Sunday, April 18, 2010

Three Easter
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

For his anger is but for a moment; His favor is for a life-time: weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.

In today’s scriptures we see the life changing power of God’s Word. Our main characters: Peter and Saul, had turned their back on Jesus. Peter denied Jesus on the night he was arrested. Saul was a persecutor of the Church; he even gave word for the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Peter wept when he realized what he had done. Saul continued to persecute the Christians and was even on his way to Damascus to destroy the fellowship of believers that was growing there.

Peter was sad, Jesus offered forgiveness. Saul was on the wrong path and Jesus transformed his life. In these passages we also see how Jesus made a difference in the life of the disciples. They were uncertain about how to proceed, so Jesus gave them direction. Jesus turned their mourning into dancing. He does the same for us. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, Jesus appears before many people in many different ways. Each person is changed by the experience. His presence affects us all in different ways, but we can’t see Him and not be changed. He speaks our name, He breaks the bread, He fills our nets, He speaks His word into our hearts and sends us into the world with His agape love.

We hear the stories of Jesus’ appearance from John in these weeks following Easter. On Easter, Jesus appeared to Mary. Last week Jesus appeared to the disciples without Thomas and then the disciples with Thomas. This week He appears to a group of the disciples: Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John and two other disciples. Now, they’ve seen Jesus at this point, been given the Holy Spirit and sent into the world to continue what Jesus started. What does Peter do after he has seen Jesus? He says, “I’m going fishing.” But he doesn’t go fishing for men.

John doesn’t tell us the story about being fishers of men, but we know that was the commission early in His ministry. In John’s telling of the story of Jesus, the miraculous catch of fish came late, after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter got into his boat and did what he knew best, and some of his friends joined him. In the midst of the confusion and uncertainty, they returned to the place they knew and felt comfortable. Unfortunately, they didn’t do very well when they were fishing; they caught nothing.

In the American Standard Version of this text, Jesus said, “Children, have ye aught to eat?” The disciples followed Jesus for three years and we don’t read that they spent much time fishing during that time. They had to trust God for their food, looking to Jesus as provider. They often ate thanks to the generosity of friends and followers. They had a purse, probably donations from followers, with which they likely bought food. In today’s reading, they were more than eight days from the resurrection. When had they eaten? Did the owner of the upper room, where they were hiding, provide food for all of them for so long? How long could they rely on that gracious hospitality?

They could no longer rely on Jesus for their food and shelter. Jesus was gone. So, it is possible that Peter went fishing so that they would have food to eat. He returned to trusting in his own abilities and provision. But he failed. He was not able to catch a single fish.

Then Jesus called from the shore, “Children, have ye aught to eat?” They had nothing to eat. They had no fish. And they didn’t immediately realize that it was Jesus calling them. Jesus said, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye shall find.” When we follow Jesus’ direction, we find success in all that we do. When we put our nets on the right side, the correct side, of the boat, we’ll catch plenty of fish.

I think it is interesting that Jesus already had fish cooking over a fire on the beach. They didn’t need to catch any fish to eat that morning. He could have called them in to the meal He had prepared, but told them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. He didn’t want them to rely on Him. They had to learn that if they followed His instructions, they would do well.

When the net was so full that they were unable to pull it in, John realized the man on the beach was Jesus and cried, “It is the Lord!” He was in the upper room twice when Jesus stood among them. So were Peter and the rest of them, except Thomas. And even Thomas had seen Him at this point. How is it that they did not recognize Him again?

Once Peter knew it was Jesus, he threw on his clothes and jumped into the lake, rushing to greet Jesus. Meanwhile, the other disciples dragged the net behind the boat and rowed toward the shore. They were joyful at the sight of Him and yet still confused.

“Go bring some of the fish you caught.” Peter went back to the boat and they hauled the net which was full of fish – 153 of them – to the shore. Why 153? It is such an odd number, and why did they bother counting so many fish? Some have suggested that 153 is the number of known varieties of fish or people at that time. Others have identified a numeric code in the ancient languages that suggest a connection between 153 and words related to fishing and nets. Others have suggested that 153 is the 17th triangular number (1 + 2 + 3… + 17 = 153) thus a number of completion or perfection. A friend recently wondered if perhaps 153 were the number of disciples following Jesus at that point. It means something, but perhaps this is one of the mysteries of God’s purpose and wisdom that we just have to accept for the moment.

