The 3rd Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Receiving and Giving
Poor Peter. Much to his confusion, the risen Christ had been coming and going, no explanation. Here today, gone tomorrow, back again. They were sitting around, wondering what to do. So Peter decided Enough of this. I have to get back to my life, my work. I’m going fishing.
It was night, and they fished until dawn, catching nothing. Just after daybreak, a figure appeared on the shore, suggesting that they cast their net on the other side of the boat. Sure, buddy, whatever. But they did, and pulled in a miraculous catch of 153 large fish, probably far more than they had ever caught before. It was then that Peter realized that the man on the beach was Jesus. He leapt into the water, and swam ashore.
So the story begins with God’s free and extravagant generosity. The miracle was an object lesson in what Jesus had taught and done all along. He had said I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. He fed over 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes. Those who love God, Jesus said, will bear much fruit. My joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
So the miraculous catch of fish was yet one more demonstration of God’s generous love, which Jesus was so fond of doing. And then things turned in a very different direction. After they enjoyed their breakfast on the beach, Jesus took Peter aside and asked 3 times Do you love me? And each time that Peter replied Yes, Jesus looked at him and said Then feed my sheep. Give yourself away in the service of others. The last time, Jesus went on - If you take this all the way as I have, Peter, here’s what’s going to happen: they will bind you and take you where you do not wish to go. This was a prediction of Peter’s eventual martyrdom, the sacrifice of his very life.
At this point, Peter must have had emotional whiplash. He was trying to follow Jesus, but where was this path headed? Towards the abundance, fruitfulness, and success that the catch of fish signified? Or towards the sacrifice, self-denial, and failure that Jesus spoke about so darkly?
It would be both, of course. And so it is for us as followers of Jesus. Abundance and sacrifice. Receiving blessings and giving ourselves away.
But neither of these are what is often claimed of them. On the side of abundance there is some version of what is often called the “prosperity gospel.” If you give yourself to God, if you believe hard enough, if you tithe, if you are the sort of person God loves, then you will be rich; you’ll be healed of disease; you will be protected from all harm. Life will flow your way, and you can just smile and rake it all in. For it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
On the side of self-sacrifice there is the stereotype which makes it seem impossible for most of us: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, voluntary poverty, living among those who suffer the most. We wonder - if I were a real Christian, wouldn’t I, like them, have to give up everything? Or maybe, like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, I’d stride courageously to the front lines of the battle for justice, and go down in glory.
The first extreme - the prosperity gospel - is a twisting of Jesus’ teachings, often used as a clever ruse to get people to give more of their money with the promise of a big payoff. The second extreme - voluntary poverty and martyrdom - is a vocation reserved for very few, a special calling that grabs certain people and won’t let them go.
So what is the kind of abundance that Jesus talked so much about? And what is the kind of self-sacrifice - which Jesus also talked a lot about - that most of us are called to?
I think of “abundant life” as an appreciation of life’s fulness. At one time, this might be a lavish feast with friends; at another, it is the wonderful, empty clarity that comes from fasting. Abundant life is enjoying a blossoming spring garden, but it is also accepting the depth of pain that comes with grief or sickness. Life’s fulness is the loving comfort of others, and it is also the knowledge that ultimately we stand alone before God. The abundance that Jesus lived and promised is the richness of a life fully lived.
But abundant life also comes in the form of spiritual gifts that help us to appreciate - or at least accept - the more difficult parts of a fully-lived life. For it becomes possible to live through darkness and suffering when we know God’s presence in prayer; when we have what St. Paul identified as fruits of the Spirit: faith, hope, love, patience, wisdom.
Abundance, then, is not limited to enjoying things that go well for us. Abundance is the capacity to experience everything fully, darkness and light, with an open heart and a sense of trust. The gifts that come from the Spirit make this possible, and when we are grounded in this place, life is truly bountiful.
And self-sacrifice? Well, I’m no Mother Teresa or martyred prophet, so for me, the sacrificial life is not especially obvious or dramatic. It is, rather, a willingness to get out of the way so that I might serve the greatest good for all concerned.
In doing this, we still consider our own needs and desires. But we do so in relation to others’ needs and desires. We seek harmony between both. And we sometimes submit our sense of what is right or necessary to the discernment of the group. All this is a form of self-sacrifice, because it is willing, when need be, to deny the primacy of the self over others.
This view comes out of contemplative understanding of reality, which is a fancy way of saying that we are all one. There is no such thing as an isolated self. My happiness is related to yours. Our common harmony is my personal harmony. If one suffers, we all suffer. And there is far more wisdom in us than in me.
Abundance and sacrifice are directly related. We receive spiritual gifts from God in order that we might give them to others. That is the purpose of spiritual gifts - not just for our own enjoyment, but for the good of all. As our church’s new rite of blessing same-sex couples makes very clear, we are blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others.
Peter could not have followed Christ to martyrdom without having been the recipient of God’s abundant life. We cannot sacrifice freely, lovingly, joyfully, without feeling that there is always yet more within. You cannot deny yourself if there is no self to deny. When we are stressed out, we have nothing left to offer to others. A well that is empty has no water to give.
And so we have to keep going back to the well. We take days off, we go on vacation, hang out with friends or family, eat the foods we like, spend quiet time alone in prayer and reflection, and we say No to outside demands - whatever it takes to nurture ourselves and be nurtured by the Spirit. Some might call this selfish. But we only seek God’s abundance again so that we can give it away. It is like the tide coming in and going out.
One day Jesus met a woman at a well. She had had a hard life - several marriages, and other failures and disappointments that led her to speak of her thirst, her emptiness. You get the sense that she is restless, perhaps desperate. Jesus said to her that if she drank of God’s Spirit, it would become in her a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
When we are grounded in God, when we seek the gifts of the Spirit, when we welcome the richness of life in good times and bad, it becomes in us like a spring that naturally overflows to others. We don’t have to think about being a good person and nobly or dutifully helping those in need. When there is a need, we respond. When necessary, we drop our preference and serve. The spring of spiritual water gushes up and over.
Jesus encouraged us to receive God’s abundant life, all around and within us. He also invited us to not hold this abundance tightly, where it will quickly sour, but to give it away, that all may be blessed by God’s extravagant generosity.