Some Umpires Call Balls, Some Call Strikes, I Call’em as I See‘em; Luke 8:26-39

A message preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley on June 19, 2022.

This morning, we find Jesus and the Twelve disembarking a boat on the east/southeast portion of the Sea of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory. The group has just experienced a harrowing storm the evening before. As their boat was getting swamped with water, they woke Jesus up from a snooze and he immediately calms the raging storm. This is where we pick up in the Story. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Luke 8:26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time, he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Yesterday, the disciples witnessed Jesus take command of the natural elements and calm a storm. Now they see how Jesus commands the evil spirits who run amuck in the world. You must wonder what was churning in the disciples’ minds about this point. What did they see going on from their first-century Jewish perspective?

The first thing they would note is they’re not in Kansas anymore! They have traveled from the safety of their homes with all their familiar Jewish customs and ways and are not pulling the boat to shore in Gentile territory. You know those Gentiles, right? They were seen back then in Jewish eyes as “those kinds of people.” We don’t hang with the likes of them because they don’t see or understand God like we do. They’re different from you and me. They are not as spiritually pure and clean as we are; in fact, we’re better than those Gentiles are by virtue of our birth.

Not only have Jesus and the disciples landed in Gentile territory but they have set ashore in what we would call the wrong part of town. Of all places for their boat to land, it just had to get moored in a Cemetery and a Gentile one at that! But things appear to go from bad to worse. Now, some wild, hollering, buck-naked nut-job begins running towards them as the welcome party!

It’s interesting to note that even before the wild man uttered a word to Jesus, Jesus had already begun commanding the demons to leave the man. Jesus takes the initiative even before he was asked to; it’s a comfort to us because we see that God is working out the messes in our life even before we open our mouths in prayer.

Wild Man must have been a sight. His countrymen did not understand him and saw him as a threat to their own community and villages and then bound him with chains and got him as far away from the civilized population as they could. Wild Man’s countrymen incarcerate him in the lifeless environment outside of town. Ironically, they did not know what to do with him after he had been cleaned up, dressed, and sitting in his right mind. They were agitated and fearful of the positive changes that had taken place. The status quo had been shaken.

We also learn Wild Man’s malady has a name. Legion. Some people have migraines, others have slipped discs, but this man was inflicted with Legion. It’s right here we need to pause.  If we zoom up to 40,000 feet and look down on this scene, we will remember the history of the location where all this took place. Along this side of the Sea of Galilee, the Roman military had swept in and violently captured all the land. It was referred to as the Decapolis, The Ten Cities Region. Now the residents of this part of Palestine may not have been Jewish but they were also oppressed and subdued by the imperial power that smothered the whole area.[1] We also see from this 40,000-foot perspective that Wild Man’s malady is named after the brutal keepers of the peace for the Empire – the feared Roman Legion. A Roman Legion was comprised of anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000-foot soldiers along with several hundred horsemen and they had one job: They were a well-oiled and efficient killing machine whose sole purpose was to strike fear into the hearts of all their opponents and subjects. Legion. Let’s return to the cemetery once more.

The temptation in understanding our text today is to over-spiritualize it and get caught up in the fact Jesus has authority over spiritual powers and demons. I think Luke, a writer who was writing to a gentile, Romanized audience, uses his skill in crafting a story that had a not-very-subtle point: This Jesus movement is really a subversive movement that is more powerful than the Roman occupiers and empire. In other words, beloved, Jesus confronts and overturns the corrupt powers of the world’s empires. It is a Story that pits the Kingdom of God over and against the systems, kingdoms, and politics of this time and realm.

Our Story is one where Jesus is pointing out, calling out, the social system that keeps the marginalized incarcerated and shoved to the outskirts of society. He’s calling out a system that would rather have this Wild Man full of demons chained up and out of the way and have all their pigs to keep their local economy going rather than celebrate this human being’s recovery and a reintroduction to society.  Jesus is calling out systems that put self above others. Jesus calls out those systems that perpetuate the causes that keep the marginalized on the margins. Jesus is calling out the system of the fat and happy status quo.[2]

Today is Juneteenth, a day that is often referred to as Black Independence Day, when in June 1865, Union troops finally made it to Galveston, Texas to announce the slave’s emancipation. Today is a big deal to our black brothers and sisters. It’s a day when I as a person who was blessed to be born an upper-middle-class white man celebrate those blessings and make sure all God’s children have access to those blessings I have had. Today is a day I must critically look at myself and determine how I have contributed to systemic racism and prejudice. I may not be a slave owner but how have I unknowingly placed people of color, people of other sexual orientation, or who are of a different nationality than me into stereotypical categories of how society defines them? What about you? Have you ever thought about it?  How has the church?

