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Is Your God Too Mean?

Scripture. -John 21:1-19

Interrupt our lives, God. Awaken us to your possibilities. Surprise us & open our hearts to new directions. Transform our hearts & minds, as we listen with anticipation for your word. Amen.

Having lived the last twenty-five years of my life in North Carolina, the fall is my favorite time of year. After many weeks of humid, hot summer weather, the change to cooler, drier weather is always welcomed. In my youth, I associated the all with campfires & trips to the mountains of Southern California. In a church van or around a bonfire beside a mountain lake, we boys & girls would sing the words of a song we had learned. It started like this: “Ask & it shall be given unto you, seek & you shall find, knock & the door will be opened unto you – Allelu, alleluia!” We would sing it round after round. Somehow, around a campfire, a pretty girl’s face looked more beautiful when it was illuminated by the fire. And girls tell me a handsome boy appeared more handsome in the glow of the campfire.

Fire is still associated with romance in modern advertising. There is something about a cozy fire in a fireplace that stirs our emotions. Realtors tell sellers to be sure to have a fire going in the fireplace when prospective buyers tour their home.

Those who study civilization tell us that a pivotal factor in the development of the human race was the ability to control fire. When ancient humans learned how to start fires, cook over wood & charcoal & make torches, we were on our way up in the chain of existence.

Fire is an essential symbol in religious rites, not just in modern lessons & carols or Christmas Eve services, when people fill churches, raise candles skyward, & sing “Silent Night.” Almost 2500 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus spoke of the world having begun with fire. Stoics took his lead & spoke of the vapor that emanated from this fire as the Logos, the reason, the word, which held the world together. The writer of John’s gospel said this Logos, this word, was there as part of creation. He then went on to tell us that Jesus was the human form of that fiery vapor. As such, the stage was set for the concept of the Holy Spirit, a divine vapor that permeates the whole universe. The symbol of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit was let loose, is a fiery flame. Christians speak of God or C as the ‘divine spark’ that dwells within us. No one lights a candle & hides it under a basket, Jesus said.

The great stories of forgiveness associated with Jesus take place beside a fire. The first fireside scene in Scripture is a bad one. It reflects three major screw-ups on the part of the disciple Peter. Jesus has been arrested. Jesus is hauled off to the house of the high priest. Peter follows at a distance.

Once Jesus is taken inside the house, some of the soldiers & other onlookers build a fire in the courtyard. Peter sits down with them. As the glow from the fire illuminates Peter’s face, a servant girl recognizes him. She looks closely at him & says, “This man was with him.” Peter emphatically denies that he even knows Jesus. A little later as they are still sitting beside the fire, another person stares at Peter & says, “Yep, I think you are one of them.” Peter replies, “No way.”

The group sits there another hour, warming themselves & staring into the fire.

Another person speaks up, “Surely this guy was with them. He’s a Galilean.” Peter replies, “I do not know what you are talking about.”

Scripture says the experience left Peter so guilt ridden that he left & wept bitterly. Peter has a weight around his heart that has the power to ruin his life. Peter represents all humans who fail to deliver on their boasting. Peter is a representative figure for us – he is likable, but he is one who makes mistakes at times, just like us. He represents the guilt we feel for our imperfections & mistakes, the guilt that weighs us down, even though we do not talk about it. It keeps us from being free to live the way we want to live. It robs us of peace of mind.

Poor Peter. Three times beside a campfire he has denied even knowing the greatest person he had ever met. But wait. The story is not over. Following the death & resurrection of Jesus, there is another campfire experience for Peter. The disciples have been fishing. They have had no luck. Their nets are empty. But a stranger on the shore helps them catch fish by giving them good advice. They finally figure out that the stranger on the shore must be the Lord. They head the boat in his direction. Peter is so excited that he dives into the shallow water & starts sloshing for shore. When he gets there, he sees that Jesus has built a campfire & has fish & bread over the burning coals.

The sight of that charcoal fire would have brought back a dreadful memory for Peter. I imagine that he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Jesus standing beside the fire with its glow illuminating his face. Jesus says nothing to Peter. The other disciples arrive, & they all have a fish fry. They recognize Jesus as he breaks the bread. This is the Lord. They are having communion with Jesus after his resurrection, just as he had promised.

After the meal is over, they are still sitting by the fire. Jesus turns to Peter & he asks a question. Do you love me? Peter says: Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.

Jesus accepts it & says: Then feed my lambs. A second time & a third, Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me? The response is the same: Yes, Lord; I love you.

No one can miss what is happening here. Forgiveness is happening here. The past is forgotten, & life can begin again. Three times Peter had denied Jesus around a campfire. Now, following his resurrection, Jesus forgives Peter three times around a campfire.

John’s gospel was the last to be written or put together. The very last image we have of the resurrected Jesus is this fireside forgiveness. That should tell us something about the nature of God. All of us are going away from this earth, just at different rates of speed. What would you like to be remembered for? What image of yourself would you like to leave behind that most clearly expresses who you were while you were living? Jesus left behind an image of himself, not as a mean God but as one who always forgives.

In his last day with his disciples, Jesus did not leave some final commandments. Nor did he give them a copy of teachings that they could use as sacred scripture with which to hit people over the head & prove wrong the people with whom they disagreed. Jesus certainly did not leave principles guaranteed to make his disciples healthy, wealthy, & wise.

Jesus left forgiveness. That final scene of forgiveness sets us free to forgive others for their failures. The words to us are the same as to Peter: I forgive you. You, then, feed my sheep by forgiving them.

A pastor friend told me about a minister who often participated on ordained ministry committees, which question & approve candidates for ministry. This man only asked one question, & it was always the same question. He would tell them to imagine that a stranger is walking down the street toward them. He asked the candidate to describe the person theologically. In thirty years, the minister found that the candidates basically give a version of only two different answers.

Some said, “That person is a sinner in need of the redemption of Jesus Christ.” Others said, “Whether the person knows it or not, that person is a child of God, loved & upheld by the grace & forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.” The questioning minister said, “Technically, both answers are correct. So, both answers pass the examination. But it is my experience that those who give the second answer make the best ministers.”

I know there are traditions in which no worship service is complete without an altar call; an invitation to repent and/or join the church. The invitation is sometimes what Peter Gomes calls a “referendum on the sermon, so that it is more of an intimidation than an invitation.” The preacher may even resort to telling horrible stories of people who did not know Jesus & who died suddenly in an automobile accident or a plane crash & were therefore destined to hell.

We humans are always bringing our tests & our measurements to spiritual things. Small wonder that the God we have created often is presented as stingy, vindictive, judgmental, & short-sighted. A great Presbyterian minister, Dr. Paul Scherer, said that we humans are always asking God to fit our little ideas & notions of what God ought to be & how God ought to act. Essentially, many human beings worship their own god & condemn their brothers & sisters for disagreeing not with God but with them.

Sisters & brothers, some people should just accept the fact that their god – the god of their own making – is too mean. The last image of God that Jesus left us was not of an angry, paranoid, unforgiving, & unloving God. From the cross to the fireside meal following the resurrection, Jesus left us an image of forgiveness. That is why we Christians call the story of Jesus good news for everyone. That is why in our search for peace of mind, we need to look seriously at our Lord’s response to us.

Sermon response:

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

Yes, Lord; you know that we love you.

“Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks us again, “Do you love me?”

Yes, Lord; you know that we love you.

“Tend my sheep.” Jesus asks a third time, “Do you love me?”

Yes, Lord; you know that we love you.

“Feed my sheep.”

We love you, Lord. We will feed your people with your love.

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