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Ring Them Bells

The Reverend Krystal Leedy

May 5, 2019
John 21:1-19

A Reading from the Gospel of John

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


The season of Eastertide begins with a resurrection. The most important resurrection ever. The day when Christ emerges from the realm of sin and death victorious, and Christ brings us all with him through the joy of Eastertide. And we celebrate with joy and wonder the resurrection that we have felt coming out of a season of preparation so that we would be somehow ready for the joy of the day. With bells in hand, we sang our Alleluias with gusto as they joined in the resurrection of our spirits. We heard the words of an anthem raised as four arms accompanied the choir ringing in the dawning of a new season, a season brimming with hope. Our bells rang loudly that Easter morning.

But bells are usually associated with a different Christian holiday than Easter. The use of bells to announce the birth of Christ usually echo our own jingle bells and sleigh bells and quotes from Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life” about angels getting their wings. The bells ring through the piercing cold weather, waking us up from our winter slumber, welcoming us to gather around the warmth of the manger, surrounded by a new family of farm animals and shepherds and angels.

And church bells have rung in steeples for centuries, even in ordinary seasons, calling for people to gather, heralding a town, announcing a wedding, reminding of a funeral. And, they are the call to be still, to remind one to pray, to vibrate us into calm. Bells have been rung in celebration and with great joy, as a call to stillness and quiet, or to announce and to rouse—but nonetheless, the bells wake us up to the thing that they would have us wake up to. And certainly these bells are for our benefit. They do not exist to call attention to themselves. A bell does not ring in order to say, “Hey look at me!” Bells call us to pay attention to something, and usually it’s not just for the benefit of one. It’s for the benefit of all hearers. Bells gather us around the thing we are all to experience. Bells call us to gather.

But on June 13, 1940, not even a year after the start of World War II, the church bells ceased to ring in Europe. It became too dangerous to gather for worship. The “Church and Chapel bells must not be rung except for air raids,” the minutes said. They stopped the bells except as a warning of incoming fire. During that time, the Western world in Europe feared these bells—hoping they would never ring again. They changed purpose: alerting us of impending doom instead of the hope for peace. The bells could not pierce the war. The calm could no longer be conjured. The fear was too great. The bells became a call to flee and hide instead of to gather and be seen. The calling of the church bells was changed that day, and it seemed as if war had scattered peace, as if death won the battle and conquered even the places where we find sanctuary.

I’ve been a little obsessed with a song. It’s not a hymn, but it is quickly becoming sacred to me. I fell into the melody during Lent, and I’ve been listening to it every chance I can get. Bob Dylan, one of the most prophetic songwriters of all time wrote the song, “Ring Them Bells,” in the 1960s and its poetic call to people to ring bells is repeated over and over to those who need to hear the bells unsilenced, to those who need to hear bells in their purpose to wake us from our workaday lives:

Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams—our song begins with a call for everyone to look at the thing the bells calls us to look at: a sanctuary, a safe place to gather with friends.

And our song continues:

Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep

The mountains are filled with the lost sheep. They’re just roaming around, maybe caught in a thicket or not really sure how to get down from the mountain. Lost just like the sheep that a shepherd would leave 99 others to go find.

But we can’t imagine that these sheep have done much wrong. Sheep are not inherently immoral, even the lost ones. These sheep are not lost because they have given into the ways of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Sometimes sheep just get lost. They stumble around in grief and anxiety. They fall into holes of loss and hopelessness. They become consumed by despair and lose their purpose. They can’t imagine a future. They can’t fathom what is next. They stare off into space and seem lost in their own heads. They are scared and heartbroken. They have seen the face of death, and they do what sheep have done for as long as the world has had sheep—they run away and get lost. The sheep become so fearful that they run, they leave, they seek survival over all else, and they end up alone on a mountain.

And mountains fill up with scared sheep who don’t know how to come back home. They are filled with sheep who have lost the battle with faith that day, who were hurt by their church or told that they didn’t belong. The sheep who have lost too much to think they could stand in the largess of this sanctuary again. The sheep who have stared into the face of death and think that their God has abandoned them. The sheep who just can’t find their way back. And there are mountains filled with these people, who are just trying to survive.

