Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
You have turned my mourning into dancing for me. You have removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
We are happy to follow someone when we know where they will lead us. We are particularly happy to follow them when they are taking us somewhere we are excited to see. There is a scene in nearly every romantic movie in which one person says to the other, “Follow me,” and they go to a special place. It is a place where the two, who are usually at odds before hand, find a connection. It is often the moment when their relationship changes and they both discover that there is something between them that will last forever.
We are less likely to follow someone we do not know to an unfamiliar place. It is especially frightening if they seem to want to threaten our safety. How would you respond if the person asking you to follow them told you that following them meant certain death? To make this hypothetical situation even more difficult, imagine that the person asking you to follow is not a threatening stranger, but someone you have grown to love, trust and honor?
Jesus said to Peter, “Most certainly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you don’t want to go.” He followed this with, “Follow me.” This does not sound like a place I would like to go.
Yet, Jesus had showed them how to dwell in the Kingdom of God. He taught them what God intended for His people, a life that included the possibility of death at the hands of those who reject Him. They loved Jesus. He promised to give them the power of the Holy Spirit which would help them to do to glorify God. How do you say “No” to Him? But how do you say “Yes”?
Peter was always seen as a leader among the disciples, but we see in His story how often he managed to fail to live up to God’s expectations. He was constantly saying or doing the wrong thing. He rebuked Jesus when He began talking of the crucifixion. He insisted that he would willingly die for Jesus, but then he denied Jesus three times at His trial. Even after the disciples had seen Jesus after the resurrection, Peter went back to work as a fisherman. He didn’t know what to do, so he went back to his old ways.
There are really two stories in today’s Gospel lesson. There is the story of Jesus calling the disciples again from their old life and the story of Jesus forgiving Peter. According to John’s telling of the resurrection stories, most of the disciples had at this point seen Jesus twice. He offered them His peace and told them that their mission would be to take God’s grace and forgiveness to the world. He had already breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and they had been overjoyed by His presence among them. With this in mind, today’s story is somewhat confusing to us. Why didn’t they recognize Jesus? They had seen Him before, in whatever state His body had become after the resurrection. You would think they would be confident that Jesus had risen and that He was amongst them once again.
And why were they fishing? We recall another occasion when Jesus gave the disciples a miraculous catch of fish. It was early in the ministry of Jesus, when He was first calling His disciples. The fishermen had been out on the lake all night and caught nothing. Jesus called to them from the shore and told them to put out into deeper water. “Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.” They thought this was ridiculous, but Peter responded, “Master, we worked all night, and took nothing; but at your word I will let down the net.” They came back with so many fish it took an extra boat to haul them all to shore and even then it was difficult. Jesus told them, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people alive.” (Luke 5)
The time had come for the disciples to do what Jesus called them to do, but instead of fishing for men, they returned to the lake. They tried to catch fish, but caught nothing. Jesus told them once again to throw the nets on the right side of the boat. There they caught 153 fish, enough for a great meal. It was in the repetition that the disciples realized it was Jesus. They were a hundred yards from the shore, so perhaps they could not see that it was Him from that distance. They heard His voice, but it is possible that it would be hard to recognize someone, even someone so familiar, from that far away.
Jesus revealed Himself with another miraculous catch of fish and the disciple whom Jesus loved realized it was Him. That’s what Jesus seemed to do in all the appearance stories; He revealed himself in personal and intimate ways. He revealed Himself in ways they would recognize Him. Mary knew when He spoke her name. The eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus were opened when He broke the bread. The disciples in the Upper Room believed when He showed them His wounds. In this story the disciples think they know it is Jesus, but they are afraid to ask Him. He revealed himself in the miracle and then when they came to shore He revealed himself in the meal. This probably reminded them of another miraculous meal when Jesus made a few fish and loaves of bread feed thousands.
When we have our own doubts, we can find comfort in the fact that Jesus keeps revealing Himself to us in ways that we will recognize Him. We might wonder, but He will make it clear and by His Holy Spirit we will see Him and believe. Those disciples had ministered and lived with Him for several years, but they needed to be reminded time after time so that they would be confident in this most amazing thing: Jesus had been raised from the dead. We can trust, by their witness, that all these things truly happened and that Jesus really is alive.
When the disciples were finished fishing, they went to where Jesus had already started cooking fish over a fire. They did not want to ask Him who He was; they knew it was the Lord. Yet we get the feeling that they were still unsure. So Jesus broke bread, and gave it to them to eat along with some fish, thereby reminding them of the miracles they had witnessed while Jesus was alive. It was yet another revelation to give them the assurance that Jesus was indeed alive and walking amongst them.
Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus asking of Peter? Does he love Jesus more than the other disciples? Does He love Jesus more than those disciples love Jesus? Does he love Jesus more than his fishing gear and the hard work of catching fish on the sea? Peter does not answer with specifics but simply says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you.” Jesus did know, for Jesus knew the hearts of His disciples as well as He knows our own hearts. Yet, Jesus asked again. And then He asked again. Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love and by the third time Peter was hurt because Jesus asked it again. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I have affection for you.”
There are several reasons for why Jesus might have asked Peter three times. We are reminded that Peter denied Jesus three times, and the threefold confession of love for Jesus counters the denial. For Peter, the three questions seemed to verify his unworthiness, but for Jesus the three answers restored their relationship and reinstated Peter to his position as leader among the disciples.
There are some subtleties in the text that may or may not be significant. One thing that is often noted is the use of the words “love” and “affection” in these passages. In the Greek there are different words used by John in describing this scene, “agape” and “phileo.” Some suggest that there is little difference between these two words and John simply used the variety to keep the passage interesting. Others will tell you that agape refers to a deeper, more abiding sense of love while phileo is a brotherly love.
