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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Unshakable Promise

Romans 8:26-39 
A young boy asks his grandfather, Is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky? The grandfather responds, By the time I find out, it will be too late to tell you.
The other day I watched the movie, “Heaven is for Real,” based on a book by the same name. The book made bestseller charts, as others like it have done, when it came out a few years ago. It is the true story of a four-year-old boy, Colton, who told his family of a wonderful trip that he made to heaven during a near-death experience when he was on the operating table. The movie opens with that question – is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky?
A little later in the movie, there is a scene where Colton is sitting with his father, a pastor named Todd, when Todd is called to make a visit at the hospital. Todd ponders taking the boy with him. The kid is a good pastor’s kid, who knows when to sit and be still, and the dad figures he won’t be too long. But still, Todd is concerned that sitting in a hospital for even a few minutes might be a little frightening for Colton. The boy says to him, “When I’m with you I won’t be afraid.” In our second lesson today Paul is making the same kind of statement for those who belong to Christ, with whom and for whom the Spirit intercedes. “When we are with you, we won’t be afraid.”
This particular text from Romans is one my personal favorites. In many ways it gives us reassurance we yearn for, for so many fears and concerns we have. While it names some of our deepest fears and the feelings of helplessness they reveal, Paul reminds us of the great, divine love that is poured out for us in Jesus.
This love enables us to feel joined to a God who loves us so much that God himself repeatedly intercedes for us.  In our moments of weakness, exhaustion and despair, God is with us interceding through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. In moments of temptation, suffering and sin, God is with us interceding through the work of Jesus, on the cross.  In these verses from his epistle to the Romans, Paul reminds us that through Christ, we have been fused to God’s love forever, and therefore know with certainty that the divine love of God, who searches every heart, who knows our fears, failings, trials and doubts will always be there for us. Through the constant presence of God’s Spirit, we know that no matter what befalls us, we are never left alone in our struggle. God’s love in Christ Jesus goes with us. Always. Forever.
Those, my friends, are words we need to hear in our daily lives.
Later on in the movie, we see glimpses of how Colton experienced that trip through heaven. He meets Jesus. He sits on Jesus’ lap. And Jesus tells him everything is alright. You do not need to be afraid.
        We’ve heard those words before, from scripture, haven’t we? Repeatedly, in fact, angels, prophets, and Jesus himself have delivered that same message from God, have repeated those same words: do not be afraid. This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us why – it lists all those things that we fear will in fact separate us in some way from God’s love and from God’s promise.
Some of these words from this Romans text may in fact be familiar to you from their frequent use at the funerals. They are often read at those services because they bring great comfort and hope at a time of loss and uncertainty. They offer hope and reassurance to the loved ones of the deceased that God’s promises are sure and that indeed their loved one is now among the glorious saints in light. And yet, these words do not simply apply to those who have passed from this life to the next and are now in heaven, these are words that apply to the living as well, and especially to the living, for they are words of life. They are words of hope and assurance for our daily lives. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid.
Paul names some of the things that might threaten us and indeed, cause fear; things like hardship, persecution, famine, peril, sword – and we could add to this list. What are some of the things in our lives and on our minds today that might threaten us? What are we afraid of, ashamed of, or worried about? Where does the intersection of faith and our daily life threaten to weaken the resolve of our faith and cause us to despair and question, and even to doubt God’s word?
If we were to break out into groups right here and now I think that together we could probably identify quite a list of things that threaten our confidence; things like disease, divorce, financial worries, addiction, and worries about the future for ourselves and our loved ones. We might list apprehensions about our children or grandchildren, perhaps worries about aging parents. For some of us there may be disputes with our neighbors, co-workers or family members. We might list things like division among the churches or the pain we feel over the news of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our lists would contain instances of sin, both personal and corporate.  Secretly, we might include our own feelings of unworthiness, doubt, fatigue, or helplessness.
But friends, I invite you to hear and savor the words of this text, which reflect God’s promise. We are surely reminded that, while these things and more that we experience or might imagine bring us angst and turmoil, NONE of them and NOTHING can truly threaten our relationship with God, past, present or future. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. NONE of them and NOTHING can separate us from the love of God nor steal away our inheritance as children of God. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. The love of Christ is nothing less than the love of God at work in the world in victorious alliance with God’s Holy Spirit. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. The love of Christ is God’s assurance that despite the reality that the Christian life entails suffering and persecutions, for God’s sake the victory is assured through the cross.
Paul goes on in even broader terms to say – For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. None of it! Though fearsome, NONE of these is strong enough to tear us away from the arms of God who loves us so! NONE of it can take away from us our status as God’s beloved.
In last week’s text and sermon we explored the meanings of hope in our lives and we were reminded that at our baptism we each received the seal of the Holy Spirit as we were marked with the cross of Christ - forever. While our daily walk may at times be joyful and at other times be filled with grief and misery and fear, we carry that seal upon us wherever we go. Martin Luther wrote that each morning upon rising and each evening upon taking our bed we should remind ourselves of that promise through the making of the sign of the cross upon ourselves, reminding ourselves who we are and whose we are.
We are the sons and daughters of God, sisters and brothers in Christ in whom we have been baptized. We are inheritors of God’s far-reaching grace; we are recipients of life and grace in the Spirit of God, the same Spirit about whom Paul writes at the very beginning of today’s reading, intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words. This is the same Spirit that gives us the gift of faith and then blesses us with the tools for living that faith. This same Spirit intercedes for us as we pray, searching our heart, and knowing our need often before we ourselves can conceive of it.
In the movie, Colton convinces many of the skeptics around him that indeed, heaven is real. But we know that because God intercedes continually in our lives and in our world, we don’t have to wait until we die to see heaven. We see glimpses of heaven whenever we see good overtaking evil or love flying in the face of hatred. We see the kingdom of God as glimpses of heaven when strangers reach out to the disadvantaged to give them assistance, pray for them, care for them.
We participate in the kingdom of God and in the Spirit’s heavenly work when we respond to God’s plea, when we act to ease the suffering of another human being, when we resist the evils of discrimination, racist, sexism, ageism, hatred and injustice. The Spirit can and does use us to intercede in God’s heavenly work through loving action in our daily lives.
Is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky? The real answer, my friends, is yes, and yes. Heaven is our hope, our conviction for God’s final and eternal answer to the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. But it is not entirely in the future. Through the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God through Christ, glimpses of heaven are in and through and among us. In the end, God will triumph over all fear, all want, all our failures and worries, and a redeemed world will welcome all the beloved of God!
Baptized into Christ, we are inheritors with him to eternal salvation, God’s ultimate triumph over death and the grave, God’s triumph over anything that might separate us from God’s love. What that means in our day-to-day living, is that we can rely on that love, rely on the Spirit of God to always be with us, by our side, surrounding us, infusing us with God’s good will and good intention for creation, and winning for us the magnificent ending that God intends and promises, thanks be to God!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Measure of Hope

