Recently, I went to Atlanta.
I am a part of the leadership for our WV Annual Conference Residency program, a three-year program that, those who are on the track to be ordained, are required to complete between seminary and ordination. Each year, we take an immersion trip. This year, we went to Atlanta to visit the offices of the General Board of Global Ministries and to explore what much of our Global Mission program is all about—human rights. So, we went to the Civil Rights Museum and to the MLK Jr Center.
On this trip there was much to think about, much to reflect about, much to experience, much to remember.
On the drive down to Atlanta, I found myself thinking about a historical event that happened before I was born. In 1960, in a place near where I grew up—Greensboro, NC—something significant happened. It was the time of segregation and the time of the Civil Rights movement. African Americans and many white supporters of Civil Rights engaged in non-violent protests to call attention, raise awareness, and change the racist attitudes and laws that were so much a part of our country’s history—attitudes and laws that kept people in poverty and kept families from thriving.
One February day, four African American college students planned and carried out a non-violent protest. They planned to walk into the Woolworth’s lunch counter, sit down and ask to be served. They knew that they would be refused. They planned to refuse to leave the lunch counter when they were asked. Silently, they would sit there in protest of the unjust system that kept them from being treated as the beloved children of God that they were.
No violence. No words. No threats.
And that is what they did on February 1, 1960. They purchased toothpaste in the store with no problem and then went to the lunch counter. Each one ordered a cup of coffee and were refused. They sat at the counter until closing, went back to their dorms and recruited more students to become a part of the non-violent protest. The sit-in movement spread throughout the south over the next few months. Day after day, non-violent protests occurred, calling attention to something that was wrong, unfair, and sinful. Segregation is not Gospel work!
On this trip to Atlanta, I also thought about a story that is told in John 21, about a time that Jesus hosted a breakfast on the beach.
On a morning long ago, several of the disciples were out in a boat, fishing. They had been out all night and had caught nothing. No doubt, there conversation had centered on the events that they had experienced since the night of Passover—the crucifixion, the resurrection, the appearances of Jesus. They probably talked about what they had thought about, trying to remember the experiences in detail so that they would not forget. They might have asked questions of each other so that they could understand what had and was happening. There might have been long periods of silence.
Fishing was something they knew and could do without thinking about. It must have been something meditative, something that kept their hands occupied as they were discussing and thinking.
Just before daybreak, they saw him, standing on the beach. They didn’t recognize him—again they didn’t recognize him—but they must have exchanged pleasantries about fishing. After revealing that they had caught nothing, Jesus said, “why don’t you try the other side.” And of course, they caught so many fish that they couldn’t haul the catch in without breaking nets and without a lot of effort. They must have been amazed and maybe even pondered about who this man was. It must be Jesus.
They came to the beach and Jesus served them breakfast.
He took bread and gave it to them.
Can’t you just imagine that they were beginning to recognize that the ritual of breaking bread was important—sacred?
He took fish and served them. Maybe in that moment they remembered him feeding the multitudes, beginning with the fish that a little boy had brought for his lunch.
I imagine that they were in awe, that they were quiet, grateful to be in his presence once again, and pondering what might be next.
After breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter and asked him a question, or three: do you love me?
Yes Lord, you know that I love you.
Feed my lambs.
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Yes Lord, you know that I love you.
Tend my sheep.
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.
Feed my sheep.
Many scholars have written about this moment in the life of Peter and the question that Jesus asked him. Essentially, it was this same question, asked three different times, that provided redemption for a man who had denied knowing Jesus three times. Three times to say “I love you, Jesus,” and three times to redeem the words of denial. When we consider this encounter with Jesus, we must admit that this is deeply moving.
How many times would we endure the question, do you love me, if we knew that answering yes, with our whole hearts, would redeem some circumstance in our lives.
With Jesus, yes.
But also with anyone else that we have denied, or treated unjustly.
The scripture tells us that Peter felt hurt by Jesus asking him if Peter loved him. No doubt some of the hurt might have been because of the shame he felt from the night before the crucifixion when he denied knowing Jesus. The hurt and pain might have emerged many times as he thought about that moment of denial, with regret. But there must have been even more deeply felt feelings after the conclusion of the conversation.
Jesus told Peter that
“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.” (John 21:18, nrsv)
Jesus spoke to Peter about the freedom of his youth, the decisions that he could make for himself. However, when he grew older, he would not be able to decide the manner of his death. He would stretch out his arms…
It must have crossed Peter’s mind that stretching out his arms could be the same manner that Jesus had died.
So in the passing of a moment or two, Peter is filled with emotions that were deep and lasting…
And yet, here is the man who had saved his life in so many ways, asking Peter, to follow him, no matter the cost. And the cost was great, for even though it led Peter to the most important work he could possibly do, work that spread the Gospel, comforted people, brought healing and hope, tradition tells us that it also led him to a cross where he was crucified in 64 CE, the year of the Great Fire in Rome. Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for this fire.
No matter what Peter was feeling during that conversation, he did indeed follow Jesus.
No matter the cost.