Have you ever heard of the Doctrine of Discovery? I don’t remember learning it in my history classes growing up but I have since learned the church had its own hand in fomenting the system of class division and racism. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued a proclamation called Romanus Pontifex which gave European kings and monarchs the right to go to new countries and enslave, plunder, or even kill indigenous populations – all in the name of Jesus.

The Doctrine of Discovery states that Christians can, “Invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Muslims and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all moveable and immovable goods whatsoever held and passed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to supply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.[3]  The concept of European white privilege was promulgated through decrees like the Doctrine of Discovery. The roots of systemic racism, beloved, had its gensis from the Church.

But how does that happen? How do these concepts become systemic in people’s minds and cultures? Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman made the point that our social systems and the construction of our social reality are a result of the interface of three influences. The process begins with a person or group’s externalization (expression) of ideas. Over a period, those ideas are then institutionalized, and concretized, by a community system.  And finally, the institution’s support of those values has the capacity to then internalize (think, “inject into”) those ideas into an individual’s identity and value-set.[4]   So, for example, Pope Nicholas externalized his desire for financial gain and popular support and those desires were then institutionalized first by the Church, the Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain and then were later internalized by later generations of individuals who inherited those beliefs and values. Over time, their future generations embedded those behaviors as “normal” and accepted. Even the Presbyterian Church in the mid-1800s split over slavery and abolition and did not reunite until the mid-1980s.  Look at Nazi Germany: Hitler externalized values of Arian superiority and the empire attempted to institutionalize those beliefs into the German churches to be an arm of Hitler’s Reich; the hope was with the blessing of the church, members would internalize those beliefs and thereby bless the extermination of Jews in the Second World War. Churches today are still wrestling with old stereotypes such as can women be in church leadership, or can gay people really be a good Christians and parents? Really?

Sisters and brothers, let us remember Jesus wants the Church, wants you and me, to transform unjust systems of power into egalitarian systems of grace. We are called to honestly reflect in ourselves about whether our heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart. Legion, beloved, can be exorcised and healed. But Church, it starts with us.

You know, some umpires are prone to call balls a lot. Others are prone to call strikes. You, me, the Church, needs to call ‘em the way we see ‘‘em. And like Jesus, call out Legion when we see it. It is time for us to speak up and speak out. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So be it.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]  Feasting on the Gospels–Luke, Volume 1 (p. 540). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] The Rev. Dr. Otis T. Moss, III, A lecture given May 18, 2022 at the Festival of Homiletics, Denver, CO, “Dancing in the Darkness: Daring to Preach While Staring Into the Void.” Dr. Moss provided a wonderful exegetical analysis of this text.

[3] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration. How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 77.

[4] Mark Charles and Soon-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths. The Ongoing, Dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2019), 24-29.

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Behind, Besides, Within; a sermon on Romans 5:1-5

Sermon preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, June 12, 2022

This morning we are beginning with the answer to the question we will be unpacking today. The answer is this: Behind; Besides; Within. Now let’s look at the question this answer actually answers.

Our text this morning demands that we slide our fingers backward on the pages of our Bible to see what Paul just said. You see, Romans 5 begins with the word, therefore, and you and I are immediately left asking, “Therefore, what exactly?”

Paul is putting together this biblical argument for how people are made right with God through simple faith. He cites the progenitor of the Covenant people, Abram, who though being an extremely old man was married to an extremely old woman, continued to believe with faith God would grant him a son to continue the family name even though the couple was infertile. Abraham’s faith was validated and affirmed by God; because Abraham believed in that which he could not see, he was made right with God. This is what Paul means when he writes, “Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness.” That is all righteousness means; it means to be made right with God. So now, listen to our scripture this morning from Romans 5:1-5.

Romans 5:1-5

5.1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.[1]

This is a beautiful capsulation of the entire Gospel message! Paul is telling the Church that since we believe that through our faith in Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we have been made right with God. We have been reconciled, rejoined, reconnected, and re-ligamented in our relationship with the One who is, who was, and is yet to come. The broken relationship with the Holy through Adam and Eve has now been repaired and restored by Jesus’ actions; our faith that Jesus did what is both written and talked about him restores us, makes us, Church, right and restored with God as well. But it’s right here that we need to lean forward in our chairs and listen closely.