Some experts in the field of behavioral science believe that there is something about our earliest memory that defines us, and holds the key to figuring out how our personality was formed, or explains secrets about the formation of our psyche. There are others who think that with the exception of memories formed from strong emotional events, whether positive or negative, our earliest memories are simply formed when our brains are physically able to form them. They believe that it is simply biology that determines which memories constitute our earliest memories.
Whatever the case, one of my earliest memories comes from when I was about three or four years old. My same-aged friend Debbie Kelly and I had left our little cul-de-sac, walked through our neighborhood, crossed a busy road, and gone to the little mom-and-pop grocery store we were familiar with. We grabbed what we wanted and proudly placed our items on the counter by the door, where we were told we needed money to buy them. We hadn’t thought of that. We re-crossed the same busy road, and were back in our neighborhood before my mother found us. As soon as I saw her car approaching us, I began to hope, in earnest, that she wouldn’t see us or at the very least that I wouldn’t be in too much trouble.  
I have other early memories, too. I remember that not long after that incident we moved away from that house and neighborhood and my friend, Debbie. Leaving the familiar, I hoped I would make new friends in my new home. I remember my first day of kindergarten, and what it felt like to hope that my teacher would be nice and would like me and that I would get to play in that cool play kitchen over in the corner.
When I look back over my life, I realize that while I have many memories, those that really stick out in my mind all seem to be connected to hope. Hope that we would get the kitten I wanted for Christmas; hope that my grandmother would get better and not die (her real healing was beyond my understanding); hope that I would get into the high school, and then the college that I wanted; hope for a future that I imagined, hope for love and belonging, hope for favorable test results; hope for decisions I’ve made and for so many things, both large and small, for myself, my family and friends, and for the world. When we look back at our memories, I think we will find that most of them are connected to hope as well.
The true, deep-seated kind of hope that Paul refers to here is more than the kind of lists of wishes and desires as I just described, however. Rather, it is belief, deep-seated knowledge or conviction.
That kind of hope is a crucial element within our being and is considered essential to our survival. People without hope often fail to thrive, but people who have hope can do remarkable things and face adversity differently.  We know, for instance, that people who have hope who are confronted with a dreaded diagnosis, imprisonment, deep personal loss, or some other challenge, do better than those who lack hope and are filled instead with feelings of despair.
In times of adversity, hope gives us strength. In times of uncertainty, hope gives us courage. In times of sadness hope leads us to know with certainty that better days lie ahead. Yet there are those who subscribe to the idea that hope obeys Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean”: one should hope neither too much nor too little.
So I wonder how you, in your life today, would define hope. How do you approach hope? What do you even hope for? Do you dare to have hope? What might you be afraid to hope for?
In today’s second reading, from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Paul not only talks about hope, but he locates and reasons how and why we, as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, can and should dare to hope. In verse 14 of the reading we heard today, Paul says that those who are led by God’s Spirit are marked as God’s family. We are God’s heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Through this inheritance we are freed in Christ to hope. Because of this inheritance we wait, patiently according to this text, carried by hope, for the ultimate freedom that is ours by through the love of God and the victory of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
But what do these words mean to us today? What do they mean when we hear dire predictions about our economy, for instance, or the state of our medical system, or unemployment statistics? How do these words of hope strike our hearts when our memories are stirred to remember abuse we have endured or inflicted? Where does hope lead us when we contemplate the divisions in families, or between religious groups, or when our political landscape is increasingly polarized, or when we acknowledge that discrimination and prejudice continue to afflict the hearts, minds and actions of individuals and collective groups?
