you know all things, you know how I feel about you, you know you are my best friend!”

Peter can’t help it anymore, he needs to see Jesus’ face, even if it’s set on ending their friendship. He knows he has abandoned his friend, he knows that he can’t forgive himself for it, but he still needs to look his friend in the eye one more time.

But when Peter looks up from the fire, its not the face of rejection, or disappointment, or stoic resolve. Its a face of compassion, a face of forgiveness, a face of tender care for a grieving friend.

“Feed my sheep”.

Jesus’ words are gentle and kind.

Despite the betrayal around that fire on Maundy Thursday, Jesus still loves his friend. Despite Peter’s lack of faith and return to his life before Christ, Jesus is there offering his friend the bread of life. Despite the hard questions and Peter’s luke warm answers, Jesus is giving Simon Son of John forgiveness… grace for an undeserving sinner.

The risen Christ has met his disciples on the Sea shore to remind them once again of who he is. Jesus welcomes Peter back into the community of God… welcomes him back home with words of Peace spoken in a locked room. And Jesus is there to forgive Peter what he cannot forgive himself — a betrayal around a fire in the cover of darkness. For as they eat and talk, the sun is rising and banishing the dark world of betrayal. And Jesus is there bringing fish and bread, just as he did for the 5000, to remind his disciples and friends, to remind his best friend Peter, where the bread of life comes from. Jesus is feeding his lambs, tending his sheep and feeding his sheep.

And the Risen Christ meets us too on the sea shore. Meets us to break into our questions, our insecurities, our suffering and pain, our self-centeredness and our inability to forgive ourselves. We know the questions that are asked today, we have heard them, we have asked them. But what we learn anew is that Jesus knows us.

That Jesus knows where we are and calls to us again and again.

Jesus knows us sinners.

Jesus knows our betrayals and abandonment, our losses and grief.

Jesus knows how we inflict these things on each other and still he says, “Follow me”.

Follow me, when we do not deserve to follow him out of the tomb.

Follow me, when we cannot forgive ourselves as Jesus forgave from the cross.

Follow me, when we return to life before Christ — having lost our faith.

It is still the Great Day of the Resurrection today, and even though it feels like this is the end of the story… it is in fact just the beginning.

The beginning of Jesus’ call to follow him into eternal life, into the love of God, into grace that forgives all sins. Jesus knows where we are and knows that this our beginning… and Jesus keeps meeting us wherever we are with the fish, bread and wine of New Life to give us strength for the journey.