Paul does not say the result of that faith in Jesus and being made right with God is the key to our personal salvation and provides us access to eternal life per se; Paul places the benefits and repercussions of our faith in God’s grace in a much more present, dare I say, practical, moment. He places it firmly in the “now”, the present moment. He reminds us of our faith in God through Jesus immediately gives us peace-full-ness.

We tend to think of peace as a cessation of aggression or hostilities between people or nations. It is but it’s more than that! The biblical word peace in our instance today is a noun, not a verb. It does not describe the peaceful actions and behaviors conflicting people or nations demonstrate; no, peace is a noun describing the state of the current state of things. Peace describes the position or state from which we look at and view God and our world. Peace as our standpoint and outlook determines the way and direction we go on in loving God, our neighbor, and how we order our very lives.

Think of it this way. Have you ever worked on a complex math problem before? I remember the ones growing up where it says Jane is riding on an eastbound train going to Chicago 399 miles away and passes Bobby on an Eastbound train going 73 miles per hour. By the time Jane gets to Chicago, how far will Bobby’s train have traveled? Ugh. There were times I would read those types of problems and simply want to write, “I don’t care and don’t see how this will help me in my life” while I watched Mary Ann smilingly work out the problem, then put her pencil down, and then look quite smug and content with herself. Mary Ann always solved the problems! She always seemed relaxed and at peace in the moment. She possessed peace.

I never lived in a peace-full state all through school.

This is what Paul is talking about. When we have faith in Jesus and in his salvific work, we are given the gift from God to experience life with a non-anxious attitude and hopeful outlook this very minute. God graces us with the gift of peace. We know the equation has already been figured out and balanced.

Beloved, the gift of life from Jesus is a gift that enables each of us to look at life from a state of confidence as opposed to fear. When we live in God’s peace, we can live non-anxiously, relaxed and confident, knowing that nothing in the created world or in the spiritual realms can separate us from the love and presence of God in Jesus. God has already solved the equation; we do not have to solve the problem which enables us to sit back in our seats quietly and relaxed just like Mary Ann.

“Oh, but preacher, that’s so much easier said than done!” And I as the Preacher will immediately reply, “Amen, brother! Amen, sister!”  You see, my friends, this is why the second part of our scripture reading is so important to understand.

The fact is, our life, our very world, has been made right with God Almighty through the grace of Jesus’ loving sacrifice of being born, living life, dying, and rising again. Jesus’ peace gave him the ability to face his accusers and their hostility, to face unjust systems and call them out, and to face and endure the physical and emotional pains of bodily abuse and betrayal by his friends. Because Jesus had faith in God his father, he was able to walk peace-fully into whatever hurricane life pummeled him with.

This is what gives the Apostle Paul the audacity to write in verse three that the Church, Christians, can boast in our sufferings. What a strange little thing for Paul to write. The King James version says, “We glory in our tribulations also.” Think for a moment about what it means to glory in something.  It means to be overwhelmed and awed. It means looking with our eyes wide open and our mouths agape reveling in what is happening. So, am I saying we are to rejoice and revel in our sufferings? No. Paul is saying we are to revel that in the midst of, in spite of, all our sufferings, God has already solved the equation. Because we know that God has already solved the equation, we live our current life differently in the midst of our suffering and hardship because as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that God, “Watches me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.”[2]

Paul tells you and me that we can boast in our hope as well as in our sufferings because our sufferings help us build strength and endurance to cope with those struggles. We are reminded that the more we learn to endure, then our very character grows, adapts, and becomes more like Jesus’. As we confidently rely on God in our pains, the more we can endure the hardships, the next thing we know, is that the very way we look at, experience, and interact with all aspects of our life, we will begin looking, living, and interacting to God in a way just like Jesus did from his standpoint of assured peace. Living in peace provides us the springboard of hope that God is in control, that God has already solved the equation, and that the promise is for a difference in the quality and tenor of our life right now, today. Wholeness through the gift of peace from Christ is just as crucial in our redeemed life now as it will be when we are dead.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s the day the worldwide Church remembers that we are people who believe God manifests Godself as a loving Father, as a real human being in the man Jesus, and walks and lives with us right this moment because we are filled with Jesus’ very Spirit.