Another mystery is how these disciples just can’t seem to understand that Jesus is really alive and among them again. Jesus invited them to eat breakfast, but John writes, “And none of the disciples durst inquire of him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.” Why would they need to ask? And yet, how often do we have an experience of God’s presence and still question whether or not it is God? While it is good for us to carefully discern the reality of our spiritual experiences, there comes a time when we simply have to believe and receive God’s grace with joy and unreserved faith.

He revealed Himself to these disciples with the breaking of bread and the sharing of fish. They must have remembered Him giving bread and fish to the crowd of five thousand. In John’s version of that story, the people saw the miraculous sign and decided to force Jesus to be king over them. For the disciples, this experience of eating with Jesus was confirmation that everything they had experienced over the past week was real. Jesus was not a ghost. He wasn’t just a spiritual being. Jesus was alive and He was eating real fish with them, some of which they had caught. After all the miraculous moments they had experienced, Jesus was giving them a very real, ordinary moment so that they would know that the work He was calling them to do was real, tangible work.

Jesus also had another purpose for this meeting. Peter had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus foretold on the night He was arrested. Peter was joyful about Jesus’ appearance, but I’m sure he was also apprehensive. What place did he have among these others? How could he serve when he had been so unfaithful at the most important moment? Peter had to be restored, not for Jesus’ sake, but for his own.

So, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Do you love me more than these?” To what was Jesus referring? Perhaps He was asking Peter if he loved Him more than he loved the other disciples. Or that He was asking Peter if he loved Him more than the other disciples loved Jesus. Or, perhaps He was asking Peter if he loved Him more than the life he’d lived with fish and boats and fishing gear. Whatever it was to which he was referring, Jesus wanted Peter to say, “I love you.”

Two words are used in this passage, and though some would suggest there is no real difference, I think it is worth noting. The two words are “agape” and “phileo.” “Phileo” is usually a word used to mean a brotherly love, while “agape” is a deeper, more abiding love. If we read this passage using the Greek, we see the difference in the way Jesus and Peter view their relationship.

Jesus says, “Peter, do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” Jesus tells him to feed the lambs. Again Jesus asks, “Peter, do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” A third time Jesus addresses Peter, but now He changes the question. “Peter, do you phileo me?” It is almost as if Jesus accepted that Peter was not yet ready to give his whole heart. Peter answered, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the third time; but perhaps Peter was also hurt because Jesus changed His question. Jesus knew Peter intimately. T hey had lived together for three years. He knew his faults and his potential. Jesus willingly accepted Peter just as he is. Even if Peter could not give himself into the abiding love of Christ just at this moment, Jesus was still calling him into service as an apostle, to take the Word of God into the world.

Notice how the commission changes with each question. At first Jesus tells Peter to feed the lambs. The lambs are the early believers, unorganized, unsure of this new faith they have gained in knowing Jesus Christ. They are young and immature and need to hear the Word of God so that they will grow in faith and mature into disciples. The second commission is “Tend my sheep.” As the Church grows, they will need more than just the Gospel. They will need leadership, encouragement, rebuke and correction. They will need someone to establish churches and organize leaders. After the third question, Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The people who are believers need to be constantly fed. They need to hear the story over and over again, to be reminded of what God has done so that they will remain faithful.

Peter was called to give the people the Word of God, to feed them and help them to become mature disciples and faithful followers of the Way. In this commission we see the progression of the Church and individual believers, from first faith, through growing faith, through continuing maturity and discipleship. The comfort we have in this view of the passage is that we can see that even when we can’t quite give to God what we really should give to Him, He accepts us right where we are and gives us only as much as we can handle. Ultimately, Peter did prove to have agape love for His Lord, following Him even into death.

I wonder if we have forgotten this three-fold commission when dealing with our churches and individual Christians in today’s world. Take, for example, the confirmation class. When those youth were children, we brought them to the font and baptized them into the body of Christ. We promised to train them up in the faith, and we did a good job with children’s Sunday school and confirmation classes. And yet, how many churches lose touch with those youth the minute they are confirmed? Are we offering the right opportunities for growth to the long term Christians? Or are we only focusing on feeding the lambs and tending the sheep? Have we forgotten how to feed the sheep? We certainly do not do a very good job at making disciples. Most Christians, though they believe with their hearts and are saved by God’s grace, are nominal Christians at best.

