Community (Acts 2:32-37)

Reading: Acts 2:32-37

One thing that strikes me, and many people who read the first chapters of Acts is the strength of the community. The few verses that we read today speaks of how they were generous to each other to the point that they held everything in common and nobody had any need. I think it is safe to say that none of us have experienced the Acts 2 church; I would even go so far as to say that few of us truly want to experience the Acts 2 church — and, to be fair, there are a number of things that happened in the primitive church that shows that they were not quite perfect. This community that made sure that nobody was destitute stands in remarkable contrast to the society we live in today — we are generous, but, very few are as sacrificially generous as what is described as normative in these passages.

If we jump forward from the first to the 2nd century, we see that this is still, to a degree, a mark of the Christian community. Justin Martyr writes in his Epistle to Diognetes:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.

And a few decades, at the end of the 2rd Tertullian wrote in his Apology that when the pagans speak of Christians, one of the things that the pagans say about us is: “see how they love each other.” Now, I don’t have to look far to see what people outside the church have to say about Christianity — one can find out by either seeking out what people say online, or by searching the library. While I don’t recommend this exercise, I can tell you that “see how they love each other” is not the dominant theme.

Now, the Early church was a human institution. One of the themes in Acts is power struggles and racism in the early church. The epistles, among other things, address individual pettiness, power struggles, racism, classism, greed, ageism, and other examples of petty infighting. All the problems we have now, the Early Church had as well; but, we seem to have grown apart — something kept the church together, in spite of all these problems.

Not that long ago, I had a brief conversation with a minister who publicly denounced on the internet. I’ve had a number of friends in various positions who have been publicly attacked like that; and there have been moments that I, or members of my family have felt a bit targeted. The way that too many Christians fight and curse each other in a public forum cannot possibly make people say of us: “Oh how they love one another.”

Of course, when I am nostalgic for days before pastors fighting with each other on social media; when I am honest with myself, I realize that nostalgia lies. Those days in the 1990’s that I look back to were not so much better as they were less transparent — and I was not in a position where I saw what was happening. When I read old books, I find that those days were not really better either. A number of the old books in my collection are polemic books; that is a book that is intended to attack the reputation of a person or a group. People have behaved badly for centuries — from when Acts was written until now, I can see shamefully bad behavior that is not worthy of a community that calls itself Christian.

When I studied Church history, I learned about the character assassination and in some cases actual assassination attempts against bishops in the 4th century. I learned about a bishop punching a priest in a world-wide business meeting. If I look for that golden age where the community is perfect, it appears that it did not last very long — nostalgia lies, and even if there were a golden age, we cannot live in the past.

I believe that we already know what one of the biggest differences is between the primitive church and the church of the time after the printing press was invented and Christians authors wrote polemic works where they slandered other Christians — that difference is that the Early Church faced real persecution. Those who followed Jesus faced real danger; yet they followed the gospel because in it they heard words of life.

These days, the church, at least in the western world, has power. The Church has been a powerful voice that governments and societies hear since the fourth century. The influence of the church on even our secular culture is so large that it is at times difficult for us to separate what is secular from what is sacred. Like it or now, when the church was persecuted, it was aloof of the politics of the world, now the church is part of the politics of the world.

Once the Church had the ear of the Emperor, and then the ear of kings, and now the ear of presidents and legislators.  When you have political power in the world, it is very tempting to use the political tactics of the world. Some of the worst chapters of Church history are when people who held power in the world sought to gain power in the church and thereby increase their power in the world. Just because the scripture forbids gossip and slander does not mean that Christians don’t engage it it — I’ve seen people’s Facebook pages; it is a problem — our church is accepting the sinful behavior of our society as if it were virtuous.

I will admit, one thing that bothers me is that when I face this problem, it seems beyond my ability to address it. If I confront somebody who habitually slanders others, and seems eager to repeat lies, that person becomes angry, and acts as if I am completely in the wrong. It does not matter how much I see that another person is living in sin, nor how public and obvious the sinful behavior is, it does little good to be deeply convicted of another person’s sin.

What I know is that if being convicted of other people’s sin is not helpful, I can guard myself from doing the same thing that I see modeled. I can look at what I publicly saying, and ask if I am speaking appropriate to and about those who are created in God’s image. I can work on my faith — because the thing that seems to inspire people to share lies is that they are afraid; if I forget that God is bigger than the bogeyman (to quote a veggie tail’s song), then I might be afraid of every thing that I imagine having the strength to harm me. We fall into sin, because we lose faith and fall into fear. We repeat the lies, because the lies scare us; we forget that even if it were true, God is bigger than that.

Another problem is that because Christians have gained so much power, we think that we need power. We think we need access to the government. We think we need to influence every facet of society in a direct and powerful way. We forget that Christians were salt and light even when all the power of the government fought to crush Christianity. We seek this control, because we forget that Jesus is Lord. We fall into sin, because we lose faith.

What I recommend is that we all listen to ourselves — see if we are falling into fear, or seeking power. See if we are respecting that those around us are created in God’s image. If you use social media — look at your last 10 posts — see how many of them are meant to paint another person or a group of people in a bad light. It is very easy to sin the way lots of other people sin; even when you are aware of it. It does not help me to be convicted of another person’s sin, but knowing which sins are common can help me watch myself. Friends have long practiced using Queries to check areas where it is easy to fall into sinful behavior, and one Query that I’ve seen in almost every collection, dating back to at least 1806 is as follows:
“ Is love and unity maintained amongst you. Are tale-bearing and detraction discouraged. And where any differences arise, are endeavours used speedily to end them?”

While the sinful behavior is common to the point it is endemic, and it is deeply destructive to our communities — there is good news. Remember, we believe in forgiveness. Jesus taught us to forgive. We believe that Christ walks with us and helps us to change — even when we sometimes do those things we don’t want to do — Christ still strives with us, works to help us grow into the name Christian. The Good News states we are salt and light. When we get better, our communities get better too. The good news is we want to do better with God’s help — and God is eager to help.


