Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.
Have you ever watched a group of teenage girls as they catch a glimpse of their favorite celebrity? I remember seeing video of the first visits of the Beatles to America. Those girls screamed until they couldn’t scream anymore. Some even fainted at the sight of those guys. I have never quite understood the reason for screaming. Perhaps they hope their beloved will glance their way or throw them a kiss. Perhaps they think if they are the loudest among the crowd, he will come to them. Things have not changed much over the past few decades, just the faces and the names are different. The girls still scream and hope for something special to happen.
Have you ever watched a room full of reporters as the president walks in for a news conference? The minute they see him in the doorway, they begin shouting questions. He can’t possibly hear everyone at the same time, but the reporters still do it hoping that he will hear them and answer. I think it is especially funny when the president ends his press conference with the statement “there will be no questions today.” Even so, as he walks out the door, they continue to shout questions and hold up their microphones as if he will select them for a special interview.
Have you ever seen a young wife waiting at the airport for her husband who has been deployed to war to return home safe and sound? She lights up the moment she sees his face, tears of relief in her eyes. There is a certain shyness, knowing he’s been through a terrible time, but she is also anxious to be in his arms again.
Have you ever seen the movie “Forest Gump?” There is a scene when Forest was on his shrimp boat. He had invited the officer from his unit in Vietnam, Lieutenant Dan, to help him on the fishing boat. Eventually Dan shows up and is waiting for Forest on the dock. In his excitement, when he sees his old friend, he jumps off the boat to swim ashore. Unfortunately, Forest forgot that there were no other people on the boat and it crashed into another dock. He didn’t care. All that mattered was Lieutenant Dan.
The four Gospels record eleven sightings of the resurrected Lord recorded, some of these are repeated or slightly different versions of the same stories. This year we have seen Jesus appear to Mary, to the disciples without Thomas and to the disciples with Thomas. Each time the reaction was different. Mary did not recognize Jesus at first, but He called her by name and she rejoiced. The disciples were uncertain about His presence in the locked room but Jesus offered them His peace. Thomas would not believe until he saw Jesus with his own eyes, but when he saw he fully confessed Jesus as Lord and God.
Today we hear of two other appearances. The first lesson is the story of Saul. He was a Jew who was persecuting Christians. It was a frightening time for the new believers. Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen. He had in his hand a paper giving him the authority to persecute and possibly kill people who were teaching in Jesus’ name. He was determined to stop “The Way” which is name the movement of early Christians was given.
He was on the road to Damascus when suddenly a bright light shone and a voice called to him from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul cried out “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus answered him and commanded him to go into Damascus and wait. He was blinded by the light; left dazed and confused. The people who were with him heard a noise but did not know where it was coming from. They took Saul into the city and he waited.
God called a man named Ananias to go to Saul and heal his blindness. Ananias questioned God’s command, “Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name.” The Lord told him that Saul had been chosen to be a vessel to take the Gospel to the world, so Ananias obeyed. Saul was healed and he began to preach.
The other appearance we hear this week comes from the book of John. It happens sometime after the second appearance to the disciples, when Thomas was with them. They had gathered on the beach by the Sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. Peter told the disciples that he was going to go fishing. They went with him.
You have to wonder what made the disciples decide to go on a fishing trip at this point in the story. They know Jesus is alive. They believe He is the Lord. They’ve been given the Holy Spirit and have been commissioned to go fish for men. But Peter decided to get into a boat and spend the night fishing.
I suppose it isn’t that strange that a fisherman would go do what he knows best at an hour such as this. Fishing is relaxing, even if it is physically laborious. The boat is a comfort zone for Peter. It is a place where he is in control. Fishing is a thing he knows how to do. I can’t imagine how he must have felt. He had denied Jesus three times and he had not yet heard Jesus forgive him for this sin. He must have felt guilt, sadness and perhaps even fear. Would Jesus really send him to preach the Gospel if he couldn’t even stand firm for one night?
After a night of fishing without a catch, the disciples were coming into shore when they saw a man on the beach. They did not recognize him at first. He said, “Children, have ye aught to eat?” They answered, “No.” He told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they did. The net became so full of fish they could not even lift it into the boat. The beloved disciple said, “It is the Lord.”
