Readings: Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19
This week’s scriptures follow well on last week’s: we are still in Easter season, and the three scripture passages from last week highlighted the facts that Jesus is alive; Jesus is Lord; and Jesus is calling. And Jesus’ call is to change direction, to turn towards Jesus and follow him.
This turning (which is what the word repent really means) is something that happens many times in our lives because we’re not perfect people. We do our best; but many people still find themselves weighed down by feelings of guilt or remorse over things that have happened in the past. It might be things we’ve done, it might be things we’ve failed to do, but guilt and regret that are not addressed – that get buried – can lead to feelings of sadness, worthlessness, depression, and sometimes addiction (which is an attempt to escape the bad feelings).
These things are not God’s will for our lives. God does not call us to repentance because God wants us to feel bad – just the opposite! God knows when we bring the dark things in our lives into the light, they lose their power… because in the light they can be seen for what they are, and they can be forgiven and put away. God wants us to be free of guilt, and healthy and whole.
Today’s scripture readings tell the stories of two men who were confronted by Jesus about things that needed to be set right in their lives, and whose lives changed direction because of their time with Jesus. I’m going to focus mostly on Peter’s story because I think it’s the one we can relate to the most, but I don’t want to miss out on Paul’s story. (It’s too bad both scripture readings are assigned on the same day!)
In our reading from Acts we meet Saul (a/k/a Paul) who is a passionately religious Pharisee. He is tracking down and arresting Christians because he believes they are blaspheming against God, and he is on his way to Damascus to arrest the believers there and bring them back to Jerusalem to stand trial.
Damascus is at least a week’s walk from Jerusalem, which gives us some idea the lengths Saul was willing to go to, to track these Christians down. Before he left on this journey Saul witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen, the first Christian to die for the faith. Luke writes in Acts: “Saul was ravaging the church…” (Acts 8:3) and was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1) So here’s a man who is a religious leader who is guilty of hatred, violence, and murder.
On the road to Damascus Saul comes face to face with Jesus. He hears the words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus, who you are persecuting” – and when he looks up he’s blind. The people he’s traveling with lead him by the hand into Damascus where for the next three days Saul eats and drinks nothing.
Most of us can’t begin to imagine the horror and guilt that tore through Saul in those three days. Later on in Acts, he relates some of the conversation he had with God – he said to God: “‘…I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and holding the coats of those who killed him.’ [But God] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 22:19-21 edited)
At the end of the three days a Christian named Ananias came and laid hands on Saul and prayed for him. Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, received his sight, and was baptized – before he even ate! He was that hungry for God. Saul immediately started teaching in the synagogues, preaching that Jesus is the Messiah and is alive.
So when Paul met Jesus his life totally changed direction. Where he had been persecuting the church, now he is growing the church, spreading the faith, and he himself becomes the object of persecution. Paul will eventually die a martyr’s death, beheaded at the orders of that infamous Roman emperor, Nero.
Looking at Peter’s story in John’s gospel, unlike Paul, Peter had always been with Jesus. He was one of the first disciples, and he was the first of the disciples to realize Jesus was the Messiah. But on the night Jesus was arrested, out of fear of being tortured and killed, he denied knowing Jesus three times… and Jesus knew it. Peter never brought up the subject after Jesus’ resurrection, but it must have hung between them unspoken.
So our reading in John opens with the words “after these things” – which of course leads to the question “after what things?” After the resurrection, after the disciples had seen Jesus alive least twice, and after Jesus told them to return to Galilee, saying he would meet them there.
So the disciples went to Galilee. John tells us at least seven disciples were present on this particular morning: Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James & John the sons of Zebedee, and two others. The Bible doesn’t say where the disciples were staying, but there’s a good chance it may have been with Peter’s relatives in Capernaum, which is right on the Sea of Galilee (John says ‘Tiberias’ in his gospel – the region has two names, it’s the same place). I can imagine these guys sitting around, waiting for Jesus to turn up… and maybe they got bored, maybe they were still puzzling over the events of the past week… but at some point Peter felt the need to do something. So he says, “I’m going fishing”. And the others say, “we’ll join you.”
I imagine this must have felt very right to these guys, after all their adventures, to come home and climb into their fishing boats. It would be like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings coming home to the Shire, or like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams asking his dad, “you wanna have a catch?” They’re home, with friends, doing something familiar and good.