Peter’s first sermon

Reading: Acts 2:14-42

Last week, Karla let me know that what stood out to her is how incredibly patient Jesus was with the disciples; in spite of the years He spent teaching them, they never learned. The last thing a disciple said to Jesus before he was taken up into heaven showed they still didn’t get it — and, arguably, the little meeting where they decided to roll the dice, and choose a random person who had been with them from Jesus’ baptism to the Crucifixion was a mistake. I noticed that all Peter had to do to get everybody to go along with this was to quote Psalm 109.

Now, unless you believe that Peter received a special gift of prophecy before Pentecost, he almost certainly got the interpretation of Psalm 109 wrong. This is one thing that I’ve noticed in my time as a Christian — so often, we are eager to go forward without the spirit — and somebody will quote a few lines of scripture which sound good, but rarely have anything to do with the situation, making it so that anybody who offers further discussion is `arguing against God’s Word.’ When people do this, I often doubt their sincerity when they say we should honor and respect scripture… but, anyways — the way I read this, Peter did something rash, and grabbed a hold of a few words from scripture to give his words some authority that he didn’t yet have. All they needed to do was wait, and God would bring the apostle that God chose to them.

When Pentecost comes, and the ends of the Earth journeyed to Jerusalem for the second most important celebration that Jews observe — the celebration of God giving the law on Mt. Sinai, a true miracle happens. The spirit comes, and the disciples prophecy. Just as Jesus promised them before leaving, they finally know what to say, because God gave them the words. Pentecost changes everything — the spirit comes, and Peter finally understands what Jesus had been trying to tell him all those years.

Imagine the opportunity; here is a chance to speak to thousands of people all over the world. The crowd is there, the disciples have their attention, and there is a chance that when people ask about their trip to Jerusalem for the holiday they will recount this odd experience. Peter had thousands of people from all over the Jewish world listening to his word; if you could give a single message to thousands of people from the whole Christian world what would you say? Peter was in an intimidating position — almost every time he speaks in the gospels, it is clear he does not understand what is going on. How will Peter, the man who’s foot is always in his mouth, address all these people? Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would give power, and in Luke 12, even what words to answer. If there is a time that Peter needed the promise of the Holy Spirit, this was it.

When Peter spoke on Pentecost, it was different then it was in the past. This little sermon was coherent; it had a structure that you can understand when you see it. When Peter spoke, you could tell that he spoke as somebody who understood, not as somebody who was utterly confused. It is quite amazing that the person who gave the first public sermon, speaking for the Christian community was the person who always had his feet in his mouth; and even more amazing that he mad it through this sermon without embarrassing himself and his community.

He somehow knew the questions the audience was asking and answered them. Peter took the opportunity to tell the world about the resurrection instead of letting them make guesses to explain away a miracle. “We are not drunk as you suppose, it is 9:00 AM” disarms what many people were whispering to one another.

The crowds were doing the exact same thing I would have done — they tried to make sense of something that was strange, so they found an explanation; once you can make a theory about what happened, you can stop being curious about it; and if you are not curious enough to test your theory and nobody challenges it, then you accept that first explanation. Can you imagine if Peter did not challenge this? Everybody would go home, and they would remember an encounter with a group of drunk people one morning, and give what they heard in their own languages very little thought.

Next, Peter explained what happened using a reference that would be familiar. While these people came from all over the world, they were in Jerusalem to celebrate God giving the law to Moses. Speaking to them out of scripture is speaking a language that they understand; and as they are there to celebrate God giving the law, the can understand how wonderful it is to see God pouring out God’s Spirit on human flesh.

After Peter dealt with the idea that everything that happened was induced by too much wine, and explained what had happened in a way that those listening could understand and accept, Peter went into something far more difficult; though any who accepted that this came from the power of God’s spirit would understand that these hard words were prophetic. Peter starts talking about Jesus, a man who was put to death 6 weeks earlier. What Peter says is hard though, as it makes it clear who had him put to death. Peter’s prophecy condemns the leaders of Judah — but he also told them that Jesus, though put to death was raised from the dead.

Peter then quotes from the Psalms, and identifies Jesus as being of David’s line, and announces that the risen and ascended Christ is set upon David’s throne. By doing this, Peter manages to identify the risen Christ as the Messiah that many people are waiting for, while separating Him from the idea that there would be a political Messiah to drive out the Romans and reestablish an Earthly kingdom. Just 6 weeks earlier, the disciples didn’t understand this — but today, Peter manages to communicate it to the crowds. Jesus isn’t a king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, but a King sitting on a Heavenly throne.

This message was distressing for many who heard this — verse 37 says that they were cut to their heart by what they heard, and asked what to do. Peter told them to repent and to be baptized; preaching that they would receive forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he called on the group to “Save yourself from this corrupt generation.”

Now, I know that the scripture tells me that Peter testified with “many other arguments”. What we read in Acts is just a short summary of Peter’s sermon; While I don’t know how long it takes to make “many other arguments” I cannot imagine it took fewer than 20 minutes. I do know that whatever the exact words were, these words managed to convince about 3000 people to join the Christian community. I don’t know how many of these people were in the crowds who listened to Jesus — but, I do know that one day they were just 120, and the next they were a few thousand — it would be like going to the church where I grew up and seeing one Sunday was just like it had always been, and the next they had to have 10 services to fit everybody inside the building.

