Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
Before I begin, I’d just like to share a bit of trivia, written by Bishop Michael Curry in his book “The Power of Love”. It’s related to our Gospel reading this morning from the 21st chapter of John:
. . . some scholars say chapter 20 ends the gospel. But if you look in your Bible, you’ll see there’s another chapter. And scholars have all sorts of theories about whether 21 is an addition, an extension or an appendix. I’m not a scholar. I’m a country preacher, and I know preachers, and you do too. I’ve got a feeling John finished his sermon in chapter 20, the plane was landing and he remembered something else, and he took off and came around again. That’s what happened.” What’s your theory?
Jesus said “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt.28:20)
“Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” – a promise that Jesus made to the disciples 2,000 years ago, that is also true for us today.
How do you experience that promise from God the Father/Mother, Jesus, the Son or God the Holy Spirit? “Remember, I am with you always.” Do you hear words of comfort, of healing or get a sensation of peace and tranquility? Perhaps you receive “marching orders” like Peter in the Gospel story and Paul in our first reading this morning. I suspect that most of us don’t experience God in quite such dramatic ways. We might receive words of wisdom when we pray, read scripture, sit in silence or meditate. We might hear God’s message to us through the words of someone else. Often messages are unexpected and quite often not recognized immediately for what they are.
In our Gospel story this morning, the disciples didn’t immediately recognize Jesus when he called to them. It was that time just before dawn, when the light is gray, misty and hazy. They’d been out fishing all night without a resulting catch, were tired and disheartened. Then Jesus called to them from the shore. “Children you have no fish, have you?” . . . “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They followed Jesus’ directions and were successful. John, one of the disciples, then realized that it was Jesus calling to them, (He’d addressed them as children after all), and he told the rest of the crew. Simon Peter became so excited that he threw on his tunic and jumped into the sea, so that he could be the first to greet Jesus.
He did indeed reach the shore first, while the rest of the disciples hauled in their catch. What greeted them was Jesus preparing breakfast for them – Jesus is always practical; he knew that the men had had a tiring night and needed food, so he took care of their bodily needs first. When they were done, he addressed Simon Peter, asking him if he loved Jesus. Three times, Jesus asked the question – giving Peter the opportunity to affirm his love and redress the three denials he’d given, following Jesus’ capture and interrogation by Pilate. Once he affirmed his love, then Jesus gave Simon Peter his “marching orders” – “Feed my lambs” . . . “Tend my sheep” and finally “Feed my sheep”. Thus, Peter became a great shepherd of Christ’s people. Peter was transformed. His shame at having denied Jesus three times was lifted. He listened, heard Jesus’ words and was willing to learn. Peter’s experience of Jesus was a gentle time of healing and encouragement.
Paul’s experience of God occurred somewhat more dramatically. According to the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was doing the business of the Pharisees, having one goal in mind, which was to scatter and murder the early followers of Jesus. He’d gone to the High Priest, asking for arrest warrants to take with him to the meeting places in Damascus. On the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground. A voice asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When Paul got up, he was blind. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. He neither ate nor drank for three days. In the meantime, Ananias, the person who was called to help in Paul’s conversion, had his own experience of God in a vision. Initially Ananias questioned the directions Jesus gave him to enable Paul to see again. He’d heard of Paul’s hatred for the followers of Jesus and really questioned if Jesus knew what he was doing! Jesus’ response was simple: “Go”. Ananias went. Paul subsequently received his sight back. It was through Ananias that Paul received his “marching orders”. “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will”, Ananias says, “to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice, for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you delay? Get up, be baptized and have your sins washed away”. (I like this sense of ‘hurry up and get on with it; what are you waiting for’ attitude.) Paul thus became God’s chosen personal representative to the Gentiles, to kings and to the Jews. Sometimes, like Ananias, we do need to question the words we hear. Is this you, Lord? Is this really what you want? Are my thoughts and wishes getting in the way - but then what happens if we don’t pay attention or obey God’s directives?
