12 November 2017

A Danger and a Help

Beechwood Avenue Steps, Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD

Mission Sunday

“Come, have some breakfast.” From out of nowhere, the risen Lord appears to his disciples along the Galilee lakeshore.  They had to get out of Jerusalem.  They had to get away from all happened there, the arrest, the trial, the denial, a cross, an empty tomb, and a formerly dead man showing up uninvited.  So, they went fishing.  And they meet him, John tells us, around a charcoal fire cooking for his friends. They're surprised to see him; happy, but still confused. They gather around the fire he's prepared, enjoying one another's company, rich fellowship, deep sharing.  Can you feel the warmth of the fire? Can you smell the grilled fish? Taste the warm bread? Smell the charcoal burning?

There’s one other reference to charcoal in John’s Gospel.  And, the connection between them is significant.  John tells us that when Peter denied his relationship with Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times, he was standing round a charcoal fire warming himself (John 18:18). 

And so, at the lakeshore, we are round another fire and after breakfast Jesus gets down to business.  It’s times to talk to Peter.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15).  The Greek is ambiguous here. More than these fish?  Or, more than these disciples? Either way, it’s a relevant question, “Do you love me more than these ______?” 

Not once, not twice, but three times Jesus gave Peter an opportunity to confess his lack of love, to acknowledge his guilt, to undo each previous statement of denial.  Jesus didn’t come to punish or condemn or shame Peter.  Jesus never asked Peter, Why did you deny that you knew me that night?  Why didn’t you stand with me, after all the time we spent together? Why did you abandon me back when I was on the cross?  He could have.  Instead, Jesus returned to the lakeshore to heal the broken relationship.  Jesus never mentions the denial.  But Peter knows.  Jesus knows.  Peter knows that Jesus knows.  Jesus knows that Peter knows. 

“Do you love me?” It’s a question designed to heal; and contained in this healing question is a kind of judgment.  Why judgment?  Because the question opens the wound, it alludes to the wrong that was done, it brings to light the act of denial that night around a charcoal fire.  This is the way toward healing: acknowledging the wrong, naming the sin, working through it.  Jesus’ question is both judgment and grace, or, better, judgment in service of grace, or, it reflects the kind of divine judgment that paves the way for grace.

Jesus provides breakfast for them in love.  Jesus goes to them in love.  And because he loves Peter, Jesus poses difficult questions. And because Jesus loves him, he then commissions Peter to “feed my sheep.” Do you love me? God’s great love for the world led to the birth to Jesus; Jesus’ profound love for humanity called him and sent him and then put him at odds with the religious and political authorities of his day, by posing difficult, challenging questions of the religious and political authorities.  It’s these difficult love questions that got Jesus arrested and suspended on a cross.  And it’s love that brought him back to his friends because he wanted his friends to know he was—and is—about love. 

By paying close attention to the way Jesus relates to Peter and the disciples, we discern how to be the Church.  And, Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1993) knew what was at stake when the church was being the church.  Gollwitzer was one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century.  Born in 1908, son of an evangelical-Lutheran pastor, he grew up in a theologically conservative, nationalistic family, in Germany, a family that supported the Kaiser in the First World War and, later National Socialism and the Nazis in the 1930s.  Everything changed when Helmut studied theology as a young adult and became a pastor in the Confessing Church.  He was appointed assistant minister to Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) in Berlin. Niemöller is perhaps best known for his confession, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then then came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.”  Niemöller was arrested in 1937, and sent to a concentration camp as a personal prisoner of the Fuhrer, and remained there after the war.  Gollwitzer, then, became the pastor of the church.  “Not only was this one of the wealthiest suburbs of [Berlin], but in it lived a high proportion of the most influential and powerful people in Nazi German.  To preach the Gospel here was to preach it in the open jaws of hell.”[1]

In a sermon in 1938, preached six days after Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), seventy-nine years ago this weekend, Gollwitzer said, carefully choosing his words—there were probably Nazis in the church, taking note of everything that was said, which often occurred in churches all over Germany—he rebuked his congregation for having “exchanged God’s standard for the standard of current political propaganda,” and said, “God is disgusted at the very sight of you.”  He finished the sermon by saying, “Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us—waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence.”[2]  Just outside the church, the community is waiting to see if Christians are going to be Christlike.  Gollwitzer was eventually called into the army.  He served in France and then on the Eastern Front.  In May 1945, he was captured by the Soviet army, and remained in a Soviet prison until 1949.  When he came home he became a theologian, writing widely on Christian socialism, and he continued to preach.  I’m reading an introduction of his life and work, at the moment, and this statement of his struck me: “The thing that matters for the Church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.”[3]

A help.  That’s easy to understand.  We help because we care.  But a danger?  That’s more challenging, but equally important.  A danger and a help—both are necessary, and both need to be rooted in love.  Danger, because the church is called to take a prophetic stance in the world.  The church is called to ask tough questions, in love.  We need to ask questions of the status quo.  The church isn’t called to justify or make excuses for the injustices of the state or society.  Presbyterians suggested and fought for the separation of church and state for a reason: the church must be free to be the church vis-à-vis the state.  When the church is acting in love it becomes a threat to the powers that be, because we are then free to name the evil in our society, free to call out institutions and governments that take advantage of people, that dehumanize, that refuse to care for the “least of these” (Mt. 25:40).  The church is a danger to the status quo when, in love, it calls out the sin of racist discrimination and white privilege, when it calls out the culture’s obsession with violence, when it calls out and condemns sexual violence, when it calls out and condemns our national reluctance to work for peace.  The church is a danger when it calls out sexism, homophobism, and racism, and nationalism, indeed every –ism.  Every -ism stands under the judgment of God—and I mean every –ism!

