April 18, 2021
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This weekend, Len and I, like so many members of the University and the wider Princeton community, have been grieving the death of our friend and colleague Imam Sohaib Sultan. Imam Sohaib was the Office of Religious Life’s Chaplain with the Muslim Life Program, and he passed away from cancer on Friday evening at sundown, the first Friday of the holy season Ramadan.
Sohaib and his wife Arshe blessed so many people through their wise and compassionate conversations. When Len and I were first starting out with Princeton Presbyterians, they invited us to their home for breakfast. They listened to us share about our hopes and fears about this new role as Presbyterian chaplains at the University. They shared what they had learned from almost a decade in campus ministry: the value of patience, trusting the students we serve, faith that the community can grow over time into what it is supposed to be.
If you ever asked Sohaib about the student leaders in the Muslim Life Program, he beamed with pride. He always shared about what his students are up to, how creative they could be, their sincerity, their devotion, their joy. Sohaib always had a way of framing the flourishing of his community as the work of others, even as everyone knew how tirelessly he worked to care for them and lead them. I will miss hearing him preach during Friday Jummah prayer services as a warmly welcomed guest, and welcoming him and his students in turn to Breaking Bread Worship just down the hall in Niles Chapel. I find myself, like many others, celebrating his life and wishing for more conversations with such a loving friend.
We are all carrying so much grief inside our hearts, our bodies. Maybe you, too, have been grieving the loss of a friend or a loved one during this terrible pandemic. We have been apart from one another as an act of love, because social distancing protocols have helped save the lives of vulnerable neighbors. Many of us know someone who has died from Covid-19. Many of us were unable to be with someone we cared about as they died.
We are not able to turn to familiar rituals around death and dying that help us grieve. The grief remains unfinished, suspended; it rests heavy on our shoulders.
As a nation, we are grieving more mass shootings and deaths by police violence: Atlanta, Knoxville, Indianapolis, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo. We are trying as a congregation to get involved in anti-racism work; not to turn away, not to cover our ears and pretend as though these things are not happening. There is so much loss all around that we find ourselves overwhelmed, disoriented, unable to grapple with so many tragedies of illness and violence that are happening all at once. The burden rests heavy on our shoulders.
As we began our series in the Gospel of John during Lent, we started with Jesus at the Last Supper, giving his disciples what he called the new commandment: “love one another.” Now, more than ever, it is time to remember with our words and actions that we belong to one another as a Beloved Community. We cannot, we must not hide from the grief and pain, and we cannot bear it alone. Jesus tells us that we face it together, we hold one another and support each other.
“Love one another”: that’s what Jesus calls his followers to do. “Love one another” is a lifeline when our sadness is as deep as an ocean. “Love one another” is a promise from God that the care that we give and receive will be more than the sum of its parts. God is able, through the love we share with each other, to bring healing in places we did not expect, to rekindle hope when we can only imagine despair, to carry us all through seasons of death into the promises of life.
During this season of Easter, a time when we focus on joy, it is easy for me to forget that these stories from John’s Gospel are situated, grounded, anchored in grief. We cannot understand the stories of Jesus’ resurrection without remembering that they are God’s response to the violence and horror of the cross on Good Friday. Amid our own season of devastating loss, we find ourselves drawn to these stories in John that are about God getting involved amid our pain. The healing God promises, the joy that comes in the morning, it is only drawn out by God after God has sounded out the depths of human suffering in Jesus’ suffering with us, as one of us.
In this morning’s reading, we turn to Jesus’ encounter with his disciple Simon Peter. We remember from the stories of Holy Week that Peter was the disciple who said that he would stand by Jesus’ side no matter what. Peter promised that he would even die alongside Jesus, if it came to that. The Gospels tell us that Peter did not do these things. Peter ran away at the first sign of trouble.
When a crowd recognized him as a disciple of Jesus, he swore that he never knew the man. When Jesus was dying on a cross at Golgotha, Peter deserted his friend.
After Easter morning, Jesus appeared to his disciples, and yet again when they were with Thomas, but Peter has nothing to say. He is silent. Imagine the dreadful anxiety Peter must have felt when he saw the risen Jesus. He couldn’t have known where he stood with Jesus anymore. He was caught between two emotions: overwhelmingly glad that Jesus was alive, saddened and ashamed by the way he treated Jesus at the hour of his death.
There were so many questions that Peter was too afraid to ask. Was he still Jesus’ disciple? Should he just go back to his former life? Could Jesus trust him anymore? The pain was too great to talk about it with Jesus face to face. Peter would rather return to his old life of fishing in Galilee and remain miserable apart from Christ.
But that’s not how the Gospel of John ends. Jesus finds Peter; he stands and waits through the night for his boat to come in at dawn. Over a small fire and a breakfast of fish and bread, Jesus forgives Simon Peter. He asks three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” and Peter responds each time, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And each time Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” “Feed my lambs.” “Feed my sheep.” Jesus acknowledges each denial and forgives Peter.
The role that Jesus has taken up as the Good Shepherd has been entrusted to Peter, the disciple who, in Jesus’ hour of need, was not strong enough and deserted him. As Jesus calls Peter back to servant-leadership, the image of shepherd has deep roots in Jewish Scripture, calling to mind deep care for each member of the flock, as well as faithfulness in walking with the flock, not running away when things become difficult.
In his small classic book on pastoral care, In the Name of Jesus, Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen focuses on this story between Jesus and Peter as a restoration to a community grounded in love and vulnerability. Nouwen writes, “Ministry is not only a communal experience, it is also a mutual experience. Jesus, speaking about his own shepherding ministry, says, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep’ (John 10:14-15). As Jesus ministers, so he wants us to minister. He wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters, [siblings] who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved.”
There is a freedom in knowing that we cannot have all the answers and expertise about the struggles people face, and, nevertheless, we are called to foster a community where people mutually love and care for one another as Jesus did. The love that restores Peter into relationship with Jesus and the Beloved Community is also the restoration to the call to discipleship. Once again, after all they’ve been through, Jesus looks across that campfire on the beach at his friend and says, “Follow me.”
We, too, are called by Jesus to care for one another, to offer each other a love that restores the Beloved Community. The people whom Jesus calls to be servant leaders in the church are not those who are strong, or successful, or even especially faithful; but rather human beings who understand the depth of love by which they have been forgiven. When we take up Jesus’ commandment “love one another” as the root of our life together, we become a part of the healing work that Jesus entrusts to his friends in their ordinary lives.
“Love one another” looks like gathering in Hinds Plaza to listen to our Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander neighbors and say that we must work to stop acts of hate against AAPI communities. “Love one another” happens when students support each other through health and family crises, even though so many of their courses have barely made room to acknowledge the extraordinary duress young people bear in their lives outside of the virtual classroom. “Love one another” says that we can confront the ways we participate in racism and white supremacy and have honest, often uncomfortable conversations that move toward real change, because we trust that Jesus will have the last word over and against the death-dealing ways of this world. “Love one another” says that we once thought we knew where we were going and what we were doing with our lives, but that following Jesus will bring us to new adventures, to forge new friendships, to discover new depths of love and empathy.
“Love one another” is an invitation to discover with Peter that after all the grief and pain of this season, all the fears we’ve shouldered alone or hoped to avoid, we will find ourselves face to face with the risen Jesus. He entrusts his Beloved Community to each one of us with one simple commandment: “Love one another.”
 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002) 59-61.