In the past few weeks, events in the world around us have given us reason to pause, and wonder if all hope is in vain. We are increasingly bombarded with news, images and reports that are heartbreaking, devastating, frightening, and seemingly confound hope. When we hear of war, broken systems that cause the victimization of the most vulnerable among us, when we acknowledge the loss of innocence by multitudes of children around the world, including those in our own country who lack adequate protection, when planes are shot out of the sky and bombs reign down upon a land known as “Holy”, when concern over nuclear arms capability and development and when international conflicts continue to afflict so much of the world, we wonder if our prayers and hope for peace and justice have gone unheard.
I don’t know about you, but as I have watched the news in horror this week, I have struggled with the concept of hope. I have struggled with these words of Paul’s that urge us on to patience. I am tired of being patient. Hope seems fragile when confronted with the evil, hatred, violence, and disregard for human life, dignity, and justice. How do we make sense of the contradiction of faith and hope with our lived reality?
Addressing this scripture, Mary Hinkle Shore wrote–
In Paul's writings, "flesh" almost always signifies a power, along with sin, that resists the Spirit of God and that must be vanquished if human beings--body and all--are to be free from what Paul calls "the bondage of decay" and obtain "the glorious freedom of God's children" (Romans 8:21, NET). That glorious freedom is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects, as it had at the first, the image and glory of God (cf. Genesis 1:27).
In [our text today], Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now. A cluster of words from the realm of family helps Paul describe the freedom that believers have in Christ and the relationships in which they now find themselves: sons, Abba, Father, children, adoption, heirs, joint heirs. The vocabulary describes relationships within a family and a household.
            We are, all of us, sisters and brothers in Christ. We are inheritors of the grace and mercy God bestows on us, and led by the Spirit, we are called to lives of hope. We have hope because through Christ, God has acted to bring about a new age, a new creation, a new world that is struggling yet through the pangs of birth, but will bring to fruition the new heaven and new earth where war will cease, where God’s judgment will be final, and where all the sons and daughters of the one true God will live in eternity.
But that leads us to the struggles of today. Through prayer and lives modeled after Jesus that reflect the hope that we have as the children of God we walk the Way of Christ, one step at a time. The Spirit of God is the power that frees all of us and the entire creation, to live out the new identity that we were given through Baptism as joint heirs with Christ, who suffer living between the memory of what is and was, and the hope of what will one day be.
Shore writes,
The idea is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as Paul seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ, he notes that the joint heir's life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ's life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation and exaltation. To be a joint heir with Christ is share in Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.
          The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God continues to work in, through and around us, building new memory, confirming hope, and through the work of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Spirit, renewing the entire creation. Jesus reinforces our hope in today’s gospel reading where he tells a parable about the co-existence of good and evil in the world. Jesus acknowledges the ongoing tension, but promises that God’s judgment will remove all evildoers and causes of sin at the end of human history.
Until then, we see renewal and new creation break through every now and then – through the work of advocates for the downtrodden and peacekeepers, or when we participate in God’s abundant acts of grace through contributions of time, talent, money, energy and prayer. When we are inspired through acts of healing and mercy in our relationships, or in our daily interactions with one another; in our daily offerings of prayer and worship; in our sharing Christ’s love, forgiveness and compassion with our neighbor.
Regardless of what our earliest memory may be, may our strongest memory be that which inspires our greatest hope – that God has claimed us, blessed us, sealed us each with the Holy Spirit and marked us with the cross of Christ. God has called us to greater things than we can ever have dreamed or hoped for – and that because of this, we have nothing to fear. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Puzzling Riddles and Conundrums