So, Peter, do you love me? Jesus rarely talks about love in the abstract.  It’s never love in general.  He’s not talking about the idea of love, or the feelings associated with love.  Ideas are fickle.  Feelings are fleeting.  In the Christian experience love is a verb.  Love acts. It is always particular and it’s always a choice.  We choose to love—even when it doesn't make any sense to love.  We choose to love—even when we don't feel like it.  It's concrete and real.  It's embodied.  We feed people.  Heal people.  Forgive people.  Protect people. Raise the dead.  Jesus washes the dusty, sweaty, smelly feet of his disciples—there's nothing abstract about this.  Before Jesus died he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).  And here, after his death and resurrection, the love continues.  Jesus says to Peter—and to us – feed my sheep.  If you love me, feed one another.  Care for one another, especially the vulnerable, especially those who don’t have access to the table, or access to power, or access to healthcare, or access to justice! Take care of them.  Be compassionate.  Lean in. Step out.  Take a risk. Do something. Feed my sheep.

Who are the sheep?  The disciples?  Followers of Jesus?  Members of the church? Everyone created in the image of God?  It depends upon how narrow or broad we wish to be.  How big is this flock? It’s tough to say. Personally, I would rather be broad than narrow, if in being narrow I unintentionally exclude one of the sheep.  But should we even be concerned with who is in and who is out of the sheepfold?  We're called to love our neighbors, and as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) knew, the neighbor is anyone who stands before you or beside you. She is your neighbor.  And you have some responsibility for this child of God beside you.[4]  Maybe if we treated the people we meet as if they’re already part of the sheepfold—even if right now they don't see themselves as bearing the image of God—they might in time come to see themselves as part of the fold.

Feed my sheep. Take care of them.  I’m not a shepherd, but a pastor.  I don’t know much about sheep.  But what I do know is that sheep aren’t too smart.  They get lost and lose their way, they make poor decisions and they’re stubborn and ornery, they get tangled in thorn bushes and stuck in ravines, they get lulled away easily.  Look, over there,…there’s more grass to eat.  So, make sure the sheep are fed and watered.  Feed my sheep. No one should go hungry, no one should go thirsty. It's not surprising that the Church has been engaged in feeding and healing people, providing shelter, establishing hospitals and hospices for a long time.  We’ve been at this for centuries - soup kitchens, food pantries.

If the sheepfold is large, then this means there’s a lot of work for us to do. Feed my sheep informs the work of the church and how we do ministry.  It’s our mission.  But we need to be extremely careful here.  We as a church need to remember that mission is, foremost, not the activity of a church, it’s not all the “stuff” that we do, but, foremost, mission is an attribute of God.[5]  It’s because God has a mission that the church is then sent into the world. To do what? To feed the sheep.  The church is summoned to feed only because Jesus first fed his sheep along the lakeshore.  The mission is only “ours” because it first began with him.  It’s his work. Yet, as we know, it’s not that easy to do. It’s critical that we wrap our heads and hearts about this, mission doesn’t belong to the church, it’s is an attribute of God.  And mission can’t stay within the walls of the church.

For the last forty years or more the American Protestant church has been operating with what we call a consumer church model, shaped by the consumerist bent of the American society.  The Church is viewed as a dispenser of religious goods and services—engaging worship, good preaching, inspiring music, Christian education, adult education programs, exciting youth ministry.  People go to church to be “fed.” Listen to how we talk, we say, “I/we go to church.”  We go to church to have our needs met through quality programs, having seminary-trained professionals teach our children about God. And if we’re not getting fed, we will shop around for a different church that better serves our needs met.  In a consumer church model, customers must be pleased.  If not, they’ll take their custom elsewhere. There’s nothing biblically or theologically sound in any of this.  It’s not particularly faithful. And, to be honest, it’s exhausting doing ministry this way.  It makes everything about us, the church.

For the past ten years or so theologians and biblical scholars have been trying to bring us back toward a more biblical model, the church as missional.[6] Mission means, literally, to be sent.  A missional church views itself as a people sent out a mission.  Members do not say, “I go to church.”  We say, “We are the church.”  “We are trying to be the church.”  We’re a people who gather for worship and fellowship, we’re committed to a particular community of people no matter what; a community that’s not pastor or program focused.  We hear the teaching from the Word in worship, get nurtured in the Word, to go out into the world, feeding God’s wherever they are. What if we viewed the word church as a verb, instead of a noun?

The consumer model looks inward; the missional model looks outward.  The consumer model is individualistic; the missional model is community oriented.  The consumer model assumes that we just sit here doing our churchy thing and wait for people to flock to us, to join us, to be fed here—if they're convinced that we're worth coming to (or coming back to), all of which requires a lot of self-promotion. Instead, the missional model sends us, summons us to go out and meet God's people where they are, beyond the walls of the sanctuary, to love and care and feed them, cultivating relationships—not to get them to come to church or become members. We show up where God’s people are, like Jesus making breakfast along a lakeshore.

Today, we give thanks to God for the mission given to Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we celebrate and give thanks for the lives that have been transformed and healed and made whole because of our efforts.  But it’s not our mission, it’s God’s mission—to be both a danger and a help to the world.  And, especially in this day—God knows—there’s much being required of us.  There’s an entire world outside these walls waiting to see if we’re really followers of Christ.  “Now just outside this church,” as Gollwitzer preached long ago, a Word that is still relevant today, “our neighbor is waiting for us—waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence.”  Waiting for us to act.


[1] Description of Paul Oestreicher, cited in W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 36.
[2] Cited in McMaken, 37.
[3] Cited in McMaken, 38.
[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847).
[5] This insight is at the center of David Bosch’s work, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991).
[6] For a fuller exposition of a missional ecclesiology, see Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).