Now, I could get into the message of Salvation that Peter preached — one of forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit; but I notice that it is not at all fleshed out here — so that isn’t quite the point. I could lament that no matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to recreate what happened. Our small community doesn’t suddenly become a group of thousands. The thing is, we don’t see this happen again; neither in our own experience, nor even in later chapters of Acts. Sometimes, we see people hearing the gospel, and remaining unconvinced. What we see is that the Jerusalem community suddenly became something similar in size to the influence of Jesus’ physical ministry on Earth; crowds came to Jesus to hear what Jesus taught, similar sized crowds then came to listen to the apostles of Jesus preach.

Acts 2 does not tell me why, it gives me no magic words, nor magic formula beyond Jesus. I don’t believe that the same crowd was shouting `Hosanna’ one week and `Crucify Him’ the next. When Jesus was raised from the dead, He gathered the disciples together, but Peter gathered the crowds. The good news for those who listened to Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven was that Jesus ascended to sit on Heaven’s throne. You finally learn that your teacher knows that Kingdom because your teacher was King. It really is good news to learn that Christ’s kingdom is lasting, and is not dependent on beating the Romans. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven can live and encourage one another in Roman occupied Jerusalem, still praising God, living with generous hearts and having the goodwill of their neighbors. The good news is Christ’s reign continues no matter who is emperor in Rome.

I Corinthians 15: Resurrection is necessary

Reading: I Corinthians 15

Last week I mentioned a joke that Biblical scholars and theologians don’t talk to each other much; though, I also said that I’ve not found that to be true in my own experience. Last week, we read a passage that has people either trying to harmonize it with their theology, or simply admitting that Luke’s account on the Crucifixion tells us about Jesus, but it is not a lecture on how Salvation works.

Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians is different; he is definitely talking about theology, and specifically why the Resurrection is important. Apparently, there are people who think that the preaching of the resurrection is metaphorical and not literal — they say that there is no resurrection. Paul points out that Resurrection is important, even central.

It is somewhat surprising that second generation Christianity was already arguing about how to understand the resurrection. Those who saw Jesus in person were still alive, but, people were debating whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead — as Paul said: “If there is no resurrection, then Jesus was not raised.” This seems so obvious, one wonders why this conversation is necessary.

You might remember, this argument did not originate in Christianity. The Sadducees did not believe there was a resurrection; this means that religious elite in the Temple likely did not consider resurrection important, if they believed in it at all — because the Sadducee’s were the party that supported the power of the priests and the importance of the temple.

Now, I grew up with resurrection, heaven, and hell. It is hard to mentally separate these beliefs from faith in God. If one is not looking to the afterlife, where does one find salvation — what is one saved from? Why be religious if there is no resurrection, no judgment and this life is everything that there is.

The most obvious answer is that those of us who have sin in our lives live with the damage of that sin in our lives. Scripture, as well as our own experience teaches us that sin hurts us and it hurts those around us. If we learn to live better, it makes things better for everybody. Torah is about how to live, and what to do — it is not about what happens after we’ve finished doing.

Another answer, obvious if we remember the question people asked about the blind man before Jesus healed him: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.”. There was an idea that we face God’s judgment on Earth, and when we have misfortune in our life it is punishment. The idea of reward or punishment on Earth can be an effective motivator — though, various scriptures in both the Old and the New Testament challenge the idea that life is fair in this way.

There is nothing wrong with the idea that God wants us to live better, and to lead us away from the destructive power of sin in our lives — in fact, there is much right with this idea. We are all familiar with 12 step programs like AA. If you go through the 12 steps, it is about, with God’s help, breaking the power of sin to destroy your life and seeking to make amends and repair relationships broken by sin — and, there is nothing about that which theologically offends me; Jesus came to save us from our sins, and we definitely need saved in life.

Jesus used death language metaphorically when he told the disciples they needed to take up the cross every day. Paul used the language metaphorically when he taught that we died to our old selves, and were raised again in Christ. There is something important about this; we need Christ transforming power in our lives — we metaphorically need new life, so there is nothing wrong with that.

Paul makes it clear though that he is not talking about metaphor here — he is talking about a resurrection that we will participate in. Whether or not there is a resurrection of the dead doesn’t matter when you are talking about metaphor, but it matters a whole lot when you are talking about something that will happen. You are likely familiar with the Nicene creed that ends with the words: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Christianity makes a literal resurrection, and life to come after death as a central part of our faith.

Paul writes that: “if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised from the dead.” Everything about Christianity depends on Resurrection being real. Jesus’ message needs resurrection to be more than a metaphor. The metaphor is important — we should never neglect the metaphor; but we also need to remember that we look for the resurrection that is to come. We believe Christ is raised from the dead — and we look forward to being raised as well.

Last week, I mentioned that there are a several models people made to explain how we are saved; and Luke’s picture of Jesus on the cross didn’t really get into salvation beyond Jesus telling a thief on the cross that he would be in Paradise this very day, and Jesus suffering great injustice and forgiving those who put him on the cross — even while he was suffering from that injustice. This tells us that God’s capacity to forgive is great — but it really does not get into how salvation works.

Paul, talking about why resurrection is important does get into Soteriology. Paul, in several places, explains some things. I’ve heard a joke that as a theologian who understands the Bible — if I’m ever asked what I believe about salvation, or sanctification, or anything like that, instead of answering I should say: “I believe what Paul teaches;” because I will be telling the truth, and the person who asked will believe that I just agreed with him. The problem with our models is they are over-simplified and incomplete — a good number of them work well together. This reading, in fact, can be understood by a number of the models.

There are two models in what we read that I would like to focus on; if you recall, last week I said I really didn’t want to get into Theosis, because it was a bit esoteric, and not especially relevant to the passage — well it is relevant here:

Paul talks about the first and the 2nd Adam. Because of the first Adam, we have our sin nature — death came through the first Adam. There was something about Adam’s sin that touches all of Humanity. I might not have personally eaten the fruit — but yet, this had a significant effect on all of humanity that followed. The doctrine of Original Sin says that even if I am not personally guilty, there I am personally touched in a destructive way by this sin.

