One God. One Body.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day churches around the world celebrate, proclaim, and remember our distinctive Christian witness to the nature of God. We declare with the Israelites that God is one, but one in a particular way. God isn’t just one; God is three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, one Being. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. It’s a peculiar form of heavenly math that doesn’t quite add up using earthly equations. At least not on paper, and that’s part of the point. The doctrine of the Trinity renders God at once understandable yet mysterious. It places God within reach but not fully in our grasp.

But just because it doesn’t add up on paper doesn’t mean this equation doesn’t add up anywhere on earth. There is a place where it *is* supposed to add up, where the answer to this odd equation is supposed to become clear. And that place is here: with you and me. In the church. As the church.

The body metaphor that the Apostle Paul uses throughout his letters to describe and define the church is rooted in this same heavenly math, in this same divine nature, because the church is intended to reflect the God we worship and proclaim. Though three distinct persons, God is one Being, one Identity. In the same way, Paul declares, we who are many are one in Christ. One body in many parts. No longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. These earthly labels and distinctions no longer apply in the fellowship of heaven. Which is why Paul places so much emphasis on church unity.

The unity we express in our diversity is an essential part of our faith witness. To be one in Christ is to be one in mind – to share the same mind, in fact, that was in Christ Himself. One mind for one body. One faith, one Lord, one baptism for one people, a new people, who have Christ Jesus as their Lord and King. That doesn’t mean we should strive to be homogeneous or uniform; that we are to be cookie cutter images of one another. No. To be of one mind means to share a singleness of purpose and mission and a commitment to allowing the Holy Spirit to shape us, individually and together, more fully into the image of Christ. This is why the Holy Spirit is among us, according to John’s Gospel: to teach us and remind us of all that Jesus has said.

And it’s why Paul is so utterly exasperated with the church in Corinth and the way they gather together as the church. These words in 1 Corinthians 11 are among the most stringent he has for anyone, anywhere:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 What! Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you!

There is nothing to praise because nothing about their fellowship reflects the lordship of Christ. They’re eating what they call the Lord’s Supper but the label doesn’t make it so. Paul’s point is that how the meal is conducted makes it so. What is in your heart and in your soul and in your mind is what makes it so. It doesn’t particularly matter what words of institution you say, or what prayers you offer; you aren’t remembering Christ if you aren’t eating with regard for anyone other than yourself. Some in the Corinthian church are going hungry while others are getting fat and drunk because the mind of Christ, the unity of the Body, the image of the triune God we worship is not reflected in their life together. That’s the root of the problem. That’s what Paul is concerned about.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a matter of decorum. Nor is it simply a matter of individual moral failure. What plagues the Corinthian church is a system of worldly hierarchies being allowed to persist where they shouldn’t. Some of His critics denounced Jesus Himself as a glutton and drunkard. But they did so because Jesus was transgressing established social norms, eating with “the wrong people.” That’s not what the Corinthians are doing. Far from challenging worldly social boundaries, they are reinforcing them; and in doing so they are undermining their witness to Christ as Lord.

As we keep reading, we discover In verse 33 that, after the lambasting of verses 17-21 and the words of institution that are so familiar to us in verses 22-26, Paul instructs the Corinthians to “wait for each other” before they eat. Thus it would seem that members of the church arrive for the worship gathering at different times. From what we know of social patterns in the first century Mediterranean world, those who arrived first most likely would have been the wealthier members of the congregation because they could come and go more or less as they pleased. Then, as now, one of the things that affluence and higher social status affords is fuller control over one’s own time. Those arriving later, then, would have been the poorer, working class members of the church, who’s schedules were not as flexible given the demands of their trade or the authority others held over them. This would have been especially true for any enslaved members of the congregation.

The scene that Paul is describing, then, is one in which these poorer members have arrived to find the meal picked over and some of their brothers and sisters intoxicated with excess. No thought, no consideration has been given to them. Within their church, they’re not seen to be as important, just as they are viewed by the wider society. And that means, despite their professions of faith, the Corinthian church has surrendered the table of Christ to the etiquette of Caesar, permitting the ways of the world to define and dictate the relationship of those who profess Christ to be their Lord and Saviour rather than allowing the values and priorities of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom to redefine those relationships.

We celebrate Communion as a church, in part, to enact our unity in diversity, to declare with our bodies and our hospitality as well as our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord; that His Kingdom has come near; that earthly ideas, structures, and barriers of class and race and wealth and gender do not apply here. Our allegiance isn’t just to a different King, but to a different kind of King; a King who came not to be served but to serve.