Romans 7:15-25a
            I enjoy puzzles, and I love the fact that they come in so many shapes and sizes. There are jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles, wordsearch puzzles and sequence puzzles. There are puzzles involving numbers or shapes or logic. A few years ago I was obsessed with Sudoku; since I was a teen I have loved to play another kind of puzzle, Scrabble, whether on a good old-fashioned playing board or more recently, with any of the many computer-generated or internet games that resemble that game – is anyone here up to a Words With Friends challenge? If so, meet me on Facebook!

            An ancient form of puzzle is the riddle. Riddles have been around for about as long as language has existed and probably, in some form or another even before. Riddles may include “everlasting nuggets of wisdom” or “silly twists on words”.  They may be intended to impart wisdom, speaking common truths and bits of logic, or they may simply be designed to challenge and entertain.

            Sumerian riddles are found on cuneiform tablets dating to the 18th century BC, for instance. Here is the paraphrase of one of them:
There is a house. 
One enters it blind and comes out seeing. 
What is it?’
Answer: A School.
            Philosophers and comedians alike have used riddles to test their listeners. Albert Einstein, wrote this one:
If you were standing on the South Pole facing north, and you take one step backward, which way would you be traveling?
Answer: North, since all directions from the South Pole are north.   

Kids love riddles too. My four year old grandson fancies himself king of the knock-knock joke these days – yet another kind of riddle.

While all riddles have answers, and if you are lucky the answers might even make sense if you think about them long and hard enough, there are some puzzles that seem to have no sensible answer. Those are called conundrums.  People like me like puzzles, because while challenging, through using logic and intelligence, and sometimes, I have to admit, more than a little luck, we can often come up with the answer – and then our ego is fed. But conundrums are different. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a conundrum as “a confusing or difficult problem.” Some people consider true conundrums to be truly unsolvable.

Many of the writings of the Apostle Paul frankly read and feel a bit like puzzles or riddles – or, more accurately, like conundrums. Today’s Epistle is one of these. In this Epistle, Paul describes the battle that takes place within each and every one of us. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul laments. “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There is a strong sense of universal puzzle present in this passage – a struggle we can all identify with pretty well, I think. It’s a conundrum – I continually do the things I know I shouldn’t do – and, no matter how hard I try, there are some things, I cannot seem to avoid doing. Paul’s not alone here, is he?

