Just in case you missed it – in the Gospel lesson that I just read to you – I want you to know that what is taking place here is taking place after Jesus’ has been raised from the dead. This is what we call a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to his disciples – and John – the author of this Gospel tells us that this is the third appearance Jesus made to his disciples following his resurrection from the dead.
Now, just how many times Jesus appears to his disciples in all after his death and resurrection we don’t know. But during the forty days between the resurrection and Jesus’ ascension into heaven – we know that Jesus does indeed appear – alive – in his resurrection body many times. This is important. After all, how in the world can these disciples proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead if they have not in truth experienced the risen Christ! Saw him. Talked with him. Touched him. Ate with him. How can they do that – unless Jesus is risen from the dead!
So Jesus appears to the disciples as living proof of both his death and of his resurrection from the dead. But we also discover something else. In today’s post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and his disciples – we find that Jesus has some unfinished business to take care of. Most specifically — unfinished business with Peter.
Now – most of you remember that it was Peter who had denied knowing Jesus shortly after Jesus had been arrested. While the trial of Jesus is going on – some folks are pointing at Peter and accusing him of being a disciple of Jesus. And what does Peter do? He vehemently lets them know, “I do not; I do not; I swear I do not know him.” How many times does he deny Jesus? That’s right. Three times.
Now hold onto that – because I want you to see what happens in this episode from today’s Gospel reading by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and the disciples are on the beach having breakfast, and when breakfast is over, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him, not once, but three times “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Without even one reference to Peter’s denials – Jesus leads Peter through a process of repentance. And by the third time – you know that Peter knows what the Lord is doing. Peter can count. Thankfully – for us and for Peter – Peter confesses his faith in Jesus all three times when he says, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And each time Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my lambs; tend the sheep; feed my sheep.”
Peter is forgiven. And now that he is forgiven – he can focus his attention – not on his guilt for having denied knowing Jesus – but on what Jesus wants him to focus on. To care about what Jesus cares about – the flock – or in other words those who will come to faith and belief in Jesus Christ. In other words – the church. But before Peter can carry out this task – he has to be ready. He has to be forgiven – and know that he is forgiven.
I want to suggest to you that maybe – just maybe – there may be some of us – maybe even most of us – who see ourselves in Peter. We feel guilty for something that we’ve said or done. We might even think that God is mad at us. Well let me tell you something. God’s not mad at you.
Think about it! When Jesus talks to Peter – does Jesus say, “Peter you nincompoop! You told me – you promised me – you would never deny me. Shame on you Peter. Three times – count ‘em – three times you denied knowing me.”
NO! Christ never once condemns Peter. Not once! Notice that Jesus forgives Peter. He doesn’t rub Peter’s nose in those denials of his. No. He forgives Peter. And in the same way, Jesus forgives you. He doesn’t rub our nose in what we’ve done either. Jesus does not come to us wagging his finger in our faces. You see – Christ cares about us – His church. Christ cares about you.
And when we understand just how much we are loved and forgiven – well then it seems to me that confessing our faith in Jesus Christ is just the right and proper thing to do. To profess great love for the Lord, and show gratitude for all that He has done for us. And one of the gifts that He has given us is the gift of the church. This body of believers – the bride of Christ – the living stones put together as a holy temple where Christ himself lives.
And – just like Peter – Jesus asks us to care about what Jesus cares about. In other words – he asks us to care about the church. And I will suggest to you that there are two sides to this. The first is caring for the people who are already a part of the church. And second – to care for those who are not yet a part of the church.
It’s a challenge to do both – and to do both well. But that has been my goal – my target – my focus – from day one. And quite frankly – I think it is something that we as a church do well – because – number one – so many of you are involved in the caring ministries of this church – I can’t do this alone – and number two – you are also great evangelists. At the risk of sounding like a broken record – kids you’ll have to ask your parents or grandparents what a broken record is – but at the risk of sounding like one – I want to thank you for inviting folks you know to visit with us here at Zion. AND I want to thank all of you for going out of your way for making those first and second and third time guests feel welcome here. That’s important. That’s part of caring about what Jesus cares about.
Because – like Peter – Jesus wants us to care passionately about what Jesus cares about – namely His church. Jesus wants us to have a heart for the church. And you can’t have a heart for the church – at least it seems this way to me – you can’t have a heart for the church – and stay away from it. Unless – of course – things like age or illness – sometimes work schedules or other circumstances – keep you away. I understand that. But again – going it alone – practicing your faith in private – is not what Jesus has in mind for us – His church.
Last week I encouraged you to read the book of Acts. I want you to know that that’s what I’m doing. I am in the process of reading the book of Acts – one chapter a day.
And when you do, you’re going to see that the first century church exploded. After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – where do we find the disciples? Boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ – and Him risen from the dead. And that’s where we find our roots – our history – our beginnings as a church – on the day of Pentecost.
I know we Lutherans are rather proud of the fact that Martin Luther – the guy after whom we are named – started the Protestant Reformation on October 31st, 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle Church. But that’s not where the Lutheran church had its start. The Lutheran church had its start all the way back to the beginning – on the day of Pentecost. That’s when the church began with just a handful of people. 120 to be exact.
So when you read – if you read – the book of Acts you’re going to read about those first disciples. You’re going to read about a man named Peter. You’re going to read that he is a different man from the man he was just some 50 some odd days earlier when he denied knowing Jesus. He is a changed man. As you read the book of Acts – you’ll find Peter and the other disciples – and other early converts to Jesus – going into the world with the Good News message of Jesus Christ. Every Gospel – every prayer – every letter that they wrote – that can be found in your Bible – is evidence that Peter and the others took Jesus seriously. They choose to love what Jesus loves – to care for what Jesus cares for. To tend the sheep. To feed the flock. To care for the church.
One of the great blessings we have in the Lutheran tradition is to have this day – this weekend – that we celebrate as All Saints weekend. Again – All Saints Day is November 1st – but we celebrate it this first weekend following the first. And I love All Saints Day because it is a great time for us to remember all the saints who have gone before us – and to honor the living saints among us – who have had an impact on our lives.
And just to make the point – as I do every year – a saint is anyone who names the name of Christ. Anyone who is a disciple of Jesus Christ is a saint. This is how the Bible uses the word saint – and therefore – what does this mean? It means that we – WE – all of us – we are all saints. So how many saints in this room? That’s right. Every hand ought to go up.
Let me conclude with words from Joshua Harris. I think he says it well. He says, “Consider the countless men and women since the [church had its start] – not great leaders or teachers or pastors, mind you, just ordinary believers – who have lived their lives for God’s glory in local churches. How many do we know by name? Hardly any. And yet their faithfulness to the Savior is directly connected to the fact that two thousand years later, you and I know Jesus.
“If they had not stood for the gospel in their generation, we wouldn’t be here in ours. They lived out God’s Word; they met in fellowship to give witness to the gospel; they proclaimed Christ crucified and risen from the dead with their words and their lives.
“Through them God saved and discipled the person who shared the Good News with another. Who witnessed to another, and another, and another – on and on through the generations till we come to the man or woman who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with you and me.
“And here we are.”
And then I REALLY like what Harris says next. Listen! He says, “This is our time.” This is our time” [to be the church.]
“Today, we are Christ’s church. Today Jesus comes to us with the same question. Will you and I,…commit to passing on through His church in this generation the treasure of His glorious gospel?
“My brothers and sisters, it’s time for us to say yes.”
To love what Jesus loves. To care about what Jesus cares about – His church. If not us – who? If not now – when?
And that’s why church matters.