And that allegiance doesn’t just hold inside the walls of the church, be they sanctuary walls or living room walls. What we rehearse here is intended to spill out into the world, with us, from this place. The values and priorities of the world shouldn’t come into the church with us; the values and priorities of heaven should go out into the world with us. Because, if we profess Christ to be Lord, He is Lord on Tuesday as well as Sunday. If we are the church, we are the church on Thursday as well as on Sunday. We cannot compartmentalise loving God and loving neighbour – the things Jesus taught us – treating people one way at church and another way outside of church.

If we profess Christ, we are called to live as witnesses to the coming Kingdom of Heaven wherever we find ourselves; witnesses to a new life: a life together with God and in sync with God – the God who is Three in One. This new life is life as God lives – eternal, abundant, and in harmony with one another; in community with one another. A new life in which everyone belongs because everyone is a human being created in God’s image, a human being for whom Christ lived, died, and lives again. And if the mind of Christ comes to dwell in us, it should gaul us anytime, in any place, we see people not receiving the love, grace, and dignity they deserve.

That’s why the silence of many churches and many individual Christians in modern day matters of injustice has been painful. And I’m not talking about this past week; I’ve actually been encouraged to see so many folks I know, both clergy and laity, speaking up online and marching in protests both here in Toronto and back home in the United States. I’m talking about all the weeks prior. We of all people, we who are followers of Christ, part of the Body of Christ – the church – should be grieved by injustice anywhere. And we, of all people, should be committed to countering that injustice – and not just when the headlines focus our attention. This is work, this is witness, we should engage and should have been engaging all along, so that when the headlines do hit the world can take its response cues from us, rather than the other way around.

Sadly, tragically, sinfully, it’s not just that we’ve been slow to pay attention and slow to respond much of the time. In many cases, individuals and churches who profess Christ as Lord have helped perpetuate the injustice, helped perpetuate all manner of social divisions, both actively and passively, because, like the drunks and gluttons in Corinth, it has served our worldly interests to do so. All of us should take a moment to ask ourselves what we’ll be saying and doing to protest discrimination and state violence against people of colour once the marches cease and the headlines move on. For that matter, what are we saying and doing for the homeless, the jobless, and the working poor; the addicted and the mentally ill; the abused and the disowned? How are we living in such a way as to subvert and shrink the margins – the distinctions – of our society?

There’s no better place to begin asking those kinds of questions than at the Table to which Jesus invites us. The Table at which we gather to be fed and be reminded who we are and whose we are; to be reminded of the One whom we profess to be our Lord and why.

The good news is it’s never too late. It’s never too late to accept the invitation, never too late to have our eyes opened; never too late to repent and resolve to move in a different direction with Christ’s help and with His leading. It wasn’t too late for the Corinthians, and it’s not too late for us – any of us – because the Holy Spirit has come to continue teaching us.

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s why I love this 15th century Russian icon of the Holy Trinity. It’s a representation attributed to Andrei Rublev, who equates the three persons of the Trinity with the three angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18. Rublev depicts the Triune God gathered around a table set only with a single, common cup. My wife and I joke that this is the Trinity having breakfast, or perhaps coffee, together. Whatever the cup represents (and it could represent a variety of things) the central figure appears to be offering a blessing over it, suggesting the meal is just getting started. In a sense, we, the viewers, are arriving just in time.

One of my favourite features of the icon is that the side of the table in the foreground is open in the middle, open to the viewer, and the cup is situated toward that end of the table. It’s a signal, I believe, to you and me – to all of us – that we aren’t just welcome to observe what’s happening around the table; we’re invited to pull a chair up to the table. To join in this meal. To share in this cup. To share in this divine, abundant and eternal life. To become one though we are many.

That is the radical invitation and the amazing grace Christ extends to us once again this morning through the Lord’s Supper. What a challenge. What a blessing!  Amen.

Come and Eat

This is the text of a sermon preached via video for the Kingsway Baptist Church on the Third Sunday of Easter 2020.

_____________________________________________

Happy third Sunday of Easter, Kingsway! As you can see I’m back in the sanctuary, specifically in the balcony. I wanted to give a special shout out to all the “balconites” tuning in from home, all the back row Baptists. Part of the good news of the gospel is that it’s good news for everyone, not just those up front; not just those who occupy the platform. It’s for all of us. Today’s text, in particular, is a reminder that Jesus meets us where we are. And bids us, invites us, to follow Him on from there.

