Singing All Together (Isa. 6:1-8; Rev. 5:11-14; Jn. 21:1-19)
I was reading an article in a magazine the other day, and it asked a question that set me to thinking. The questions was, “How do you want to be remembered?” The writer of the article said that a huge majority of people sixty years of age and older are quite worried that people will remember them for the mistakes they made rather than the successes they had. I used to say I didn’t care, but now, I’m at least wondering. What makes me wonder the most is my discomfort at being known for what’s in the past and cannot be changed at all. Wouldn’t it be better just to think about the present and the future?
I started to think about this last summer on vacation, as we visited with my sister and her husband in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is just “over the hump,” as they say, from Laramie where my parents transplanted our family from our Wisconsin roots just after Easter, 1961. For a couple of days last summer I felt almost transported back to a time in my life when I was a much different person, reliving experiences I had forgotten about (some of them worthy of forgetfulness). Before long, I discovered a sense of not being content with living in a past that was very different than my present. The visit with my sister and brother-in-law was magnificent – it was even better when we fixed ourselves in the present or looked to the future.
Do we not often judge people (whether ourselves or others) by what and who we/they were not what and who we/they are today? Is it not worth learning to let things go as we move along in life? The British poet Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” I think that applies to forgiving ourselves as well as others, and as I live longer I discover I don’t mind being wrong as much as I used to, but I chafe at people who simply remember what I once was wrong. And continue to think of me that way. There was a book that came out in the 1960’s with the title Creative Brooding, and maybe we all do brood a little more as we rush on in life. It hopefully is creative. What does this have to do with anything?
Well, as a Christian I find it helpful to recall that a good many of the heroes of the Christian faith were known, for a long time, for their mistakes. In the New Testament, Paul never shook being “The guy who used to be Saul the Persecutor.” Peter never got rid of the story of denying Jesus three times. Thomas never grew out of being “doubting Thomas.” Paul’s story is told three times in the New Testament and Peter’s denial is recorded in all four Gospels. It seems we like to remember people’s failures and their worst, or most foolish acts. I guess it’s part of being human. And, a fair number of times we’re the ones who won’t let ourselves off the hook for our pasts. We’re often harsh critics of what we do. I have read today’s scripture lessons before, but, because of the things I’ve been thinking about, the thing that jumped out at me from all of the passages is the flaws and mistakes of all the characters in these stories.
In Isaiah chapter 6, we find a famous record of the prophet’s call to do hard work at a difficult time in Israel’s history. In the year that a great King of Judah died – his name was Uzziah, and his reign was long and prosperous – Isaiah saw a vision of the real ruler. As Isaiah worshiped in the earthly house of God in Jerusalem, the barrier that separated this world of sight and flesh from that other world of insight and spirit became thin and transparent, and Isaiah peered into the throne room of the Almighty and saw God being eternally worshipped by fierce creatures – seraphim (burning bright) and cherubim (either winged bulls or winged serpents, we’re not just sure) guarding God’s glory and supernality. In the presence of all the grandeur of the heavenly temple where Isaiah’s vision was, the earthly temple, where Isaiah actually stood, quaked like the leaf on an aspen tree. And, what happened to Isaiah the prophet was that he saw all his greatness as inadequacy. And, it was not just his own inadequacy of which he was aware, but that of everyone in his society who stood with him. No matter how good, righteous, or holy, they were no match for the good, the right, the holy creator and sustainer of everything. This is not so much a story of just making mistakes, but a story of figuring out that, as hard as we try, we don’t match up to God. Sometimes we think we we’re OK on our own, but sometimes, we come crashing down because of how clear to us it is that we’re not!
Next, God took action to prepare Isaiah for what was going to happen. The metaphor of being touched by a hot coal from the altar suggests that preparation for what was next for him was not a pain-free experience. We sometimes kid ourselves that life is pain free, and can be done without mistakes. But all of that – dare I say even Isaiah’s unclean lips and Peter’s denial of Jesus and even of Paul’s persecution of the church – was part of the painful process of preparing us for what’s next for us. How often what prepares us for what is next includes painful experiences.
