By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the early church, sermons given during Eastertide were mystagogical. That is to say, they were designed to lead the newly baptized deeper into the mystery of our faith. Typically, they dealt with the two great sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Well, this sermon won’t be a lesson primarily about the sacraments, but I hope that it does lead you further into the mystery of our faith.
In todays’ readings, we hear about two spiritual giants: St. Paul and St. Peter. First, we hear the story of the conversion of St. Paul, when he encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It is one of three accounts of Paul’s conversion found in the Acts of the Apostles, an indication of the story’s importance to the early church. In the Gospel reading from John, we get a strange story about Peter and his companions breakfasting with the Risen Christ on a beach, followed by an equally strange conversation between Jesus and Peter.
St. Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, started out his career as a righteous (one might even say self-righteous) Pharisee and a self-appointed vigilante. He took it upon himself to go from town to town and root out Christians from the local synagogues. And to his great shame later in life, Paul participated, albeit peripherally, in the lynching of St. Stephen the Protomartyr.
Today’s story about Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus takes place several years after the last resurrection appearances. In this story, Paul is about to be enlightened by the one who is the Light of the World. But before he is enlightened, he is struck blind. The Eastern Church talks about something called the Light of Tabor. It is the mystical, uncreated light of the Divine, that some saints have reported the ability to perceive with their physical eyes. Well, Paul sees the Light of Tabor, but he is spiritually unprepared. The result is a physical blindness that matches his pre-existing spiritual blindness. Paul then hears the voice of the Risen Jesus, but doesn’t know who is speaking to him. He has to ask, “Who are you, Lord?” Now, others who encountered the Resurrected Jesus also failed to recognize him. But Paul has a better excuse; he had never met Jesus. Later, Paul is healed by a Christian named Ananias, baptized, and given food to restore his strength. His encounter had brought about what the Greeks termed metanoia, which means a change of mindset or of worldview. Immediately, he begins his mission to proclaim Jesus, first to his fellow Jews and then to the Gentiles. The rest is history.
The Gospel reading is taken from the 21st chapter of John, an epilogue to the Gospel written at a later date by a different hand. The purpose of the epilogue was to explain the leading role of Peter to a branch of the church that followed the Beloved Disciple. In short, the purpose of this appendix was to rehabilitate Peter.
The followers of the Beloved Disciple had good reason to mistrust the leadership of Peter. Recall that Peter had denied Christ three times in order to save his own life. And as we see in today’s Gospel account, Peter and his companions had abandoned their mission and returned to their former occupation of fishing. But the Lord wasn’t done with them. He calls to them from the beach and gives them a fishing tip. Like others before them, they don’t recognize the Risen Lord at first. But after a miraculous catch of fish, John the Beloved Disciple discerns that this can only be the work of Christ, and he cries out, “It is the Lord!” John is the one who discerns, but Peter is the one who then takes action. He puts on some clothes and swims to shore to meet the Lord. A breakfast of fish and bread, reminiscent of the feeding of the 5000, ensues.
After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter precisely three questions: one question for each time that Peter had denied the Lord. (Fortunately for Peter and for us, there is no three-strikes law in the Law of Christ.) Now, the English translation of this odd conversation obscures some subtle wordplay. For two distinct Greek words are translated here with the one English word love. The difference between the two Greek words for love is subtle, but if we exaggerate the distinction just a bit, we would get an exchange that goes like this:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me selflessly more that these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you as a close friend.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me selflessly?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you as a close friend.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me as a close friend?”…And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you as a close friend.” Jesus said to him “Feed my sheep.”
Now, selfless love and love of a friend are not mutually exclusive by any means, but neither are they identical. And it’s clear that Jesus, at least initially, is interested in confirming that Peter loves him selflessly. Peter, on the other hand, is more interested in reaffirming his personal relationship with Jesus. As it turns out, Peter never actually answers the original question, “Do you love me selflessly?” However, I think that his life subsequent to this encounter proves that the answer was, in fact, “Yes.”
Three times, Peter is commissioned to be a good shepherd of Jesus’ flock, to protect and care for Jesus’ scattered disciples. But his fourth and final commission is the commission of every disciple of Jesus Christ—to follow Jesus, no matter the cost. And for Peter, the cost will be great. Jesus prophesies that, when Peter is old, he will be arrested and executed. And according to ancient legend, Peter returned to Rome during a time of persecution to proclaim the Gospel, and there he was arrested and crucified upside down.
The stories of St. Paul and St. Peter can still speak to us today, despite the lapse of two millennia. For both of these dramatic stories deal with the experience of conversion, something with which all of us should have some familiarity. Now, conversion comes in all shapes and sizes. For some it is a unique, one-time experience, as it was with St. Paul. For others, it is a series of repeated experiences, as with St. Peter. For others still, it is a gradual and subtle process that transpires over a lifetime. If you think you have never had any experience of spiritual conversion, I invite you to spend some time looking back over the course of your life. Often, we only see these transformative experiences for what they are when we turn around and look for traces of God’s hand in our lives.
My eldest nephew is fond of the cliché, “You can’t unring a bell”—the point being that some actions are irrevocable. And it’s true; some actions are irrevocable. Baptism is such an action. It permanently incorporates us into the Body of Christ, and it is irrevocable. But the “unring a bell” cliché is downright false, if we take it to mean that we can’t repent, that we can’t turn and head down a different road. Paul and Peter found that out in spades! Paul rang the bell of trying to eradicate Christianity, but that bell got unrung! Peter rang the bell of abandoning his Lord and his mission, and that bell got unrung as well!
Both the story of Paul’s conversion and the story of the rehabilitation and recommissioning of Peter should encourage us to be open to continuing conversion, continuing metanoia, in our own lives. These accounts should encourage us to question ourselves and to take stock of our actions on a regular basis. In fact, every Sunday, before we approach the rail to receive Holy Communion, we should ask ourselves: “Where in my life have I denied the Lord? Where have I been blind to his presence? And where is he leading me now?” Then, we can approach the Altar of God in all humility and ask the Risen Lord to open our eyes, to convert our hearts and minds, and to feed and strengthen our souls and bodies.
To that end, let us pray.
Lord God of our Fathers; God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 372)
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.