Hear now these words from John chapter 21 verses 1 through 14 (NRSV):

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,[a] Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards[b] off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


Since the start of Holy Week, we’ve been journeying through John’s account of Jesus’ final days. His last hours spent teaching and eating with the disciples; His trial before Pilate, His death and resurrection, and now His post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. In May we’re going to explore the post-resurrection stories found in the other three Gospels; but this week and next we’re going to finish out John’s version of events.

John 21 is one of my favourite passages in all of the New Testament, though narratively it is somewhat strange. Some scholars, in fact, question the authenticity of chapter 21 because chapter 20 seems to wrap things up right after Jesus appears to Thomas:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It is, admittedly, a bit odd that the action would start up again after such a statement. It’s the kind of thing a composition teacher would almost certainly X out in red. But even if it’s stylistically awkward, the content of chapter 21 builds on the preceding narrative in ways that are hardly incidental. There are specific and important connections to what has already happened that prepare the disciples, and by extension the church, to receive the commission Jesus bestows upon them when He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them in chapter 20. “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you” (verse 22). We’ll dive more deeply in that commission next week when we consider Jesus’ instructions to Peter to, “Feed My sheep.” Today we’re going to dive figuratively into the Sea of Tiberias (better known as the Sea of Galilee) with Peter, where he and a subcommittee of the disciples have decided to go fishing.

Now, some preachers and commentators see in Peter’s action here a sign of doubt or aimlessness, even a recanting of his faith in Jesus because, here at the end, after the resurrection, after the fulfillment of all Jesus taught and modelled, he is returning what he knew before he met Jesus. Peter and his brother Andrew – his whole family, really – were fishermen by trade before they were disciples by faith. Personally, I don’t see anything in the story itself to support such an interpretation. Peter sounds to me like my grandfather or one of my cousins back home who sometimes just get an urge to go fishing. “I’m going fishing. Wanna come?” The others disciples say, “Sure. We’ll come with you.” If anything they seem bored, looking for something to do. Nathanael and Thomas weren’t fishermen as far as we know; and Peter isn’t suggesting they start up a business. They’re just going fishing. More significantly, Jesus doesn’t chastise Peter (or any of them) in any way when He shows up. He simply comments, “Looks like you have caught anything. Try casting your net on the right side of the boat.” Far from wavering, Peter shows himself the most eager of the group (and comically so) to get back to land to be with Jesus, putting on his clothes before he jumps into the water to swim for shore. There isn’t a shred of doubt in Peter’s words or actions in this scene. But the connection to what has come before is important. There are a few such connections, actually.

For starters, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Nathanael since chapter 1, when he becomes one of the very first disciples. Here, he makes a cameo appearance in the boat. Jesus promised Nathanael he would “see great things,” even greater than what Jesus revealed to him in their initial conversation. For Nathanael to be present for the “great catch” of the 153 fish is thus the fulfillment of this early promise.

Nathanael’s presence also reminds us that the events of this final, concluding chapter are framed as a new beginning. It’s just after dawn. Jesus is cooking breakfast. It’s a new day even though, narratively, it’s a conclusion. What the risen Christ has for these disciples (and for all disciples – including all of us) is a deepening, an expanding of the life they (and we) have chosen in the footsteps of Jesus. “Come and see” has become “Come and eat.” Things aren’t ending or repeating; they’re being transformed – recast in the light of the Empty Tomb. There is a new abundance of life now in the world because Christ is in the world as the risen Lord of all creation. This change is not always immediately visible or apparent. But Christ can and will direct us to it, beneath the surface, on the side of the boat that it hasn’t occurred to us to try. He can and will help us to find it in places it hasn’t occurred to us to look. Including prior failures.

The two most significant allusions to past events in this story are found in the breakfast Jesus is making. It’s a simple meal of fish and bread cooked over a charcoal fire. But boy does this breakfast pack a punch. Especially if your name is Peter.

The last time (and the only other time) a charcoal fire appears in John is in the courtyard of the high priest (John 18:15-18). On the night He was betrayed, Peter and another disciple follow Jesus to the courtyard following His arrest. Peter joins a group of slaves and policemen who are warming themselves by a charcoal fire. A woman asks Peter if he is “one of them,” meaning one of Jesus’ followers, and Peter denies it – point blank. “I am not,” he tells her.

