Follow Me

On the liturgical calendar, today is the beginning of what is termed “Ordinary Time” – the stretch of the year in which there are no holy seasons or high holidays. We’ve observed Lent, celebrated Easter, welcomed the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and pondered the mystery of God as three-in-one on Trinity Sunday. There won’t be any other such special occasions until we approach Advent at the end of November.

That’s why this long stretch of the year is dubbed “ordinary.” Nothing special happens. It’s a time set aside for us in the church to (re)focus on our calling as the church. Which, of course, makes “ordinary” quite an unfortunate misnomer.
Because there is nothing the least bit ordinary about our calling as a church.

We’re fuelled by the fires of Pentecost; those flames don’t flicker out. We’re filled with the currents of the Holy Spirit; that rushing wind doesn’t die down. Though many, we are called to be one – as a reflection of the triune God whom we worship, who is three in one. Ordinary is for oatmeal and convenience stores. But not for the church. Especially this year, as we continue to try to find our way forward through this COVID-19 shaped reality.

Perhaps a better way to think about this season within the church is to borrow language from our province’s response to the pandemic. Rather than entering into something “ordinary,” what if we thought about this season as entering into the next stage or phase of our response to the gospel we have heard, to everything we have remembered and celebrated: how God has revealed God’s Self in Christ.

If we have heard, if we have seen; if we believe; if we receive Jesus as the One whom the Gospels declare Him to be, then we cannot help but respond. We, like that first band of fishermen and tax collectors so long ago, cannot help but embrace Him and pursue Him. And the word we use for that response, that pursuit, is discipleship.

But what is a disciple? It’s a churchy word we use a lot without, perhaps, really understanding what it is. The simplest and most straightforward definition of “disciple” is what the word literally means. A disciple is a student. So to become a disciple of Jesus means to become a student of Jesus. Someone who takes on Jesus as their rabbi, as their teacher.

“Teacher” is actually one of the most common titles used of Jesus in the four Gospels. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” “Look, Teacher, what magnificent buildings!” Teacher is how Mary Magdalene addresses the Risen Christ on Easter morning in John’s Gospel. She says, “Rabouni,” which means my Rabbi, my teacher, my master.

So if we are disciples, we are students. But once we understand that, we have to consider what being a student of Jesus’ means. What does it look like? What does it involve? In our 21st century North American world, the word “student” most likely conjures up in our minds images of textbooks and whiteboards; classrooms and libraries: a rather sedentary and intellectual endeavour undertaken for grades and degrees. Which for some of us (like me) is stimulating and enjoyable. For others – perhaps many others of us – it doesn’t sound the least bit exciting, and certainly doesn’t sound anything like “Good News.”

But our modern systems of education bear little resemblance to how Jesus taught or what He taught. Jesus wasn’t on a faculty and never once assigned a paper. He told stories more than He gave lectures. Jesus approached His students-to-be with nothing more and nothing less than two simple but radical words: “Follow Me.”

No syllabus handed out. Not even so much as a course description offered. No promises. No expectations – at least not at the outset. Simply, “Follow Me.”

All of which makes the Gospel call narratives really quite remarkable when we stop to think about them. A man shows up on the shores of the Seas of Galilee, whom (as far as we know) Andrew and Simon Peter have never met or even seen before, utters two words, and the first disciples leave their nets, their families – everything they’ve known – and go with Him. That’s a powerful invitation! A beginning to a course of instruction like none any of them, or any of us, have ever undertaken – ever even heard of.

And of course, that’s because it’s a course of instruction unlike any ever offered. It’s not even a course, really; it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. A journey toward a new Kingdom that has come near, a new possibility, that lies both within Him and within them, within us.

That’s why Jesus gives them nothing when He calls them, and seemingly they take nothing with them when they follow. There’s no need. All they need is the One they’re following…and themselves. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, is both the instructor and the subject. He is the guide as well as the destination of the journey they are undertaking together, and the disciples’ hearts, minds, souls, and strength are the only materials they will need.

It is a journey of discovery: an awakening to a new Kingdom, a new merger between heaven and earth, that has come near in Him, with Him, and through Him.

It’s a journey of awakening to who Christ is and who we are, who we can become, in Him. A journey into the awareness of a deeper existence, a deeper magic as CS Lewis phrased it; an awareness of the presence of both a brighter light and a more expansive darkness; of powers and principalities at work AND greater, more glorious possibilities on the horizon.

It’s an awakening similar to what some of us are experiencing now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – an awakening to realities and histories to which we’ve been oblivious, or privileged enough to ignore if not deny. Realities and histories that don’t just exist south of the border but right here in Canada, right here in Toronto.

Receiving Christ, then following Christ, opens our eyes in that very same way – to things we didn’t see before, things we never dreamed we’d see. And not just negative realities.

