Peter and the Pursuit of Happiness

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you ever wonder whether the reason many of our people seem to do so little with their faith is that we ask of them so little?

Or do you ever question whether your preaching makes a difference — not just in the instant of hearing, perhaps offering a moment of inspiration or comfort — but to their daily lives, to the ways your people actually live their life…or not…as a disciple of Christ?

A recent poll conducted in the U.K. by Durham University on behalf of England’s College of Preachers has got me thinking. What startled the researchers in an age when many say that the sermon has gone the way of the eight-track cartridge was that better than 96% of church goers “look forward” to the sermon. But while 60% of respondents say that sermons communicate to them a sense of God’s love, only 17% report that sermons actually influence or change the way they live.

So I have been wondering: are sermons such ineffective change-agents because people don’t want to be challenged or because preachers, assuming this to be the case, don’t even try. To make it more personal: when was the last time you preached a sermon that invited or encouraged your hearers to live differently based on the biblical passage you explored in your sermon? So maybe part of the reason our sermons seem to exert so little influence in the way our congregants act in the world is because we don’t expect them to. Maybe people don’t do anything differently after hearing the gospel because they haven’t been invited.

Now, I know I’m treading on dangerous ground. I come, after all, from a tradition founded upon the proposition that there is nothing we can do that can secure for ourselves God’s good grace, nothing we can attempt or accomplish to establish our merit before God. But sometimes I wonder if we haven’t developed such an allergic reaction to “justification by works” that we dismiss the idea of God expecting us to do anything. Is being justified by grace through faith really an excuse to do nothing; to be unchanged, unaffected by the gospel; to live as if Christ’s life, death, and resurrection makes no difference?

Certainly Martin Luther could not have imagined such a conclusion. Luther’s sermons — much to the consternation of many Lutherans — are riddled with injunctions and imperatives. None of them, I hasten to point out, are offered with the hope of securing God’s grace. Luther’s instructions were not about the content of our salvation — something only God can provide — but rather about the character of our Christian life in this world.

From the last chapter in John’s gospel, I gather the same was true of Jesus. Three times he asks Peter for a confession of faith (even though that repetition hurts Peter’s feelings). And three times he responds to Peter’s confession by giving him something to do: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.

Because we have been reading John’s gospel all along, we know — and we suspect that Peter will eventually recognize — that Jesus’ repetition isn’t meant as rebuke but as absolution: three invitations to confess in order to wipe away three denials just days earlier. In and through this tri-fold pattern of question and confession Peter is restored — to himself, to his Lord, to the discipleship community. And yet it is more than that, too, for Peter is not merely forgiven and restored but also commissioned. Peter is given work to do that matters. He is offered a role and given a purpose as he is commissioned into servant leadership.

Over the last nine months or so I’ve been interested to read about the “happiness research” conducted in recent years. You probably know what I’m talking about: the research that studies what makes people happy, why some countries seem to be relatively happier than others, and what factors contribute to longer life and a greater sense of fulfillment. You may also have read some of the same articles in the New York Times or Atlantic or perused some of the same popular books on the subject. While the research covers a lot of ground and is certainly nuanced at points, much of the data seem to overlap at a deceptively simple conclusion: whatever else may be helpful — health, wealth, and what not — two things are absolutely essential to feel happy: 1) a sense of belonging to a community and 2) the belief that what you do matters. Those are the two key predictors of fulfillment and productivity: belonging and purpose.

Isn’t that just what Jesus offers Peter in these verses: he is brought back into the discipleship community and he is given meaningful work to do. And I suspect that these two things, when genuinely offered and received, can never be separated. Or, to borrow the language of the Reformation, justification and vocation are two sides of the same coin. Forgiveness always leads to mission, restoration to purpose, and inclusion to calling.

If this is true, then perhaps we shouldn’t be content with sermons that only comfort and inspire. Perhaps we should also strive for sermons that prompt commitment, that promise purpose, that invite change and growth. Luther did. Jesus did. We can, too. We can, that is, invite our people to belong to a community of faith that values their participation. We can invite our people into relationship with a God who lavishes grace, meaning, and purpose in equal measures.

This should not be confused with whiny exhortation or pious moralism. It’s not about commanding, but rather commissioning, awakening our hearers to the deceptively simple proposition that God has redeemed them for a purpose and that each week they are beckoned to church that they might be greeted with absolution, grounded in identity, commissioned with purpose, and sent to make a difference in the world God loves so much.

I’ll warn you right now, though, that it may take a little while for our people to adjust to the message that the unmerited and unexpected promise of grace, mercy, and salvation actually invites and frees them to lead lives of meaning and purpose. So don’t be discouraged, dear Working Preacher, if you have to offer this invitation not once, or even twice, but three times before it sinks in. It’s been done before, and by a better preacher than we.

Yours in Christ,