This is a story of two churches.
Two small churches in the downtown area who were slowly dying away. Their congregations, which were once much bigger, had diminished over time. They had only handfuls of people left to pass through their doorways. Both congregations were aging, their young ones having left home and moved away, and no new people coming in. While they had much to give in service to God, they didn’t have many people to give it to. They also had much in common, these two churches, yet they were distinctly separate. While they had their own traditions, they also shared many as well and they shared their pastor, too. Both churches knew that if something weren’t done, they would eventually be forced to close their doors. A decision had to be made, and while it was fraught with many challenges, the two congregations decided to come together – to do more as one church than either could do alone.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And while you might be tempted to think I’m talking about our two churches here in the Dinuba area, I’m actually sharing the story of another congregation I once served – the United Japanese Christian Church in Clovis. Those two churches like ours were struggling. They had much in common just like we do. And they had challenges just like we likely will have. They were two completely different denominations with different ways of doing things. But they had one thing in common – a desire to keep going. And more than keep going, they wanted to grow. They decided to come together and increase their strength. Some did it because they couldn’t bear to see all that had been done before pass away. Some did it because they felt that their time to serve God wasn’t done yet. And some did it solely for pragmatic reasons – they didn’t want to close the doors. But most of them agreed it was the right thing to do. The unification of these two churches wasn’t easy and even today there are still old memories that make it hard to move forward, but they persevered and today that church is over three times the size it was when they merged. They averaged when I left about 150 in worship every Sunday. And they had a thriving children and youth program.
Does that mean our churches will become revitalized like this one was?
Maybe. And maybe not. It really depends on you. Our Scripture passage today comes from John 21. We’re going to read verses 15-17. John 21:15-17. These verses are probably familiar to you if you already know the story of Peter. Taking place after the resurrection, Jesus has shown himself to his disciples on multiple occasions and this one comes as he presents himself to Peter, John, and the other disciples while they are fishing. He calls to them from the shore and asks if they’ve caught anything. They tell him they haven’t so Jesus instructs them to lower their nets into the water just as he did the first time they met, and sure enough they come up with more fish than they could haul into the boat! John recognizes that it must be Jesus and Peter jumps in the water and come over to him. As they get to shore, Jesus has already prepared for them a meal of fish and bread. The passage we are going to read this morning comes after this satisfying meal.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
We worship a God of second chances.
We worship a God of second chances. God comes to us in our brokenness and in our pain and gives us a new chance at life. Jesus’ ministry was about this very idea – of coming to the lost and the least of us and offering hope and transformation. As he said in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In this instance, Jesus has come for Peter. After everything that happened with Peter’s denial, Peter probably has lingering feelings of guilt and shame. He turned his back on Jesus even though he promised he would not, and Peter seems anxious to prove his love for him. When John cries out “It’s the Lord!” Peter jumps out of the boat while the other disciples row back to shore. Then Peter goes back out to the boat and hauls in this load of fish up to the beach on his own. He seems to want to show Jesus his devotion. So at first it must seem like Jesus is rubbing it in when he asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” It echoes the three times Peter denied Christ and must feel like Jesus is rubbing salt in the wound. But from a different perspective, Jesus is giving Peter a chance at redemption. For each time Peter denied him, Christ is offering to Peter a chance to make amends, because the God we worship is a God of second chances. No matter what our situation, God can offer us new life through Christ. Perhaps that’s what this is for our churches. Perhaps what seems like a thinning of the flock is actually the chaff being blown away off the threshing floor and is a chance at new life for us! Instead of looking at our situation as the inevitable consequence of a shrinking membership, we can look at it as an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance at renewal for us all. Instead of the bottom of the valley, perhaps this is the beginning of a new hill for us to climb together. Instead of a valley, perhaps it’s the start of a new hill.
What Jesus does here in this passage is close the loop.
Jesus brings closure to Peter’s past so that he can move forward. What Jesus does is bring closure to Peter’s past so that he can move forward. Yes, Peter denied Christ three times just as Jesus predicted so Jesus offers him this chance at redemption and at the end of each affirmation gives him a command, each command slightly different than the last. “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” They might all seem to be so similar that it would be easy to miss the differences, but in this trio of commands, Jesus is instructing Peter to care for his church. “Feed my lambs” – look after those who are new to faith, lambs being baby sheep. “Take care of my sheep” – you have authority over all of my flock. “Feed my sheep” – do not ignore those who are established in their faith, but continue to build them up. These commands that Jesus gives to Peter are instructions for us as well – to gather those who are new to faith and to nurture them in faith; to care for those who already have faith by strengthening their faith through worship, study, and fellowship; and to care for the church universal, to support one another in ministry as we gather God’s flock.
This is our challenge.
To be able to bring closure to the past and look ahead to the future. I can’t help but feel like everything has come together just as it has for this particular time. Do you feel that? Do you feel that even amidst this change together we have hope? I do. I feel like God isn’t done with us yet. That perhaps God has wanted us to come together to do more for Christ in unity than we ever could apart. The need for separate congregations has passed and perhaps, just perhaps, it takes a turn of events like this to get us to come together for something greater. It’s like that passage in Esther when Mordecai tells the young queen, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Perhaps this is part of God’s plan and perhaps it’s not, but if we don’t try, we’ll never find out. We have to make the choice. Will we stay faithful to God’s direction for the church or will we choose to ultimately reject God’s offer of redemption? Take a look at the story of Jonah. There he is in the belly of this giant fish and Jonah is pleading with God. He says to the Lord in Jonah 2:8-9, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” But when God command him to go to Nineveh right after God frees him from the fish, Jonah digs his heels in. He sulks. He whines. He claims that God is unfair. As if that is some crime. God IS unfair, and praise be to God because of it. God IS unfair, he chooses mercy instead. But Jonah doesn’t see this. He can’t move beyond his preconceptions to embrace something new that God is doing in the world. Will we be like Jonah? Sitting on the sidelines while the work of God is being done? Or will we be like Esther and take a chance to participate in God’s merciful work?
It’s fitting in this Easter season to think about such things.
To reflect on redemption and second chances because that’s exactly the work that Christ did his entire life. It’s what he did through his death and resurrection. It’s a chance to offer us new life. Will we take it? The work will be daunting. There will likely be misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misgivings – and that’s just the mistakes I will make. This is hard work. Trying to work out the future of our churches is not something to be done lightly. But with God’s grace and with our willingness to heed his desires, I have faith we can do it, and we can do it TOGETHER! Let us then reaffirm in Christ the commandments he asked us to follow.
Lord and Savior,
We promise to feed your lambs – we will not give up the fight but with the strength we have left in us, we will continue to work to bring your promise of hope to those who do not know you.
We promise to take care of your sheep – we will not lose sight of the bigger picture and will work toward reconciliation in our church and with other churches so that together we can love one another and our neighbor.
We promise to feed your sheep – we will not forget those who have given themselves to Christ, but will continue to find ways to nurture and gird their faith through worship, study, and fellowship.
And by this affirmation, we will move forward from this point onwards. We will not linger in the past, but will learn from the past to grow our ministry in new and vital ways. We drop our fears, our concerns, and our doubts at your feet as we move forward to grow your church.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.