God gives us a legacy of Good News to embrace and share

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, June 27, 2021

the Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul (transferred): Ezekiel 34:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-8, John 21:15-19


2 Timothy 4:1-8 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

John 21:15-19 When 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.” A 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.” He 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. Very 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Welcome to St. Peter & St. Paul as we celebrate the feast of St. Peter & St. Paul! Technically, the feast day is June 29. However, the prayer book allows us to celebrate this particular feast on a weekend as well, so we’re using the scripture readings assigned for the feast today. This is not only the feast of these two great saints, this is the anniversary of the founding of this parish. Forty years ago, God gave us a legacy of Good News to embrace and share.

On June 29, 1981 the first worship service for St. Peter & St. Paul was held at the home of our first priest, The Rev. Louis Tonsmeire. Their old TV set served as the first altar for communion. Louis and those founding families did the work of evangelists, welcoming people into Christian fellowship, gathering for worship, studying the Bible together and sharing life together. They worshipped at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, then at Dickerson Elementary School (“St. Dickerson’s), until the first building was built—what is now the parish hall and the youth ministry wing of our campus.

Cobb County was beginning to grow rapidly as new housing developments went up, families poured into the area, and businesses moved into the area as well. Soon we built more buildings to accommodate a growing community, active in worship and discipleship and service. “Growing in Christ, sharing his love” was the motto for those years, with The Rev. Jerry Harding and for 13 years or so, The Rev. Aaron Uitti.

As the church grew larger, lay leaders and later also The Rev. Robert Certain helped our parish to gain structure to our ministry and discipline to our finances. The growth of Cobb County slowed, and the community settled in, and this Christian Community continued to bear witness to Jesus in word and in service. Over the decades, there were conflicts and troubles as well, common for all churches. Some folks left, other stayed, and new people continued to find God in this place and in this community. In our forty years, we have carried God’s legacy of good news to embrace and share.

We heard today from the prophet Ezekiel, from St. Paul and from John’s account of the risen Jesus speaking to Peter. Ezekiel tells the Jews in exiles in Babylon that God will gather them up from their exile and bring them back to the Holy Land and bless them. St. Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him in his vocation—to proclaim the message, to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, to convince, rebuke and encourage. Such ministry can be challenging, but Paul has his eyes on what God is doing, and with the vision of that promise, he runs the race.

Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter, who once denied Jesus three times, declares three times “you know that I love you.” Jesus calls Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus shows his forgiveness of Peter and renews his trust in Peter as a leader for his church. These are images of the faithful response to God. God gives us a legacy of Good News to embrace and to share.

Those who helped this parish to thrive in its first forty years faced challenges. And many of them endured, following Paul’s call to Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, to carry out our ministry fully. Some of those challenges continue, and we face new challenges as well. Forty years later, fewer people in the wider community consider faith in God something to be nourished or passed on to the next generation. More and more people see God as an accessory to the good life, rather than the foundation of a true life worth living.

Paul’s warning to Timothy rings true in our day: many will not put up with sound doctrine, but will accumulate teachers to suit their own desires, and turn away from listening to the truth, and wander away. In some ways, COVID has pressed the most important questions on us sooner rather than later. Facing the challenges of COVID, it has become hard to stay faithful and connected as a Christian Community. Do we have the commitment to our Lord to endure? Is Jesus Christ the foundation of our lives and the center of our focus? Looking at Paul’s encouragement to Timothy, will we endure suffering? Will we do the work of evangelists as our founders did? Will we carry out our ministry fully?

Paul planted churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Like Louis Tonsmeire, Paul left them a legacy of God’s Good News to embrace and share. As Paul moved on to start new churches, he wrote to the ones he founded to encourage them and to help them develop as Christian Communities. He urged them to set aside all other identity labels they might have had in the past and put first the identity of brother and sister in Christ. Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul and Peter continued to support churches and leaders, feeding Jesus’ sheep out of deep love for our Lord. This was not always easy, as Paul’s many stays in prison showed. But they brought new life to the world as their disciples grew new disciples.

This is, of course, our story as well. I can think of a couple who encouraged friends of theirs to come worship with them here. Their friends had been without a church for a long time, disconnected from God’s people. But they came to an Alpha program here, and later joined this parish, renewing their journey with God again, and discovering God’s new blessings for them, even late in life.

Our legacy and our story includes young people seeking God in this place. Some have come and discovered a deeper sense of Christian Community here with other teenagers. Some young adults discovered us online during COVID, where God used us to encourage them just as they were asking deeper questions about Jesus and a life in Christ.

These journeys have not always been easy, and serving our Lord sometimes takes perseverance and commitment. We stand for Jesus, so we will sometimes respectfully disagree with others and with what is popular. Sometimes God asks us to commit through difficult times, like persevering as a church in a pandemic. God sometimes calls us to new ministries like doing ministry by zoom, or perhaps teaching Sunday School or befriending a teenager. As we deepen our life in Christ, God calls us to share that Good News with others, even when we’re not used to talking about God.

However: remember that Jesus says to us: “do not be afraid!” Jesus came to bring us life, and we get to share that life with the world. Where do we see signs of that new life? We see it in the face of teenagers who find warm and authentic Christian relationships here. We see new life in the renewal that a bewildered business man found as he sought meaning and found joy in God in this place. We have seen accountability of brothers and sisters in Christ bring reconciliation to broken relationships. We have seen a man encouraged and embraced after a time in prison, and many who found healing from their grief at the death of a loved one.

This is the kind of life-changing discipleship to which God has called us. These are glimpses of the message that we proclaim, the truth for which we endure suffering. This message is that God loves you, that in Jesus you can be restored to relationship with God and receive new life. The message is that God the Holy Spirit will strengthen you to walk more closely with God and hear his voice and embrace the truth of his word. The message is the promise of new life, with purpose, and with hope of what God has for us in the future.

God gives us a legacy of Good News to embrace and share. This the legacy of the last 40 years. It will only be the legacy of the next forty years if you and I take up this legacy with perseverance and embrace and share the Good News of Jesus.