Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Follow My Way: Feed My Sheep”
Sermon, Year C, Easter 3, April 14, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Acts 9:1-20, John 21:1-19

These are incredibly rich texts that we read from this morning, especially the passage from Actrs and the passage out of John’s Gospel. There is enough in there for many a good discussion, and many a good sermon. One could go on for a long time on either of those texts. And I have preached on each a couple times. I looked through my records to see if there was one I hadn’t preached but I have done a few on both of those. Rich, wonderful texts. Saul’s conversion, and this story on the side of the sea with the disciples dishing and Peter being naked in the boat for some reason and come to shore and Jesus says, “Have breakfast. Here I am.” There is a lot there.

As I looked at them this week I was curious not to much the content of what was in the stories, but their relationship to one another time-wise. Where was Saul in relation to Jesus in the book of Acts. So I checked a bunch of different sources because it is difficult to date these events precisely. I looked at a bunch of sources, and for the most part they place Paul’s conversion story here on the road to Damascus at about 4-6 years after the resurrection. So Saul’s conversion is pretty close to the resurrection. I also looked at the sources and they all pretty much agreed that Saul had started his persecution of followers of The Way, as they were called, probably about two years after the resurrection. And so maybe 2-4 years before he had his conversion experience that he had been persecuting these people who were talking about Jesus and talking about The Way and trying to bring people into this new group of followers of Jesus.

And as that passage from Acts calls it, they were followers of The Way. They were not called Christians yet. That will come in later. At first, the disciples of Jesus referred to themselves as followers of The Way. The Way that Jesus showed them to live. It was a Way of living. And in a lot of ways I wish that we had kept that term. It is still around Christian circles somewhat, but I wish that we had been more deliberate in keeping that name, calling us followers of The Way or People of The Way, instead of calling ourselves Christians. I think we lost something by using that word “Christian.” It’s not a bad word, but it seems to focus us more on being believers in Christ, or people who believe something about Christ, instead of people who follow Christ, or who live like Christ: live The Way of Christ, of Jesus.

It is a minor quibble, but I thought about that, and wonder if part of Christianity’s development as it became in some places and periods of time and in some traditions much more focused about right belief and doctrine and the after-life, instead of being focused on being the Body of Christ in this life. Being followers of Jesus, to do what Jesus wants us to do, in this life.

Look at Jesus’ actions after his resurrection. He shows up to the disciples in that locked room, breathes his spirit on them, has them touch his hands and feel his wounds. Very physical acts. Very present in this world. Present to the disciples. And then here on the sea of Tiberias, Jesus shows up and what does he do for his disciples? He helps them fish. He helps them do their job of gathering food out of the sea. He helps them with that, and when they come to shore he’s already cooked breakfast for them. The Way. That’s The Way. And then he tells Peter, after they’ve eaten, since Peter had denied him three times in the garden, Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?”And Peter each time says, “Yes, of course Lord, I love you.” Then Jesus says, “Then feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” This is the vocation of the disciple: to feed and to tend. Action. Living the Way. Love. Feed. Tend.

Jesus gave us and taught us a new way to live and to be with one another. A new way of community. A new way of relating to our neighbors and to one another. And Saul, persecuting these followers of The Way, is in many ways stuck in a particular belief system that is being challenged by these followers of The Way. And in some ways you can see in his letters from later, after he was starting churches, that he succumbed to that temptation to want it to be about belief again. Not entirely, but there is a fair amount of that in his letters.

But here he is persecuting the followers of The Way because they are a threat to the belief structure and social structure of his community. They are going up against the tradition in some ways. And going up against some of the accepted social and cultural norms. Some of that threat had to have been due to the popularity of The Way amongst women, slaves, the poor, and outcasts. That was much of the original audience of The Way. Not entirely – we know there were also some wealthy people that were also attracted to it, and that helped to support the movement. But this inclusion of women, the poor, slaves, and outcast was a threat. There was also some removal of power from the religious leaders as gatekeepers for access to God. Had to go through the priests to get to God, and The Way was a new way of saying, “No, you don’t. All of us are connected to God, we can all have a relationship to God.”