Jesus is the second Adam; just as Adam brought us all death through Original Sin, Jesus brings us life through His Incarnation. Paul does not get into the details of it, but largely Eastern theologians worked pretty hard to develop it. As simple as I can put it — Jesus was fully God, and fully Human — and somehow who Jesus was changes what Humanity is in a profound way just as what Adam did changed humanity in a profound way. We Christians participate with Christ’s humanity, and we are transformed into something more like God. Theosis is a word that describes this change through Jesus. If you ask an Eastern Christian when he was “saved,” he looks to the life of Christ and might say Easter, or Christmas; salvation comes through Christ’s work in the world, just as sin comes from Adam.

The second major theory of atonement in this passage is Christus victor — the idea that Jesus saves us by conquering the big enemies. As Paul writes in verse 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Jesus defeats death in a very real and obvious way on Easter Sunday, however, one thing that we’ve all been able to observe is that death is still a pretty big thing. Death has not suffered its final defeat; when we look forward to the general resurrection, we look forward to when Jesus will have completely defeated death — our own death included; for what good is a salvation that comes from Christ defeating His death but not the death that destroys our lives?

One thing that both of these views of salvation have in common is that we are not, right now, “saved” in either way. Jesus’ final defeat of death has not happened, none of us are walking around in our resurrection bodies. In terms of Theosis, I don’t believe any one of us is as Christlike as we are going to become. I don’t yet live on Earth exactly as I hope to live in heaven. I still say cross words to people who don’t deserve them; I still act selfishly, I still do not love as wholly as I will when I grow into Christ’s image. Jesus is still working on me — as Paul says in various places, we now have two natures fighting each other; and I can tell you right now one will win. An old of mine, who I’ve not seen for over 10 years, Ted Blakley, once said that we all are now living in heaven or hell, or bit of both. If I understood Ted, he saw eternal destiny as a result of being where we choose to make our home on Earth. The good news is that Jesus not only came to forgive us (He managed that on the cross, without anybody asking for it), but to save us. The good news is that we are being saved — from our sins, from any broken parts of our nature, and even eventually from death itself. Christianity isn’t about a single prayer, it is about continuing to, in the words of Paul, work out our salvation. This is good news, because I need saved from far more than the consequence of my sins — I need to be remade in Christ image.

Who is the greatest: Luke 22:7-38

Reading: Luke 22:7-38

One of the more confusing parts of the gospel account for me is when at the last supper the disciples start arguing about who will be the greatest in God’s kingdom. It confused me, because even before they enter Jerusalem, they seem to know what is coming. Jesus has told them several times on the way, and in Jerusalem itself — and they have commented on it as well. The disciples accepted that this is the last trip, yet they are arguing about who will be the greatest?

While I was listening to the passage, I heard Jesus saying to the disciples that this would be the last time Passover meal he would eat with them until the kingdom of God comes. I realized that the same stoic disciples who were ready to face prison and death with Jesus believed that it was possible that they would survive, and that this Kingdom would be established in Jerusalem. They were ready to face Rome, and they were arguing about who would be placed in positions of honor if they won.

The disciples were looking at this as a pep-talk. In their minds they knew the stakes, they knew the risks, but in their minds this kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about was a new regime that was to replace Rome. They heard Jesus talking about the kingdom of God coming before their next meal together, and they were ready to daydream what their positions would be in the new Kingdom. Now a couple thousand years later many things seem obvious that the disciples missed.

Sometimes, I think that the disciples, especially Peter, told stories about themselves to let everybody know how dumb they were, and how they missed things that are obvious; other times I think that if I were one of the disciples, it would be no more obvious to me than it was to them; it is only obvious because I’ve been taught how to understand these stories. Sometimes, I wonder if I fall back on what I know so much that I am missing something that should be obvious to the disciples.

I would never think that Jesus was talking about replacing Rome when he talked about God’s kingdom — but, I also say the Lord’s prayer so quickly that I don’t think about what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t often give a second thought to what John the Baptist and Jesus meant when they preached that God’s kingdom is at hand. If the disciples erred by thinking they would see God’s kingdom overthrow Rome, perhaps I err thinking that this kingdom only comes in the next world.

What I do know is that when the disciples are arguing about who will have the greatest honor, Jesus needs to correct them. The disciples want a new kingdom to replace Rome, but they are not looking for a kingdom that is substantially different than the kingdoms of this world. God’s kingdom is different — Jesus had spent his entire ministry trying to explain how his kingdom is different, but it is hard to imagine different. Can we imagine a kingdom where the greatest is like a child? Jesus at this point tells them that the greatest in God’s kingdom will be the one who serves — because God’s kingdom is different.

In this — I think we do make the same mistakes the disciples make. People talk about doing great things for the church and for God, people brag about what they accomplish, we have leadership seminars, people in my position want to be recognized for our wisdom. We mistake fame and recognition from this world for faithfulness. We mistake being rewarded by the kingdoms of this world for God’s blessing. We forget that Jesus said that the greatest in God’s kingdom is a servant to everybody, and that those who are first here will be last in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is different enough that we don’t get it any more than the disciples did.

The disciples are arguing about who will be the greatest, and Judas runs off to arrange the sale of Jesus. Peter promises that he will die with Jesus — and, if we jump forward he makes it further than the other disciples — but Jesus tells him that he will deny him this very night three times.

Jesus speaks directly too — he tells the disciples that one of the number will betray him. Jesus also tells Peter, directly, that he will deny Jesus three times. If the disciples were thinking that this was a pep talk when he said that this would be the last time they ate and drank together before the Kingdom of God, this sort of talk would be quite confusing. The certainty that God’s kingdom is coming combined with betrayal, cowardly behavior, and a suggestion that Jesus would be arrested. The disciples, looking for an Earthly kingdom must have not seen how both of these things could be true.