We all face temptation. Our world, our lives are filled with them, in fact. If we took the time to examine ourselves, most of us would pretty quickly come up with a laundry list of the “things we shouldn’t do” – but “do” anyway. Some of those things are relatively harmless – like, I know I shouldn’t really drive those extra 5 miles per hour over the speed limit – yet, you know I do. (I can see my husband rolling his eyes over there).

And I could identify those things I should do that I don’t do – like I really know that I should forgive and forget the slight, the thoughtless word directed my way, or the hurtful thing someone else did. After all Jesus himself tells us that forgiveness is crucial to our well-being and our relationships – and we should forgive as we have been forgiven. Yet I confess that sometimes, it’s the forgetting part that is a real challenge for me. Forgiving often comes easier than forgetting.

Paul is describing the overarching, very human, real and dangerous struggle with sin.
            So this is the riddle that Paul built:
I want to do what is right
I know that doing what is right is good
If in my heart I want to do what is right,
Why do I do what I know I shouldn’t do, rather than what I want to do and should do?
The answer: Sin

            Sin is the age-old condition of falling out of right relationship with God. Walter Taylor writes of sin:
            When most Americans hear the word sin they think of individual acts of sinning.  While Paul can use the word that way, his basic understanding of sin is that it is a power--sin with a capital "S."  Does that Sin absolve people of responsibility?  Not at all, if we remember that in 5:12 Paul said that the individual has bought into the matrix of Sin by participating in it. 
The situation is similar to addiction.” Taylor says.  “At the beginning of the addiction, the person freely chooses to ingest the addicting substance, [or, I would add, participate in the addicting behavior] but soon that substance [or behavior] controls the individual, whose life becomes dominated by seeking the next drink or the next fix.  Thus the person has both bought into the addiction at one level, while being overwhelmed by it at another.  And so "it is the sin that dwells within me" that is in charge.”
When we truly examine ourselves, I think that we can all acknowledge that we sin. I was raised in the Catholic church, where we were expected to make regular, (and when I was little that meant weekly), personal, one-on-one confession to the priest and then do some kind of penance in order to receive forgiveness and absolution for our sins. As Lutherans our scriptural understanding, is a little different here. Martin Luther, paraphrasing Paul, said succinctly, that we simply cannot not sin. Yet we know that there is nothing that we can do – no penance or works to be done or payment to be made that can ever bring us into right relationship with God, no reparation we can make that will ever wipe away the guilt of our sins or earn our salvation and forgiveness.
My friends, confession is necessary – the human soul needs to yield to the weight of its brokenness and so, using various words each week, we begin our worship by confessing that we are truly, both together and individually, in bondage to sin, and we are utterly unable to free ourselves. We confess that it’s not just what we do or say or think that that gets us into trouble. We name ways that we fail to live as we should. Either way, we confess that we are guilty of living lives that are not truly God-centered and faithful. On our own, we confess, our brokenness leads to spiritual death, and we are hopeless in the face of our failure. We confess that Sin (with a capital “S”) has taken us captive. We ask God to release us of this prison of our own making.
In the final verse of this passage, we hear the words of assurance that all is not hopeless. To the question, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul himself supplies the answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”        
            Friends, the truth is that the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that through Jesus, God makes us “right” with God. God does what we on our own cannot do. Through the cross of Christ, God has answered the conundrum that burdens us because of our very human tendency toward sin. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God forgives our sin. God strengthens us for relationship with one another and divine relationship with God. God makes us resurrection people, people of the Way, people who can live our lives free of the fear of sin and its place in our lives.

            In today’s gospel, Jesus invites those who believe in him into the new life that comes from being followers of the Way, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

            It is in this promise, the promise of divine rest, that Paul finds hope for the deadly dilemma that faces us when we stumble and fall. The hope Jesus holds out for us is real. It is because of this hope that sin and death have lost their hold on us.