I think of the story of Jonah and his mis-adventures, when he didn’t follow God’s orders to go to Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah – his own ego and nationalistic feelings got in the way. Because he disobeyed, Jonah ended up in the belly of a large fish and was nearly responsible for the deaths of the folk he was sailing with in the boat. If you haven’t read the Book of Jonah recently, do – it’s only 4 chapters. God can and does transform our mistakes, but we often suffer first before God sets us on the right path, or before we come to our senses and decide to follow God’s will. Sometimes, as in Jonah’s and Paul’s cases, it takes something dramatic to get us to change direction. Sometimes, we’re led where we don’t particularly want to go and we rebel.
My son-in-law, Bill, comes to mind. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He was told that he needed to leave the parish where he’d spent the last ten years, but he didn’t want to have to move house. His youngest child had two more years to go to finish high school – the high school he’d been attending from middle school on; the high school from which his two older siblings had graduated. An opening occurred in a parish close to home, which would not have involved a house move. He applied, and became the church’s first choice, but there were numerous complications. At the same time, he heard via a colleague, of another opening in a parish further from home. Bill paid no attention. The first church fell through, much to his disappointment. He’s now following through on the second church and things are looking much more positive. Had he paid attention to the words of his colleague, he would have saved himself and his family some suffering and disappointment. Like many of us tend to do, he ignored the message from his colleague.
Paying attention to God’s words that come to you via others is important. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this example before, but it bears telling again in this context. I’d been “let go” from my paralegal position and was wondering about my future. What did God want me to do next? How could I serve God? I went to a meeting, where I sat next to a woman I barely knew, but who was a member of my parish. I told her of my predicament. She asked a couple of questions and then suggested that I visit Fr. Bolton in Springfield. Fr. Bolton headed a group studying clinical pastoral education. I listened to my fellow parishioner, followed through on her suggestion and felt like I’d found my true ministry at last. Jesus has plans for each one of us and will let us know what they are, if we but listen to Him.
Sometimes, Jesus comes to us when we’re most in need, as he did to the disciples on their unsuccessful fishing trip – when we’re feeling tired out, sad, overwhelmed or worried. Feeling tired and worried, I experienced God’s presence driving down I91 at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’d just received a phone call telling me that my husband had been involved in an automobile accident in Connecticut and had been taken to BayState Hospital in Springfield. On that occasion, as I drove down the highway and prayed, I felt a sense of peace come over me and a sureness that he would be alright. He was!
My brother-in-law, Jonathan, experienced God in a dream when he was feeling distraught about his daughter’s safety. She’d recently been married, realized what a terrible mistake she’d made and left her new husband without telling anyone where she was going or with whom she might be staying. Needless to say, my sister and brother-in-law were frantic with worry while they tried to find out where she’d gone. None of her friends could shed any light on the situation. Her new husband was very angry and believed that her parents must know where she was. One night, a week or so later, my brother-in-law was woken by a felt presence in the room. He thought it was his deceased father-in-law. Jonathan heard a voice reassuring him that his daughter was safe, that everything would work out eventually, but that he, Jonathan, had to take the lead and be the responsible father during the unpleasantness that was to follow. This was not a role he would’ve undertaken without having had this prompting. Jonathan and my sister were reassured and thankful for this experience of God’s loving care.
Last week, we heard about another post-Easter appearance by Jesus to the disciples as he had promised them before he died. They were hiding in a locked room for fear of being arrested. They also were feeling sad and distraught. Things with their leader hadn’t worked out as they’d hoped or thought they would. Jesus came to them where they were, as they were – just as he did to Bill, to Jonathan and to me – just as he does to each one of us here and now. Perhaps you’ll experience Him when you receive communion this morning, listen to the readings from scripture or hear the music. Perhaps you experience God when you walk the labyrinth, when you walk in the woods or stand on the sea shore and marvel at the beauty around you. Perhaps you’re in need of an experience of God right now – to comfort, heal, or strengthen you, or just to receive a sense of uplifting joy. If so, I pray that you will have that experience. Remember, Jesus has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. We know that Jesus keeps his promises. AMEN.
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