We began last week a six-week look at the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest and most well known statements of faith in the western Christian world among protestants and Catholics. With a good inquiry, I had it asked after worship last week why the creeds were formed.
The Creeds, which are a statement of our beliefs, were written as much for the Christian community to name their beliefs as they were to speak against the heresies of some who claimed opposing positions. For example, the Apostles’ Creed, written in the first couple of centuries following Christ’s death, is thought in part to have been written as a statement against a community known as the Gnostics. This community of believers felt they had received a special secret tradition and knowledge of God through the apostles. They believed Jesus was a fully human individual who gained his divinity through gnosis – knowledge. Having gained his divinity through knowledge, he then proceeded to share his knowledge of God with others. One can understand the conflict in this teaching, as it could lead to the belief that any of us could acquire a divine status if we only inherit or learn enough of the divine wisdom.
So the Creeds were written not simply to say, “Here is what we believe.” Just as much, they were written to claim, “Here is what we believe, which stands in stark contrast to what you are teaching.”
So, we affirmed our belief last week from the start: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
This week, to profess our faith and to speak against those who would teach otherwise, we will claim our belief in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, our Lord. Christ is not a separate God; our faith is not dualistic or pluralistic. We believe in One God, who became incarnate in the Son. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary – a miraculous birth. But, he suffered under the hand of Pontius Pilate; he was crucified by the Romans; he died a physical death; and he was laid in a tomb – buried.
On the third day – Easter – he arose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and now he sits at the right hand of God the Father. Christ, the second person of God, will be the one who serves as the final judge of both the living and the dead – the quick and the dead as we say in the Apostles’ Creed.
As we named last week, when we claim our belief in Christ as the Son of God, we are not simply making a statement of gnosis, a simple claim to knowledge. Our Creed, our statement of belief in the second person of the trinity, is about our risky acceptance of truth that leads us into action.
As we focus on the person of Christ, it would do us well to also note we are in the final week of the season of Easter; I find this a fitting time to remember and claim our belief in Christ, the resurrected one. We celebrate Pentecost Sunday next week, and we will, most appropriately, focus on our belief in the Holy Spirit. As a part of our Pentecost Celebration, we will welcome and celebrate the ministry of the Washington Street UMC Preschool – a fitting day to remember the breath of God as the Spirit brings new life to all of God’s created, even the youngest of our community.
But as this is the final Sunday of Easter, let us turn to learn more about our belief in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. To do so, we are looking at one of the Easter stories of our Biblical text, a story in which Jesus appears in his resurrected form to the disciples.
If you recall from Easter Sunday, we focused our attention on Peter. Simon Peter, who was to be the rock and foundation of the Church, was reeling on Easter from his denial of Christ at the trial before Pontius Pilate. Three times as Christ was being tried, Peter denied his association as a disciple and follower of Christ.
After his Easter morning 5k to the empty tomb, Peter dissolves from being in the limelight of the story. We can read about the encounters of others with the risen Christ: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb who thought Jesus the gardener; Doubting Thomas, who insisted on touching the wounds of Christ; and the two unnamed disciples on the Emmaus Road who recognized Christ as he broke bread with them.
Peter has all but disappeared from the story. One may wonder as to the mental state of the guy who was to be the foundation of the Church. He had it all; he was a prime example of how to be faithful to Christ … at least until that one unfaithful evening.
Our scriptural text tells us today that after many other things had taken place … meaning after Christ has presented himself to others, Jesus once more showed himself at the Sea of Galilee, off the coast of Tiberius.
We don’t know why the disciples have returned home and are back in the region where Jesus first called them, but the text says that Peter had the idea to go fishing. I can only imagine how bad he was hurting – he had failed to fulfill his role as the rock, the steadfast one. He told Christ he would not deny him, and then he denied him three times. Peter, hurting, wants to get away, and says, “Look guys, I’m going out on the boat.”
Like any good friends, they don’t let him go alone. They stand by him, and six others go out on the boat fishing with him.
They fish all night and they catch nothing. I suppose they weren’t trying too hard? Yet, remember, these guys are professional fisherman. They were on the boat fishing when Jesus called them the first time – this is not just a sport for them, but a livelihood. Morning comes and they have nothing to show.
Have you ever asked a fisherman how many fish they caught? Have you ever seen the disappointment in their eyes when you ask them, after they have spent nearly 8 hours on the water, how many fish have they caught, and they have caught no fish? …. Jesus shows up on the shore – the disciples are only 100 yards off. Jesus says to them, “Children, have you caught anything?” The text says they answered, “No.” I imagine that answer was all Jesus cared to hear, or at least all John felt appropriate to include in the Gospel text. These are, after all, professional fisherman … after eight hours … with no fish.
Jesus says back to them, “Throw the net on the other side; you’ll find some there.” They listened, the casted, and the net was so full they were not able to haul in the net.
