Sermon - Third Sunday of Easter (5/5/2019)
Acts 9:1-20; Ps. 30; Rev. 5:11-14; Jn. 21:1-19
Saul of Tarsus, whom we have come to know as Paul, was a deeply religious Jew, passionate about doing God’s will and making sure that the People of God faithfully lived God’s Law revealed in the Bible. When the high priest and the religious establishment in Jerusalem were concerned about a small group of people with the subversive and dangerous idea that God’s Messiah was a crucified Galilean carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth, Saul jumped into action. When the crowd stoned to death a disciple of Jesus named Stephen, Saul happily participated in the execution, and then led a posse off to Damascus to root out followers of the Way of Jesus in the synagogue there. Saul was convinced that, in doing this, he was doing the Lord’s work. But on the road to Damascus, Saul came to the conclusion that God’s will was something quite different that what he had imagined.
Simon, the son of John, whom we know better as Peter, was a fisherman along the Sea of Galilee. He had for a time been an enthusiastic follower of Jesus, promising never to desert him even until the end. Until he did deny and abandon Jesus, and even after seeing Jesus raised from the dead, Peter saw nothing he was worthy to do except what he had done before he ever met Jesus – fishing. Then one day a strange man showed up cooking breakfast on the beach, serving loaves and fishes and offering fishing tips, just like someone Simon had known long before. And so Simon becomes that rare person who puts on all his clothes to go swimming – because like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when the Lord came to visit in the morning, he was filled with shame. Yet Jesus had not come to Peter to condemn him or shame him or even to ask him to apologize – but rather to call Peter once again to a different kind of fishing.
Simon the son of John and Saul of Tarsus, Peter and Paul, were two very different people, from different backgrounds, with different personalities. According to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they didn’t particularly like each other very much. Yet, as we read in the Scriptures today, both of them experienced the risen Christ, and came away with it with a definitive sense of being called by Jesus to a specific task. We also heard about Ananias of Damascus, who received from the risen Jesus the task of healing Saul and welcoming him into the body of Christ.
We might think that Peter and Paul and Ananias had it easy. Peter actually saw the risen Jesus in the flesh, and Paul interpreted his experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus as well. All three of them, according to the passages we read today, directly heard Jesus speaking to them, giving them specific instructions about what to do. We might think that it was easy for them to experience the risen Christ and to know what God wanted them to do. If only Jesus would come and show himself speak to us as clearly as he did to Peter and Paul and Ananais!
But the Scriptures are consistent in telling us about the appearances of the risen Jesus after Easter – that it was most certainly really Jesus, not just alive in the memories and the hearts of those who knew him, but really alive again. Yet at the same time his presence is mysterious. He is difficult to recognize – Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardner, Cleopas and his companion walked with him all day on the road to Emmaus and did not recognize him. Even in today’s gospel reading, we read that “Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” Eventually they all come ashore and are face-to-face with Jesus, and we read “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, Who are you?, because they knew it was the Lord.” So they knew it was Jesus, and it really was Jesus, and yet the text doesn’t say that they didn’t ask him “Who are you?” because it was a stupid question, since they knew who he was. The text says that they didn’t have the courage to ask, even though they knew. So even though Jesus was really present to them, it took faith for them to perceive that it was truly Jesus who was there, and that the words Jesus spoke to them were truly the words of Jesus.
I believe that when Peter and Paul and Ananias experienced the presence of the risen Jesus and the Word of God calling them to a task, their experience of Jesus was not, in fact, significantly different from ours. Like us, Peter and Paul and Ananias had to discern that the word they heard in fact is the Word of God, that the call they were receiving was in fact a call from God. Like us, Peter and Paul and Ananias needed faith to understand that Jesus was truly present and speaking to them.
And this is important for us, as we try to discern how God is leading us and speaking to us today. It’s something I have certainly thought about a lot lately, given my own situation as someone who has both been in ordained ministry and in a secular profession as well. There are pastors who have had a strong sense of a personal call to ministry directly from Jesus – people who “got the call” at some point. To be honest, that has never been my experience. I’m pretty sure that God wants me to be a Christian, but being a pastor? If there is a call there, for me it’s something that only comes through the church – through people of faith discerning together whether they want me or someone else to do this ministry. If the synod or this congregation told me, you know, we really sense that God wants us to go in a different direction, I wouldn’t feel that I was being prevented from doing what God wanted me to do. But if the church thinks I should be doing some ministry, whatever it is, then to me that’s how I would know that it is in fact what God wants for me to do.
But this isn’t about me – it’s about how you know what God wants you to do at this stage of your life, it’s about how we as a congregation discover where God is calling and leading us in our life together. If the calls of Paul and Peter and Ananias are really not very different from the calls that God is giving to us, what do these stories have to tell us about how we listen for God’s word to us now? A lot, I think, but let me just briefly mention three things.
First, there is no coercion from God in any of these stories. Jesus does not tell Peter, if you want to make up for your sins, you need to feed my sheep. Jesus does not tell Paul, if you don’t stop persecuting my people you’re going to be in trouble. Jesus does not tell Ananias, you have to go find Saul and heal him. In each case Jesus gives an invitation: Do you love me, Peter? If you do, here’s something you can do. Why are you persecuting me, Saul? Think about what you’re doing. Even Ananias is told: There is a man called Saul who is waiting for someone called Ananias to come and help him. This isn’t God being passive-aggressive; God’s call is always an invitation, never a demand. Fulfilling our call is not what we need to do in order to earn God’s love – it’s something that flows from our faith that God’s love is already ours.
Second, the call is always for others, never for ourselves. A call from God is not about being our best selves, or something we do in order to get a sense of fulfillment or to earn a blessing from God. Peter is asked to get over his shame and his fear and to tend to the flock. Paul is asked to redirect his passion to bring the gospel even farther than anyone had ever imagined. Ananias is asked to risk his safety and security and reach out in compassion to someone who has persecuted Christians.
And third, living the call feels like stepping into the shoes of Jesus. Saul’s call experience sounds a lot like Easter: he spends three days in darkness, and on the third day he is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and takes some food with his new siblings. Peter is explicitly told: if you accept this call, you will be led to places where you do not want to go. Ananias is asked to risk everything and reveal himself to Saul, knowing Saul has come to arrest Christians. God never asks us to suffer for the sake of suffering – suffering is never God’s will, not for Jesus, and not for us. Yet if we find ourselves being called to a path that feels like the way of Jesus – even, and perhaps especially, if it seems a little scary – this may well be a sign that Jesus is the one who is calling.