On the Shores of Shifting Sand

It was one of those moments when I would have liked to be able to stop time. A 13-month-old Caleb was nestled tightly in the baby carrier on my husband Jeff’s back as he and I stood hand in hand on a Hawaiian beach. The water rolled back and forth over our toes. The sun was about to fully burst across the horizon as I breathed in the fresh, salty air. I was noticeably present in that moment. Being present was rare for me in those days. I was a full-time seminary student, a brand new mother, and serving in full-time ministry. “Hurried” could have easily been my middle name. So as I stood on the Hawaiian shore, I took a deep breath, took in the greatness of the moment, and allowed it to permeate my being. I didn’t want that moment to end.

There is a similar moment in John 21:1-25. The cross had come and gone, and the disciples had already encountered resurrection appearances from Jesus. The disciples were fishing when suddenly Jesus appeared to them. In a moment of passion, Peter jumped from the boat and swam to the shore where Jesus stood. And there we see moments of intimacy between Jesus and his disciples as they broke bread and ate together. After eating, Jesus and Peter took a walk along the shores.

“Peter, do you love me more than these?” asked Jesus.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” replied Peter.
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

Jesus repeated this question two more times for a total of three times, to the point of causing Peter pain. Many scholars point to this incredible moment as the restoration or reinstatement of Peter. Peter is the one who denied Jesus three times – the ultimate betrayal. And so, just as we see the threefold denial in John’s Gospel, we see Peter restored through his threefold announcement of love for Jesus.

In that moment, Jesus looked beyond his past choices and his present state, and reinstated Peter with a provocative and radical call to discipleship.

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 

After Peter was reinstated, Jesus gave Peter a radical call to discipleship.

“Peter, in loving me, you will follow me, and in following me, you will lay down your very life.”

As they were walking the shores, it’s almost a record scratch moment for Peter. This beautiful, intimate moment between Peter and Jesus just got scary. It just got real.

“Lay down my life?”

Peter’s mind begins to race, and possibly even a feeling of panic set in. He looked around him to notice another one of the disciples, John, close by.

“Well, what about him, Lord?”

In that moment, Jesus took Peter’s nervous and frantic eyes, and turned them back towards himself as if to say, “Peter, this matter is not your concern; it is mine. You have one duty: follow me.” As Jesus and Peter stood on the shores of Galilee, Peter’s mind raced to what I call the “what-abouts” and the “what-ifs.” I don’t know about you, but my mind races to the “what-abouts” and the “what-ifs” all the time. “What about this or that?”; “What if she gets all the praise when I did all of the work?”; “What if things don’t turn out OK?” We are bombarded by so many daily distractions and worries, that sometimes following Jesus is more like an afterthought.
As the world grabs for our eyes and our attention, Jesus summons our eyes back to himself.

“Follow Me.”

As Peter’s mind raced away from the present moment, Jesus turned Peter’s eyes back to himself.

What a great reminder for us in 2017. In a world that is grabbing for our attention, Jesus summons us to turn our eyes to him.

And for some of us, maybe following begins now. Maybe following Jesus has been a nice idea, but never a life for you. Following Jesus is never a stagnant call. It means we can’t stay here. It means movement, momentum, and forward motion. Following Jesus means leaving the shore and laying down our lives.

But the “good ol’ days” have come and gone. My heart is burdened that we, the church, want to stay on the shores of the “good ol’ days” as the sand shifts around us. That time has evaporated and is now only a mirage in a desert place.

My fear is that for many of us, following Jesus is a once a week thing we do on Sunday mornings, but the radical call to discipleship placed on Peter’s life was more than that. Peter was called to lay down his very life.

Sometimes I wonder if we desire the shore moments only, and never want to leave the shores. When we return to the text, we see that the call on Peter’s life to follow Jesus is intimately connected to the future of the faith community. And when we move into the book of Acts, we see exactly that. We see an incredibly exciting narrative filled with newness, freshness, power, and miracles. The Spirit had fallen fresh on the community and we notice an instant change.

Almost immediately after the Holy Spirit fell upon the community, Peter boldly stood up before the crowds and began to preach. I imagine that he preached in such a way that his close friends wondered, “What has happened to Peter?” Look at Acts 2:37, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” And then again in verse 40-41, “ With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

In Acts 3, we see Peter heal a crippled beggar and again in Acts 4 he continues boldly preaching. There was a clear change and transformation in Peter’s life. Later on in Peter’s life he was thrown into prison, but as he wrote from his cell he urged his readers to rejoice!