I remember when I first became a disciple, when I first set off on this journey, when I understood for the first time within my being who Jesus is, when I gave my life over to Him, the world around me practically glowed with a new radiance, a new significance. I saw other people in a different way: as children of God, valued and beloved by God. Not labels or stereotypes or demographic segments, but salt and light, dust and ash infused with God’s breath. People who are flawed but also forgiven.

To see that, though, to have our eyes open to these deeper, heavenly realities, we have to move; we have to be uprooted from where we currently are and allow Jesus to take us on this journey of discovery. To help us learn new values and priorities, new heavenly weights and measures; and to unlearn the former, worldly standards we have grown accustomed to, that have been instilled within us. This is not and cannot just be a kind of spiritual movement; it’s a bodily physical movement. We have to have new experiences and new exposures.

Jesus could not have taught the original disciples all that He taught them if He had left them in Galilee. They had to see the Kingdom breaking into the land of the Gerasenes and the villages of the Samaritans. They not only had to hear Him say that all the magnificent buildings of Jerusalem would one day come tumbling down, they had to see the grandeur of those buildings for themselves.

Likewise, we have to allow Jesus to call us, prod us, sometimes pry us, out of our bubbles, our routines, our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Because the Kingdom is breaking in, in all manner of ways and all manner of places through all manner of people. God has things – amazing things, and groundbreaking, ground-shaking things – to show us through them. And we won’t see any of it if we don’t follow Jesus out there to see it.

It’s a lifelong journey, this journey of discipleship, one that never ends once it begins. That’s why we’ve been gifted the presence of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity has come to guide us in our continuing education in the way of Jesus, every day, every hour.

That’s also why we need the church, why we need to be the church: walking, studying, learning, experiencing together. None of us have all the insight, all the perspective, all the gifts we need to see all that God is revealing, all that God has to show us. And we need companions, brothers and sisters to walk with us because living in the world while holding to the standards and priorities of heaven can make for some rough road.

Jesus may not have issued promises or expectations at the beginning of the journey; but as we progress / venture further along the way; when we like Peter in Mark 8 grasp who Christ is and really start to understand what the implications of His coming are, there is another stage, another phase we have to face and enter into. We have to take up our crosses as we follow.

Because the cross is the world’s response to the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, to the radical standards and values and priorities of heaven. The powers-that-be will always push back, always resist, because they rightly understand the gospel is a threat to their status. And that includes the powers within us.

Our worldly selves also resist the gospel, even when we – again like Peter – can say all the right things about Jesus. Even when we willingly undertake the journey. Even when we firmly and deeply believe. We can still miss the point. There are aspects, dimensions to Christ’s Kingdom we can still struggle, even refuse, to accept. There are stretches of this road we don’t care to explore.

Peter couldn’t accept that the Messiah would be crucified. Jesus’ response to him (and all the disciples) is: not only do I have to be crucified to the world, so do you. Ultimately, you have to die to your former, worldly self in order to rise and share fully in the new life, in the new Kingdom I bring. That’s why, like Peter, we have to keep walking, keep learning, keep following: keep allowing Jesus through the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, keep shaping us, keep pushing us. Renewing us. Transforming us.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be exploring various aspects and practices of discipleship that help all of us – individually and corporately – continue on this journey with Jesus, to progress;, to learn what He has to teach us, to see what He has to show us; to have our hearts, minds, souls, and strength shaped to love God fully and love our neighbours fully – for that is what Jesus has taught us to do above all else. Prayer. Practicing the Kingdom as well as proclaiming it. Doing justice. Becoming teachers ourselves. And those are just a few.

This series coincides with a prayerful conversation the elders, the staff, and our ministry team leaders are undertaking to discern how we can become a more discipleship oriented and disciple-making church. How we like Jesus can gather small groups, small bands of willing followers together – like that first dozen disciples – to learn and grow together. That was Jesus’ model. It ought to be ours, too, if we seek to follow Him, to know Him, and make Him known.

Especially in a world where, at least for the short-term, COVID-19 will continue to limit large group gatherings, we need to adapt our modes and methods of ministry to our current context.

For many of us, it will be something new. It will take us out of comfort zones. But as we’ve seen, the willingness to step out of and away from the familiar is a prerequisite for taking on Jesus as our teacher, as our rabbi, and discovering the new Kingdom He brings. A Kingdom He brings not just to show us, but to share with us.

So let us take courage and let us take heart. Let us not be afraid to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into a new day, a new possibility. Because the One who bids us to follow loves us and wants the best for us. And – He isn’t asking us to do anything He Himself hasn’t done.

In fact, Jesus calls us on this journey precisely so that we might see as He sees, do as He does, share in the abundant life of love He enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and rouse others to the good news of God’s amazing and transformative grace.

That is the anything-but-ordinary calling we have as the church in our time.

May all with ears to hear, hear. 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.

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 595 other followers

  • RSS Weekly Scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary

  • Editor’s Choice

  • Recent Posts

  • Previous Posts

  • Categories

  • Art Matters

    Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938

  • Follow Me on Twitter @RevBTT