Easter 3, Year C
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
To me, Rick Warren, the mega-church rock star, is the American Pope. No fancy dress, no Baroque triumphalism, no Gothic intrigue, but Hawaiian shirts and bestsellers focusing on growth and transformation. Pastor Rick is the most influential Christian voice in our country. Although I do not share all his views, I’m grateful for his ministry, have learned from him, and have tons more to learn from him.
Just nine days ago Pastor Rick lost his son, Matthew, to suicide. Matthew had been suicidal for years and had received much care. I pray for Matthew, and the Warren family, and encourage you to do so as well. My heart goes out to them.
I am hopeful of silver linings because we’ve something to learn here, something about how to understand life with Jesus. Matthew’s death has initiated a national conversation about how Christian beliefs sometimes stigmatize people with mental illness.[i] Many well known pastors have called for Christians to stop shaming and stigmatizing mental illness, to end the secrecy and embarrassment.
Some Christians believe that because Christ lives in us, we necessarily are healthy, whole, and sound, and we should have no problems of the heart or mind; we’re fixed. Some believe that following Jesus gives us perfect emotional, spiritual, mental, psychological health. All we need to do is be a faithful, moral, right-believing Christian. And the corollary belief is that mental illness or emotional troubles represent spiritual weakness or a deficiency in faith, the only thing we need is prayer and obedience to God. Depression and other emotional challenges are a result of sinful behavior or insufficient faith.
Every part of me rejects that point of view. It is deeply, profoundly wrong; it is destructive, dangerous, hurtful, unwholesome, false. If we believe it, then we’re far less likely to get help for ourselves or family members or friends, and we’re likely to look down at those who do.
Years ago, I spent a summer working in the chaplain’s office at St. Elizabeth’s, a hospital in Anacostia for those who need intensive, inpatient care for mental illness. One of my insights was that every human being is, in a way, mentally ill, just that the dysfunction of some is more intense than others. A clinician could diagnose mental or emotional disorders in every one of us, in every human being. Most of us have more mild disorders and better coping skills than residents of St. Elizabeth’s, but we all need healing.
Mike Fewster is a pastor of New Life Christian Church out in Chantilly. The church’s website says, “We’re a place full of messed up people.”[ii] Not long ago, I clicked on another church website. It said: “we are a church with accomplished members.” It was an Episcopal Church.
Fewster has suffered with various addictions, suicidal thoughts, and bipolar disease. He said, “For a lot of people, church is just a place to go, a building. They put on their suit and tie, stand up when they’re told to and check a box, but that’s not supposed to be church. There is this false idea that church people are perfect. I try to say: ‘Until you break that, you’ll never get healing.’” Amen, Brother.
I have the same vision of church. When we accept Jesus, decide to follow him, direct our lives to him, that hardly means we’re set, we’re spiritually healthy, we’re completed. To the contrary. Let’s see life as a journey with God, to God, a journey full of obstacles and challenges and real darkness, evil. We try to move closer to God, and we make mistakes, our progress uneven, sometimes going backwards. Jesus came to help those in need, those who know weakness and sorrow and pain.
Another way to see it: the Christian life, what this parish nurtures, is growth in Christ, a gradual growth, where over time we may move closer to God, to others, to ourselves. It’s about strengthening a relationship with God, and our relationship with God, like our other relationships, sometimes hits rocky territory.
Our belief about God, our experiences of God, our understanding of holiness and goodness and the specifics of what God wants from us – these are NOT fixed, not rigid, but ever evolving and expanding. Hopefully, we’re constantly learning, seeing anew, adapting, gaining new insight. Allow that. Welcome that. The Holy Spirit awakens us and helps us move and grow. That’s the gospel, the good news. See it in today’s story from John.
The disciples have returned to Galilee after a week of tremendous emotional intensity and ups and downs: the hope of Palm Sunday; the Last Supper; the arrest of Jesus; the violence against Jesus; the loss of Jesus, the person on whom they had centered their lives; and then the resurrection, the incredible and confusing return of Jesus.
The disciples returned to the familiar, to making a living fishing. As usual, when the risen Jesus appeared to them in routine, ordinary life, they failed to recognize him. The first to recognize Jesus is the so-called beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Scholars argue about the identity of the beloved disciple. We don’t need to resolve that, but only appreciate his role in John’s gospel. In the same way that Luke described the sisters Martha and Mary as complementary, Martha all action and business and Mary all contemplation and reflection, John set up Peter as the decisive and active disciple and the beloved disciple, the one who reclined at Jesus’ breast during the last supper, as the wise, discerning one.
The meaning for us: if we want to recognize the risen Christ here and now, in our lives, in our ordinary daily routines, then we need to make time to be with Jesus in prayer, in reading scripture, in reflection. We have to expect to see Jesus, to look for him in our lives.
The appearance of the risen Jesus once again shocked and amazed Peter, and all excited he jumped into the sea and swam about a hundred yards to shore to meet Jesus. Jesus had built a charcoal fire and was cooking fish for breakfast. He asked the disciples to bring some of the fish they caught. It’s a common theme in the gospels: Jesus asking his disciples, you and me, to contribute to what he’s doing.
The night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter had stood next to a different charcoal fire, and three times people asked whether he knew Jesus, and three times he had denied knowing Jesus. Standing next to another charcoal fire, Jesus three times asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
It reminds me of baptism, when three times the person being baptized renounces evil and then three times pledges to commitment to Jesus. We make a three-fold vow to Jesus: to accept, to trust, to follow. Like Peter, sometimes we fall short and don’t love him as we’ve pledged.
Peter had failed Jesus, denied him, had been slow to recognize him, but Jesus still entrusted Peter with great responsibility and authority. Today’s gospel shows Jesus re-commissioning Peter for ministry. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” The prerequisite for service, for ministry, is loving Jesus, even loving him imperfectly. Jesus knows that at times we’ll disappoint, foul things up, disobey, wander away, but he never gives up on us. He never gives up on us.
Central to Peter’s story is botching up, but bouncing back and trying again. Three times he assured Jesus he loved him, and I think Jesus was telling him, “You’re going to need to love me because your future, Peter, will try you. Evil and darkness await you.” Three decades after Jesus was crucified, Peter was crucified. It’s a story of growth – not perfection, Peter gradually becoming more like Jesus, moving from denying his friend to dying for his friend.
We tell Bible stories again and again and again so that we can see ourselves in them, so that we can identify with Peter, see ourselves in him. Like him, we encounter obstacles, personal shortcomings and failures, but we try again. Jesus never gives up on us. We’re resilient. We bounce back from difficulties.
If we really want to be serious about following Jesus, then becoming a Christian doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. It means we’re just beginning. It means we expect ourselves to change, to be transformed, that the Holy Spirit works in us and through us. We expect to learn, to grow, to be challenged, to encounter evil and darkness. Real transformation comes with uncomfortable experiences and feelings, sometimes with loss and pain and fear. Those are all part of Peter’s story. But so is the experience of having Jesus love him and trust him no matter what.
Peter’s story is our story. Remember Jesus saying, “Thou art Peter, the rock upon which I build the church.” That’s for us, too. You are Peter.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Michelle Boorstein, “Suicide of Star Pastor Rick Warren’s Son Sparks Debate About Mental Illness,” The Washington Post, April 10, 2013.