Did Jesus Ask Peter What He Believed Before He Invited Him To Follow?

When Jesus joined the crew of Simon Peter’s fishing boat after a long night catching nothing, I learned one thing: commercial fishing is hard work. I didn’t realize the level of work until I moved to a fishing village along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Many of our 800 or so residents are fishermen. Like Peter, James, and John; they fish with large nets, all night long.  They do this to support their families. They work incredibly hard for sometimes very little return.

It was in the midst of this kind of fatigue and exasperation that Jesus met Simon Peter. After borrowing Simon’s boat to serve as a floating pulpit, Jesus instructed Simon to go a little further and deeper into the water. You know the story of Simon’s incredulity. “These waters are empty. We fished here all night.” He thought further efforts were pointless. Whether out of a sense of hospitality to his guest or because he was simply out of options, Peter acquiesced. “Yes, Jesus, we’ll do it.”

He did it and the fish came. They were all rightly amazed. I’m less astonished by the fish, Peter taking advice from a part-time carpenter, and economic windfall soon to grace their families. Something else grabs my attention. I have read this passage countless times, and I’ve yet to find Jesus posing a question about doctrine, theology, worship, or religious law to Peter or his crew. It’s not there.

While racked with doubt and amazement at second guessing Jesus’ internal fish radar, Peter is never put on the religious spot. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to repeat a creed. Peter isn’t questioned about his beliefs on the Trinity, same-sex marriage, same-sex ordination, third-trimester abortion, or a wall across southern Gaza. Why didn’t Jesus ask these questions? Doesn’t Jesus know he’s leading the battle in the culture war for the heart and soul of everything that has ever been good, right, and holy? Does Jesus not realize that God-fearing people like him are supposed to be aggressive when making new disciples? No, Jesus seems heaven-bent on welcoming everyone despite the Orthodox standards we insist Jesus follow, especially if he wants to feel welcome in United Methodist circles.

Jesus didn’t have a litmus test for Peter, James, or John. He doesn’t have one for us either. There are a variety of litmus tests for contemporary United Methodists, and some treat these codes as if they were created by Jesus. This isn’t reflective of Jesus’ priorities. It’s more about Methodism and our need to be in control and determine those we believe worthy of entrance into God’s kingdom.

At the end of the story, Jesus says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid.” As we head into the General Conference Methodists are fearful. Is it possible to “not be afraid”? I believe the background noise concerning one plan or the other is too great for us to hear Jesus’ words. We’re confident of our ability to save ourselves and that God is on our side. We’ve jumped through our own hoops. We want the world to see how holy we are. The Methodists are in charge of their own destiny.  What’s there to be afraid of?

I’ll save that list for another day.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Have You Tried This?

1. Establish a daily routine. Manage your life by managing your time. What is it you do each day? What comes first every morning? Make your schedule standard, beyond an ad-hoc assortment of tasks and ideas. Claim the time and space around you. In moments of chaos and change, you know how to give and take because you understand the nature of your routine.

2. Look and listen. Experience the world around you. Feel the fresh air, warm breeze, and see the textures of the blue sky. Listen to the birds or the wind. What are the sounds living beyond the noises created by humanity? Do these sounds speak to each other? Do they talk to you?

3. Feel. The texture of an old growth tree, the stonework of an old building; what does time feel like? Do you sense the years of storms, growth, wind, and rain flowing beneath your hand? Who touched this same tree? Do we walk in their footsteps?

4. Say thank you more often than you need. What do we take for granted? Do we underestimate how often we should and to whom we should say, “Thank you”? What if we went further with gratitude than we ever thought possible?

5. Speak out of love. Words delivered out of love transcend the boundaries of faith, mystery, and knowledge. We can speak of love and live loveless lives. The unqualified love which holds our tongues and gifts us eloquence is not a love we can measure. Yet without this love, we lack certain defining features which makes people human: patience and kindness. Without this kind of love, we are more likely to be boastful, arrogant, and rude. We need this “spoken” love to define us as individuals and as a community.

6.  How can listening to others,  expressing gratitude in new ways, and loving without adjectives help you to better tell your story?

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Corinthians Forwarded Their Mail

So much of what I read in the run-up to the General Conference reminds me 1 Corinthians 13:1. I hear both mortals and angels speaking, but the love remains inaudible The banging, the gonging, the name calling about one plan or another goes on ad infinitum. Despite the interlocking sounds and screams of self-righteousness, the piled on “Amen’s,” and recycled wisdom so corny that Mark Twain wouldn’t touch it; love is absent. We appear to be all out of love. Someone in Corinth has forwarded their mail to the United Methodist Church.   I decided to open my copy and see what the Corinthians had to say.