Peter was so excited, just like Forest Gump, that he jumped into the water and swam toward Jesus. The other disciples followed in the boat dragging the net full of fish behind them. They found Jesus near a fire with some fish and bread. He asked them to bring some of the fish and Peter quickly obeyed. Somehow the net did not tear.
Luke 5 tells a similar fish story. He was standing on the beach at the Lake of Gennesaret with people crowding around Him. There were some fishermen with boats near the shore. He stepped into the boat to teach the people and then told the fishermen to push out into sea and cast their nets in the deep water. In this story, just as in John’s story, the fishermen had fished all night without a catch. They put down the net anyway and brought in a miraculous catch of fish. The nets even began to tear. Peter cried out, “Lord I am a sinful man.” Jesus told the fishermen, calling them into a relationship with Himself, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.”
I wonder if Peter was remembering this first experience with Jesus, seeing another great catch of fish. Jesus called him to be a disciple, but he had let Jesus down. Would he still be fishing for men? Or would he go back to being a fisherman on the Sea of Tiberias?
The disciples gathered around Jesus for a meal of fish and bread. This was still the most unbelievable thing they had ever experienced. Even after calling from the boat, “It is the Lord,” we see in verse 12 that they were still confused. They wanted to ask “who are you?” but they couldn’t because they knew it was the Lord.
A teenage girl who happens to run into her heartthrob might know it is him, but not believe she is really in his presence. A reporter who has the opportunity to ask the questions of the president they wish to ask gets a little tongue tied because he just doesn’t believe it could be happening. A wife who has missed her husband is unsure about the reunion, afraid that things might be different. Forest Gump asked Lieutenant Dan what he was doing there, despite his great joy at seeing his old friend.
The disciples were no different. Jesus appeared out of nowhere the last two times they had seen him. We don’t know how much time He spent with them, but the scriptures only record short conversations. Would Jesus stay there with them for awhile? Would they have time to talk to Him, to really experience the Living Christ and hear Him speak? Or would he disappear like he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus?
He stayed and He ate with them. After the meal, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Do you love me?” “This is it,” Peter is thinking, “Jesus is going to reveal my sin and send me away.” Peter answers, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Two more times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Two more times Peter answered “Yes.” A lot is made of the writing of this passage and the use of the Greek. Two different words are used for the word that is translated “love.” There is some scholarly debate about the importance of this distinction. Some think that because Jesus and Peter would have been speaking Aramaic and there is no distinction in the words in that language, then there is not really anything to the difference in the conversation.
However, John obviously saw a difference and made it notable in the Greek, so I think it is worth mentioning. 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 would ask a third time. Perhaps Peter was also hurt because Jesus changed His question. Jesus knew Peter intimately. They 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.” 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.
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.
This is good news. Peter, who denied Jesus and failed Him in so many ways, was called to be an apostle, to establish the Church in Jerusalem and share the Gospel with his people. Saul, a murderer and persecutor of the Way was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, giving the Gospel to the world. We are just like them, sinful saints or saintly sinners, still called to be His disciples in this world despite our own foibles.
The psalmist understood this mercy from God. “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.” This psalm is credited to David at the dedication of the Temple, though David himself was not able to build. It would be his son who would prepare the place for the Lord to rest with the materials collected by David. He can still sing praises; though he is not completing the work he began.
David then writes, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, I shall never be moved. Thou, Jehovah, of thy favor hadst made my mountain to stand strong: Thou didst hide thy face; I was troubled.” This song of praise goes on to proclaim, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.”
Peter was sad, Jesus offered forgiveness. The disciples were uncertain, Jesus gave direction. Saul was on the wrong path and Jesus transformed his life. Jesus turns our mourning into dancing. 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.
The second lesson for this third Sunday of Easter is from the book of Revelation. Peter and the disciples saw the Lord Jesus with their eyes and heard Him with their ears. We do not have such a blessing in this day. For now, we are living by faith, not by sight. However, as we read the lesson we can see what it will be like in that day when we will see fully. The response to the presence of God is filled with worship and praise. Myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands of angels and elders are singing “Worthy is the Lamb!” while every creature in heaven is singing His praise. “And the four living creatures said, Amen. And the elders fell down and worshipped.”
We are just like Peter and Saul – unsure of ourselves, on the wrong road, not quite where Jesus would want us to be. But Jesus loves us now and forever and has called us to share the Gospel with the world. He accepts our phileo love even while He encourages us to move forward to grow in faith and the abiding love of God. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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