St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; John 21:1-19
It is a joy to be with you all, the people of God at St. Hilary’s. It seems like yesterday, but it was six years ago that my spouse Terri and I lived in the Fort Myers area. Back then; we were leading a multi-venue ministry, with the purpose of bringing people together, who were on the margins of the traditional church. This ministry’s purpose was to provide space to grow into a deeper love of Jesus, to experience the Risen Christ in each other, and to go out and share that in our daily lives. See, our culture has been and is, changing at an unprecedented pace. In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation. In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation. Many people wrestle with why this trend is happening, and there is concern that we may see this trend in a growing number of churches in the United States.
Despite what may seem to be frightening statistics, I believe there is great hope. I believe that in each of us, the Spirit moves and breathes and gives us a mission, whether we know it or not. I believe God is always calling us into a deeper loving life, a life of joy, peace, and grace. I believe God is sending us out into the world to share God’s love with all of creation. The purpose of the ministry we served in six years ago, as unusual as it may seem, was to go and meet people where they were, and to create the conditions for a “safe space” for discipleship to emerge. In some cases the venues included our home, a coffee house, a local pub, and the parks of downtown Fort Myers, where we fed the homeless each week. Did it look like church, as we know it today? Probably not, but it was authentic Christian community emerging in places, it would not have emerged before.
So, after two years of this ministry, Terri and I were sent off to seminary for me to prepare for ordained ministry and then, after graduation and ordination, we served a wonderful, traditional parish for nearly three years, right here in our diocese. The need to continue Christ’s mission of love in the world, for the growing number of folks, who are on the margins of the traditional Christian community, and my passion to be engaged in that mission, did not go away. That is the work I am doing now as the Diocesan Missioner here in Southwest Florida. Our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for this mission field, located in their own back yards. My current ministry involves identifying, training, supporting, and helping folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge; in places where it was unlikely before. This work is really nothing new. Jesus called the first disciples to drop their nets and go fishing for people. The scene on the beach depicted in today’s gospel reading involves Our Lord reminding those early followers, that their Christian vocation was to be emissaries of Christ in the world. Jesus reminds us too, that “We are fishers of people.”
Early in the gospel narrative, Peter heard these words from our Lord, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Today’s reading turns that whole early experience upside down. After three years with the Lord, after all the miracles and healings, after the journey to Jerusalem, the trial, crucifixion, the sighting at the tomb, and (as we heard in last week’s gospel reading) the appearance of the Risen Christ in the locked upper room, Peter seems to have thrown up his hands, and decided, “I am going fishing.”
Peter was not going back to the kind of fishing Jesus called him to on the shore three years before. No, he was headed back to do what he felt comfortable doing, where he could be self-sufficient, and to do what he knew best. He even took some of the other followers along with him: Thomas, Nathanial, the Sons of Zebedee, and two other unnamed disciples. These were all followers who, in all probability, knew Jesus, who proclaimed him as the Lord, and despite their individual and corporate encounters with the Risen Christ, all returned to their trade and abandoned the mission. They all returned to do what they found to be comfortable, and they forgot the life-altering experience of God with them in flesh. Jesus did just not leave them to their poor choice of mission abandonment; he met them at the beach.
So, on the beach that day, the Lord called out, “caught anything yet?” “No,” they replied. “Try the other side of the boat,” Jesus responded. Notice that Jesus did not chastise the boys for going back to their old jobs. As a matter of fact, he demonstrated God’s abundance by offering some angling advice, which rendered the nets full of fish. Their eyes perceived visible and tangible evidence of God’s abundant care and concern in this little miracle. Jesus gave them what they needed in abundance with overflowing fish, unbroken nets, and then, he cooked a meal for all of them to share. Jesus loved abundantly, even in the midst of the rejection of his mission and he continues to send us out on that mission today.
Jesus invited those who turned away, to come to the table and eat, to be nourished, to be fed, so that they might go out and fish; fish for people. Sharing the Good News was their true vocation, it was their true calling and yes my friends, that is our true calling as followers of Jesus. We are messengers of Kingdom Love, and we the church, are to be about the mission of going out, and inviting all to the table. “Kingdom love” is in its action the work of inviting, giving, serving, sharing, eating, and loving together in community. It was this kind of Kingdom love through which the Lord revealed then, and reveals himself again, and again, and again.
What is this “love” like you may ask. Put yourself in Peter’s place for a moment. Picture yourself in this scene on the beach, with Jesus sitting next to you, looking you in the eye, with those loving eyes. He asks you, “Do you love me?” Maybe you answer, “I love you with all my heart,” or “I love you like a friend,” or “I like you Jesus,” or maybe, “I acknowledge your work and approve of it.” The answer may very well be different for each of us, but we all give some kind of answer. Then, Jesus pauses, looks at you again with love in his eyes (those eyes filled with a love deeper than family, than spouse, than anything we can imagine) and he says, “Then go and continue my mission of love.” “Whether you like me, love me, adore me, or worship me, it is where you are, but go and do for others what I do for you, feed them with what they need, just as I have fed you this day, welcomed you to this meal this day, cared for you this day.” The dialogue Peter had with Jesus on that seaside, fishing excursion, is reflective of the one he has with us, when he calls us to “Follow me.” “Do you love me,” Jesus asks. We answer. Jesus loving looks at us and sends us out on a mission of love into the world, a world Jesus loves so much that he died, so it might be reconciled to him. We are on a mission beyond ourselves. We are on a mission to share the abundant love shown us, in Christ.
How might we go about this mission of love? We find the answer in the promises made by us at Baptism. Let me read those, and if you agree, will you say, “I will with God’s help? (1) Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? In other words, will you in your everyday life, remember that you may be the only Gospel people may hear? Will you let your life be a reflection of the mercy, love, grace, reconciliation, and the peace of Christ? (2) Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? In other words, with everyone, I mean everyone you encounter, will you serve him or her with the same love Christ gives you? Will you take a risk and help the other person out of the abundance God has given you? Will you be an instrument of grace? (3) Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? In other words, will you advocate for, work actively in, personally participate in bringing about justice and peace among the least, lost, and lonely in God’s creation? Will you look at all people, the poor, the broken, the unloved and work to bring dignity into their lives?
It sounds like a tall order doesn’t it? I look at the baptismal promises I made so long ago, and sometimes I think, man it would be so easy just to go back to the comfort of living my own life, worrying about my own needs, not making a stir in society, or just focusing on what I am comfortable with. It would be so easy just to go back to the kind of fishing I used to do. Then I realized this is not what it means to follow the one who risked it all for love. Jesus asks us with love in his eyes, “Do you love me?” We answer. “Then go and feed my sheep.”
The response to the abundant love of God is to feed each other (all of God’s creation), giving to each other (all of God’s creation) we need to create space giving the opportunity for others to experience dignity, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and grace. This feeding of others, the fishing for people is not merely the vocation of the professionally trained Christian, the lifelong churchgoer, or the paid staff. Feeding the least, lost, and lonely among us and beyond the walls of our gathering spaces, is the mission we have been given as God’s emissaries in the world. It is not an easy undertaking on which to embark. I do believe though, that by giving away the abundant joy, peace, love, reconciliation, mercy, and grace given us in Christ, we will find it even more in abundance. “Do you love me, yes Lord, I love you, then feed my sheep.”