My grandfather was a sheep rancher in West Texas for his whole life, and my mom showed and sheared sheep when she was younger. So, I called her and asked how she got the sheep to move. I called and asked how she got the herd to get going when they needed to be in a new place. She laughed and told me it was called a flock, not a herd. And then I asked the real question I was driving at: Do you use a bell to call the sheep back home? Because that would be the metaphor right now, right? It would redeem the loss of purpose for the bell. It would bring the sheep back to where he belongs. Christ could just stand right there and ring a bell and all of the lost sheep would come back into the fold. It would have been perfect. But that’s apparently not a thing. My mom, trying desperately to offer me grace said that might work for a cow. But for sheep, you get on your horse and shoo the first sheep, the dominant sheep in the direction you need it to go in and then the others follow because they tend to stay together.

Peter couldn’t hear the bells on that Thursday and Friday of Holy Week. He ran from the face of death. He was scared and he ran. He did not run by himself, but he was most certainly alone. He did not stand up bravely, but reacted and fled. And he regretted his actions because as soon as he did this, he was lost. So, it seems like today when we find Peter in the boat, when he recognizes his Lord because John tells him, when he puts on his clothes and swims to Jesus, we expect that it is the first time he has seen his Lord. But it’s not. It’s the third. Three weeks into Easter and Peter was still lost. Peter had seen his Lord twice before but was still unsure about where he stood. And Christ called to him and he asked him some questions. He ate with him and talked in parables. He made Peter frustrated and taught him anyway. It was just like old times. But it wasn’t Christ who rang a bell to bring lost Peter back.

Because when you’re a lost sheep on the side of a mountain, it’s not the shepherd that rings the bell to call you home, it’s another sheep. It was not Christ who was the bell ringer. It was the disciple John, who woke Peter up to the thing the bell pointed to. It was John who had walked alongside Peter through the moments of appearance of Jesus. It was John who knew that Peter was lost and all alone. It was John who knew what it was like to be lost. And he pointed not at himself but toward the shore and spoke, “It is the Lord.” The bell does not call to itself. It calls for you to wake up, for Christ is near. A resurrection is at hand. And it takes bell ringers to see that resurrected Christ and to point him out, just when we need it the most.
Christ handed Peter a bell that day, making him a bellwether sheep for the flock, asking him to lead his fellow sheep to good fields and tend to the rest of the flock.

Because the people of God always need the bells to remind them where they should look to see resurrection, and it takes bell ringers to ring those bells because they can’t do it for themselves. In 1943, even before the Second World War ended, the people decided they were going to need their bells back: “As the Government had decided that ringing of Church Bells could be recommenced on Easter Sunday April 25th 1943 it was decided to call a meeting to see what numbers of ringers could attend and what would be the most convenient time to meet.”

The war had not ended, but they needed the bells to be proclaiming resurrection. They needed to gather in the face of sin and death because Christ was near, and when Christ is near, you gather. You witness a resurrection of those who were lost, even if it takes time.

This gathering today is not of every sheep that should be here. Some are lost today, lost on the side of a mountain, terrified and alone. Some are standing in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. And we go and find them. We stand beside them and we speak words of truth and of hope because it is precisely in the midst of being lost when you need to know that someone sees you and sees you as a place where resurrection can happen, even if it takes a long time. And we know that it will. We know that it will because it does.

So, ring them bells when you see a student graduating—resurrecting from final exams to walk across the stage as a different person.
Ring them bells when the bread is broken—resurrecting our recollection that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.
Ring them bells when a person passes from this life to the next—resurrecting the gathering of people, Christ’s body coming together, the beginning of a slow resurrection of all of us who are left.
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one.

Ring them bells so we know where Christ is appearing next. So we know where to gather. So we know where we might catch a glimpse of the resurrection.

Fellow bell-ringers, in this Eastertide, keep watch because the most important thing you can do for a lost sheep for the first time, the third time, or the seventy times seventh time is to ring a bell and point to the shore: It is the Christ. Follow me. Let’s gather together and break bread.

In the name of that risen Christ, the One for whom we ring those bells, Amen.