Beloved, what illness ails you? What disappointments haunt you? What broken dreams of yours vex you? Whatever they are, live in the present moment in a confident, relaxed state of peace knowing that you know that you know the God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, walks behind you, walks beside you in Jesus, and lives and makes Jesus’ home in you through the Holy Spirit. Behind, beside, within. So, the next time you look heavenward and shout, “God! Why is this happening to me?!”, quietly pray, “God behind me, beside me, within me.” Paul reminds us this morning, “Hey, y’all got this!”

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] The Book Confessions. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part 1, the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer number 1, 4.0001.

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People Are Watching but What Do They See?; John 13:31-35

Sermon preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, May 15, 2022

On this fifth Sunday of Eastertide, the composers of the lectionary make a jump back to a Story that occurred before the Easer events. They give us a flashback to the night Jesus was gathered with his disciples in the upper room the night he was betrayed. Why did they do this?

Have you ever heard someone tell you a joke and at the end, you give them this doggie head tilt and say, “I just didn’t get it!” It’s at this point the joke teller rolls her eyes and tells you the punchline a second time to make sure you got it. It’s then you say, “Ohhh, now I get what you’re trying to say!” You’re able to connect the dots and get it.

Well, the composers of the lectionary seem to want to make sure you and I get the point of the Jesus Story and transport us back again to Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus was betrayed. The lectionary composers appear to want to tell us the punch line one more time to make sure we get it and connect the dots. We are reading from John 13:31-35.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

John 13:31-35

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [1]

The great Drama that began with Jesus on Christmas morning moves deliberately to the Drama and crisis of Jesus on Good Friday. We think the Jesus Story ends abruptly but then the new life of Easter happens. The Story doesn’t end with death but is continued through resurrection life and hope through the work of the Church. Today’s scripture from John is the punch line of the Jesus Story which is this: God became a human being like us in every way from having friends who turn and betray him as well as to experiencing the joys of sitting around a table with dear friends enjoying food, wine, and stimulating conversation. God in Christ even experienced the fears of dying and death itself. But the Story doesn’t end there; Jesus is risen conquering death and the grave and commissions the Church to go out into the world and demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ expressing the greatest commandment which is what? Love.

The disciples were obtuse; they just could not connect all the dots of what Jesus was saying and doing during the previous three years of his ministry. The old-time religious leaders clung to the letter of the Law. To be a good Jew, to be beloved by God, then you must both know and then follow the Jewish Law. The whole point of the Christmas Story is God’s active way of showing those religious leaders, and you and me, how to live out the Law.

All the Stories, all the parables, and all the healings on the Sabbath Jesus did was God’s way of showing us to change our understanding of what it means to be the beloved of God. Following God, and glorifying God, isn’t about both knowing and following rules. Jesus’ life and ministry culminating in the sacrifice of his life is physically, literally, showing us that giving glory to God and gaining Lord’s favor is to look and live through the lens of sacrifice and loving others. That’s the punch line we are supposed to remember.

One of the Church’s great confessional statements is from the Larger Catechism from the mid-1600s. The English House of Commons and the Anglican church began wrestling with issues of who should rule the church? Who should rule the state and government? What power does the King have over all of this? They convened an Assembly of 151 people who were to meet in Westminster Abbey and figure it all out. Finally, after six years of contentious and heated debate with over almost 1,200 meetings, the Westminster Assembly finally completed the “The Form of Presbyterian Church Government.”  A portion of that document was the development of the Larger Catechism. A catechism is a set of questions and answers a person had to memorize before they could join the church. The very first question asked of a candidate for membership was this, “What is the chief end (purpose) of men and women?” The answer is this: A person’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So beloved, how do we do that? 

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this, all people will know you are my disciples if you love one another.”

God loves us so much that he sent his only begotten Son to express his passionate love for the people and world he created by being handed over to evil and crucified. The Good News is that even the shackles of death and hell could not keep Love from prevailing. Out of love for you and me, Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again. And Jesus is telling us the punch line one more time: My new commandment to you is to love one another as I have loved you. Jesus emptied himself for the sake of others. In our text today, we are reminded he is asking us to do the very same thing.

Friends, it’s all pretty simple. Actively, sacrificially love God as God has loved you. That’s the kernel of what it means to follow Jesus. This text gives the Church and her disciples like you and me a commission that like Jesus, we are to love each other actively, sacrificially as God has loved us.