During the trip to Atlanta, it was the very last part of this scripture that kept coming to my mind, that no matter the cost to Peter, when Jesus said “Follow me,” he did.
For Peter, the cost of following Jesus was great, but not too great to turn the other way and depart from Jesus.
On the second day of the Atlanta trip, I went to the Civil Rights museum. I have studied the Civil Rights movement, quite a bit, because I lived through it, in the South, and it impacted my life in many ways that I would never have known then, but that I think about a lot now. At the museum was an exhibit that we were encouraged to experience.
The exhibit was a lunch counter, just like the one in the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC during 1960. We were to sit down at the counter, put our hands down flat on the counter, and put on headphones. What we were to hear, and experience were the voices of threats and anger that the non-violent protestors experience.
At first, I hesitated, but then I sat down on the stool, picked up the headphones, closed my eyes and put them on, and put my hands on the counter. The last thing I saw before closing my eyes was a sign and a clock. The sign asked me a question: how long can you last?
The first 10 seconds were fine and then the anger began to appear and threats were spoken, then yelled, more violent, angrier and angrier. As the seconds passed I noticed several different things going on inside me.
I felt frustrated.
I felt overwhelmed.
I felt scared.
I was certain that I was going to be hit, maybe even pulled off the stool.
The voices were strong, angry, violent, threatening.
Sometimes I could hear the voices in front of me or in back of me, but it was the voice that screamed obscenities and threats right in my ears that scared me the most. I heard someone calling me names that no one should ever hear and threats that I brought panic deep within.
All the time, I had my eyes closed.
At one point, I thought to myself: I have had enough. I am going to leave now. And in that moment, I realized that being able to make that decision was a privilege that those non-violent protesters did not have, nor does anyone, anywhere in this world, who are treated unjustly because of their race or nationality. The non-violent protesters were surrounded by people who hated them, who were threatening them, who were scaring them. And even, if they did get up and leave, the treatment would continue.
I could walk away from this exhibit, but they could not walk away from the experiences of their lives.
I resolved to stay, no matter how difficult it was.
Suddenly, I found myself praying the Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Over and over, I said the prayer. Over and over, I said the prayer for all people across the years of history who have experienced persecution and racism, who protested, who died, who didn’t give up hope even when my race showered them with pain and suffering.
I said the prayer for all the people who sinfully mistreated the courageous protestors, who did not think of all people as beloved of God, our brothers and sisters. I said the prayer for all the people, who today, do not think of all people as beloved of God, our brothers and sisters. I said the prayer for all the people who promote actions that cause such trauma for people. I said the prayer for the people who have brought terror to places of worship—synagogues, mosques, and churches. I said the prayer for those who do not want to know what it is like to be displaced from home because of violence or starvation or fear.
I said the prayer for myself, for all the times I look down on folks and or walk away when someone needs my help. I said the prayer for forgiveness and for hope. I said the prayer to say to Jesus, “I love you.”
I said the prayer, over and over, as the angry voices shouted in my ears, as I felt threatened. I said the prayer, over and over, until I heard a voice behind me saying “It is over.”
“It is over.”
“It is over.”
Finally, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and a firmer voice saying, “Ma’am, it is over.”
I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. I made it through the exhibit. One minute, 45 seconds that felt like hours—crushing hours.
When I got up from the stool, I said to myself, “but it is not over.”
Christ is risen. That is the best news ever. Just as the risen Christ asked Peter if he loved him, the risen Christ asks us the same question, over and over.
Do you love me?
Of course, we answer “yes,” but often we forget that answering “yes” means that we will follow the risen Christ and sometimes, that means that we follow Christ into places where sin is so thick that we are uncomfortable and yet, our being there, confronting injustice, praying fervently, and offering acts of love and hope makes a difference. It is exactly what we are needed to do.
The lunch counter protesters heard the question and answered “yes” and followed Christ to confront injustice with non-violence and peaceful protest. It worked. By July 25thof that year, the manager of Woolworth’s asked three African American employees to change out of their work uniforms and into street clothes and come to the lunch counter to be the first African American people to be served at the lunch counter. And from then on, no one was turned away.
I wish that I could say that our world has been saved from evil and sin and injustice, but it hasn’t. Not completely. Our world is full of evil and sin and injustice. It is not a safe place for many of God’s beloved children.
But there is hope. Christ is risen. That means life has victory over death. That means that good has victory over evil. That means that you and I, who are asked over and over if we love this risen Christ, can follow him even when he takes us to places that challenge us and make us uncomfortable, because in following him we are offering this crazy, suffering world, hope and healing and love.
You and I have that ability and that choice.
In his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace prize, Jimmy Carter, a man who has profound faith in the risen Christ, said these words:
“God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes—and we must.”
Jesus asks us: do you love me? When we answer yes to that question, our risen Lord, simply says to us: follow me.
Shall we follow him? Together?
I think so.
To God alone be Glory!
This reflection was originally written as a sermon that I preached on 5 May 2019 at West Buckhannon and Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Churches, Buckhannon, WV.