There is some comfort to be found in this passage if we recognize the difference between these words. In the first and second questions Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you.” In the third question Jesus asks, “Do you phileo me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” To me it appears Jesus was asking Peter for a deep commitment while Peter was not yet ready to give him that much. Yet, Jesus did not take anything away from Peter. Peter was still restored and reinstalled, commissioned to do the work of Christ in the world. There is comfort in this for those of us who have taken too many years to make that commitment to the work Christ is calling us to do. We can see that Jesus has patience, that He does not take away our commission because we have doubts and uncertainties. He loves us and encourages us until we are deeply and fully committed. Obviously, Peter’s love became deeper as he continued the work until he followed Jesus right to his own cross to die a martyr’s death.
Another subtlety we see in this passage is found in the commission. Jesus first tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Then He says, “Tend my sheep.” Finally, He tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.” There is a progression in the way we do ministry found in these commands. First, we are to give the lambs, the newborns, the milk of the Gospel that they might believe and be saved. We go out into the world feeding the lambs with God’s grace so that they will follow Jesus. Once they have been saved, the lambs are brought into the fellowship of believers, through baptism and the sharing of the Eucharist, and there in the congregation the shepherd tends to their needs, making disciples who will also go out into the world to take the Gospel to others. Finally, we feed the sheep. We never stop needing to hear the Word of God, to learn more, to grow in our faith. Every Christian needs to hear the Gospel over and over again no matter how long they have been saved, to stay firm in the faith which has been given. Peter first, and those of us who have followed, are called to continue to feed Christians with the Word of God, to offer Bible studies and the sacraments so that they will stand firm in Christ.
A man named Jacob Koshy said about his conversion to Christianity, “Who would have believed that I could find the truth by smoking the Word of God?” His story is unusual. He was living in Singapore and success drove him to do whatever was necessary to get ahead. He was a smuggler and drug dealer, a gambler and abuser. Eventually he ended up in prison, a harsh place where he could not even get a cigarette. He managed to make cigarettes with smuggled tobacco and the torn pages of a Gideon Bible until one night he fell asleep with it in his hand. The cigarette burned out in his hand and when he awoke he read some words from today’s lesson. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Jacob asked for another copy of the Bible and he read the story of Saul who became Paul. He realized that if God could work such a miracle in the life of a man like Saul, then He could do the same for him. He got down on his knees and with tear filled eyes asked Jesus to change him too. With every tear his pain was washed away. He became a missionary when he was released from prison and married a Christian woman. He no longer chased after wasteful things and lived a praise filled life in thanksgiving for what God had done. So, by smoking the Word of God, Jacob experienced the miracle of God’s mercy and grace.
Most of us do not come to our knowledge of God in such miraculous ways. As a matter of fact, most Christians are brought to the faith by someone they love like a parent, friend, or partner. Through prayer and patient witness, they shared the Word of God with us. Slowly, but surely, we came to know Christ and to make Him a part of our daily life. We probably know someone who had a miraculous experience, who suddenly experienced God’s grace and fell down in praise and thanksgiving. Yet, most of us did not have such an experience. The changes that occur are slow as we grow and mature in our faith. Damascus Road does not happen for us all.
It happened to Paul, though. He was a persecutor of Christians, those Jews who were living according to “the Way.” He was on his way to stop another group from preaching about Jesus when suddenly he found himself in the presence of a powerful authority. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul knew that it was someone to be reckoned with and he addressed Him with respect. Saul would become Paul, the chosen one who would take the Gospel to Gentiles and kings and the world.
Ananias was not pleased. He knew that Saul was a cruel man who had done cruel things to believers. He did not deserve to be touched by God’s grace. Perhaps there were those in the world who thought the same thing about Jacob Koshy. Christians most certainly had come across Jacob in his days of smuggling, drugs and gambling. Did they speak the Word into His life or did they turn away because he was undeserving? God spoke to Ananias. “I have plans for Saul who will become Paul. Do as I say and you will see something amazing.” It took a miraculous revelation to get Paul’s attention. Jacob had a Bible in his cell, but it took a miraculous experience for him to read the words in that book and to learn of God’s grace. We are called to be like Ananias, to share the Gospel with those who cross our path, to prayerfully share God’s grace with them even if it seems like they do not deserve it. We might be rejected and persecuted, but God knows what He is doing. Eventually His Word will touch the hearts of those whom He loves and they will be saved.
In today’s scriptures we see the life changing power of God’s Word. Our main characters Peter and Saul had turned their backs on Jesus. Peter denied Jesus on the night he was arrested. Saul was a persecutor of the Church; he even ordered 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 He sends us into the world with His agape love.
We turn our attention to another character in these stories: John was the writer of both the Gospel lesson and the Book of Revelation. John saw many incredible things that he wanted to feed the lambs, tend the sheep and feed the sheep through his writing. He wrote, “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31, WEB)
John 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 when 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. It is a call to trust God and to worship Him now and forever. In today’s passage we get a foretaste of that which is to come for each believer, an eternal lifetime praising our God. John heard the voices singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who has been killed to receive the power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, 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 of creation praises Him. The image here is incredible: they numbered ten thousands of ten thousands, and thousands of thousands. This is the largest number known in the days of Jesus, 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 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 to Yahweh, you saints of his. Give thanks to his holy 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, Peter 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. Peter’s 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. 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 destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?” We are created with the purpose of praising God. We are saved so that we will join in singing thanksgiving with all of creation forever and ever. God’s 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 will join in the heavenly worship for eternity.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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