This was a life-changing moment for Peter. He was restored to his place in Jesus’ kingdom and called to service in the world. The other life-changing moment is found in our passage from Acts. Saul was a murderous zealot who sought to put an end to the growth of the Christian movement. He was present at Stephen’s stoning and was on his way to Damascus to deal with the fellowship of believers there. He was stopped along the road, however, by a vision. We just dealt with this lesson a few days ago in A WORD FOR TODAY. And it is a story with which we are all quite familiar, so we won’t deal with it much today. We do know that the vision was life-changing for Paul. He met the Lord and from the he was healed he preached the good news of Jesus Christ to the world: Gentiles and Jews.

I will note, however, the name change of Saul to Paul, although it doesn’t come until a few chapters later in the story. The Hebrew name Saul means “prayed for” or “responded.” This is appropriate for one who is in ministry. However, the name Saul is translated Saulos in the Greek. This word “saulos” means “the sultry walk of a prostitute.” Since Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles, to the Greek world, it is no wonder that he would use the Roman name Paul. It is possible that it wasn’t really even a name change. Even before his conversion Paul may have used both names; after all, Paul was a Roman citizen, too. So, perhaps he used his Hebrew name Saul when in Jewish company and Paul when in the presence of Gentiles. And since most of his dealings in later life were with Gentile Christians, we remember him now as Paul.

John saw many incredible things. He was there when Jesus fed the five thousand and when He ate with the disciples on the beach. He was there when Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons. He heard the Word of God from Jesus’ mouth and he was there to take over the care of Jesus’ mother after Jesus died. When John was an old man, he was sent to Patmos, a place of religious and political imprisonment. The Roman authorities were enforcing the ideology that the emperor was divine, and so worship of any entity other than the emperor was outlawed. John was probably sent to Patmos because of his activities as a Christian missionary.

While on Patmos, John had a vision of God’s ultimate purpose for humanity and God’s sovereignty over all the earth. It is a book of hope for the Christian, offering a glimpse into heaven and the promise that God will overcome all our fears. In today’s passage we get a foretaste of that which is to come for each believer, an eternal lifetime of worshipping our God. John heard the voices singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that hath been slain to receive the power, and riches, and wisdom, and might and honor, and glory, and blessing.”

This is such an odd picture for us to understand. The lamb was slain. What good is a lamb that is slain? For what purpose can a dead lamb exist? And yet, in this passage we are told that He was slain to receive the power, riches, wisdom, might, honor, glory and blessing. It was in His willing obedience to God’s will and purpose for His life that Jesus received that which God intended for Him. The lamb that was slain was seated with the One on the throne and all God’s creatures are called to Him give Him praise. The image here is incredible: they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands. This phrase “a myriad myriads” equals one hundred million, the largest number named by the ancient Greeks, and also the largest number found in the Bible. Since we now have terms for numbers higher than a thousand (million, billion, trillion, etc.), this myriad of myriads should be understood as a number larger than anything we can define in human terms. The number of those who were worshipping God, from heaven to earth to underneath the earth, is beyond our scientific knowledge and our imagination!

And so we are called by the psalmist to do the same. “Sing praise unto Jehovah, O ye saints of his, And give thanks to his holy memorial name.” When Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus, he was changed from one who persecuted the church into the greatest of all the apostles. He suffered for a moment, made blind by the vision of light and the voice of the Lord. But God’s anger was brief because He had a greater purpose for Paul. His pain was transformed into a passion for the Gospel.

Peter did exactly what Jesus foretold, denying that he was one of the disciples of Jesus. When he realized what he had done, he wept with regret. When he realized that Jesus was standing on the beach near where they were fishing, he jumped out of the boat with joy. But then he had to face the reality that he had denied Jesus. Jesus was angry for only a moment, but He had a greater purpose for Peter, too. His doubt was transformed into a passion for God’s people.

Our own experiences of God’s presence are also life-changing. He turns our mourning into dancing. The pain from our failures is quickly forgiven as God then blesses us with the gifts and the calling to do His work in the world. Jesus transformed the disciples from those wearing sackclothes into those who wear joy, so too He changes our attitude from doubt and uncertainty, pain and grief into rejoicing and praise.

The psalmist begs God for His favor saying, “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?” We are created with the purpose of praising God. We are saved so that we might join the myriad of myriads in singing thanksgiving. His anger is brief and His blessing is eternal. God speaks His Word into our lives, makes His presence known to us, so that we’ll be reconciled and transformed into the people He has intended us to be. Let us pray to God for His blessing so that we can sing songs of thanksgiving forever and ever.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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