            Today we celebrate this truth as we receive little Gabriel into the light and life of hope in Jesus through baptism. Gabriel is too young to understand the liberating joy that is ours today as he is welcomed into this Body of Christ. He is too young to appreciate the burden that is lifted from him forever, and the new life that he is granted through this sacrament. As he grows though, and as his parents, his family, and we as community embrace and teach him, we live will share with him the sure and certain hope that is the answer to Paul’s riddle; that because Christ lives in eternity for us, we, Gabriel, his parents, and all who belong to Christ rejoice in and for his sake and ours.

            So in Haiku fashion, I leave you with this riddle:
Good action eludes me
Thankful for grace
Through Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What's In a Name?

I was supposed to be a Debbie. It was a popular name in America when my mom was pregnant with me, and that was the name she and my dad had decided upon if they had a girl. My older sister Patty, already had the “family” name, - both my grandfather and father were “Patricks.” I’m not quite sure what the attraction was with the name Debbie other than its general popularity, but my mom really had her heart set on the name.
The only problem was that my aunt was pregnant at the same time. She wanted to name her baby Debbie, if she had a girl. Her baby was due three months after me, so by rights, I should have had first dibs on the name. As my mother tells it though, my aunt is a seriously stubborn woman. She wouldn’t budge. She promised that even if my parents had a girl they named Debbie, she still planned to use the name. And they believed her. So, I was called Karen, named after a soap opera character, I think. One from The Guiding Light. I’m not really sure. Sure enough, three months after I was born, my aunt gave birth – to Debbie.
Names are important. They have meaning. “Noah,” for instance, means “rest,” or “comfort,” while “Ethan” means “strong, safe, firm.” The meaning of “Emma” is “whole” or “universal,” while we get the name “Sophia” from the Greek word for “wisdom.”  Whether a couple chooses the name for their child based on its literal or historical meaning, or to emulate a famous person or after a fictional character they admire or whether they choose the name carefully following religious, social and cultural cues, or simply because they like the ring of it, most parents take the naming of their child as one of the most significant things they do in the early life of their child. Therefore, for most parents, this act is deeply meaningful. Names serve a legal purpose but also convey social, cultural and spiritual meaning. This is especially true within many traditional groups.
For instance, Jewish children are often named to honor a family member. The particular line of tradition you follow would dictate whether the name would be of a living relative or a dead one. Either way, the person honored through those traditions is kept alive in a deeply metaphysical way. Never was this more true perhaps, than during biblical times. The bible reflects the importance of naming. The Lord himself sometimes even instructed people how to name a child, or what to call themselves in the future, changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, for instance.
Today we remember two of the earliest saints of the church, the apostles Peter and Paul, because tradition has it that they each died on this date, though in different years. Both lived and worked to build the early church; both died as martyrs for their faith. And both were renamed by Jesus as they set out to do the work he was calling them to do.
It was the fisherman Simon, also known as Simon Peter, who was one of the original disciples of Jesus. We know a bit about Peter. He could be a bit of a blockhead. He often missed the point with what Jesus was saying or trying to teach. He could be impulsive. It was to this disciple that Jesus once became so perturbed that he blurted out, “Get behind me, Satan!” Yeah, Peter was like that – he could even make Jesus lose his cool.
We all remember that it was also he who denied Jesus while Jesus was undergoing his trial and persecution just before his death. And yet it is he whom Jesus set apart to lead this church, this people whom Jesus entrusts his mission and ministry to when he leaves. It is this flawed, impulsive, seemingly inadequate individual that Jesus addresses in our text today.  “Simon,” Jesus says, “son of John,” and then three times he asks Peter, “do you love me?”
Ironically, the name “Simon” means “he who hears.” Yet despite his close proximity to Jesus and Jesus’ mission and ministry, Simon Peter seemed to miss out. Hearing, it turns out, is not the same as understanding. So Peter made some blundering moves and often failed to understand what Jesus was telling him. Despite that fact, Jesus not only uses Simon Peter, but he gives him a special charge. The name “Peter” means “a rock” and Jesus tells Peter that this is the name he will go by. “And upon this rock I will build my church.”