The Corinthians know us better than we know ourselves. Perhaps this is why they wrote. Smart people, with advanced degrees in theology and church history debate Methodism’s future the way Cicero debated to fall of the Roman Republic. With prophetic powers conjured from reading volumes of old Methodists journals and diaries, these women and men tell us what will happen to our denomination. Their faith, formed in years of retreats, campfire conversions, and Bible-thumping revivals is as strong as 1st-century martyrs like Polycarp. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they know that their salvation comes not only through Jesus Christ but through a uniquely modified form of worship called Methodism. Oh, and do they believe. More than in Welch’s grape juice, dinosaurs, global warming, or an interventionist foreign policy guided by the Holy Spirit, they believe in Methodism. Though, as the Corinthians letter reminds us, even if you believe in a flat earth (for all the right Wesleyan reasons), and don’t have love, you have nothing at all. In fact, the letter’s author says something more dramatic, “You are nothing.”

Without love, we are a society for our own self-edification debating rules for chapters. Whether you have a Book of Discipline full of rules or full of expectant hope; love defines the nature of our Christian experience. Without love, we’re people spending a great deal of money to fly delegates in from all over the world to argue “about” love. That’s not loving. That’s St. Louis after Valentine’s Day. Love is more than a constitutional crisis, judicial hearings, and heated debates about a Bible that most people never read. Love is an idea that calls for patience and kindness. Love is not rude. Why? Love doesn’t insist on being right.  Sadly, Methodists do. In our world, someone has to be right, and someone will be wrong. What if we ran our families like we run our denomination?   Perhaps we do.  Are we more dysfunctional than we realize?

I suspect we think we are here defending the truth of scripture. How can the Bible fight unless it has bullies like us to back it up in schoolyard cultural wars? The letter addresses this as well. There is only one truth: love. No matter how right or wrong something appears to be, the truth is measured in love. What do you think about a self-giving love that puts up with anything and everything despite our willingness to love ourselves more than we love each other?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Have You Heard of the Isaiah 61 Plan?

 

People tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.  If you don’t believe me, reach in your pocket or purse and pull out your phone.  Remember, that overpriced piece of plastic in your pocket, the one built with rare Earth elements that are nearly impossible to extract from Africa and Latin America, and assembled by underpaid workers in China, it is supposed to be a phone.  It’s not a game console.  Your phone isn’t a music player.  Your phone isn’t a weather machine.  Nor is your phone a purveyor of gossip, passive-aggressive memes, your thoughts about coffee, or ideas about the government of the United States.  Yet, it is.

Your simple, beautiful, cellular phone purchased to stay in touch with your family and friends is a web of interrelated ideas and a complex network of lifestyle applications with nothing to do with the first reason you bought a cell phone:  you wanted to reach out and touch someone.   So now, we text, we never talk.  We type, we never talk.  We send distorted artistic renderings of smiley faces and other animals.  We never speak.  Who talks on the phone?  No one talks.  Yet for nearly 40 days, we’ve excoriated our politicians for avoiding the one thing we rarely do ourselves:  put down our phones and talk.  I’ll ask again:  why don’t we?

Why do I bring up the complicated lives we lead and the phones we carry as a metaphor for how things have gone wrong in the United Methodist Church?  Our phones remind me of the faith we profess and the building in which we sit, the church.  I’m not talking about local churches but also the church in general.  The church, throughout its history, has been good at taking beautiful, life-changing ideas designed to connect people and places and making them more complicated than they need to be.  The church can become a dot-connecting, hoop jumping, and saying the right words exercise.  This model of the church teaches that if we do all the approved steps, in the right order, we’re being Christian.  Actually, that’s not the church.  It’s a form of secular religion (complete with liturgical devotion), divorced from the Christian tradition.  This is the “best” “worst” thing the church does.

In our journey toward complexity, that is, creating an application for everything; we’ve lost touch with the original idea (our equivalent of the phone) which should have guided our efforts and innovation.  Instead, we let the constant need for innovation guide the movement.  As a result, we forget why we’re here, what we believe, and what we originally intended to do (and why those things still need to be done.)

So why are we here?  What is our “original” phone?  What brought us together in the first place?  If we were to remove all of the applications and garbage from our phones/devices what would be left over?  What would it look like?  Is it the Apostles’ Creed?  No.  In my mind, the Apostles’ Creed is an application.  It’s something we download.  It doesn’t come with being a Christian.  The Creed was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and his disciples.  Others, after decades of early innovation, decided what was important for Christians to believe about Jesus, the person.  The creed can augment our information about Jesus, but it’s not the last word.  Scripture is our primary point of entry when encountering Jesus.

