“The Call by Jesus”
A sermon by SW and NW Region Missionary, Dylan Mello
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s so great to be here with you all on this first day of May. For those who don’t know me, my name is Dylan, and I serve as SW and NW Region Missionary for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Much of my job includes connecting, collaborating, developing programs, and listening to where the Spirit is leading us in our SW Region of 36 Episcopal churches. Over the last year, it’s been a joy to connect with quite a few of you from this parish. From the anti-racism alliance, to lay preachers, to the Lenten Way of Love, it’s been a privilege getting to know folks from Christ Church.
Our Gospel reading this morning is one that I love. It is full of so much richness, depth, and connections to the overarching themes which have run through this Gospel. We are actually now at the end of the Gospel of John with only a few remaining lines. As Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus responds to each of Peter’s responses with “Feed my sheep, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep”. This response right here, caring for the flock, so strikes me as one of the final messages and invitations that Jesus is offering to us.
It’s interesting to note that as this is Jesus’ third appearance after his crucifixion and again the disciples don’t initially recognize him, it can be thought that this is a time for the reconciliation between Peter and Jesus. It was not too long ago that Peter denied Jesus 3 times. Jesus is now able to ask Peter if he loves him 3 times, giving commands 3 times to each of his responses. This is a way to balance the past, reconcile what has happened. This third appearance of Jesus with the three questions of “do you love me?” happening around a similar charcoal fire where Peter denied Jesus has brought forgiveness and reconciliation to the forefront. You can see the connections that John has made to bring back Peter and Jesus together. This is just a glimpse of what it might look like for us to come back to Jesus. In those times, which for me, happen more often than I’d like to admit, where I stray from God, ignore Jesus’ commands, or even deny Jesus, I know that there is a space and an openness for me to reconcile, to repent and turn back to Jesus. This is such a powerful invitation to us, that Peter essentially bailed on Jesus, Jesus still loves Peter and builds the Church with him as one its rocks.
One of the unique things that scholars point out when we look at the Greek translation of today’s reading is the meaning of the word love. Our English translation might make us miss some of this context and not capture its entirety. In Greek, there are three main types of love which is Eros, a romantic love, Phileo, a sibling like love or love between equals, and Agape which is a self-sacrificing love, the highest kind. I want to preface that this translation of Greek is not the language that Jesus was speaking in at the time, however, it allows us to understand a deepening of the interaction. In the conversation, Jesus first asks Peter if he loves him with the agape, self-sacrificing love. Peter responds that he loves him with the phileos, brotherly love. Jesus then asks again do you love me with the agape love, and Peter says he loves him with the phileos love. Finally, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with brotherly love and Peter says yes I love you with that kind of love. It’s interesting how Jesus walks down from Agape to meet Peter where he is at. Jesus meets each of us where we are, regardless of what type of love we think we are ready for.
Jesus then gives Peter his warning that Peter will be led where he does not want go, and yet still shares the commandment with him “Follow Me”. That is a very hard and challenging ask. What does that require of us? I think about Christianity as a whole across all denominations and I see places where communities, for the lack of a better word, take the easy route. And then I see places, particularly in my travels, where folks are following Jesus and going to places where they might not want to go. Going deep into this work that Jesus is calling us is challenging. There are systems out in the world that are so engrained in culture and internalized in ourselves that it can seem that it is this monumental task to address. And in most ways, I think it is if we don’t start in our community. There are the systems at work that allow folks to be stuck in food and housing insecurity. Systems where folks are marginalized and oppressed through racism and homophobia. All of us swim in the systems of white supremacy that have been at work for centuries around us. And today, May 1, is also May Day or International Worker’s Day, noting and remembering where the long and evolving process of workers and working class rights have been achieved and are still strived for even against much resistance. It seems like such an overwhelming task, and yet that’s where the spiritual gift and practice of resiliency comes in. Jesus isn’t telling us to stop doing his work because it’s hard. He’s sending Peter out into the world who will eventually become martyred. He’s sending us out to be strong and lead for the flock in challenging spaces. Part of the practice of resiliency is to make meaning out of difficult spaces and structures, and to be able to pray on this and understand this is so vital.
So what do we do with all that we heard in the Gospel. I haven’t even mentioned Saul’s conversion and becoming Paul in our Acts reading, but this all ties in together as the Gospel of John concludes. The commands and the conversions. Jesus invites each of us to tend and feed the flocks of folks in our communities, and doesn’t stop there, but is asking each of us to follow him. These can be part our conversion moments today.
I want to share the story of when I first realized that Jesus was calling us to feed and tend his sheep. This is the tip that opened my eyes and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to continue to learn, grow, and evolve since this time. And when I reflect, this is when I first noticed the systems that separate us and how we are called to go into the world.
Right before the start of my freshmen year of college at Sacred Heart University, just down the road from here, I went to campus about a week early and participated in a program called “Community Connections”. I’m not sure if or what this program looks like now, but back then a group of incoming freshmen stayed in the basement of Golden Hill Methodist and St. Charles Catholic Church in Bridgeport, while doing various community projects during the week. The first thing that I remember about this whole week was the car ride we took from campus to our home base. We left from Sacred Heart’s campus and intentionally went to the very top of Park Avenue where it’s quiet and the views are sweeping. We then headed back down Park Avenue all the way down to Seaside Park.
One road, so many differences. Noticing these changes though was gradual. There wasn’t an immediate divide, but each segment heading down towards the park had changes, where you notice the differences in home styles, a shift to convenience stores, changes in color and culture, and eventually a visible increase in the food and housing insecurity needs of the neighborhoods. When I think about the invitation to lead and join with Jesus, I know it starts right here in our own communities. When we can notice visible changes and needs locally, this is where our work to follow Jesus begins.
A second story from the same week has remained with me as well. So I guess, I’m sharing two stories. One of the mornings during the community connections week, I was assigned to spend time in one of the soup kitchens in Bridgeport both assisting in the kitchen and to go out and spend time with the guests during lunch. My not yet, eighteen-year-old self was a bit frozen with anxiety I’m ashamed to say, but I made my way out and sat down. There, sitting by herself, was an elderly, widowed, primarily Portuguese speaking woman at the table and I was struck by the conversation that ensued. Just her and I, sitting there and I learned so much. She shared some of her story with me. She had off and on experienced insecure housing and relied on the daily soup kitchen for many of her meals. When she first immigrated to the United States, she lived in the same city where I was born in Massachusetts. We connected about Portuguese food and even language too.
This was one of the first times I can remember coming face to face with someone who I initially thought was so different from me on several levels, yet it turned into an experience where I was recognizing that I was “othering” folks who actually aren’t very different than me. We share so much interconnectedness. This was a wake-up call that my life which was and is full of privilege was preventing me from seeing the wholeness of folks and the Jesus inside each of us.
As we go out into the world after this, it is my hope that we can remind ourselves of the call by Jesus. As Jesus is sitting on the beach, cooking fish and breakfast, he asked the disciples to bring more fish. Jesus already had breakfast ready, and he invited them for more. We too are called to join in what Jesus has already started and done. It’s our turn to continue to push forward tending, feeding, and caring for those in our communities beyond these doors.
May the God of Love and Abundance, liberate us to know the power of Jesus’ love for us and give us the resilience and strength to be catalysts for change in our communities.