Sadly, however, the world looks at Jesus’ disciples in the church and they see bickering, fighting, and splitting over what are really nothing but issues revolving around who and how we are to love others. They see us growling about who is in and who should be out; they observe us arguing how this biblical verse should be interpreted, or who is qualified to lead and teach in a church. Churches split over these, and other similar issues and the world watches us.  They see the disciples of Jesus fighting amongst themselves. Where’s the love in that? Instead of coming together under one tent and is this what Jesus wants? Biblical theologian Dale Bruner notes, “It is noteworthy that Jesus does not say that the world will know we are Christians by our love for God or for his Christ; rather…(the world) will know we are Christians by our loyal and affectionate churchmanship (with one another)  –  (they will know Jesus) by our heart for the Church.”[2]

So, beloved, what does the world see when they look at us? Do they see us collectively as Church and individually as disciples that we love each other? If so, we glorify God and will enjoy him forever. Amen.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), 797.

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The Pastoral Prayer for Sunday, May 8, 2022

            Almighty God who placed all the planets and the stars in their places and yet know each of your beloved by their name, we come to celebrate your love and goodness as we pause and worship you. You are among us in this sanctuary this morning as you are also in the tunnels in Mariupol. There is no place we can go that you’re not already there waiting for us!

            We gather this day, led by the Holy Spirit, as your people. Each of us comes with our own reasons for attending today. Some gather because this is the only time of the week they are surrounded by others. Some come to seek a sense of peace that only you can provide. We gather today because we want to hear your Word spoken to us and shape our lives. Still, others come for release from the pain caused by a loved one’s death, a divorce or breakup, the loss of a job, or the diagnosis of a serious illness or condition. For whatever reason we’ve come, honor it and receive it as praise and thanksgiving.

            For the fearful ones, fill them with the peace that surpasses our understanding.

            For the grieving, wipe their tears, re-instill Easter hope, and give them Easter eyes.

            To all who are lonely, grant them the comfort of this community of saints.

            For the sick, bring wholeness and comfort and give them your healing presence, reminding them healing takes on many forms; give them the grace to see and experience it.

            For the addict, release them from the bonds that drag them into the depths of Sheol.

            For the abused, help them to overcome their trauma and let them see a beautiful future once again both emotionally and physically.

            For the spiritually lost or complacent, fill them with the fire of your Spirit that will break the bonds of a hardened or apathetic life.

            Jesus, lover of our soul, we pray for those caught in the crosshairs of war in Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, and  Ethiopia. Lord, hasten the day when swords are beaten into plowshares and weapons of destruction are no more.

            Give our leaders and politicians a heart of justice and truth and purge them of all ignoble power and pride.

            To you, the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is, was, and will always be, we lift our prayers to you and pray as Jesus taught us…

…Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil: For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever! Amen.

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Meeting Us Where We Are, John 21:15-19

A message preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, May 1, 2022

If we peer down from 40K feet, we can see how John’s gospel begins and ends very neatly and includes both a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue, which begins with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God” sets up the rest of the gospel Story by explaining who Jesus is. The rest of the Story in John unpacks Jesus’ purpose. Today, we are looking at the epilogue, the ending of John’s Story, and what I want us to get out of is this: God goes out of God’s way to meet us where we are in life.

Chapter 21 highlights two characters. The first is Peter and the second is the Apostle, John. Our text this morning is about Peter, and we join the Apostles in having breakfast with Jesus on the beach. Before we hear this morning’s text, it’s helpful to remember the very last words Peter spoke to Jesus during the Last Supper as Jesus was telling the disciples what is about to happen. Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going…why can’t I follow you now? I will lay my life down for you!”  Jesus looking at Peter simply replies, “Truly, truly I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.”[1] Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 21:15-19

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”[2]

Oh, dear Peter. We Southerners have a little saying we have when someone we are with does or says something really dumb. We smile and simply say, “Bless his heart.” A second one like it is, “God, love ya’.” As we look down upon this scene in John, we see the group finishing up breakfast when in the middle of it all, Jesus turns to Peter and has “the talk” with him. We find Peter experiencing one of these “bless your heart” moments.

Over the course of Lent, I have been watching a series on Jesus’ life with the Twelve. One of you told me about it and I love it. It’s called The Chosen[3] and it’s an app you can download to your device at the Google or Apple stores; it is the first television series to be completely crowdfunded by viewers. I have to say, the portrayal of the characters and their personalities is refreshing. For example, the guy who plays the disciple Matthew portrays him as a lonely, outcast, highly functional autistic Jewish tax collector. It’s brilliant. Throughout the story, the brash and always ready to get into a fight, Peter, belittles Matthew incessantly for being a traitor to his fellow Jews by taking taxes for Rome from his own Jewish people. Peter comes across as a cocksure tough guy who tries to live into Jesus’ mandate to be the Rock. Many scholars believe that Jesus’ three difficult questions to Peter are a way to counterbalance Peter’s three previous denials.  In John 18 when the rooster crows, Peter betrays Jesus. Our Story today is the Story of reconciliation and restoration of Peter into the Fellowship as its leader.[4] New Testament scholar, the late Raymond Brown notes, “The choice of Peter is a demonstration of God’s working in the weak things of the world.”[5] In other words, friends, if there is hope for Peter, then there sure is hope for people like you and me.