I guess the things that I learn the most from this is that like the disciples, I really need to look at my expectations and ask if they match what Jesus taught about God’s kingdom. I see how wrong the disciples are, and how long they were wrong, and I have to admit that even with all my advantages, I too might be mistaken. It is so easy to expect that God’s standards are like the world’s standards — I’ve never lived in heaven, so the world is what I know the best.

Another lesson that I learn from this is that God is very patient with His people. The disciples seemed to get everything that Jesus said wrong — whatever lesson Jesus was trying to teach, Peter or another disciple would say something that would make it clear that they didn’t understand the point at all. Jesus kept working with His students, and never gave up trying to get them to learn.

It becomes clear that when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t give out a test to make sure that the disciples had some background knowledge; he was more than willing to take remedial students. Too often, we act like God is impatient with human ignorance, we act like we can’t approach God until we understand God, because God will be offended. If we are like the disciples, then God calls us when we know nothing, and even after following Jesus for years, there are still things we don’t know.

Jesus didn’t cast them out because they didn’t understand. God didn’t get angry because their understanding of God was limited and unworthy of God — and this is good for all of us. Rene Descartes observed that we are finite, and if we try to imagine a perfect, all powerful, infinite being, our imagination is still finite. It is not possible for us to understand God — our best theologians, being finite, fall short. If God had a thin skin and was insulted by our failure to understand His greatness, we would all be in trouble; but we see from how Jesus never gave up on the disciples that God bears with us as we try to understand.

Like many who survived adolescence, I remember the time when I thought I was smarter than my teachers and wiser than anybody who had wisdom and experience to share. While I hope that I am smarter and wiser than I was then, the most important lesson I learned through education was how wrong that adolescent fantasy was; that no matter how wise and knowledgeable I become, my ignorance will always surpass my knowledge. As easy as it is to laugh at the disciples, my understanding of God will always be far short of God’s glory, greatness and grace. Just as the disciples were clumsy and imperfect in their attempts at theology, I am as well.

The good news is that God welcomes our bumbling attempts. When we attempt to praise God, but our praise falls so short of God’s glory that a petty god would be offended; God accepts our praise for what is in our hearts. When we try to serve God, but we get God a bit wrong, God might work on our hearts and minds to help us learn and grow — but we are not cast out for our honest mistakes. We know how patient Jesus was with Peter — and by extension we know how patient Jesus is with us; and as I need God to be patient with me, this is good news.

Luke 10: 25-37 “He asked to justify himself”

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

When the lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor”, he asked in order to justify himself. He was more interested in knowing who his neighbor was not than knowing who his neighbor was. Last time we talked about this passage, I talked about who Samaritans were, and how scandalous it would be to say: “go and do likewise”, and it was scandalous — but, today I want to focus on what it means that the person wanted to justify himself.

Anyone who seeks to justify himself is somebody who is looking for a loophole. The lawyer knew perfectly well who the neighbor who he did not love was, and he was looking for some sort of a rule that would make it so it was okay. He wanted to know how he could exclude those who were not easily lovable.

Recently I’ve learned something about people justifying themselves; sometimes it is just baffling to watch. One example, a few years back is that I and several friends of mine donated a small amount to an aid organization run by the Orthodox church. As you might know, Lebanon has a large number of Orthodox Christians, and it also has taken in so many refugees that 30% of the population are refugees, mostly from Syria and Palestine. We donated, specifically, to help the church in their work with a very large number of refugees caused by the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Now, in my case, I let some people know there was an opportunity to give to an organization that was doing good work; and as seems normal people either ignored it or they passed it on. One of my friends who passed it on was a fellow pastor in Kansas — and quite strangely, he was attacked by his friends for giving. They were suggesting that it was a terrible thing to give money to help refugees in Lebanon, and they suggested what he should be doing instead. It was especially strange because these friends would have been absolutely angry if anybody suggested what they should do with their money.

This summer, I heard from a friend of mine who was part of a group of people that brings soup and sandwiches to homeless people in the park in Kansas City. He was rather upset when people from the city came and poured bleach in the soup and over the sandwiches — it turns out that there were complaints, so the city did something; and as I read Christian magazines such as Sojourners, I read that it is illegal to be homeless in many cities, and those organizations that attempt to help the homeless survive are often blamed for the homeless problem. Sometimes people have even been arrested for giving out food and water to those who are hungry and thirsty.

This is all very strange to me; I get that emergency shelters don’t give people a permanent home; I understand that giving food and water to those who are hungry is not a long term solution — but, it is also not the cause of the problem. If you suggest that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, and giving emergency shelter to those who have none creates the problem — that seems a rather cynical euphemism for “you should let them die”. I know that sometimes when people say this, what they really mean is that somebody should be working on helping people get what they need to find jobs and a permanent address; but I also know that I’ve heard people complaining about that kind of help too.

My minor experience with organizations that run shelters tells me that there is a significant overlap between those who pass out meals and run emergency shelters — and those who help people find jobs and live independently. A bowl of soup for people who are desperate enough to forage through garbage for food helps them survive long enough to help them into a better situation. Emergency shelter for the night does not cause homelessness; it just reduces the number of people who die of exposure to the elements.

Why are those who donate money, or work with desperate people actually blamed for their work? Why are those who try to do good so often attacked by those who live in comfort? You see, many people are exactly like the lawyer who tries to justify himself by asking: “Who is my neighbor” — they are seeking to justify themselves by naming those who are undeserving of help, and then following up with anger against those who help the undeserving.

