Third Sunday of Easter: A Tale of Two Fires
The night was cold. People sat around a fire the way people do when they are trying to warm up. They were real close to each other, jockeying for a place where they could feel the flames. And they were talking, as people usually do when they are so close to each other. They had a lot to talk about. They were in the courtyard of a building where Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee was being held prisoner. "Now that they've got him, they will probably kill him," someone might have said. Those around the fire offered a summary of the night's events, how they found him in the Garden of Olives where one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot, brought the Temple soldiers to arrest him. Someone else might have mentioned that Galileans have brought a lot of trouble to the capital in the past; so it is no surprise that the chief priests had enough of them. Then they heard the big man by the fire speak. Someone recognized him.
"You are one of his disciples, aren't you?" "No," Peter responded. "Didn't I see you with him once." "No," he said even firmer. "Certainly, you are one of his disciples, you even have a Galilean accent." With that Peter cursed and said, "I do not know the man." And then Jesus was brought out. The Gospel of Luke simply says that Jesus met Peter's eyes. And Peter wept bitterly. He had denied Jesus three times only a few hours after he had said that he would die for the Lord.
There was another fire in the early morning a few weeks later. This fire was on the shore of Lake Galilee. There was a man there, not warming himself, but cooking fish for breakfast. Peter had recognized him earlier when the man told him how to turn an unsuccessful night of fishing into a bonanza. So there they were by the fire, Jesus, Peter and the other disciples. Again, Peter was asked about his relationship to Jesus of Nazareth. "Do you love me?" Simon Peter.
Three times Jesus asked. Three times Peter affirmed his love. Three times Jesus told him, "then feed my sheep." And Peter became more and more determined to live for the Lord and, if this is what it would take, to die for the Lord. And die he would.
The first reading presents the first time that Peter was arrested after the Resurrection. Actually, the reading skips over some of the action. After the Sanhedrin told Peter and John to stop preaching about the Lord, they had them flogged. It would not be the last time that Peter would suffer. Tradition holds that Peter journeyed to the center of the world, to Rome, where he was arrested and put to death on the Vatican hill, most likely looking at the huge obelisk Nero had placed in the center of an arena that had been there. That is the same obelisk that is now in St. Peter's Square.
A new Pope looks this obelisk when he is first introduced.
It is a tale of two fires, a fire of denial and a fire of affirmation.
Which fire are you sitting at? Which fire am I sitting at? Are we sitting at the fire of denial? When someone says that the times have changed and it is OK to have sex, to get drunk, to take drugs, to destroy others, to berate strangers, to hate, are we in agreement? Maybe we don't say the words, but our silence often speaks loudly when we refuse to stand up for our faith, for our morals, for our Lord.
Or are you and I sitting at the fire of affirmation, when we declare with our whole heart that we do love the Lord and that we will do anything and everything for him? Sometimes we are sitting at this fire of love on a retreat or a spiritual conference.
And we leave with our hearts ablaze for the Lord.
But sitting by the fire is not enough. It is far from enough. Jesus said to Peter and says to us, "If you love me, feed my sheep." We have to care for the Lord's people, for everyone with whom he identifies, for those in Matthew 25 whom He calls the least of his brothers and sisters: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger. Jesus began his public life declaring: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed and to announce a year of favor from the Lord." He was sent to bring God's mercy to the world, to His people, to His Sheep.
We cannot claim to love the Lord and ignore the plight of those around us. Perhaps there is that Teen in school who some have decided is and will remain at the bottom of the social pecking order. Or maybe it's someone at work or in the neighborhood. "We don't like her, him," the in-crowd says, and we are expected to agree.
If we love the Lord, then we can't agree. Instead, we have to befriend the outcast even if this means losing some friends. They aren't good friends anyway.
Perhaps we need to consider nasty old Aunt Martha. She's that relative that finds ways to pick fights. The other members of the family seldom invite her over, usually only when they have no choice. (If she comes to a wedding, we hope the priest is coming too so we can sit him next to her......just saying.) If we really love the Lord, then we can't allow Aunt Martha to remain alone in whatever anger she is currently stewing. If we try to be kind to her, whether she accepts our kindness or not, then at least we are opening the door to the Lord's love for her. We would then be feeding His sheep.
Nor can we claim to love the Lord and ignore the strangers in our area. Immigrants need to be cared for, not persecuted. We need to work for some solution to the homeless problem. We need to be standing up to hatred and bigotry wherever it exists. The victims of hatred are the Lord's sheep. If we love the Lord, then we need to feed His Sheep.
The night is cold, the world is cold, but the love of the Lord is a fire that sets our hearts ablaze. May we be determined to spread this fire. May we have the courage to feed His sheep.