Sunday, April 14, 2013

"You have to let me lead."

Preached on April 14, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany, NYC

What was Peter doing when he met Jesus? Fishing. Along with many of the other disciples. Jesus came to the Sea of Galilee, and said “Follow me” and they left their nets and boats behind and followed him.  

Today at the end of the Gospel of John, after the resurrection appearances, what are Peter and the disciples trying to do? They’re trying to fish, right back at the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. They go back to what they know, only it doesn’t work out the way it used to. They can’t catch a single fish anymore on their own.  

One way of interpreting this would be to say that we can’t go backwards. We can try—and nostalgia is a powerful, powerful draw. I want things back the way they were—I want my nets and my boat back. But the disciples are not the same people they were before they met Jesus. They have been changed. They are no longer fishermen for fish—they are fishing for people. And they need Jesus to lead them. 

When Jesus does arrive, he doesn’t just do the fish miracle and prove that he’s fully real by eating the fish and bread, and send them back to their boats. Resurrection transformation is not about just being better at what we are already doing. Jesus reorients them as to how they’re supposed to live and what they’re supposed to do now that he has been raised—and it’s not to go back on the water. Simon Peter led the disciples to the boats. Now Jesus is going to lead them somewhere else. 

Jesus begins with the wonderful dialogue with Peter. “Peter, do you love me?” Now Greek, which is the language of the New Testament, has three words for love. There’s eros, which means erotic love; philo which means brotherly love or fondness, and agape, which is the self-emptying sacrificial love that Jesus has for us. At Bible and Brewskis this week, we wondered if it was like the fact that there are 50 words for snow in Eskimo… the things you have the most familiarity with have the most subtlety in vocabulary. You would think we would have more than one word for love in English, but I guess the English didn’t know as much about love as the Greeks, so we have to know the story behind our translation today. 

So Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?” the first time, and Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” Jesus tries again, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?” Peter responds again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” The third time, Jesus changes what he says: “Simon, son of John, do you philo me?” It’s almost like Jesus is lowering the bar to accommodate Peter so that what Jesus asks of Peter is something Peter can handle. Peter can do this. Peter can love Jesus like a brother. And he can feed the sheep. Loving Jesus is about turning that love around and offering it to others. Also, Jesus shows the development of these disciples, referring to them as “children” when they are on the boat and then focusing Peter’s attention to what will happen when he is “old”—mature—he will lose his independence and be led where he does not wish to go. Being a child in faith means you set your own course. Being mature means you let Jesus set your course. Jesus closes with the simple distillation of all of this: “Follow me.” 

Last Sunday Jonathan and I worshipped at a megachurch in Phoenix with my cousins. It was a much better experience than I’d been fearing, and the pastor was starting a preaching series on “What is a Christian?” I was a little worried when he began to preach on that topic—suspecting that whatever definition he gave would be one that was aiming at excluding, say, me, from being a Christian. But the way he finally defined it was this: A Christian is someone who follows Jesus. And I thought that was pretty good. It wasn’t based in baptism, or in a few test beliefs, or in how often you go to church. As the pastor put it amusingly: going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. Being a Christian is about a direction and attitude toward Jesus. Jesus is the one I follow. If you can say—and do—that, then you’re a Christian.

The only problem is that following is hard. At least for some of us. We learn from a young age that we are supposed to lead, not follow. 

Two months ago at the Priests’ Conference, we had an evening with—of all things—a
DJ and dancing. Now I can dance, but I’ve never taking enough lessons at partner dancing to really get it, but I can fake it pretty well. Or so I thought. A friend who’s a good ole’ boy from South Carolina started dancing the Carolina Shag with me, and I kept messing it up. “Jennifer, you have to let me lead,” he finally said. “I know, I know. I’m not very good at that.”   

I hear Jesus saying that too, sometimes. “Jennifer, you have to let me lead.”

I like being in control. Following means we are vulnerable. Which is why both the Acts lesson and the Gospel today really challenge me. Saul is not in control when he is blinded on the road to Damascus. Ananias is not in control when he is instructed to go to Saul and heal him. The disciples are not in control when they go back to fishing. And Jesus is very clear with Peter in their dialogue that Peter will not be in control—he will be led places he does not want to go. “Peter, you have to let me lead.” 

Letting Jesus lead does not mean being passive. Ananias is not passive—letting God lead means he goes to Saul and risks a lot; his standing in the community, perhaps even his life. He brings Saul into the Christian community, helps him learn about Jesus in ways Saul had never heard when he was persecuting Christians. Ananias is a leader precisely because he follows Jesus and lets God lead. The same is true of Saul. He leads the church into the Gentile world, because he follows Jesus and lets God lead. Peter will preach the gospel and be the “rock” of the church because he finally learns how to follow Jesus and let God lead. Letting Jesus lead is part of loving Jesus with that selfless, agape love—the one that truly allows us to feed the sheep, and to be fed because we’re still sheep too. 

We need to let God lead. Can I trust God to let God lead? There’s no better way to say this for me than in the beautiful hymn Precious Lord, take my hand. Especially because it hints so well at that final journey that Jesus alludes to with Peter—the path we are most afraid to take, but the one that we will all inevitably be led down, no matter how much we fight. 

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Listen here to the sermon and the singing!

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