The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, Otey Memorial Parish, Sewanee

“And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you’” (Jo. 21:17).

I remember the start of recycling; that is, I remember the day in my community when we were issued with bins and instructions from the city authorities. Recycling had always seemed like a good idea but now we engaged it in earnest as a community. We sorted paper, glass, cardboard, and so forth, into their proper places, so that what had grown old might be made new more conveniently. Why should we waste what we have, we asked ourselves, when doing so lays waste to the planet? Whole civilizations could be built on the contents of what we were throwing away. All true. Later we found out that the authorities had started us off without actually having the capacity to cope with the volume of material, much of which still went into the landfill. Our good intentions had outstripped our ability to benefit from them.

God is the maker of all things, and he doesn’t make any garbage. This isn’t just in respect to the physical universe, where God brings order out of chaos, out of the “formless void” (Gen.1:2) depicted in Genesis. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). We know from the same Genesis account that sin and death entered in but that in spite of these deadly wounds the world did not return to chaos. St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans that “the creation was subjected to futility”, placed in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:20-21). “The whole creation has been groaning”, St. Paul says, but it has been waiting in hope for deliverance (Rom. 8:22-23).

So God doesn’t make any garbage. Creation has hope for a better end because God has the capacity to deliver. But if it’s true for the physical universe it’s also true in terms of the human project, of God’s ability to reclaim us from the deadly effects of our own misdeeds. We may be slaves to sin, as Paul says elsewhere in Romans (Rom. 6:20), but through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been set free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Nothing’s getting thrown out, and that includes you and me.

Our readings today are a case in point, offering powerful testimony to the way in which God works with the material he’s got. First, the Apostle Peter, leader and spokesman for the Twelve. In our Gospel we have a three-fold exchange between Jesus and Peter, taking place after the Resurrection. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you’” (Jo. 21:15). The question is repeated three times, not because Jesus needs convincing that Peter loves him, but as a reminder that this prince of the apostles is also the man who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, before Jesus’ execution.

And then there’s St. Paul, who we’ve been relying on quite a bit in this sermon: the Apostle to the Gentiles, the person who shaped the early Christian mission. Our first reading today tells the story of how he came to be a follower of Jesus Christ, by encountering the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. The backstory, of course, is that Paul had was on his way to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ followers. St. Paul calls himself in one of his letters a zealous “persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6). Whatever one might think about the witness of the New Testament, it certainly makes no effort here or elsewhere to hide the grievous limitations of the apostles.

If God can deal with this, the sins of our spiritual forebears; if God can recycle this kind of material, sifting and sorting each of them into something useful and good; then I guess God can reclaim us from the rubbish heap, saving us from the landfill that’s populated by our own misguided efforts and unsalvageable aspirations. The question that Jesus asked Peter is pertinent here: “Do you love me more than these?” (Jo. 21:15). Love is the place to begin: God’s love of us and our love of God. Love of the neighbor as well: as Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jo. 21:17).

Our confirmands are reminding us today, through their commitment to this project, of our own calling. Through their willingness to offer themselves in response to the questions the church asks them today, they’re reminding us of the great questions of faith addressed to us. There are searching questions indeed for each of us who follow Jesus in this way of life. God didn’t make any garbage. How we respond is the key.

– The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee