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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Peter & Paul 6/29

 Peter and Paul – Do You Love Me?

Commemoration of Peter and Paul
June 29, 2008
John 21:15-19
Bethany Lutheran Church

Saints Peter and Paul we commemorate today. They are perhaps the two greatest leaders and founders of the early church. We celebrate their lives of dedicated service to the Lord. We rejoice in the very Christian church which they helped to establish. We strive to learn by their examples of evangelism, the ways in which they both selflessly modeled the spreading of the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ live, death and resurrection. They told and retold the story of how God enters into relationship with creation by entering into our humanity. These two great saints, Peter and Paul, were no different from people like you and me.

Let us first take a glimpse at what we know about Paul. Formerly known as Saul, one of the first “deeds” we find recorded about him in the book of Acts is his encouragement to stone Stephen, another of the first Jewish-Christian missionaries. Saul was well known by many early Christian communities, but it was not because of his ministry. Saul was a persecutor of the Jewish-Christians, and traveled from town to town seeking to condemn them.

It was not until his trip to Damascus, that Saul had his conversion experience. As the story goes, he was blinded by a great light. From that light came Jesus’ voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.” Saul had a conversion experience and Jesus had given him a mission along with the new name Paul. But do not think even for a moment that Paul’s conversion experience was something sweet, rather imagine the terror upon suddenly becoming blind and hearing your name called by the voice of someone who claimed to be the Messiah. This mission that Paul was commission for would lead him to places where he would frequently be beaten, stoned, imprisoned and eventually beheaded in Rome for spreading the gospel.

Yet from the leadership of this imperfect Paul, the letters he wrote to some of the earliest Christian communities, letters that were meant simply to bring harmony and unity to divided communities, these letters would eventually come to be regarded as some of the foundational documents for the early Christian church. The letters would eventually prove to be so significant that they would be included in the Biblical canon. They are included in our Bibles even today, nearly two thousand years later. Who would have imagined that such Christian leadership could emerge from such an imperfect person and a former persecutor of the church?

As imperfect as we understand Paul to be, Saint Peter was no different. Peter, who also goes by the names of Cephas, Simon, or the Rock, is the most well known disciple recorded by the gospels. The gospels do not highlight Peter’s skills for leadership but rather emphasize his flaws and imperfections. If anything, he does not seem like a likely candidate for leadership, especially leadership in the church.

Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, the disciple to whom Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan… You are a stumbling block.” It was Peter who tried to walk on water when Jesus called him out of the boat and who nearly drowned for lack of faith. It was Peter who, upon Jesus foretelling his passion and death, attempted to reject it saying, “This Lord will never happen to you.” Perhaps the most significant failing of Peter began at the last supper when Peter vowed never to abandon Jesus, but who only hours later, denied even knowing Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. Three times Saint Peter denied knowing Jesus. Is it at all coincidental that in our gospel text on this day, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me.”?

Peter knows his own faults and failings. He understands the need for God’s grace. Perhaps that is why Peter emerges over time as a prominent leader among the Christians. Even amidst all of his flaws, Peter is the first one who fully identifies Jesus for who he is declaring, “You are the Christ.” Throughout the book of Acts, Peter is identified as one of the most prominent leaders of the early church that was establishing itself in Jerusalem. Peter was the one who preached the first sermon after the great Pentecost that took place. Peter performed the first healing. And it was Peter who extended the evangelizing mission of the church to include the Gentiles, something for which he was initially chided, even by Paul.

Peter’s ministry and spreading of the gospel was not any easier than Paul’s. Peter was placed in prison time and time again until he was eventually killed for his faith, crucified under the reign of Emperor Nero sometime around 60 A.D. Historical documents record that Peter was crucified upside down because Peter believed he was not worthy to be killed in the same way as his master and teacher, Jesus. The alleged bones of Peter, which I have seen on one of my many travels, now rest among the archaeologically preserved site of the first church building erected in Rome. Peter, the Rock, whose bones are the very cornerstone of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Bones that are imperfect, bones that are brittle have been used to support and build up the church.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter. It may sound like a strange question for a teacher to be asking their student. I doubt that the purpose of the question was to dispel any insecurities Jesus had. Rather, I think Jesus posed the question, three times because of Peter’s insecurities. Peter had failed himself and he failed Jesus when he denied knowing him, but Jesus never stopped loving Peter. And that is what Peter needed to embrace in the depths of his own heart, that despite his own failings, Jesus still loved him.

It is like a child who runs away from home after they have accidentally broken a prized and treasured possession of their parents. The child knows they have done wrong. They know they have failed to listen, failed at being careful around that antique lamp or family heirloom. The child believes themselves to be undeserving of their parents’ love, and so they run away. The parent never stops loving the child however, in fact, the parent fears for the child when they do not know where they are. It isn’t until tears are shed and the child is embraced that the child realizes they are still loved by their parent.

It was one of my professors about six years ago who taught me best how to fail. This professor understood not only the myriad of ways that a person can fail at something, but also what it means to fail, the devastation, the emptiness, the abyss as Brueggemann calls it. My professor taught regularly in class about failure. He spoke about a few of his own failings and he encouraged us to identify our own failings and to even practice failing. At least three of my papers that semester were not handed in without first receiving an extension, a begging request for more time, admitting to my failure of not being able to live up to the deadlines. When my professor allowed us to fail, he offered us freedom through the gift of God’s grace and love.

It must have appeared to everyone in Jerusalem that this Jesus who was hung on a cross to suffer and die had failed. The mystery and theology of the cross is utter foolishness. For what appears to be complete and utter failure on behalf of Jesus, is in fact God’s very redemption of the entire world. God did not fail, nor does God fail us. We may fail either ourselves or each other. We may even fail God, but God’s grace is not held back. Even despite our regular and frequent failings, Jesus continues to call each of us back to himself. He calls us and says, “Do you love me? Because I love you so much that I have even died for you. I love you and you are mine.”

But that is not all. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, “Tend my lambs.” Continue to serve those around you, comforting the sick and the alienated, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and spreading the good news of what God has done. Jesus commissions us to do all these things. Peter and Paul were not perfect, but they were called to serve God’s church and to tell others the good news about what God has done. And that is what we celebrate on this day. God knows that you and I are not perfect, but we too are still called to serve God’s church, to share the good news with everyone we meet, the good news of a God who has redeemed all of creation. God calls each of us with all our imperfections. That too is cause for celebration. So go forth, spread the good news, and do not be afraid to fail because you will, and God will love you all the more for it.

Vicar Luke Smetters

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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