And so Saul is persecuting these followers of The Way for a couple of years, and on his way to Damascus, where the Church has already left Jerusalem and gone to, to round up these followers and arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem. And on the road he has this extraordinary conversion. An experience with Jesus. And he is changed. He becomes a very passionate evangelist and a very passionate starter of churches. He goes all over the Mideast and Mediterranean all the way to Italy starting churches.

Sometimes I wish that I had been given that kind of dramatic conversion experience where the skies open up and there is light, and Jesus is right there, saying, “Hey, it’s all real.” To have something that definite and that profound, to go, “Ah, okay. This all does make sense to believe. I have seen him. I’ve had this wonderful conversion experience!”

But I have not had that. And I think few of us do. Some people have. Certainly you can read in the history of Christianity that there have been people who have had that, and even people today who have had these profound conversion experiences. But for me... I grew up in the Church, was raised in the Church as a child, so belief was always just sort of there. I have had my moments of doubt, and changes of belief, and growing in the faith, so in a sense I’ve not had a need for a conversion experience. But what I have had over the years is a constant reconfirming that I am on a right path in following Jesus. That this does make sense. That this is real. That I am going in the right way. Not that I always do it the right way, but that it makes sense for me to be on this path. And there have been in there some amazing moments of feeling God’s presence. Experiences at camp, youth events, seminary, churches, and some worship services, sometimes just being outside in nature. These experiences of being very present with God. Experiences even in hospitals, with sick people, dying people. Real profound experiences of God’s presence. But not conversion experiences per se like Saul had here. So I say don’t feel bad if you have not had that kind of extraordinary incredible conversion experience. Possibly it’s because you have not needed it. But hopefully you have had other experiences of feeling God’s presence in your life.

And so Saul has this extraordinary experience and then he turns into That Guy that takes on a new hobby, or picks up a new health fad, or exercise regimen, or activity or way of being, he becomes That Guy that finds something new and won’t shut up about it. And he goes on for decades starting churches. He goes from a man who was arresting people for talking about Jesus to become Jesus’ biggest spokesman at that time. This success is driven partly by the situation of the time that was ready for a message of love and redemption. Which I think is a message that is still attractive today, and still needed today. This message of hope, respect and dignity for those who are on the outside, a message of peace to a culture of violence and war and struggle. This message of a new Way of living. A new Way of being in the world, and with people.

Those first followers of Jesus lived in this Way. They didn’t just talk about it, they lived it. They fed people. They loved people. They helped them. They treated them like they were important. Like they mattered. Even people that society and others said don’t matter, these followers of The Way said, “No, you do matter! Because you are God’s! God has a claim on you.”

Some of the early commenters and writers, people who were not followers of Jesus but were writing about some of these early followers of Jesus, many wrote about how impressed and surprised they were at how these followers of The Way cared for one another, loved one another. They ate together. They shared meals together. And they did so in mixed company: men and women together, rich and poor and slaves worshiping together, eating together, Jews and Gentiles coming together. All those boundaries, all those walls that separate us were being torn down by these early followers of The Way. This was a very new thing, and a very radical thing.

Why do you persecute me? Don’t persecute me. Love me. Feed me instead. That’s what the followers of the Way did. And I think we in the church are at a time that we can be that again. And we have, over the last two thousand years, have been that. sometimes not anywhere near as well as we should have been. But we are at a wonderful time when we can be that again to subversively change the world that we live in. We can show people this way by living it, by living in this Way of following Jesus here within Plymouth, within Eau Claire, in Wisconsin, and in the world. Following the Way.

Feed my lambs.
Tend my sheep.
Feed my sheep.

If you love me, then do these things.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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