One of Plato’s best-known works is called “The Republic”. “The Republic” is a series of dialogues between Socrates and various people on what would be the best government, why governments fail, and more esoteric topics such as ethics, justice, and what is now called the theory of knowledge. In this work, Plato talks about how society hates the just man, and if there were a truly just man, he would be rejected, beaten, and crucified. The injustice of society is exposed by the just man, and they cannot stand it — like the lawyer who sought to justify himself by finding out who his neighbor was not, society wants loopholes rather than true justice. People hate to admit those things that expose where they are wrong, even when those who are handing out soup and sandwiches are not thinking about what everybody else is doing.

The dark thing that I have learned in the past couple years is that desperate poverty, war, and human suffering, in general, is something that we want to be out of sight, and out of mind. Visible poverty offends us — it makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t like it. It would be easier never to see where somebody sleeps on the sidewalk on a cold winter day. It would be easier if we didn’t ask why so many speakers of languages indigenous to the Americas are asking for asylum right now. It is much easier to close our eyes and our ears and blame those who hand out soup and water. It is much easier to ask “who is my neighbor”, and point at them and say: “surely they are not my neighbor.” People even get together and make rules to exclude some neighbors, have the law pour bleach into their soup, and harass those who would offer them the smallest amount of comfort.

It is fitting that when Jesus told the lawyer who he should emulate, he would choose to make a Samaritan a hero of the story. The man was looking for people to leave out — and Samaritans would be at the top of his list when he made a list of people who were not his neighbor. Maybe he would have fought for laws that would keep Samaritans out of his sight — anything at all to justify not loving his Samaritan neighbor, but in the story Jesus told, the Samaritan was the one who cared for and saved a person, not caring that that person was an enemy. He sought to justify himself by naming those who were unworthy of his love, and Jesus condemned him by making a kind enemy the kind of person to emulate.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor — and in this case, the good news is that the even the poorest are human beings created in God’s image. Luke begins with Mary and Joseph seeking shelter, and Jesus born in a barn because Joseph can’t even find a place to stay where his extended family is from. Later in Luke, when Jesus is traveling and preaching, he describes himself as having no place to sleep; he identifies with the homeless, the hungry, the desperate, and the imprisoned. If we want to see the face of Jesus — we need to look for His face is the faces of those we would exclude when we try to justify ourselves. As long as we keep looking for loopholes in order to justify ourselves, we need to hear the words Jesus said to the lawyer: “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-33 — Discipleship costs

Reading: Luke 9:57-62, Luke 14:25-33

One thing that I remember from my childhood is that every year there was a mass mailing selling magazines that the words: “You may have already won 10 million dollars” on the front of the envelope. When you opened the envelope it was full of stickers representing magazines so that you could order a subscription, so you likely ordered another year’s subscription for those magazines you subscribe to every year.

This was an amazingly clever marketing scheme. If you took a philosophy class, you might have learned about Blaise Pascal. One of the things he wrote about is called: “Pascal’s wager”. The basic idea of Pascal’s wager is there is a great potential reward but no cost, it makes no sense not to make the bet. In the case of that envelope that gives you an entry in a sweepstakes drawing; it is cheaper, and more convenient, to renew your subscriptions through them than to renew each one individually; it costs nothing, and who knows, maybe you’ll win the prize — there is nothing to lose, so you make the wager when you buy your magazines.

Another example of Pascal’s wager is a little social media hoax that goes around on a regular basis saying something like: “Mark Zuckerberg promised he will donate $1 to Shriner’s Children’s hospital every time this message is shared” — you seriously doubt that it is true, but many share it anyway because it seems not to cost anything.
Of course, Pascal’s wager wasn’t about marketing, nor was it about creating a Facebook hoax — it was an argument for living a religious life. Pascal argued that if we believe in Jesus — if we are right, our gain is infinite while if we are wrong, our loss is finite. If we don’t believe, and we are right, our gain is finite, while our loss is infinite; so there is only one safe bet.

I really did grow up with Pascal’s wager evangelism — Heaven, hell, eternal destiny. The gospel that I heard and understood as a child really was a pretty obvious bet; there really was no downside to choosing Jesus. Choosing Jesus was easy, it was painless, and the alternative was too terrible to imagine. It is safe to say that what I understood was Pascal’s wager.

When I read my Bible, sometimes there were passages that stuck out, because they made no sense in my life context, or because I understood them differently than what I had learned in Sunday school, or understood from the preaching in church. Today in our Sunday School class, we discussed one of these passages. I really remember how it stood out to me when Jesus turned away those who would follow him.

The first person Jesus discourages is somebody who promises to follow Jesus anywhere; Jesus responds: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus discourages a follower who says “anywhere” because the cost of following Jesus is the discomfort of vagrancy. The idea that following Jesus may lead to homelessness is a pretty big, and immediate cost — this isn’t what I was told before the altar call.

The next two people make even less sense to me — you see, I don’t have to sacrifice my family or say goodbye to those at home to commit my life to Jesus; my family are devout Christians and I have many Christian friends. If there were a decision that would separate me from home and family, in my childhood context, it would be rejecting Jesus. For both Pascal and I, choosing Jesus is easy — and I have only benefited in life from this choice. I didn’t understand why Jesus would discourage followers. This passage and a passage that comes later in Luke (which the Sunday school book does not cover) just didn’t seem to fit my experience nor my understanding — listen to what Jesus says to those who follow:

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33 NRSV)

My Christianity costs me nothing — Jesus talked about a Christianity that cost everything. The only cost I counted was the cost of Hell, and the cost of losing the Church — I never counted the cost of following Jesus. Was the preacher wrong, was my prayer inviting Jesus into my heart ineffective? Did the child me deeply misunderstand some very important details? Needless to say — the child me deeply misunderstood many things; I had no concept of “original audience.” When Pascal makes his wager, Christianity costs him little. When I asked Jesus into my heart, I had nothing to lose, and only something to gain.