Here now, in Christ’s risen presence, Peter is confronted with another charcoal fire, this time after an endearing (if somewhat ridiculous) display of faith that has left him sopping wet. Nothing is said; no comment is offered either by Jesus or John; but John clearly specifies the type of fire to draw our attention to it. John wants us to notice it. We also need to notice what Jesus is and isn’t doing with this charcoal fire. Rather than burning Peter with it – literally or figuratively – in the hands of the risen Christ this fire, this symbol of denial and betrayal, becomes a means of nourishment. With love and grace, through love and grace, Christ uses it to feed not only Peter but also the other gathered disciples.

The food Jesus prepares on top of the fire is the second significant allusion to past events: fish and bread. The disciples’ breakfast here on the beach is the same dinner Christ offered the five thousand in the countryside. So in the context of a miracle – the great catch of 153 fish – we are reminded of another, even grander miracle: the Feeding of the Five Thousand, with twelve baskets of food left over. But that’s not all. We should also think back to and remember the Last Supper, the establishment of the Lord’s Supper, because more than any other Gospel writer John structures his telling of the Feeding of the Five Thousand to draw clear and specific parallels between the bread of the miracle and Jesus as the “Bread of Life.”

This is part of what John writes in chapter 6, just after the five thousand have been fed. Jesus withdraws because He is concerned the crowd will try to make Him king. When the disciples find Him, this is what Jesus says, beginning at verse 25: When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

Then skipping to verse 35: Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

That Jesus prepares and offers the disciples bread and fish – cooked over a charcoal fire, no less: the cinders, the smouldering ash of Peter’s betrayal – is a truly amazing, profound, and remarkable act. An act of comprehensive forgiveness; a gift of love and grace served in the guise of breakfast. A gift of Jesus’ very self; a gift of Jesus’ faithfulness in the face of, in response to, Peter’s betrayal that not only obscures Peter’s denial but utterly transforms it.
We could easily end there. I mean, WOW. That would be more than enough for us to ponder and try to wrap our minds around. But in the spirit of John 21, there’s more. There’s at least one more thing re-cast and reshaped in the light of the Empty Tomb that we need to take note of as we seek to be the church in our day and time.

You may remember back during Holy Week, when we looked at Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and then later at Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, I commented that John links the two scenes directly through his use of language, specifically the word he uses to mean “wipe.” Those are the only two contexts in which John employs that particular verb. It’s a literary ”breadcrumb trail” he leaves to link the two scenes and nudge us to consider them together: Jesus receiving a costly and intimate act of worship on the one hand, and undertaking an act of service on the other – an act that is as powerful as it is menial. Well, I think there’s something similar at work here.

When the disciples arrive on the shore, and Jesus calls them to breakfast, He instructs them to “bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” This is a noteworthy instruction because it means that, even though Jesus showed them where to cast their net and has already baked the bread and cooked at least some fish, Jesus views the disciples as partners/participants as well as guests at this meal. A careful look at John’s word choice reveals just how significant this change is.

John describes Peter “hauling the net,” bulging with large fish, to shore. (Keep in mind Peter is the one who acts, but the instruction is given to all of the disciples). The verb we translate here as “haul” is used only twice elsewhere in John’s Gospel, and both times it is a verb used to describe an act carried out either by God the Father or by Jesus Himself. We’ve already heard the first occurrence, in that discourse in John 6 about the bread of life. Jesus says in verse 44, “No one can come to me unless DRAWN (dragged, hauled) by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Then in chapter 12 in verse 32, after Jesus has triumphantly ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, He declares, “…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will DRAW (drag, haul) all people to myself.”

That Jesus here instructs the disciples to do the “hauling”, the dragging, the drawing of the fish is a profound post-Easter expansion of agency within the world and within heaven’s Kingdom. Because of what Jesus has accomplished through His life and witness, through Cross and the Empty Tomb, we aren’t simply His servants; we are His friends (John 15:15):. We aren’t just His students; we are His brothers and sisters (John 20:17). So, too, we aren’t simply recipients of Jesus’ profound love and grace; we are called, invited, to be agents of that love and grace. That’s part of what this new day, emerging in the dawning light of the Empty Tomb, brings with it: a continuation of what we experienced with Jesus before, but also a remarkable transformation of it – and a transformation of *us* – into something more significant, more abundant. We are heirs and ambassadors of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom. We are no longer simply guests of Jesus’ at His Table; we are contributors to the meal. We are commissioned participants in Jesus’ ongoing ministry: “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.”

May the remarkable honour and responsibility of this commission affirm us and inspire us – all of us – both in the front and in the back to live into and live out the love and grace of Easter in the days ahead.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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