Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, April 15, 2013


The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York. April 14, 2013. Easter III.Text: John 21: 1-19

What would you do and how would you feel if you get invited to have breakfast with Jesus?

In 2008, I was privileged to go to Israel to study a course called “Palestine of Jesus.”  For three weeks, we stayed at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem and traveled to Bethlehem, to the river Jordan, to the Dead See and to the Sea of Galilee. I tell you, it was like a dream come true. It was so heartwarming to see where Jesus was born, to walk where Jesus walked and to preach where Jesus preached.  Early in the morning, my classmates and I would bathe in the cool, fresh waters of Galilee. We would sing hymns and spiritual songs and we would imagine Jesus walking on the water and the apostles fishing for what is now called “Peter’s fish” or tilapia.

In the place called Tabgha inTiberias, there are two churches named after two miracles. The first one is called the Church of Multiplication, for that is the site where Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. The other one is called the Church of the Primacy of Peter, for that is the site where Peter was restored and forgiven by Jesus. I was chosen from among my classmates to preach and celebrate the mass in that church. 

As I was reading the Gospel of John 21, there was a moment that I could hardly speak. I felt that there was a lump in my throat, I was choking with emotion and that my heart was so filled with gratitude for the amazing, awesome and extraordinary grace of God.  For in that place in Tabgha, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? And Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” As I was reading that Scripture text, I felt that I was there---and Jesus was addressing those words to me---right after that breakfast where Jesus invited us to be.

POWER BREAKFAST                                                                                                                                                                                     
 I call this "power breakfast" as a demonstration of God’s divine initiative in Christ: first point is forgiveness, second point is love and third point is mission. Jesus calls us to forgive, he commands us to love, and he gives us a mission. (Do you still remember  the reasons why I am a "three points preacher"?)

First, the power of forgiveness.   
The ability for forgive is not a sign of weakness but a sign of power. Jesus empowered Peter by giving him the gift of forgiveness. The apostles were fishing all night but they caught nothing. This is a message that “without God, we can do nothing.” Without God, in the words of the Ecclesiastes, all our works and our achievements are “vanity and a striving after the wind.”  We need God for because there is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.  Peter was empty that morning. His stomach was empty because he was hungry. His net was empty because there was no fish. His heart was empty because a week ago, he had denied Jesus. 

Out of his emptiness and depression, came an invitation from Jesus. “Come had breakfast with me. Oh by the way, cast your nets on the right side and you will find fish.” They cast their nets on the right side and there was a huge haul of fish---the nets were almost breaking. My friends, when you have breakfast with Jesus---your plate will be full!

Then Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” And Peter was grieved for he was asked by the Lord three times. But it did not take long for him to realize that the reason why Jesus was asking him three times was because he had denied the Lord three times. In other words, just as he had sinned three times, he was being forgiven three times as well. That power of forgiveness has fully restored Peter to what was to be his destiny. Like the prodigal Son who returned to the Father, Jesus was giving him back the golden ring. He was a son again. Forgiveness washed away his guilt and shame. He was restored,  reconciled, healed. 

The power of forgiveness is the power of healing. There was a woman who had cervical cancer. The doctor gave her a grim prognosis: the cancer metastasized. It had spread to her intestines, liver and kidney. She might die in three months. After the initial shock, denial and anger that terminally-ill persons often go through, she decided to accept her fate and to prepare for her funeral. Then she remembered that throughout her life, she had made some friends but also some enemies. She had been hurt by other people and she had also hurt other people. So she decided that since she had but a short time to live, she would spend the rest of her life forgiving those who hurt her and seeking forgiveness to those she had hurt. She called, emailed and wrote to them one by one. And every time she had forgiven someone or had received forgiveness from someone, some cancer cells were being removed.  The process went on and on until she was completely healed. There is power in forgiveness!

The power of love                                                                                                                                                            "Do you love me?" Peter and the apostles of Jesus had learned love from the source and author of Love Himself. The bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosever would believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Por que de tal manera amo Dios al mundo, que ha dado a su Hijo unigenito, para que todo aquel que en el cree, no se pierda , mas tenga vida eterna.  Sapagkat minahal ng Diyos and mundo kaya niya ibinigay ang kanyang bugtong na anak, upang ang nanampalatay sa kanya ay hindi mamamatay bagkus magkaroon ng buhay na walang hanggan”  (John 3:16). I wish I could say it in many more  languages, but I tell you, LOVE is a universal language. Even in unspoken words, love is clear and understandable.

Someone once said that there are three things which husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers , must learn to say in order for their relationships to last for a lifetime. These three words are: “I love you; I am sorry; please forgive me.”  My wife and I have been married for 35 years now. We have no children. What keeps us together these many years? Maybe not so much in words, but in action, we might have spoken these three words to each other, for a thousand times. Because we are all human, we are imperfect. I like the prayer of Alexander Pope, “If I am right thy grace impart, still in the right to stay. If I am wrong, O teach my heart to find that better way.” And the more excellent way is love (1 Corinthians 13).

The power of mission
From the power of forgiveness and love, Jesus proceeded to tell  Peter of his mission. “If you really love me, then feed my sheep. “ I feel that that is my mission too in this church, St. James Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, New York.  I want to see this church experience a revival,  I want to see this church grow and re-establish its rightful mission in this community. We are a historic church finding our place in the 21st century. 

The origin of St. James dates back from 1704 when America was still a colony of Great Britain. Our charter was signed by no less than King George III.  St. James Church saw the fight for American Independence both politically and ecclesiastically. The first bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury was one of our earliest rectors. Dr. Benjamin Moore, the first president of Columbia University was one of our earliest lay leaders. At some point, Elmhurst was called the “New Amsterdam”  because this was a Dutch neighborhood. 

But fast forward to the 21st century.  Elmhurst  is no longer the New Amsterdam or even the Old Amsterdam.  It has become a global village in Queens, New York one of the most diverse communities in the world.  Here is a rapidly growing Chinatown and clusters of ethnic communities:  Latinos, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, South Asians, West Indians, Caribbean in addition to Black and white.  How do we position ourselves  as the new St. James in the context of our time? 

 “If you love me, feed my sheep.” I believe the Church grows when the people are fed but not when they are fed up.  Let us feed God’s people with the uniting Word of God and not by divisive politics of man. Let us be one in sharing the Body and Blood of Christ as well as one in sharing a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, or a bowl of soup. 

“And I have other sheep that are not yet of this fold”( John 10:16).  St. James Church is surrounded by people from other cultures and ethnicities who are hungry for the Word of God, hungry for the bread of life, hungry for community. They too are hungry for forgiveness, for love and for mission.  
Many years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, issued a dream. “I have a dream that one day, black boys and white boys will walk hand in hand.” As he dreamt the dream of integration and unity, Martin Luther King, Jr.  also prophesied against the American Church of segregation. He called the 11 o’clock on Sunday as the most “segregated time in America” because the Blacks and the Whites were holding purely Black and lilly White worship services. 

Today, here in Elmhurst, the dream of MLK will have a new significance: we dream not only that Black and White but Brown and Yellow and Red and Green, Mulato and mestizo----and  all colors of the rainbow will be welcomed in this Episcopal Church.  Let us heed MLK’s prophesy by radically welcoming ALL PEOPLE  to our Healing Service at 10:30 A.M. and removing every trace of segregation in our 11:00 A.M. Eucharist. “Though we are many, we are one Body because we all share in one Bread.” By his dying on the cross, Jesus Christ has broken down every wall of hostility and opened for us a new and living way. Let us open this Church to the whole community of Elmhurst and let St. James Church be a forgiving, loving and serving Church in the 21st century. Amen!

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