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LOYALTY TO JESUS HAS ITS REWARDS
Third Sunday of Easter – Year C
May 05 2019 – 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Acts 5:27-32; 40b-41 | Psalm 30:2;4-6;11-13
Revelation 5:11-14 | John 21:1-19
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN:
On Easter Sunday, terrorists killed over 250 people worshiping at Mass and celebrating Easter in Sri Lanka. They were killed because they were Christians by people who intended to murder Christians. They were killed while practicing Christianity in the most quintessential way: rejoicing in the Risen Lord on the Feast of the Resurrection. By classic definition, those facts make them undisputedly martyrs. Trust me, one day the Church Kalendar will include a Feast of the Martyrs of Sri Lanka.
As I have preached on many previous occasions, existing as a Christian is not easy. How Christians think, and what Christians should do, flies in the face of so much of how the world operates. For example, many people retaliation against someone who wrongs you is okay. Take capital punishment. Many victim families want to see the killer of their loved one be executed. A second example is those who blame poor people for being poor and don’t want to provide the basics of life for them, like food, medical care, and housing because they haven’t worked to earn those things. A third example is how many people treat immigrants without papers. In the minds of many, immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are nothing but scum.
All of these attitudes are NOT what Jesus taught. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to retaliate. In the Parable of Lazarus and Dives, Jesus taught us to care for the poor, and in his message on the Judgement of the Nations, Jesus taught us to welcome the stranger within our gates. All of these ideas echo and clarify ideas found in the Old Testament, where the devotion and loyalty to God was often met with persecution as witnessed by the Assyrian deportation in the Eighth Century B-C and the Babylonian Exile about two-hundred-fifty years later.
Today’s Christians remain unpopular among otherwise progressive people, who persecute all Christians by ascribing intolerant attitudes to everyone who worships Jesus, like homophobia, and not allowing women to control their own reproductive lives. Those are both subjects on which Jesus said absolutely nothing, yet the unchurched populace assumes all Christians manifests those defects and continue to persecute Christians, when in fact many of us don’t go along with that nonsense.
To put it bluntly, those who follow Jesus and take what he said seriously by actually doing it, have always been unpopular as illustrated in today’s First Reading. Followers of Jesus often defied human authority and suffered as a result. The Sanhedrin, a council of the high priests of the temple, supposedly ordered the Apostles not to preach about Jesus. But the Apostles disobeyed the Sanhedrin and did it anyways. They flat out told the high priests they would obey God, not human authority, and that they were very proud to do so. The reading says they “rejoiced that they suffered dishonor for speaking in the name of Jesus.” So much for using Christianity to teach people to respect human authority.
The loyalty of Christians to Jesus, from the Roman persecutions of the first century to the present day, has often cost them their lives. If you don’t believe me, try preaching Jesus in public in Saudi Arabia, where public displays of Christianity are flat out illegal and subject to brutal prosecution. If you try, I’m sure the outcome will not be pleasant.
Loyalty is the major theme in the story of the relationship between Jesus and Peter. You may recall from the Passion narratives sung here during Holy Week. At the Last Supper, Peter said to Jesus something like, “Even if everyone else abandons you, I will be faithful to you.” Jesus, however, didn’t believe Peter, and told Peter that before the proverbial rooster would crow the following morning, Peter would deny his relationship with Jesus three times, and that’s exactly what happened. So as Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus had reason to be skeptical of Peter’s loyalty. The darkness of Peter’s three time denial of discipleship or even being an acquaintance of Jesus, might lead one to believe Peter was doomed from friendship with Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t let that happen.
Even though Peter experiences the risen Lord, confusion rankled Peter. Unable to discern how to live in the Spirit of the Resurrection, Peter returned to his old ways of making a living catching fish. Effort by Peter to reengage in former ways led to a night of darkness and futility in which Peter and his companions failed to catch any fish. Only when following Jesus’ commands, from words Jesus uttered out of concern for quenching their physical and spiritual hunger, did Peter and his cohorts experience fulfillment of his physical and spiritual needs.
Once fed with bread and fish, Jesus invited Peter into a dialogue of reconciliation. It was a conversation rooted in love, a bond of communion in a new way of life, a sacrificial life rooted in feeding and tending to the needs of others. Jesus challenged Peter by asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did, to which Peter responded, “Yes, you know that I love you,” to which Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.” The same dialogue was repeated twice more, with Jesus replying, “Tend my sheep” and “Feed my lambs.” Feeding and tending. What does Jesus mean by those words?Jesus meant not only feeding people physically hungry, but spiritually hungry as well. The word “tend” clarifies the meaning of feed in this context; to tend to others is to look out for their welfare. Here at Saint Cecilia’s, we offer the sacraments to quench spiritual hunger, and we collect food, clothing and toiletries for donation to Well In The Desert so that organization may better tend to the least among us. In this ministry, we are doing exactly what Jesus commissioned us to do, that is, feed people and care for them.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus was commissioning Peter for ministry. Peter represents all of us in ministry, both lay and ordained. What Jesus is telling Peter, and us, is that if one really loves Jesus, we will accept the trust Jesus reposes in us to care for the flock which of which Jesus is the shepherd, which is all of us. All of us need ministry from all of us.