In the midst of these events, the disciple whom Jesus loved (the one who raced Peter to the empty tomb that Easter morning) realizes what has just happened. He probably glances back at the distant shore line, and he says to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
Keep in mind, it was a rough night. Peter was hurting before they got on the boat, and then they caught no fish. The text says that what happens next is that Peter puts his clothes on, for he was naked. I don’t know who fishes in the buff, not a tactic I have tried to help my fishing technique, but I suspect this added detail is not about Peter’s normal habit when fishing. I don’t know if the six would have joined him if this were his normal fishing attire. I suspect this note is included to ensure we know just how broken Peter is feeling. Perhaps fishing wasn’t the intention of the night – maybe Peter wanted to go out on the boat to help him forget the past.
Peter puts his clothes on before he jumps into the water and swims to the shore. They disciples, dragging the net, are just behind him. When they reach the shore, there is Jesus, burning a charcoal fire, cooking fish and bread.
John is intentional when writing his text. Don’t look past the details. Jesus is a true man. He is burning a charcoal fire. Charcoal is the most appropriate way to cook on the barbeque. It offers great flavor to the meat; but perhaps more importantly, the smell is intoxicating. Did you know, our sense of smell is the most closely related to our memories. Jen and I have Magnolia Tree in front of the house. When it is in bloom, I am immediately transported to James Pond Road, a family property in Tallahassee, Florida where my dad’s family has celebrated holidays together for over 60 years. Every time I catch the scent of the blooming tree, I hear the laughter of my cousins and I as we are running and playing around the Magnolia that sits at the the center of the drive onto the property.
The disciples come on shore to smell the burning charcoal fire – an undeniable smell.
The Greek word for charcoal fire is anthrakia (an-thra-kía). In the Biblical text the word appears only twice – only two times are we told there is a fire of charcoal being burned. Once here on the shore line, and the other – the fire at which Peter was warming himself prior to denying Christ in the Jerusalem square. The smell of those burning coals no doubt transports Peter back to that night – a night he has been trying so desperately to forget.
Following their meal, still seated around the fire, Jesus speaks to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter says, “Of course Lord, I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
Again, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter again says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Tend my sheep.”
A third time Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The third time Peter gets agitated because Jesus has asked him a third time. And he says in response, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus knows Peter is hurting, and it is thought that Jesus asks Peter three times to directly address the three times Peter denied Christ.
But I want us to look closer at Jesus’ questions, because in the midst of his questioning there lies the definition of our claiming belief in Christ as the incarnate God. I mentioned last week that in the Greek language there are four different Greek words used that translate into English as the one word, “love.” In translating four different words into one word, we can easily miss what Jesus is saying.
The four words are: agape: God’s love for humanity; storge: the love of parent for child; aros: the intimate love that leads to the creation of children; and philea (fi-lee-ah): the base line love of friends.
Jesus asks Peter the first time, “Peter, do you agape me.” (Do you love me with the love of God?) And Peter responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I philea you.” (I love you with the most basic love possible.)
The second time, Jesus asks Peter again, “Peter, do you agape me.” And Peter responds again, “Yes Lord, you know that I philea you.”
And finally, Jesus asks Peter the third time, “Peter, do you philea me.” (Do you love me with the most basic love possible?) Peter is beside himself, because Jesus has asked him this third time, “Do you philea me?” Jesus has changed his question. Peter is upset, because he has brought Jesus down to his level. Peter is distraught because he feels the flood of failure rushing through his mind again. “Yes Lord, you know that I philea you.”
And here’s what’s so important about this text – Jesus does this for you and me. Jesus came down to our level – to live as human among us, to experience our brokenness, so that through Christ, we would better know the love of God.
The message by Christ to Peter, to the disciples watching and listening, and the message of God that we proclaim when we profess faith in Jesus Christ, is that in the midst of our failures, we are surrounded by God’s grace. We profess our belief that God is present and lifts us up, gives us hope, even when the world around us and when our world seems to be falling apart.
Christ pursues Peter, reconciles Peter, because Christ is our message of hope from God. And our claiming belief in Christ is our statement of faith that Christ has come down for you and me; it’s our claiming hope when you think there is no future; it’s claiming the living water when your well has dried up; it claiming the promise of God’s love when you doubt the grace of God; it’s claiming a new direction when you aren’t sure where you’re headed; it’s claiming a future when you least expect it; it’s claiming the promise of another day when you’re fishing net is as void of fish as your body is of clothing.
And in this profession of Christ as the only Son of God, our Lord, lies our call to faithfulness. Peter, broken, and perhaps giving Jesus a less than perfect answer, receives from Jesus the same response each time, “Feed my sheep; tend my lambs.” At the core of our faith in Christ lies this truth: our faithfulness is not reliant upon our ability to be perfect. Our faithfulness is the response to God’s perfect love. When you find yourself out of sorts, know that Christ came for you that you may know God’s love, that you may continue to be a reflection of God’s love – a love that is to be shared with the flock of Christ, the sheep of created humanity. Thanks be to God for charcoal fires and a reminder of God’s goodness in the gift of the Son. Amen.