God gathers us and sends us on a mission
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
By The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, June 29, 2019
The Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul, Ezekiel 34:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Ezekiel 34:11-16: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
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.”
Today is the Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul. Today we celebrate the saints who faithfully led the church in its earliest days two thousand years ago. And today we celebrate God’s grace to the saints who faithfully formed and led this parish thirty-eight years ago, many of whom are in this room. We are blessed to have as our celebrant today, The Rev. Louis Tonsmeire. Louis was our founding priest, serving from 1981 to 1989. The first Eucharist of this parish was in Louis’ living room on June 29, 1981. And in fact, on October 6, 1984, we held the first Saturday night service, and that service has continued ever since at 5:30 PM for 35 years.
This parish grew and thrived as new people moved into this growing community. Hundreds of Baptisms, weddings and funerals were held. Bible Studies, Alpha courses, Discovery Weekends, picnics, dinners and service projects. Lay leaders and clergy helped us to grow and bring the message of Jesus Christ to more and more people. Like all churches, we went through conflict and hard times, ups and downs. And through it all, faithful souls like you all prayed and worked and celebrated and cared and learned and served and built up this community to serve our Lord and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. God gathered us together and sent us on a mission, and we are still on that mission today.
This day in the Church calendar remembers both St. Peter and St. Paul. You would think that each saint warrants a day of his own (and in fact, there is a feast of the Confession of St. Peter on January 18, and a feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25). But today, the feast honors both saints together. Tradition holds that they both died in Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome in the year 64.
These two saints are interesting men. Each of them leaves a story of rich and flawed humanity. Peter was the mercurial apostle who rebuked Jesus, and later denied Jesus three times. Paul persecuted the church, arresting Christians and bringing them to trial. But each man knew the grace of Jesus in his life—the road of repentance and the blessing of reconciliation with our Lord.
Jesus appeared to Peter when he rose from the dead. He spoke to Peter saying three times “Simon, do you love me?” And, matching the number of his denials, Peter responded three times, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Paul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul was still our Lord’s enemy. But Jesus cried out to him, using Paul’s Jewish name, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul was healed of his blindness, he learned more of the source of this message and the source of his healing. He grew in God’s grace and began to spread the good news of Jesus. With patience and persistence, Paul fought the good fight, ran the race, and kept the faith.
Peter and Paul both were called by Jesus and sent on a mission to serve him in the world. Peter and Paul were instrumental in the outreach of the church to the Gentiles. Paul went on to start churches all over the Eastern Mediterranean. They left a legacy not just of institutions, but of Christian communities empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s grace to the world. Peter and Paul knew the depths of their own humanity, and the greatness of God’s mercy and grace to forgive and restore and reconcile and renew.
We are heirs of that mission. Jesus gathered the church and sent it on its mission. The church since the time of these great saints continued to preach the message with power, transforming the western world and reaching around the globe. Our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Ezekiel speaks of God gathering his scattered sheep and bringing them together again, feeding them with rich pastures where God himself will be their shepherd. God will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, and bring justice to his people. God gathers us to be his people. God gathers us together for a purpose—God gathers us for a mission. When we stay true to that mission, a hurting and confused world will discover the same grace that renewed and restored Peter and Paul.
Paul, nearing the end of his life and ministry, writes to Timothy “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.”
With patience and grace, we are called to share the good news of Jesus so that more may discover the new life Jesus gives. The warnings that Paul gave still apply today. So often, people seek the doctrine and ideas that suit themselves. But that self-centered approach to life turns out to be empty—empty of the truth, and empty of the relationships of integrity and honesty, empty of the connection with God who made us and yearns to see us whole. We see our self-absorbed world growing more detached, more despondent, and more disconnected than ever. But the truth is, we need human relationships, with all their frailty and messiness, and we need relationship with God, whose love transforms all our messiness into beautiful renewal. That’s the kind of renewal God yearns for the world to know. And God has gathered us together for the mission to share that renewal.
Let me share with you a few short stories about what this mission looks like here at St. Peter & St. Paul. We Episcopalians love our style of worship. We love our liturgy and sacraments. So we focus a lot of energy on Sunday mornings, and even Saturday nights! But still, God’s call to mission drives us further. A few people spoke with me from time to time about discovering the service of Morning Prayer from our Prayer Book. You don’t need a priest to have Morning Prayer, so lay leaders embraced their call to mission. They organized a group of lay leaders who were trained to lead Morning Prayer, and who committed to leading Morning Prayer every Monday Morning at 6:30AM, followed by a Bible Study on the reading from that day. Very soon, we had 10-12 people gathering every Monday morning to help focus their lives on Jesus through worship. You can join them too. You are empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead the Worship of God.
The vitality of our mission is not only seen in our worship. We are growing disciples of Jesus Christ in other ways as well. Fifteen of our teenagers and their adult leaders returned from their mission trip to Puerto Rico today. Matt Martin, our Youth Minister, has been developing a culture in our Youth Groups different from school culture. He invited teens to go deeper in studying scripture, and encountering each other in the Christian life, and growing closer to God together. This approach drew in more and more teens and raised new leaders—leaders like Allan Hegedus, our Youth Vestry Member, who has taken initiative not just in youth ministry, but in our communications ministry as well, and his colleagues are joining him.
These youth parallel adults in developing small groups of prayer and study and Christian relationships. We have over 15 small groups of adults that meet on Sundays or weekdays or evenings, growing together and active in Discipleship for all ages.
These are some of the ways God gathers us together. But God also sends us out on a mission as well. For years now, several men and women and youth have gathered early on Friday mornings to cook breakfast for the Men’s Extension. The Extension is a residential drug and alcohol recovery program. One of the residents had been through several rehab programs and was on his last option. God’s grace made a difference in his life through the Extension. And he tells us that the people from St. Peter & St. Paul who came there made a huge difference. He said “you guys aren’t paid to be here like the other staff. You are here because you want to be here for me.” They came because they cared for these men. They shared the good news of Jesus with them, they prayed with them. They loved them with God’s transforming love, and God changed their lives. God gathered us, and God sent us on a mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ in the world.
Two thousand years ago, God called Peter and Paul and sent them on a mission to lead the Christian Community. Thirty-eight years ago, God gathered together the community of St. Peter & St. Paul here. God gathered us together and sent us on a mission. God sends us on a mission today, growing disciples of Jesus Christ.
So, where will God send us in the next 38 years? How has God called you to participate in this miraculous work? How will you share the blessings God has given you with a new generation of people in this community? God has empowered you with his Holy Spirit to grow in worship and discipleship and service. God empowers you to bring these blessings to the world. God gathers us and sends on our mission: growing disciples of Jesus Christ.
And now, glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus our Lord.