The St. John’s Pulpit
St. John’s Baptist Church 300 Hawthorne Lane Charlotte, NC 28204
LIVING TOMORROW’S LIFE TODAY
Gospel of John 21:20-25
Sixth Sunday Following Easter, May 26, 2019
by Senior Minister, Rev. Dennis W. Foust, PhD
(Chuckles and Laughter.) Please excuse my laughter. I was remembering a holiday party conversation of about sixteen years ago. A couple had been introduced to me by a neighbor. It was evident the neighbor had offloaded them upon me because he walked off smiling at me with the words, “excuse me,” after he said, “Dennis is a pastor.” It was evident to me, within a couple of minutes, this woman had not been around too many pastors at parties. The husband said, “We are looking for a new church.” She asked, “Christmas is difficult for me. Can you help me forgive someone?” Before I could respond, she told me – with detailed quotations and hand gestures – all about a quarrel she had with her sister-in-law over HOW their family Christmas traditions were to be followed. She then said that she had not spoken to this sister-in-law since their quarrel and she was beginning to feel guilty. I asked how long ago the disagreement occurred and she said, “twenty-two years ago.”
It is impossible to live tomorrow’s life today when you refuse to forgive.
Last year, a pastor of a good church berated me for not being as involved as he is in efforts and causes he supports. He accused me of failing to offer the liberal leadership he expected from me. I explained to him how I am involved as a pastoral equipper and bridge-builder in efforts of racial reconciliation, interfaith initiatives, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry and trying to leverage the influence of St. John’s in caring for immigrants and building a sustainable city by addressing poverty and a livable wage for our own church employees and others. He chastised me for not being involved with their organization. I explained that I didn’t need to be around that much de-constructive anger – which just made him more angry. I suggested that we keep talking and welcome his next call. It is impossible to live tomorrow’s life today by accusing people of not caring like you do.
A few years ago, a pastor of a good church here in the city was introduced to me at an uptown breakfast. There were hundreds of people present, but a mutual friend had invited both of us to sit at his table. After about fifteen minutes of good respectful conversation, this pastor asked, “Am I correct that St. John’s violates the teachings of the Bible and accepts gays and lesbians as members?” As you can imagine, I did not appreciate his question. First of all, I didn’t like the accusatory tone in his voice. Second, I didn’t appreciate him suggesting St. John’s is in violation of the teachings of the Bible – WE ARE NOT; we are merely in violation of his narrow interpretations of a few biblical passages. Third, I don’t call people by labels, so I didn’t like how he framed his question. As our table mates were forced to enter the cone of silence with us, I smiled and responded, “Well, for many years, St. John’s has strived to be welcoming and affirming rather than condemning, judging or shaming. We offer a community of healing embrace to many people. We do not label people; we welcome any person into the life and ministries of St. John’s who is committed to an honest journey of faith. We do not pretend to be able to force unity through uniformity; we nurture unity through diversity. The only person who will find it difficult to be included and appreciated at St. John’s is the person who finds it impossible to include or appreciate people who are different from herself or himself. If a person is seeking to pursue a relationship with God and is open to learning and being shaped by the teachings of Jesus, she or he is welcome. The only label we use is ‘sinner;’ which describes each of us and all of us. We affirm commitments of each person; we set apart or ordain to the diaconate or to the ministry of God’s Gospel of Grace any of our members who is willing to make this commitment of servant leadership; and we perform weddings in our sanctuary for any two human beings who choose to commit to one another in a relationship of love. We follow Jesus Christ who said, ‘God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.’” Then, I said, “I respect your freedom to interpret Jesus and the Bible the way you do. And I hope you will respect our freedom to interpret Jesus and the Bible the way we do.” He said with a wry smile and another sip of sweet tea, “I respect your right to be wrong.” I smiled and said, “And therein lies the difference between us. I respect your right to be wrong – or right.” It is impossible to live tomorrow’s life today when you are focused upon being the arbiter of doctrinal purity.
A few weeks ago, a neighbor approached me asking if he could ask me a question. “You just did,” I smiled. He then asked, “What do you think about all the other religions in the world? Is Christianity the only path to God?”