What Happened to Peter?

The transforming, empowering presence of the Spirit got a hold of Peter’s life and propelled him to be on mission. When Peter was infused with the Holy Spirit, there was a freshness, an empowering, and an incredible movement unrolling – the early church. It was Peter’s focus, his obsession, his passion, and his life purpose. That is what it looks like to follow Jesus. Peter didn’t forever stay on the shore that day.

Scholars have been writing prolifically on something called the post-Christian culture, or the collapse of Christian culture. There is a notable decline in church attendance, a radical drop in vocational ministry, and a noticeable shift in values within culture. Even those who attend church embody a set of beliefs that are shaped more by the prevailing culture rather than the teachings of Jesus.

There was a time – that many call the “good ol’ days” – when the church enjoyed approval from culture, and when someone mentioned religion, most people assumed Christianity. Prayers were said in public schools and Christian ethics – to an extent – were in sync with the prevailing western culture. Most people identified with being Christian, and attending Sunday morning church was the respectable thing to do.

But the “good ol’ days” have come and gone. My heart is burdened that we, the church, want to stay on the shores of the “good ol’ days” as the sand shifts around us. That time has evaporated and is now only a mirage in a desert place.

America continues to remain the most Christian of any other country in the world; roughly seven in ten continue to identify with the Christian faith.1 However, the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christian has dropped eight percentage points in just seven years.2 And those who consider themselves atheist or unaffiliated has risen six percent over the same period of time.3 While I don’t want to continue to bore you with statistics, I will say that most scholars agree that the church is in decline.

Some are lamenting. Some are throwing in the towel. “What’s the point,” they say? But I believe that just as Peter was reinstated and recommissioned, the church has an opportunity for renewal and revival. Lament? Fine, but we can’t stay here!

The call and the commission before us are not merely to relish the “good ol’ days,” but for ordinary Christians to enter into the world displaying the love of God by laying down their very lives.

Following Jesus means boldly and humbly entering into culture, displaying the love of God by serving our neighbor, loving our neighbor, listening to our neighbor, and engaging in reckless generosity and hospitality.

One Christian at a Time

Have we, the church, become too comfortable with the status quo? Are we OK with “doing church” the way we’ve always done it? Or are we ready to enter into the new normal? And that new normal is that our neighbors aren’t as receptive to Christianity as they used to be. People don’t just come to church for great programs and great music any more.

Knowing we can’t stay here, knowing the sand on the shores are shifting all around us, what does renewal look like for the church?

Ordinary Christians entering into the world displaying the love of God to their neighbors by:

  1. Linking into the creative imagination of the Triune God. Rebirth and renewal starts with God’s imagination. Discovering God’s creative imagination takes time, prayer, discernment, and the entire community asking, “What next?”
  2. Being willing to reorient our lives for the sake of the mission. Slow down so we can be in relationship with people around us. Being intentional with our schedules and being willing to respond to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Being discerning. Viewing our interactions with neighbors as opportunities to display the love of God. Reorienting our lives towards hospitality and generosity.
  3. Being willing to allow our neighbors to enter into our lives and entering into our neighbors’ lives. One of the hardest things to do in our western culture is to let down our guard. We’re busy, we’re stressed, and we’re over-extended (I am the chief of sinners here). Sometimes letting down our guard seems like just another task to attend to, but it doesn’t have to be a “task.” Relational moments can be incorporated into our everyday activities: on the playground, at school pickup, at a basketball game, standing outside while our kids are playing, in the office break room, over dinner, in a meeting, in a coffee shop, and at football game. By doing this, we must let go of being exclusive and try to avoid insider language. We must be willing to open ourselves up to others and be real and authentic. When we are struggling, we need to be open about it and not afraid to talk about how we’re going to God in our struggles. And over time, as we are doing life with people, Jesus will eventually spill out of our lives.
  4. Praying for our neighbors. I believe that we have forgotten how to pray for our neighbors, and we underestimate the power of prayer. In the New Testament, we get a glimpse of the early church as people who prayed before mission. Augustine said, “True whole prayer is nothing but love.” When we pray for our neighbors, we are loving them. We are praying that our neighbors will see, experience, and know the love of God. If we aren’t sure how to pray, we can pray the prayer that Paul prayed in Ephesians 3:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit that empowered Peter to preach and teach with boldness, is the same Spirit that will propel the church forward into the new normal.

So today as we stand on the shores of shifting sand, a question is before us: Are we willing to follow Jesus and lay down our lives for his mission?

– Pastor Tara Beth Leach


1  http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

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