John says they fished all night and caught nothing. So around daybreak, tired and discouraged, they headed back to the shore. In the distance they see someone on the beach, who calls out, “children, haven’t you caught anything?” “No” they reply. He says, “Try the right side of the boat, you’ll catch some.” And in a matter of moments they have more fish in their nets than they know what to do with.
John cries out, “it’s the Lord!” – and hearing this, Peter gets dressed and jumps overboard (not the first time Peter has climbed out of a boat to go meet Jesus!) He swims to shore while the rest of the guys haul the fish in.
When they arrive they find Jesus with a campfire on the beach, and fish already grilling. Where Jesus got these fish, we don’t know, but Jesus says, “bring some more fish over” And they do – stopping to count the fish first – they caught 153 fish according to John. (Fish story? I don’t think so.) It does bring to mind the feeding of the 5000, especially when Jesus pulls out some bread to go with the fish.
Imagine the scene: after a long night, to come home at sunrise and find breakfast cooking on the beach, and your best friend doing the cooking. Have you ever shared a breakfast that was cooked outdoors – on the beach, or maybe over a campfire? There’s something special about it. It’s not the same as grilling out later in the day. It’s an amazing way to start the day. And in the disciples’ case, it was like: just a few moments ago everything was wrong with their world, and now everything is right. It’s a feeling of being exactly where you were created to be.
I wonder (just as an aside) if this scene might be a glimpse of what our arrival in heaven will be like? The Lord we love, and all the people we love, gathered around a campfire as our boat pulls into the shore? It’s a thought.
After breakfast Jesus pulls Peter aside and asks him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” And Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
The original Greek here reveals something we can’t translate directly into English. Jesus asks “Simon, do you agape me?” Agape is the Greek word for a love that is grounded in the will – in a decision – or like the love between a worshipper and God. It’s that kind of devotion. Peter answers by saying “Yes Lord I philo you” – philo being a brotherly love, rooted in the emotions, in the heart. Peter acknowledges that his love is not quite as high and noble as Jesus asks, but he still loves Jesus. And Jesus accepts his answer and says, “Feed my lambs.”
A little later Jesus asks Peter again, “Do you agape me?” and again Peter answers “yes Lord, you know I philo you”. And Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.”
The third time Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you philo me?” — and Peter is cut to the heart. He says, “Lord you know everything, you know I philo you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
Three times, before the cross, Peter denied Jesus; and three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Gently, and with great kindness, Jesus touches the place where Peter feels guilty and gives him the opportunity to set things right. Their friendship is restored; and Peter’s place in the ministry is restored. “Feed my sheep” – Jesus puts Peter back in his position of leadership, which is a place of service.
Jesus goes on to tell Peter what this will involve: “When you were young,” he says, “you fastened your belt and went where you wished. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.” John comments, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.”
Peter’s life is no longer his own. And when his life comes to an end, he will be confronted again with what he feared most: torture and execution. Only this time he’ll have the courage to face it. Peter ended up being crucified by Nero, and tradition says Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he felt ‘unworthy to die the way Jesus died’.
To some extent, what Jesus said to Peter is true for us too – because all of us, when we were young, went where we wanted to go and did what we wanted to do. But as we get older we face limitations, and eventually death, which is somewhere none of us wants to go. In Jesus’ hands every aspect of our lives, every age we find ourselves, holds opportunities to glorify God and to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
So our takeaway from these two stories today:
- Encouragement. We are in good company. Peter and Paul were human beings just like ourselves, with strengths and weaknesses. They were not perfect. They were not super-human or super-holy. They both made mistakes – some of them pretty big ones. But God used them in powerful ways. So God can and will forgive anything. God loves people just like us… and gives people just like us a purpose and a calling.
- We see in these readings healthy examples of repentance. In these stories we see two men whose lives changed direction. When Jesus faced them with the truth, they didn’t shy away. And Jesus did not linger on their faults, asking them to feel all kinds of guilty (they already were feeling that way). Jesus offered them an opportunity to do something new, to change direction, to “follow me” as he said. And it was their joy to follow Jesus – free of sin, free of guilt – free to be of service to the Lord.
- The initiative is God’s. It was Jesus who approached Saul on the road to Damascus. It was Jesus who approached Peter on the shore by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus made the first move, and they responded. Today and now, Jesus still makes the first move, calling us to a life of forgiveness and peace, joy and purpose, if we are willing lay our faults at the foot of His cross and follow Him. So listen for His voice, and be ready. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/10/16