Paul, whose original name was Saul, on the other hand, was well connected in the Roman and Jewish world. He arrived at apostleship in a very different way from Peter. He wasn’t one of the original disciples. He didn’t follow Jesus, didn’t follow “The Way” of Christ, in fact as we know, he persecuted the early church. Aggressively. And he was good at what he did. In fact, he was on his way to snuff out a bunch of those early Jesus-followers, when Saul had a blinding encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus and was converted into not only a follower of Christ, but a leader in his church. His name was changed from Saul to Paul. And his life was transformed.
We can learn something from Simon/Peter and from Saul/Paul. We can learn that Jesus takes broken sinners, deeply flawed, misunderstanding, imperfect people, and he makes disciples out of them. Over and over again God calls broken, awkward, impulsive sinners like Peter and Paul and transforms us through Christ to feed and tend the world. Jesus takes our weakness and turns it into strength. Jesus takes our doubt and turns it into faith. Jesus takes our failure and turns it into compassion for others. Jesus takes our names – Peter, Beverly, Karen, Jeanette, Sharon, Kevin, Dave, Ellie, and changes them too. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters, calls us disciples, and calls us to serve in his name. Through baptism, we get not just a new name – Christian – but also a whole new identity as disciples of Christ.
Jesus repeats his question to Peter three times in this passage. The threefold repetition of these words points to their importance. “Do you love me more…” Jesus begins. Then, “do you love me?” again, and again and with each response and affirmation that yes, of course, Lord, of course I love you” Jesus removes any question that there is a distinction between loving him and serving those whom Jesus gives us to care for – to feed – to tend. For Peter, loving Jesus means caring for Jesus' sheep. And so, Jesus asks each of us – Christian, do you love me?
 The most committed disciples are often those who come from the deepest, darkest of places because they can testify to the radical transforming truth of God’s love. Perhaps you could say they have less to lose. You might say that once you’ve hit bottom the only way is up. You might just say that it is when we lie closest to death that we come to appreciate life the most. But isn’t that what might be said of each of us?
We are each disciples of Christ, who, through God’s love and by God’s grace and mercy, died to sin and death in baptism. Loving Christ means appreciating the life-giving nature of Jesus’ love and discipleship. Martin Luther said we are simultaneously saint and sinner. And as sinners we come alive again, daily, through God’s amazing grace and forgiveness. Then, we are inspired – no, compelled to follow Jesus. To love Jesus, and to follow him in the caring and tending of the world.
Yet, as Jesus pointed out last week and even again here in this gospel text, discipleship is not easy. Transformative, yes. Easy, no. It requires us to look carefully at ourselves and make better choices, discipleship choices. There can be no such thing as a complacent disciple of Christ. Jesus calls us, as he called Peter and Paul, he names us his own, and he gives our lives meaning as we tend God’s sheep, care for those God is giving us to serve, and become the church Jesus intended for us to be.
And yet, we have to admit to ourselves that discipleship can be a scary thing. Just look at what happened to Jesus; to Peter; to Paul. If we are to follow him, if we are to follow him all the way to the cross, does that mean his fate is our fate too? How far do we follow him? To death? To resurrection? To life after death?
If you love me, you will feed my sheep, Jesus told his disciples. If you love me, you will care for my lambs. If you love me, you will follow my commands. If you love me, you will love those I give to you and you will love me by serving them.
Learning to follow God in Christ Jesus so deeply transformed both Peter and Paul that even their names were changed. In powerfully sparse language, the African American spiritual "Changed Mah Name" tells the story of call and sacrifice threaded throughout this day's texts: "I tol' Jesus it would be alright if He changed mah name / Jesus tol' me I would have to live humble if He changed mah name / Jesus tol' me that the world would be 'gainst me if He changed mah name / But I tol' Jesus it would be alright if He changed mah name."
          As resurrection people, transformed, empowered, loved and gifted for ministry in Jesus’ name, may we know life-giving blessing of changed names, changed hearts and changed lives, for Jesus’ sake.

Let us pray. Lord God, we pray in baptism we make public promises to "live among God's faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord's supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” Grant us the patience, wisdom, strength and joy in so doing, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.