This neighbor is always friendly and seems to enjoy conversation. However, through eight years, he has never asked me a religious or theological question, a biblical or church question, a spiritual or faith question. While I considered ways to clarify his motive, I chose to answer his question with another question: “Why do you ask?” And, he said with honesty, “Well, I’m not religious; I’m more of a philosopher. I just wanted to know how a Baptist pastor would answer that question.” I smiled and asked, “Do you want to know how ‘A’ Baptist pastor would answer or do you want to know MY perspective?” He replied with a smile, “Both.”
So, I said, “Well, if you had met as many Baptist pastors as I’ve met over the decades, you would know there is no stereotypical Baptist pastor response to your good question.” (He seemed surprised and puzzled.) So, I tried to introduce him to Baptist concepts of ‘Soul Competence,’ ‘Soul Freedom,’ and ‘Religious Freedom.’ My neighbor scrunched up his face saying, “You are telling me there is not ONE ‘Baptist’ answer.” With a nod, I affirmed his surmising. “Correct; at one extreme, a Baptist pastor might tell you that his version of Christianity is THE ONLY pathway to God. That pastor might define Christianity in a very narrow manner, saying you must agree with his interpretation of a few biblical passages and affirm his views on six or eight doctrinal positions to be a Christian. Another Baptist pastor might be very open-minded about other religions. She might suggest there is one God revealing God’s Self in many ways at various times in diverse cultural settings allowing people the freedom to interpret and apply God’s message. And other Baptist pastors will offer a wide array of other explanations. But there is NO stereotypical Baptist pastor answer.” Accepting this response, he then asked me, “What is your answer as a Baptist pastor?”
Were you giving close attention this morning to the scripture passage which was read? These are the final words in The Gospel of John. This story is attached to the end of Jesus’ threefold ask of Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” You will remember that Simon Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest. He was ashamed and filled with sorrow for his actions. So, during a moment by the Sea of Galilee, three times Jesus asked this ashamed and broken disciple to confirm his commitment with the question, “Do you love me?” Three times, Simon Peter said, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Just like you, he had the opportunity to embrace the embrace of God; compassionate forgiveness – and move on. Jesus tells Simon Peter to ‘care for my sheep’ and ‘feed my sheep.”
Although Peter could have focused on his own commitment, internalized God’s grace deeply within himself, and focused on the purposeful mission Jesus entrusted to him, Simon Peter turned around and saw John. Now John may have been the closest disciple of Jesus. You may remember that John ran to the empty tomb alongside Simon Peter. Rather than denying that he knew Jesus, John was at the cross. It was John who was now responsible to care for Mary, the mother of Jesus. So, rather than focusing on living tomorrow’s life today, Simon Peter asked Jesus, “What about him?” And Jesus basically laughs him off saying, “What difference does it make? What is it to you? YOU FOLLOW ME!”
Do you see what happened there? Do you understand? John’s Gospel ends with a reminder for every person who is committed to follow Jesus. This story emphasizes the need for every follower of Jesus to focus on YOUR discipleship. You don’t need to hold grudges or be concerned that people are not as politically involved as you or be an arbiter of doctrinal purity or figure out God’s views about other religions. You don’t even need to be distracted by the discipleship of other actively faithful disciples. You need to focus on your responsibility to tend and feed those entrusted to your care. Your role, as a disciple, is to be an obedient learner of Jesus – to follow Jesus.
Over time, Simon Peter and those other early disciples figured out they were not merely to represent Jesus; they were to RE-PRESENT Jesus in the world. YOU CAN ONLY RE-PRESENT JESUS IN THE WORLD IF YOU ARE FOLLOWING JESUS YOURSELF. And, by re-presenting Jesus, you are living tomorrow’s life today.
The prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us to focus on our personal discipleship without being distracted by other concerns:
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change;
the courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Let us pray:
“God empower us by Your Holy Spirit so we hold fast in our commitment to You.
Guide us as we pursue discipleship by following Jesus, so we mature in re-presenting him in the world. Shine Your Light, as we pursue living tomorrow’s life today. Amen.’