Speaking of Peter, our Gospel Lesson for today comes back to him. According to John’s Gospel, this Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, and had recognized how seriously he had failed him, was called to the tomb early on that first Easter morning because Mary Magdalene couldn’t find Jesus’ body. Peter had looked into the tomb, and seen nothing. He had gone home, only to be confronted by the risen Jesus later on the same day, and even one week later in the upper room with his mates. It is interesting, however, that Jesus is not recorded as saying one word to Peter, who was supposedly the leader of the disciples in either of these encounters. Why should he? Peter had denied him. It’s impossible to know how Peter himself thought about Jesus’ silence. John’s Gospel says nothing until the first verse of our reading, “After these things…” which is perfectly vague. It could mean, “just after what happened in the upper room with Thomas the same day when Jesus had said nothing to Peter,” or it could mean, “quite a while later.” I think it’s a while. Nobody has seen Jesus for a while, so Peter has decided that he’s going to go back to his old job of fishing. Some of his mates from the old Jesus’ gang follow his lead and go with him. After a hard, bleak, night of work during which they caught nothing, someone, they didn’t make out who, called out to them from shore. If they’d been in Canada, he’d have said, “Hey, lads, no fish, eh? “NO” came the answer. “Well, try the other side of the boat.” Why not. There were so many fish (153 we learn later), that they couldn’t haul in the net. Because of that kind of a miracle of abundance, one of the disciples said, “It’s the Lord!” All this befuddled Peter, and he showed it by putting his clothes on and jumping straight into the water. Not all that smart. The other disciples were smarter and stayed in the boat and got it to land.
When they got to shore they found that, although Jesus didn’t need their fish to prepare breakfast for them, nonetheless, he asked them to contribute to the meal. What an interesting comment, “None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.” It’s almost as if they didn’t recognize him, except by the work of abundance that he wrought on their behalf, and, again as last week, in broken bread and in a shared meal.
After breakfast, it was finally time for Jesus and Peter to work things out. Three times Jesus asked him if he loved him. That’s one for each denial, of course. Three times Peter said, “Yes, you know I do.” Jesus responded, each time, with a task of ministry for Peter. Peter recognized Jesus’ forgiveness, not in rebuke, but in the work of feeding lambs that Jesus was entrusting into his hands. Remember that “do you love me”? wouldn’t have been a question of how Peter felt about Jesus in his day. “Love” was an action word. It meant “Are you willing to embrace me and my values and the work of discipleship openly and unashamedly”? Three times, Peter said yes.
In Isaiah’s story, the prophet also responded to the cleansing fire of that hot coal by answering a call be sent out in ministry. Now, in the part of this passage we didn’t read, we find out the work was to be desperately difficult. In Peter’s story, we also find difficult work that will, in fact, cost Peter’s life.
What do these two stories – Peter’s and Isaiah’s – have to do with us today? And what do they have to do with the vision of heavenly worship from Revelation 5 that’s our Second Lesson? That vision began in Revelation chapter 4 and includes the words that have become inspiration for quite a bit of Christian hymnody including “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty,” as well as “Worthy is the Lamb” and the “Great Amen,” from Handel’s Messiah. In the passage we read this morning we heard the voice of many angels…living creatures and the heavenly elders, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, all together, in full song. More than that we hear every creation in heaven, earth, under the earth, and in the sea giving glory to God. It is a massively impressive vision of the whole universe at worship in all its diversity. From tree frogs peeping to elephants trumpeting, to dogs barking, cats meowing, and people singing in every language and tongue from Afrikaans to Zulu, from English to Estonian, and sun and moon in silent shining – all by doing what we do praising God. And, the connection between that marvelous throng and Isaiah of unclean lips, and Peter who denies Jesus, and the Paul that persecutes him, is that they’re all there. They belong singing all together. Nobody is known by their mistakes, but rather everybody is known as those entrusted with a ministry of abundance from God. And you and I are there, too. We belong there, singing all together in the Great Congregation. The God who is eternally worshiped has come alongside of us, and we are known by the company we keep. In Jesus God has slipped into the yoke of our earthly pilgrimage and said, “Let’s go together.” O, we aren’t transformed into that worshiping throng all at once, mind you, and we still mess up, and decide to go back to our old lives. But we’re on the road. And, Jesus still meets us with a gift of abundance to put to work in ministry. And that’s Good News. That’s Easter Good News. In the words of the Buddha, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.