Luke 9 foreshadows the Crucifixion. In this chapter, Herod takes an interest in Jesus and notices a similarity between Jesus and John, who he executed. Herod’s interest is a dangerous thing. In the same chapter, Jesus tells the disciples about what is coming; that he will be rejected by Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and that he will be put to death, and later he told the disciples that he would be betrayed. Jesus is turning away those who want to become disciples when he knows he has started his journey to the cross. Following Jesus is easy when you have a Christian community, government officials want the Christian vote, and those dearest to you also follow Jesus. Following Jesus is hard when it means you will be isolated, lose your community and will likely lose your property and your life. Pascal’s wager does not look so good in the First and Second century as it does in 17th century Europe or the United States today. As I learned about what the first Christians faced, I learned that they truly had a cost to count.

I have to admit, I’m glad I’m not part of the Primitive church. I have no desire to be lit on fire, nor killed by wild animals, nor any of the other tortures the earliest Christians faced. I’m very glad I’m in the United States, and not one of the many countries where I would risk persecution and death for my faith. I’m glad that Nero isn’t in charge, and that I have the freedom to say what I believe without fear of arrest, even when what I believe is inconvenient for those in power. John the Baptist lost his head because he condemned Herod’s behavior, but if I said the same thing about our current leader’s misbehaviors, my head would remain safe; the worst I could expect to suffer is a few rude comments on social media.

Cost counting isn’t very relevant in my context; except that it grows relevant as I understand more. I live in a very Christian society, but I also live in a society that has great difficulty distinguishing its secular culture from Christianity. I live in a society where Christians can argue about which parts of the Bible are not Biblical, without irony nor intended disrespect, and who will defend what the Church has long named mortal sin because our culture says that greed is good. I live in a culture that asks Christianity to excuse its sin and with politicians who ask preachers to teach religion in a way that is convenient; now, these are just requests — and there is nobody coming to arrest those who do not comply, but these are very tempting requests — there is an idea that compromising scripture to fit culture or politics brings fame or success. You can find preachers who will excuse any sin if there is somebody in power to reward them.

I’ve grown to appreciate two preachers and theologians who served in Germany during in the first half of the 20th century: Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You might know, Nazi Germany hung Bonhoeffer for treason and deported Karl Barth to his native Switzerland. When I read their work today, there is nothing especially exciting radical about what they write — but, in their context, it was a matter of life or death.

Early 20th century Germany was very Christian. It is uncomfortable to say it, but when Hitler was elected, Christians supported him — and very few churches spoke out against him. Christians largely rationalized and compromised, and there was nothing that the government did that the majority of churches would not support, and many went beyond compromising and rationalizing, to adjusting their teachings to match those of the secular government.

Barth and Bonhoeffer were leaders in what has become known as the confessing church. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and his friend Barth was Reformed; as the majority of the churches were compromising with Hitler, those churches who felt that these compromises were too much formed an alliance. There was a joint statement of faith written that both Lutheran and Reformed churches agreed to, and they had to do some truly challenging theology as they were in a truly unique situation: I would like to read the English translation of this joint statement:

In view of the errors of the “German Christians” and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” John 10:1,9

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.

2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30

As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

3. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.” Eph. 4:15-16

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant.” Matt. 20:25-26

The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

5. “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the Church as well.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

6. “See, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20 “God’s Word is not fettered.” 2 Tim. 2:9

The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.

We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.

The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.


The result of this choice was the arrest of about 700 Christian pastors, for Bonhoeffer it was death, for Karl Barth, the principal author of the declaration, it was deportation. Now, as I said, the situation here isn’t the same as it was in Germany. Sometimes a government official might take it upon himself to tell a church what they should teach and believe — but such a statement has no legal force. (I condemned such a statement that was made against the Southern Baptists and the Catholic church in Ft. Wayne Indiana by the Attorney General.) The Barman declaration named government supported, blindly patriotic and political Christianity as false teaching, and named ways in which it is false; you see, sometimes there is something to sacrifice. Sometimes we have to remember that because Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

I don’t expect that the cost of discipleship will be mass arrests or for American pastors to be hanged — but, the cost is to be accused of being unpatriotic, of political pundits telling people to run away from your churches, and for high government officials to use their position to publicly condemn whole denominations and cast doubt upon their faith. I don’t expect an order to worship Caeser, but I do expect people, including political commentators and government officials, to quote Romans 13:1-2 in a way that says the Early Christians disobeyed God when they refused to sacrifice to Ceaser.

In all of this, we must put Christ first, even if it costs us pride, esteem, or our sense of belonging in a community. As the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, we cannot serve two masters, there comes a time when we have to choose; and when that time comes, we need to choose Jesus — even if the cost is a hanging. I’ve said many times I believe Christianity is about Jesus coming to where we are and inviting us to walk with Him wherever that leads. There are many who followed Jesus to the Cross, and if that is where Jesus leads us, that is where our Faith says we must go. Our hope remains the same — whether we are lead into the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of the shadow of embarrassment: that as long as we walk with Jesus, we are with Jesus at the end our journey because we never forget that the cross isn’t the end of the story.

Fishing with Peter

Reading: Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-19

I love miracles; I want to see miracles, they are spectacular and exciting, they really mark the moment, and when they happen I know that there is something bigger than myself going on. Things that are spectacular and out of the ordinary have a real way of catching our attention — and when Simon, later called Peter, met Jesus these spectacular things started happening.

In Luke’s gospel, we first see Simon Peter when Jesus is going to his house after he leaves the synagogue. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was traveling from town to town preaching in a number of synagogues. Now I don’t know why Jesus went to Peter’s house after teaching in the synagogue; maybe it was because Peter, as a small businessman with a handful of employees, was accustomed to offering hospitality. Maybe Jesus and Peter already knew each other because they both lived in Capernaum. What is important is that Peter’s mother in law was ill when Jesus visited, but Jesus healed her. This story ends with a few words telling us that Jesus left town to travel from town to town preaching in synagogues.