Here’s the difference between the creed and what we’re looking for:  we want simplicity.  The Creed tells us what to believe.  Belief is a layer of complexity Jesus rarely broached.  I want to know what Jesus said about himself and how that points to things Jesus did.  Do you see the distinction?  What do others say about Jesus vs. what Jesus says about himself?  Then, in revealing anything about himself, do we learn anything thing about the primary path of discipleship?

If the church wants to make things a little less complicated, we need to go back to the 1st generation “Jesus” phone.  What can we learn from Jesus not just what others say about Jesus?  How can we make the church look more like Jesus and less like ourselves?

Jesus is invited to read scripture in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  This is at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.  He’s on the cusp of becoming a well-known teacher.  People like what he has to say.  Naturally, Nazareth is proud of the home town boy made good.  They want in on the Jesus movement.  It’s a great honor to be invited back to your home pulpit to speak, even for a United Methodist.  I don’t need to tell you that family and friends were in the congregation.  This is a big deal on multiple levels.

Sabbath morning, Jesus arrives, full of the Spirit and ready to worship.  When the time comes, the prophetic scroll is presented to Jesus (Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6).   (The guest always received the prophetic reading.)  Luke says that Jesus read the following:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

“And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus says, “This is me.  I have come to do these things.  If you want to get on board, now is this time.”  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gives his mission statement. In other words, if it doesn’t fall into the broad categories as I’ve outlined above, it’s not me or my thing.  What has the Church done with Jesus’ plan for proclaiming the Good News?  Do we still think Jesus’ news is good?  What have we turned the Good News into?  Is it a series of litmus tests to determine how best to navigate the complex, hoop jumping Christianity we’ve created in 21st America?  Yes.

You see Jesus’ priorities.  You know what the church values as priorities.  When given the opportunity to quote from Old Testament he chooses to highlight the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed.   He quotes Isaiah, not Leviticus.  Jesus doesn’t reference marriage or human sexuality; the two issues many United Methodists believe should frame the church’s entire response to the secular world.

If we want to make the church look less like us and return it to the priorities Jesus outlined, we know what we need to do.  It’s not like poverty, captivity, health care, and oppression aren’t global crises that manifest themselves in our own back yard. Some oppression even originates in our own theology and from parts of United Methodism.

We follow Jesus by doing Jesus’ actions.  Being a Christian is more than repeating a creed or mouthing a prayer.  It ought to be about putting belief into practice.  We should become the answer to our own prayers.  If your belief keeps someone oppressed, in darkness, or denies their fundamental humanity; it’s not Christian.  Go back and re-read today’s lesson.

To talk about bringing “Good News” to the poor can lead to being branded a socialist.

To talk about proclaiming release to the captives can lead to being called soft on crime.

To talk about the recovery of sight to the blind in body and mind can lead to being called a supporter of Medicare for all.

To talk about letting the oppressed go free can lead to being called a revolutionary.

Let people call us any name they choose.  What matters is that we’re following Christ in ways that it is difficult for anyone to contest.

Jesus calls us to do these words he read in Nazareth.  This is his plan.  This isn’t about repeating a creed and telling the story of man’s life.  Jesus isn’t trying to keep an 18th-century denomination alive in 21st America.  Jesus shows how to do the Good News. Good News that accepts everyone as God made them, on face value, from day one.   If we make it any harder, that’s on us.  I don’t want to be the guy who makes it any harder for someone to know, hear, or understand a liberating Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Pray for Me

You might remember a previous article about Ernie.  He’s the exterminator who works to keep our church pest free.  I like Ernie.  On his quarterly visits, our conversations about family, friends, and faith are usually the highlight of my day.  This winter, like last year, we’re having a problem with rodents.  I’ve even had a few in my office.  Though never during the day, they leave tell-tell signs of their nighttime wanderings.  In addition to spraying, Ernie comes and resets large rat and mice traps.  Despite my Christian love for all of God’s creation, I want the rodents gone from my office.

Today, before Ernie left, he stopped at my office door and turned back for a moment and asked,  “Is there anything going on in your life that I can pray about?”  The question threw me for a loop.  Prayer isn’t strange to me.  I’m used to talking about prayer and praying with others.  Did you catch the difference?  I ask the questions.  I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what was going on in my life and if they could pray for me.  My job is to pray for others.  It’s easy to forget that others need and even want to pray for me.

