John 21:15-25, Psalm 23
We spent the last few sessions of this semester's course on the Gospel of John puzzling about this question: why does John not just end his gospel with Jesus' triumphant words from the cross. “It is finished.” It is finished at that point. Jesus has done what he sent out to do, descended from God, revealed God, and, in his crucifixion, begun to return to God. Why does the Gospel go on?
Now you know as well as I do that exegesis often depends on context, so maybe it's not surprising that puzzling over this text last week I think I finally got it. John writes the last chapters of his gospel to talk about one thing: Moving on.
Moving on. Mary Magdalene wants to cling to Jesus. “No clinging,” Jesus says, “Move on.” Thomas wants to look at Jesus: “Well, if you insist,” says Jesus, “but from now on everybody's got to believe without seeing. Move on.”
Then with Thomas and Mary moving on, John brings his gospel to a full stop. “These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Amen. Sing a hymn. Pronounce a benediction. Go in peace. The end.
Only, woops, as so often the case in the Christian life, the end is still not quite the end. John's community faces new issues. New occasions raise new questions. So, P.S. says the writer. “Some time later, Jesus showed himself to the disciples once again, by the sea of Tiberius.” Chapter twenty-one. Moving on.
Here's what John's church learns to hold to as they move on.
They move on from competition to communion. Everybody's best guess is that in the first years after the resurrection Peter's church and John's church were in competition. It's too simple to say that Peter's church was mainline and John's marginal, that we had St. Peter's on the Green and The Assembly of the Beloved Disciple across the tracks, but it was something like that.
Now after ten or fifteen years of strong stress on denominational identity these late first century Christians begin to think that they can actually learn from each other. “One more thing,” says the evangelist to his community: “Remember Peter and his people, well, surprise, they're our people, too.”
By courage and grace you have spent two years or three years or more at a place that is not nearly as mixed as it could be but a lot more mixed than it used to be.
Pastors and scholars, musicians, social workers and lawyers to be. Less racial and ethnic mix than we need, but more than you're apt to get at the next stage of your life. And a denominational feast, where Episcopalians hear Methodists preach and Baptists attend something called “Eucharist.”
From now on the pressure will be to head back to the professional ghetto. Scholars stick with scholars, preferably in your own narrow specialization. No need to think about the church any longer.
Pastors, preach what the market wants and ignore the books your classmates are writing. And certainly don't try to do any scholarship yourself.
Musicians, make that music really good even if they don't get it.
Attorneys and physicians do well and worry less about doing good.
From now on the pressure will be to head back to the denominational ghetto. You will get innumerable invitations to opportunities to strengthen your denominational identity. The bishop is calling; or the Presbytery; or whichever caucus of the UCC thinks you're on their side.
Every denomination is struggling to survive and the powers that wish they were will try to push you from this ecumenical and interfaith tension to comfortable conclaves.
Listen, you know the deal. If Episcopalians suffer, the Baptists are in trouble, and if the Presbyterians find reason to rejoice, the Catholics throw a party. If evangelical Christianity grows, the whole body gains. If mainline Christianity recalls its commitment to social justice, then the whole body gets more faithful.
Move on; but move on together.
Move on, but move on as leaders. I think John 21 marks a tough transition for John's community. The hope had been that in a fellowship of sisters and brothers no one would really have to lead. Check in with the Paraclete, love each other, and march ahead hand in hand.
But now John's community acknowledges what's hardest for them. Even in the most Christian, agape driven, warm-hearted community, decisions must be made and sometimes leaders must lead.
Here's the tough truth. We have trained you to be leaders. Not authoritarian, not mean, not manipulative.
So that when you teach you don't want to force the class's process, but there's nothing wrong with nudging it along.
So that as social worker or counselor you can sometimes stop listening for a moment and actually give suggestions: “Try this.”
So that as attorneys and physicians you move us toward the common good.
So that as musician you are called, not just to please us, but to grow us.
So that in the liturgy you can dare to say, not: “I read in scripture that our sins are forgiven” or “I hope our sins are forgiven” but “I declare to you in the name of the Lord Jesus that your sins are forgiven.”
Of course Jesus' words to Peter make clear that it's not just that you lead, it's how you lead. We hear a lot about the purpose-driven church. How about the Christ-driven church? How about the Christ-following leader. How about the three steps forward and two steps back, bumbling, hoping, missing, finding, finally got it St. Peter kind of leader?
“Do you love me, love me and love me”
“Yes, yes and again yes.”
“Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Feed my sheep.”
Feed them the truth.
I'm old enough that I was just getting used to modernity when post-modernity came along. But I'm also old enough to know that even the best students don't want just a little of this and a little of that. They want to know what the teacher thinks, believes, would stake her life on.
I was pastor long enough to know that when you preach, you don't always have to say, “This is opinion.” They know it's your opinion; they recognize the voice and the syntax and the quirky way you stroke your beard or tug your hair. Say: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God's self.” Don't say: “Some have said that God was in Christ…” Feed your sheep.
More than that, more than that also feed the larger flock in their more mundane needs.
In the twenty-first chapter of John, John's church realizes it's not enough just to live their own individual lives with Christ in their own tiny community. And in the twenty-first century our churches realize that it's not enough to provide spiritual food to the spiritual flock God has given us.
Remember how John starts this Gospel. The whole world was made through Jesus Christ, God's own word, and therefore the whole world is being shaped toward him.
Listen, beloved. Do not let the attempt to keep religion personal drive us to the appalling attempt to make religion selfish. Don't let Christians baptize greed as if God's great mission were to fleece the sheep and not to feed them. Don't take your hands off the world God created and creates and strives to redeem. Think fairness. Think justice. Think economics. Feed the sheep.
Here in this dear school, let's face it; we've mostly fed ourselves. It's time to move on.
It took courage for John or one of his disciples to add the twenty-first chapter to a Gospel that seemed to be finished.
It took courage for his community to add a new chapter, not just to their scripture, but to their lives. It took courage to move on.
It took the faith that as they moved on they had a good shepherd who would lead them all the way.
I have loved you all these years for your courage and your faith.
Now it's our time to move on.
Richard Lischer, who teaches preaching at Duke, wrote the memoir of his first pastorate, a little Lutheran church in Missouri.
When it was time for him to leave, it was hard for Lischer to let go, and especially hard for him and the parishioner he was closet to in that congregation, a man named Max. So by some stroke of grace and wisdom the two of them took their last night together to go to St.Louis and watch the Cardinals play. Let Lischer tell it:
“After the last out, we remained in our seats as the rest of the fans filed out. The stadium was a haven where one could find peace, if only temporarily. The flags rested in the absence of an afternoon breeze. The field lay still and as geometrically perfect as a Burgundian garden, as apt a figure for eternal life as either of us could imagine.
“Max studied the entire scene as if for the last time, ‘I could stay here forever.'
“' So could I.'
And we left.”
We could stay here forever.
It's time to leave.
Go in peace.