I love this Story in John because it’s a Story where once again we are reminded that the Great God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, comes and meets us where we are in our life. God takes the initiative. God searches us out and finds us amid our everyday, mundane lives…just like he did with Peter and the others. Our Story today has the Lord God physically going to where Peter was and is seeking him out. We are reminded that God comes to where you and I physically are, too, in our board rooms, classrooms, examining rooms, or standing in line at Trader Joe’s. Is our spiritual life tuned enough to be able to see him? But our Story holds another clue as to how God comes to meet us where we are; we can hear how Jesus meets us spiritually where we are by looking at how the conversation in our Story is actually written.  

We have a set of three questions and three commands. At first, they appear to be the same command but at closer reading, they are subtlety very different. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times with a growing sense of guilt and sadness, Peter declares, “O Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus then replies with three commands to Peter after each profession of love: Feed my lambs; tend to my sheep; feed my sheep.

Unfortunately, in the English language, there is only one word for love – Love. In the original language of John’s Gospel, there are at least three words for love. First, there is eros, which is sensual love. Next, there is phileo which is where the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, gets its name. And then there is agape which is a love that is intentional, inconvenient, sacrificial, and an all-encompassing love that extended to people in a Spirit of Grace.  Our text uses two of these expressions of love, agape, and phileo, in Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now, there is debate among scholars as to whether this means anything because, they say, these two types of love are sometimes used synonymously in the Story.[6] This is where I disagree with the modern scholars and agree more with the pre-modern ones. You see, when someone is writing a story, the author is very intentional and economical in the words he or she chooses to place in the narrative. The Gospel of John was carefully written with words that are unique to John’s Story in order to tease out who Jesus was and is as well as to outline Jesus’ purpose. I personally think John’s use of the different words for love is intentional; they are words that are supposed to make a point that God spiritually meets us where we are as well.

Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love, i.e., agape me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love, i.e., phileo, you!” A second time Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?” And once again, Peter replies again, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”

Let’s pause: Jesus is asking Simon Peter if Peter has the love for him that expresses itself through sacrifice, inconvenience, intentionality, and grace like Jesus’ love was shown to Peter on the Cross. Peter’s reply is, “Lord, you know I love you like a brother.” Peter pulls up short. Whereas he brashly told Jesus during the Lord’s Supper that he would be willing to die for him, Peter now simply, and quite honestly, I’ll add, admits he loves Jesus as a dear friend. And then finally, Jesus asks Simon one more time, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me? Do you love me as a brother and dear friend?” This is where John changes it up here! He uses a different word for love and then Peters bursts out and says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I phileo you, love you as a soul brother and dear friend.”

I believe John was very intentional in the way he wrote this conversation. Jesus adjusted his expectations of Simon based on where Simon was at the time. Jesus meets Simon Peter right where he was in his faith development. If Peter could not promise agape love to Jesus, he could at least provide love as a best friend and soul brother. And Jesus received that love. Jesus adapted to where Simon spiritually was at that point in Simon’s faith.

Beloved, what does this all say about God and God’s relationship with you? It says God will physically come to where you are in your life and life’s circumstances and meet you there. It says God has high expectations for us as disciples but that the Lord shows us enough agape love to adjust his expectations of where we are in our faith walk. It says that God doesn’t want us to fail and flail; the Lord wants a relationship with you and me and purposefully seeks us out.

So, my sisters and brothers, in just a moment you are about to have a meal with Jesus. As you eat of the bread and drink from the cup this morning, listen for Jesus asking you, me, “Patrick Hurd Wrisley, do you love me with agape-type love?” How shall I answer? How shall you? Beloved, the Lord meets us where we are and then takes us by the hand and leads us to where he wants us to be. Communion is God’s gift to remind us of that fact. Pray with me. 

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] John 13:36-38

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] To see or learn more about The Chosen, please see

[4] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p 806.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans’s Publishing, 2012), p. 1225.

[6] Ibid.

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