The next chapter, he is back at the lake, and there is a crowd eager to hear him teaching. As exciting as eager crowds are, they are more than a little dangerous; such a crowd could push Jesus into the lake. Jesus gets onto Peter’s boat and asks him to launch so that he can speak to the crowd from the boat.

When Jesus finished speaking, he told Peter to put out into the deep water, and start fishing. Peter answered that they had been fishing all night and that they caught nothing, but, he’d cast again at Jesus’ request. The catch was big enough that the boat couldn’t hold them all — in fact, it was so big that when Peter called for help, and the other boat came, it was too much for both boats.

When Peter saw the miracle, he was a bit afraid of such miraculous power — but Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, and that from this point on he would be catching people. Luke tells us that Peter and his fishing partners James and John were all there for this catch. When these men returned to the shore, scripture tells us that they left everything and followed Jesus.

How Peter responded to Jesus calling him into something else amazes me. Peter had a small business and business partners. He had a mother in law, which strongly implies he had a wife, he had a home, and thus he had all the bills and expenses and responsibilities that come with having a small business and a family. People depended on him, both his own family and his business partners; and his work benefited society, because everybody needs to eat. Peter walked away from his business, including two boats overfilled with fresh fish. It is tough to commit to something new and risky when you have a vision for your life — this is what Peter did, he walked away from his life for something new.

When I read this passage last week, for some reason the last chapter of John came to mind. If you recall, John ends with Peter saying to several disciples: “ Let’s go fishing”, so several disciples go fishing with Peter. This happens after Jesus is crucified — it even happens after Easter, and after Jesus appeared to several of the disciples.

Peter had denied Jesus, and it is very possible when he said: “let’s go fishing”, he was ready to end that chapter of his life and go back to the work that he knew. Needless to say, the Crucifixion wasn’t in Peter’s plans — and it made sense for him to go back to work after Jesus was dead and buried. It made far more sense for him to go back to work than it did to wait and figure out what it meant that a number of disciples saw a ghost.

So, Peter and several disciples fish all night, and they catch nothing. At sunrise, a man on the shore calls to them and asked them if they caught anything; the men in the boat answered that they caught nothing, so Jesus said: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” they did, and the net had too many fish it it for them to bring it into the boat, so they had to drag the fish to shore beside the boat. Somebody recognizes Jesus, so Peter jumps into the lake to swim to shore. Jesus then invites the disciples to eat breakfast with him and following breakfast Jesus had a discussion with Peter that ended with what Jesus said the first time there was a miraculous catch of fish: “Follow me.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes a bit slow to pick up on things. I too often need to be told three times before something really sinks in. I know I point out that even after spending years with Jesus, the disciples did not always get what seems obvious after a nearly 2000 years of Christianity; but when I look at how long it took me to learn some things that seem obvious now, I have to admit that like Peter I’d need to be told again.

If I try to put myself in Peter’s place, “Follow me” would seem to have ended at the cross. As great as a Jesus internship was, it would never have crossed my mind that I would follow Jesus after Jesus was buried. I’d basically need to be called again to realize that “Follow me” had a metaphoric as well as a literal meaning; it is hard to embrace the metaphor when the literal meaning was correct. Literally, Peter followed Jesus as far as he could — why would he assume there was another meaning that would allow him to follow further unless he was called again; and even if I were clever enough to realize that “follow me” meant something bigger, the shame of denying Jesus may cause me to doubt that I was still called.

Now that I know that Jesus meant more than what was literal, I wonder what life-lessons Peter might have learned from these experiences that served as matching bookends: Why did Jesus say “Follow me” after a miraculous catch of fish, and what might have Peter seen when he reflected on it.

In both accounts, Peter had been fishing all night and had nothing to show for it. I think it is safe to say that this would not be a common experience. Empty nets do not pay the bills, and Peter does not seem the type who would insist on spending every night doing unproductive labor. Peter had an extraordinary failure so that he could see that when he did things on his own, nothing came from it, but Jesus provided everything. While this is not the normal results when fishing, when fishing people, it is God that gives the increase.

Another thing that is different between fishing fish and fishing for people is that when fishing if you fish all night and catch nothing, you can’t expect to catch anything in the morning either. The pattern of results is different so it would not work to treat both as they are the same.

I’m going to give a practical example: Six months ago, we had no idea if Iglesia Amigos could survive. Two blows came together — first blow, the church lost a family that was very dear to them, a faithful volunteer who was the first person to start attending. This blow came with another, roughly at the same time, an announcement that the most common legal status for the attendees would be phased out next year. It felt like the community was under attack, and the only thing I could imagine is the little flock being scattered.

Last Sunday, there were two services. The reason why there were two services is that Iglesia Amigos is twice as big as it was the Sunday before the calamity and two services are necessary. The larger of the two services had an attendance of about 70 people, which is as much as the worship space can comfortably hold. It is remarkable to go from questioning viability to needing to add services in a matter of months. You might know, Karla and I buy little gifts when they are on clearance, and make an in-kind donation to the church to give to the children; This December, the church church money to supplement these because the gifts that we donated were not nearly enough; not only that, but, they have started to write reimbursement checks (through in-kind donations are still pretty common). I’ve said before that they needed to move because there is a lack of classroom space: they now need to move because they fill the worship room as well, and starting on March 9 they will rent from a church that has space for them to grow.

Having observed what it means to work all night and catch nothing, and then suddenly have a catch bigger than the boat can hold; I have a new perspective of what it means to be fishers for people. It really is distressing to see what seems to be a disaster and have nothing to show for your work, and wonder if it is time to pack up and move on. I imagine most people involved in church planting have had those moments. No matter how much work you put into it — God gives the increase and on God’s timing. Simon Peter was called away from the fishing boat to fish for people, and we still fish for people. Some days we catch nothing, other days there are miracles.