Dr. William McClain- Opening Worship Sermon



William B. McClain
Mary Elizabeth Joyce Professor of Preaching and Worship, Emeritus
Wesley Theological Seminary
Washington, D.C.

Text: “… Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”…

John 21:15ff.

I am delighted to return to Lake Junaluska.  I was first here as a teenager 61 years ago with the Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery, the Rev. William Curtis Dobbins, Loretta Free, and DeWitt Dykes who was the next year my college roommate.  We were some of the first African Americans to come to Lake Junaluska after Junaluska  made the monumental  decision to practice integration.  It was even more monumental for my white male roommates — but a life changing experience for us all.  Nina Reeves from the North Alabama Conference made sure of that as she led us in moving and creative worship experiences  and then led  all of us into  square dancing — and I DO MEAN ALL! And that was truly a FIRST in more ways than one!

Because we are gathering as United Methodists on the Lake at Junaluska, long before I knew what the theme of this Conference would be,   I thought I would take us back to another Lake  — the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee near the town of Tiberias where Jesus has his communion breakfast of bread and fish  with some of his disciples and raises three times that all important   and gut wrenching, probing  query  to Peter: “… Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  A matter which we all must face  — not just  fanatics, zealots, and right wing evangelicals, but a serious concern for all who would call themselves “Christians.”

Let me say before I begin that I am honored and humbled that your bishop and my friend would so graciously invite me to preach at this Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  Let me thank him for such a kind invitation.  But I wonder about his judgment, inviting a professor of preaching to preach!  Maybe he has hear what that old British wit had to say.  He said: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  And I am a teacher of preaching at Wesley.  I have also lectured at every one of our United Methodist seminaries, taught at four other seminaries, and as best Jo Ann and I can do the math:  I have taught between 8,500 and 9,000 students who have gone into various aspects of the ministry.

I am retired after 35 years at Wesley, but as the old Gospel song says:

Lord, I don’t feel no ways tired;

I’ve come too far from, where I started from;

Nobody told me, the road would be easy,

But I don’t believe he brought me this far

To leave me.

Let us pray:

Now, Lord, despite the imperfections of this preacher’s

speech, and the glaring discrepancies in his character,

Grant that the monstrance of Your Gospel may be lifted up.

O Crucified and Risen Lord,

Give tongues of fire to preach your Word.

And the people said: A-MEN.


The communion breakfast is over after Jesus offered them fish and bread. As the Gospel writer records it: “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish…” [John 21:13].  But the event is not over.

Jesus breaks the silence as he must have looked over across those dying embers of that charcoal fire upon which he had prepared the communion breakfast and looked straight into the eyes of Simon Peter and called him by his whole name.  Now we know something serious is about to happen when your parents or your teacher call you by your full name, [William Bobby McClain!], so Jesus calls him the  name he had first called him on that same lake when he was first made a disciple. Or maybe he called him that former name because he was acting like his former self.   And so he says to Simon Peter:  “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter, assuming that that is a question gets ready to give an answer, but before he does, perhaps being at that same lake, that very spot where his life was changed,  brought back to Peter’s mind the first call.  Before he offers his answer,  maybe the coals of fire on which Jesus had cooked the fish reminded him of the coals on the fire in the courtyard where  he had denied the Lord.  In any case, he manages to get an answer out:  “Yes, Lord, you l=know I love you.”

What  did Jesus mean by saying loving  him “more than  these?”  Did he mean more than the fish, more than his nets and fishing equipment?  More than his occupation as a fisherman that he has returned to?  And that is a question we have to ask ourselves, too.  Do we love prestige and power more than we love Jesus?  Do we love the titles more than the tasks of serving?  I just wonder what could happen in our churches if we got rid of titles and offices and all of us saw ourselves as ministers.  And, instead of asking what office you hold, we asked each other: “How is your ministry going?” After all, to be baptized is to be called into the ministry.  St. Jerome said it more eloquently and succinctly  in the Fourth Century: “Baptism is the ordination of the laity.”

But I don’t think Jesus was asking Peter about things  — although he might have;  what I think he was asking Peter was whether he loved him more than the other disciples did.  Wasn’t that the claim that Peter had made earlier  that he would show more fidelity than the other disciples:  “they may leave you, Lord, but I will never forsake you. I will lay down my life for you” {John 13:36-38].    Well, Peter it is confession time!

Peter heard this statement as a question that he could glibly mouth an answer: “Do you love me  more than these?” and Jesus was really issuing a challenge: “If you love me,  feed my lambs”   It was not simply a question to be answered, but  a challenge requiring a response:  “Feed my lambs.” The role of the fisherman is transformed into the role of the shepherd. Take care of the children.

The most recent research I have seen tells us that three-fourths of those who personally and intentionally choose to embrace Christianity and the church do so before their 18th birthday!  Those are the lambs that Jesus is talking about —  and I don’t mind that we don’t use the label “Christian Education” anymore and use language such as Christian Formation as long as we are intentional in ministering to children and youth.

I believe that it is still true that “a nation is judged by how it treats its children.  Then why Is it  that  when cuts must be made, education is the first to go?  Is that  anybody with the money can go and buy AK.15 assault rifles and SIG Sauer MCX rifles?  Not to shoot deer or pheasants or wild turkeys, but children in schools  at Sandy Hook and San Bernadino, and children in theaters in Colorado, Our AME sisters and brother in Bible study and  prayer at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina a year ago tomorrow,  and 103 people enjoying their night life in Orlando, Florida.   What is the judgment on our nation that continues to allow assault weapons to be bought and sold to brutalize and  murder  our people?  Those who love Jesus more than  these should speak out and act or the rocks will cry out. I used to hear  Martin Luther King  say: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”  It is time for the church to speak out boldly and clearly less we betray that young and fearless prophet of ancient Galilee who continues to ask: Do you love me more than these?”

Peter was challenged  two more times and his answer is the same and Jesus” commission is the same:  If you love me, then “Feed my Sheep, Tend my sheep.” Peter is restored by God’s grace mediated in Jesus, the Christ and is told on the shores of the lake as he been before — for the Gospel of John begins with “follow Me” and ends with “Follow Me.”

If there is anyone or anything who or that is taking away our love of Jesus, then we love them more than we love him.  We cannot claim to love Jesus and continue to hate, to think we are superior to others who love differently and worship in a different style, and to claim special privilege.  He said it clearly:

“if you say you love me and hate your brother, you are a liar and  the truth is not in you!

But in the end, then, it not our love for Jesus, but rather His love for us, in that when we were yet sinners He died for us and became for us “Grace upon Grace”  — no cheap grace, but grace by cross of Calvary and the resurrection in that garden.

Marvelous Grace  of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mound outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.