What is ministry? It is caring for people. Many of us associate ministry with liturgy, and indeed, liturgy is important. More about that later. But what Jesus was getting at here was both what we do at the table and what we do away from it are what ministry is. Bread and fish tell that story. Just like the bread-and-wine Eucharist we know and love as our Mass, today’s gospel was set in the context of a meal with symbols of bread and fish.
For thousands of years bread has been, and still is, a staple for every culture. It has also been used in religious ceremonies for almost as long. For instance, the priests of ancient Egypt used bread in their offerings to their goddess, Orisis. The ancient Romans would bake bread on the ninth day of June each year for use in a ceremony to honor their goddess Vesta. Bread has long been used during Buddhist ceremonies by placing it on incense burners in honor of the spirits of the dead. Muslims bake bread during the feast of Id al-Fitr after the month-long fast of Ramadan. As scripture tells us, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, whose name means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. In the Jewish context in which Jesus was born, lived, and died, bread is quite significant. It is part of the ceremonies of the Sabbath. Unleavened bread is the food of liberation associated with Passover and the subsequent Exodus from Egypt. God rained down a form of bread called manna to the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness to nourish their existence until they settled in one place. Bread is a representation of God’s power to love and care for us. For Jews, if you don’t have bread, you don’t have a meal. For Christians, and Jews, bread means life. You may recall Jesus proclaiming himself earlier in the Gospel of John as “the Bread of Life” and telling his audience that he is the living bread that comes down from heaven, and whoever eats of that bread will live forever.
For Jews, fish are a symbol of abundant life, perhaps because a single female fish often lays hundreds of ggs. When Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, he said to them, “and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” The Hebrew word in that verse translated as “grow” is said to be derived from a root word which means fish. You will recall that when Jesus chose fish catchers, Peter among them, at casting their nets in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus told them they would be fishing for people instead of fishing for fish if they followed Jesus. Fishing for people grows the church. In the context of today’s Gospel, the disciples went fishing but didn’t catch anything all night. So they turned to Jesus, cast their nets over the side of their boat once again, and caught fish in abundance.
Those two powerful symbols in today’s Gospel, bread and fish, representing life and abundance, demonstrate how Jesus made a difference in the lives of the disciples and how Jesus can do so in our lives as well, if we accept the love Jesus offers us.An abundance of love is what Jesus offers us in exchange for our faith in Him, that is, our belief, our trust, our loyalty to Jesus. In Christian art and literature, the fish is a symbol of Christ.
But loyalty to Jesus has its personal price, as the people in Sri Lanka found out all too well, and Peter himself would soon find out. At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus foretold Peter’s death. Scriptures does not tell us how or when Peter died, but early church tradition says that Peter probably died by crucifixion (with arms outstretched) at the time of the Great Fire of Rome in sixty-four A-D and is mentioned in the First Epistle of Clement, a book that’s part of the New Testament Apocrypha, one of those books that almost became part of the New Testament but did not.
We can and should take heart from Peter’s renewal of faith in Jesus, wherein he moved from denial to affirmation, and accepted the invitation Jesus extends to us as well to enter into His love. Jesus tells us how to experience his love with two simple words, “Follow me.” There is no need to wander or search, but only to follow His words and witness of encounter, welcome, mercy, and to do likewise. The love Jesus offers us is a transformative love to direct our lives to service of others in His name. In so doing, we experience a lifetime of His goodwill, to exit our nighttime of weeping in order that we may enter the dawn of rejoicing to turn our mourning into dancing. As we will sing in our final song today, Jesus is the Lord of the Dance.
The abundant life we get from Jesus has many rewards, and among those rewards are the opportunity for high church style worship in the beauty of holiness, like that we experience here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, where we make truly majestic music worthy to inspire devotion to Jesus as the Son of God, music that reflects the best within us. A worship service with great music is a reward here on earth that enables us to catch a glimpse of heaven. In today’s Second Reading, scripture tells us what the worship of God in heaven is like. When I read this passage, I recognized the words instantly. Those words were set to music for the two last choruses from Handel’s Messiah, which I will share with you after Mass on the boombox. I’ve sung them many times, and having done so, I’m, convinced that those who love Jesus can be inspired to create truly great music. Being a composer of church music myself, I fully understand that. Peter loved Jesus. So should we. Although we must be prepared to pay the price for doing so, the rewards for loving Jesus are so abundant that they are priceless.
Jesus offers us a life of abundance, just as Jesus provided an abundant catch for those who cast their nets in Galilee that morning.Jesus is the bread of life that nourishes us abundantly. AMEN.