I told Ernie what was going on.  He listened and asked a few perceptive questions.  In those moments, we switched roles.  He was ministering to me.  I wasn’t Pastor Bryant, the preacher with the rodent problem.  I was someone in need of prayer.    Ernie prayed for my family and me.  As I said, I can’t remember the last time someone stopped what they were doing and prayed for me and my life.  I think that says a lot about how people treat preachers.  We are treated like disposable toys.  Place us where you want in the positions you see fit.  If we don’t function properly, bang us until we work again or break from being used in a way God never intended.  If we do not say the right words or go along to get along; then we will be discarded in the name of a righteous God.  When we’re empty, we will be berated for not understanding the word Sabbath.  Our disposal will be our own fault.  No one will ever ask, “Did we ask was there something going on in their life we could pray about?”  No, they will not.  Because that’s not how the world works.

Ernie cared enough about my ministry to minister to me.  He didn’t have to but he did.  Some center, a high priced leadership group for education or ministry needs to invite Ernie to be a speaker.  He gets what none of the ones I see advertised (or have attended) understand.  Empathy works both ways.  If you don’t have that, everything you do, no matter how traditionally you view marriage, is dysfunctional.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Do You Remember The Time Jesus Said No To Helping A Bunch of Drunks? (Sort of) John 2:1-11

What’s the one commonality between most (if not all) superheroes?  They can’t say no.  If someone is in danger, the superhero doesn’t have a choice about responding.  It’s part of the “superhero code.”  Let’s take Superman, for instance.  When Superman sees a plane full of people about to crash, with its engines on fire, spiraling toward the ground; he doesn’t look skyward and debate the ethics of saving each individual life.  Superman doesn’t do a cost-benefit analysis weighing the economic risks to the airline, the families impacted by the loss of a primary breadwinner and possible property damage on the ground.  No, he does none of those things.  If Superman did do them, they would be done so fast that none of us would notice.  Remember, he’s Superman.  Superman doesn’t do risk assessments.  When he sees a need, what does he do?  Clark Kent finds a phone booth (or other suitable location) and changes from his mild-mannered alter-ego into Superman.  This usually happens in the blink of an eye.  He doesn’t ask questions about who is on the plane, are they behind on their taxes, is the airline good to the employees, or is on time record into Chicago on par with Delta or American?  Clark, or should I say, Superman, doesn’t care.   In our hypothetical Superman scenario, the plane and everyone onboard is saved.  To Superman, it doesn’t matter who they are but “that” they are.  That they were human beings, people, and lives in peril and unable to save themselves; this is what mattered most.

The critical thing to remember is this:  Superman always says yes.  There is nothing too mundane or ordinary for a superhero.

This is what bothers me about the story of Jesus and his disciples attending the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. I’ve been thinking about this all week.  It is a wedding reception.  It’s nothing to write home about.  We’ve all been to receptions.  Some are fancy some are on a budget. No matter how much money you spend on a wedding reception, it’s still a wedding reception.  As civilization goes, they are ordinary affairs.   Yet, Jesus, the superhero of our story, refuses to get involved.  Do you realize how rare it is for Jesus to turn down getting involved in anything, mundane or not?  It never happens.  It would be like Superman walking away from a kitten stuck in a tree.

We know Jesus eventually comes around and decides to get involved.  Nonetheless, his reluctance and the reasoning behind it run through the entirety of this story.  Why was Jesus so reluctant to save a wedding?  Doesn’t it seem like a wedding he didn’t really want to attend in the first place? I picture their conversation in the run-up to the wedding went something like this:

Mary:  You know she’s getting married next week.

Jesus:  I haven’t seen her since middle school.

Mary:  Her husband is really nice.  He has a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus: Who doesn’t have a boat?  Simon Peter has a skiff.

Mary:  Peter. Is he your new little friend?  You can bring him and the others.

Jesus:  Mom, he prefers to be called Simon.

John is the only one who tells this story.  So it’s unique.  His mother is there, probably helping with the wedding.  There might be other family members there.  John tells us Jesus was invited.  He is not a wedding crashing, a moocher, or any form of an uninvited guest.  The disciples are also present.  Their invitation seems to be included under Jesus’.  I think this is important and we’ll come back to it in a moment.  They are not caterers.  They are official guests of the wedding party.

The action moves very quickly.  As with the crisis in a comic book or graphic novel, something has gone wrong.  The wine “gave out.”  Wine drinkers “give out.”  Wine goes dry because the drinkers pour it out.  I never cease to be amazed by the vagaries of translation.  Whatever will we do?  Will Jesus rip off his glasses and duck into a phone booth?  No, he most certainly will not.  The wine drinking mooches need to be taught a lesson.  Jesus refuses to help.

