Sermon by President Carol E. Lytch at Lancaster Seminary's Opening Worship
August 2017 - Text: John 21:15-19
Greetings to you all at the beginning of this new term: returning students, new students, and faculty, staff, and friends. As we come together at the beginning of a new school year, it would be normal for some of you to be asking a more essential question:
“What am I doing here?”
You are happy and excited about starting seminary or returning to seminary, but you are taking a deep breath and realizing what a huge commitment you have made. “What was I thinking when I signed up to embark on this degree program?”
For some there’s the imposter syndrome. “They made a mistake when they admitted me. “ For others, it’s “will this be worth it?” Still others may be asking, “Will I be accepted in this community?”
Well, you may have those essential questions, and even so, I believe you will succeed here if you come here for the love of God. It’s almost a swearing expression for some, “Oh for the love of God.” Well there’s something to that. It is for the love of God that we are here.
There’s a parallel in my mind in how I was feeling in mid-July when I packed up my backpack and boots and flew to Spain to complete a nine-year goal of finishing a pilgrimage of walking 500 miles across Northern Spain. The pilgrimage is called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and it’s an ancient journey to the cathedral where the bones of the apostle James are kept as relics. I started this this pilgrimage nine years ago with my husband and this year we were finishing.
As I was packing my backpack to go on this final segment, I asked that question, “What am I doing?” Would I be able to complete the final five days of walking? What was I thinking when I said yes to this one more time? I am nine years older than when I started this pilgrimage. I hope that I had good enough feet to make it without being crippled by blisters.
I had many motivations as I started this pilgrimage, but my reason for doing this ended up to be is that I go on this pilgrimage for the love of God. Being a pilgrim is not the same thing as being a tourist or an adventurer or a physical fitness fanatic. A pilgrim goes on a journey to clear out space inside to experience God. The motivation is to develop awareness of God--to notice signs and wonders of God’s grace. A pilgrim seeks to learn the lessons of the journey of life with fellow pilgrims, people who you happen to meet, strangers from many countries, people who share a friendly camaraderie with you on the journey.
Coming to seminary may be like a pilgrimage for you.
So why do you come here? For the love of God? To explore a call from God? To gain competencies for ministry? To clear out space inside yourself to experience the love of God?
I made a list of some regular practices in my life that I can only explain by my love of God:
• Singing hymns
• Giving away money
• Participating in the community of faith, the church
• Noticing suffering and try to alleviate it
• Loving without expecting anything in return
• Looking to Jesus as the standard for my behavior, not how someone treats me.
Let me ask you: Are there things you do only for the love of God?
Well, I can think of one other important one, and it’s revealed in our scripture lesson for today. I’ll set the scene and then we’ll get to that thing you’d only do for the love of God.
This last chapter of the fourth gospel describes Jesus after his crucifixion and resurrection as he appears to the disciples. There was something Jesus needed to do before he ascended to heaven. He needed to provide for the people in the time when he would no longer be physically present with them. Before he leaves, he needs to ensure that the mission that God the Father gave him will continue. He has told them already about the Holy Spirit who will empower them, but he has to resolve one more thing.
The scene is breakfast on the beach. Jesus appears on the shore as the disciples are fishing early in the morning. They caught nothing even though they’d been trying for hours, and Jesus tells them to throw their nets in again, on the other side of the boat, and this time they caught a huge load of fish.
When they meet on the beach afterwards to celebrate with a breakfast of grilled fish and bread, Jesus completes his preparation for his ascension. He needs to resolve something with the disciple who once proclaimed most passionately that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples did, and then the very same day betrayed him three times in his hour of need when he was on trial. That disciple, of course, was Peter.
Jesus asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” And Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” But Jesus asks again, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter repeats his answer. “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” He asks a third time, reminding Peter that he denied him three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” This time Peter gets it. He replies with great anguish because he is reminded of his betrayal. “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus affirms his commission to Peter. He says, “Feed my lambs.”
So it seems that Jesus forgives Peter’s betrayal. His love overcomes the betrayal. And that’s the topic for another sermon. But for now I want to focus on the commissioning part of this story.
Jesus wants to show Peter and the apostles and all disciples in ages to come who are called into ministry in his name why we tend and feed Jesus’ sheep and lambs. We do it out of love for him. Jesus asked us, “Do you love me?” It’s from our relationship of love with God that pastor-shepherds have the resources to love God’s flock. To know Jesus is to let your life be so shaped by his love that you pour out yourself in love for the people God loves.
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann calls this “open friendship.” There is love in the three-person God as Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Or Mother-Son-Spirit. There is mutuality and interdependence and freedom in the Godhead. Perichoresis is the technical word of the early church theologians for the relationship in the trinity.
We are invited into this mutual and open friendship with a three-person God. We are included in this three-person love relationship. We live our lives allowing God’s love to pour from us to our friends and to us from our friends, and to the world, and especially to those who are not otherwise befriended.
So as we start this term, let’s let the love for God be alive and be vibrant in ourselves and resist the cynicism and discouragement that will come inevitably at times.
Jesus, who suffered on a cross, shows us to expect resistance. Jesus tells Peter and the disciples at the end of breakfast on the beach that God’s mission may even take us where we wish not to go.
On Sunday I preached on this passage at the service of ordination of one of our recent graduates. I believe the commissioning to Peter is same as the commissioning to an ordained minister, and the same as the commissioning to each of us as baptized Christians. We are commissioned to care for God’s flock for the love of God.