Acts 9:1-20++Psalm 30++Revelation 5:11-14++John 21:1-19
Peter and Paul. Paul and Peter. Their names go together like Mutt & Jeff, Linus & Lucy, Sonny & Cher, vanilla & chocolate. There are more churches in the world named for Saints Peter and Paul than perhaps any other. Their Feast Day is shared on June 29th, even though each has his own day commemorating other events: the Confession of Peter on January 18 and the Conversion of Paul on January 25. We hear them linked so frequently that it’s easy to forget how very differently each came to follow Jesus and to be the ones on whom the Church was established. Peter was a poor, illiterate fisherman, called from his nets along with his brother Andrew. Paul was a Pharisee, an educated tradesman, whom we first meet as Saul, persecutor of the followers of Jesus and cheerleader of those who stoned to death the first martyr of the Church, Stephen. Peter traveled around Galilee and Judea with Jesus; Paul never met him, at least not in person.
In our gospel for this morning, Peter gets his chance for redemption. Peter and some of the others, not quite sure what to do after Jesus appeared to them a second time in the Upper Room, go back to doing what they know how to do: they went home to Galilee and went fishing. When Jesus appears to them after an unsuccessful night of casting their nets, they don’t recognize him at first, but when the stranger on the shore suggests that they drop their nets on the other side of the boat, they can hardly manage to pull them in. It is then that John recognizes Jesus and tells Peter. Going ashore, they all share a meal together, but this time, instead of bread and wine, they share bread and fish. To this day, I don’t understand why that isn’t also a sacrament! And here, on the shore of this lake around which they spent so much time together, Jesus gives Peter another chance. He has already named him the rock on which the Church would be founded (Matthew 16:18), but Peter had failed Jesus miserably in his denials following Jesus’s arrest. We should probably be glad for that, because otherwise, Peter might well have met the same fate as Jesus did then and there.
Simon bar Jonah – Simon, Son of John – do you love me? Don’t miss the tri-fold nature of all of this: he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed on Good Friday; this is the third appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples; and Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter insists that he does. Feed my lambs; tend my sheep, Jesus tells him.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been careful to unpack the texts we have read that refer to “the Jews” in ways that have sparked anti-Semitism through the centuries. When we read this story of Paul and how he asked permission to hunt down the followers of Jesus as far away as Damascus, this is at least part of what those texts refer to. Good Pharisee that he was, Paul was not willing to have his Jewish tradition corrupted by people who belonged to, as it was then known, “The Way.” It was a corruption of Judaism, so these wayward Jews had to be taught a lesson, and their errors in following this so-called messiah had to be corrected.
And so off he goes, breathing fire, until he is knocked off his…donkey… by an encounter with the risen Christ, and spends three days in Damascus, blind, and totally dependent on others. Now, when Ananias had a vision that he was to go find Saul and lay hands on him, you can imagine how terrifying that must have been. Saul was brutal. No follower of The Way would go anywhere near him voluntarily, but Ananias did as he had been instructed in this vision, and sure enough, Saul’s sight was restored, he was baptized, and became as zealous for Jesus as any convert ever was. It is here that we learn that Paul’s particular ministry was to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jews of the Mediterranean region. (Point of information: Saul did not magically wake up and become Paul. The latter is the Roman version of his Hebrew name. He was an apostle in the empire, so it made sense for him to go by Paul rather than Saul.)
If you read through the Acts of the Apostles and some of Paul’s letters, you will see that there was often friction if not outright hostility between Peter and Paul. Peter was convinced that Gentile converts had to become Jews before they could be accepted while Paul dismissed that as unnecessary. Peter ultimately came around, and both of them carried the Good News far and wide. There are many who still say that Peter was the Apostle to the Jews and Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, but eventually they both preached the gospel to whomever they encountered, Jew or Gentile, even as far away from Palestine as Rome where they were both martyred within a few years of each other. Some traditions say that Paul even made it as far as Spain.
Back to the scene on the beach with Peter. In the stories and parables that Jesus told, he always used images and situations that his listeners would understand. Palestine was an agricultural region, so he talked about vineyards and seeds and wheat and sheep and goats as a way of making a point. His listeners would have had a very different understanding of lambs and sheep than we do. They can be stubborn and cantankerous and disobedient and stupid. Kind of like those people we find around us every day, sometimes even on the other side of the dinner table. Maybe what Jesus is saying, and the reason he has to repeat it, might be more like
• Wife to husband: Do you love me? Then go with me to serve a meal to the hungry.
• Parent to child: Do you love me? Then let’s sort through some of these toys and give some good ones to a child who has no toys.
• Homeless person to the comfortably housed: Do you love me? Then help me find shelter.
• Immigrant to citizen: Do you love me? Then welcome me into your community.
• Classmate to classmate: Do you love me? Then stand up to the bullies who are making life miserable for me.
Jesus told Peter that he would be taken where he did not want to go, and we are, too. Ananias was asked to risk his life to bring Paul to Christ, and sometimes we are called to take risks for Jesus, too.
We all may come to faith differently, some of us are new at it, some have been at it for a very long time, some of us came for complete disbelief and contempt, so of us have just been agnostic about the whole faith business.
Yesterday, the world lost a strong beacon of light who guided thousands of people through doubt and questioning into an understanding that doubt and questioning are part of faith. Rachel Held Evans came out of an evangelical tradition that did not welcome her questions, those that asked why it was more important to exclude those who are women or gay or somehow not pure enough, rather than including everyone because we all hunger for the same things. She raised up the voices of women with a rare spirit of generosity even as she sparred with the Evangelical Right who seemed awfully concerned about the state of her soul, even immediately following her death yesterday at the too-young age of 37. From the time of Peter and Paul, followers of Jesus have attempted to grasp a message of love for all of humankind, coming at it in different ways, using different language, all trying to express the unimaginable grace of God that, even after we have put on a display of the worst of ourselves, still asks, “Do you love me?”
And still, even today, Jesus tells us to feed lambs and tend sheep. The smelly ones and the ones we’d rather avoid, the scary ones and the hurting ones. We, too, may be led where we don’t want to go, but Jesus still invites us to break bread and eat fish, to love one another, and to “Follow me.”