This was his first response.   Two people do not say no, Jesus and Superman.  Its part of the deal, when you wear the sandals or the long red cape, you say “yes.”  I think this bothers me so much because I know some of the other situations Jesus said “yes” too.  There was a woman, caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned to death.  He said, “Yes” to this very messy and awkward situation.  He’s healed every blind man between here and Jericho.  Yet the overindulgence of wedding guests and empty wine vats is not something worth Jesus’ time.  It bothers me.

Jesus has a reason.  While this may look and sound arbitrary, it’s not.  Jesus tells his mother, “Woman, what concern is this to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  He comes right out and says.  Is this really any of our business?  We didn’t drink the wine dry.  It’s not our party.  Then the second half of verse four takes his reason up a notch.  “My hour has not yet come,” says Jesus.  What does that mean?

Is he saying, “I don’t officially go on the clock as Jesus until next Tuesday, so I can’t do any miracles until then.”?  No.  Jesus doesn’t have an on/off switch.  There is never a time when Jesus is not Jesus.  The word “hour” is a little bit of a clue.  That’s the same word Jesus uses when he’s praying in the garden of Gethsemane.

I hear in Jesus’ reluctance a bit of what Jesus says on the night before his crucifixion.  Jesus says, “May this cup pass from me.”  In other words, “Does this have to be my time?” Here Jesus looks at the emptied vats and says, “Is this really my time?” In both moments, Jesus is overwhelmed.  I know what that feels like.  We all do.  It’s comforting to me to know that Jesus feels swamped and sometimes even he doesn’t seem to know where to start.

How does Jesus move beyond this impasse?  What changes his mind?  Is it the guilty looks from his mother?  I think he realizes something we see time and time again in the text:  miracles do not happen in isolation.  It takes a community to make a miracle a reality.  Whether you’re feeding 5000 people or turning water into wine, it’s never a one person job.  We need a community to make miracles come to life.  We do not build the kingdom of God by ourselves.  Superman works alone.  Jesus always reaches out to others.  Look at how the rest of the story unfolds.

The people who he grabs, those who are in his line of sight, become part of the miracle.  There is his mother, a coterie of servants, the chief steward, the groom, and I’m confident the disciples were involved.  Probably 20 people and that’s a rough estimate, helped make this miracle happen.  Here’s the point I want you to remember:  the body of Christ is intimately involved in the miracles that Jesus performs.   This is true in the 1st century, and it’s true today.

What we need to ensure that we’re keeping the path clear and doing everything we can to facilitate miracles both big and small.  As this story shows, it is always a good time to be involved with a miracle.  There is some way for us to plug into the larger plan which Jesus is doing.  We must heed Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Jesus will give us something to do.  We get to be the miracle.  We help make the miracles.  To me, that’s more amazing than turning water into wine.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Best Friends

Lela comes to Sunday School most weeks. She tells me that she likes Sunday School. We talk, there are snacks, we read, sometimes there are movies, plenty of stories, and occasionally coloring. While first grade has its advantages, Sunday School is different. She “likes how we’re kind of school but with more singing.” That’s good enough for me.

Last week we were talking about some of the miracles of Jesus, especially those he performed early in his ministry. Jesus, we decided, was much like a doctor, going from village to village to help people who were sick. We were looking at a picture of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Some of the things in the picture didn’t belong. Our job was to find the alarm clock, the sneakers, and headphone; all items that weren’t authentic to Jesus’ satchel. One by one we clicked the off. Lela has a good eye.

As Lela was coloring her sheet, she started to tell me something she learned in class (at regular school) earlier in the week. “I learned about a King who lived a long time ago who probably knew Jesus,” she said. This piqued my interest.

“What was his name?” I asked.

“I can’t say his name. It was King something,” she repeated while trying to sound out what she remembered of the name.

I thought I would try and help out. “Was it King Arthur, King George, King John?”

“No it wasn’t any of them,” I could tell she had it on the tip of her tongue. She was getting frustrated.

After a brief pause, she took a breath and said,

“It was King Luther.”

I think my heart stopped.
“Did you say King Luther?”

“Yes, King Luther. We learned all about him in Ms. Mary’s class at school. He was all the time helping people be nice to each other. I’m sure he and Jesus know each other, and they’re probably best friends.”

Yes, they do. Yes, they are.

I know they are hanging out together now.

Amen

Richard Lowell Bryant