Blog post for Easter 3C 2010: Acts 9:1-6, 7-20, John 21:1-19 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
Conversion seems to be the theme of the day. Of course it’s obvious in the story of Saul that we have been hearing as long as we have been going to church. This tormentor of the early Christians is knocked from his horse, blinded by a light from heaven, and hears a voice that he comes to identify as the Jesus he has been persecuting. After three days without sight and food, he is transformed and converted. As a sign of his conversion he is baptized and then, we are told, “Immediately” goes out and begins proclaiming that Jesus is the son of God. We know from the “rest of the story” that he became Paul, Apostle, evangelist and martyr.
Those are the kinds of conversion tales that we might be used to. Dramatic tales of coming from darkness to light, not knowing to knowing, a complete turning of a way of life from one thing to another…once and for all. But of course not all conversions are like that.
In the Saul conversion story is another slightly less dramatic one…Ananias, who appears to be already on a first name basis with God seems to have to undergo a little conversion as part of that tale, too. For despite Ananias’ obvious recognition of the Lord when he spoke to him, he seemed to have a little problem with trust when it came to doing what the Lord requested. “Oh, no….not Saul…I have heard about HIM….he’s a bad actor….” God has to do a little work with Ananias, before he is willing to see things God’s way and go out and minister to Saul. Ananias has his own little conversion experience here, too. Less flashy and dramatic, but no less important in his relationship with his God. No less important in his own formation as a disciple.
And speaking of the disciples….our Gospel this morning finds them again wandering about in need of a bit of their own conversion. We know that it is sometime after Jesus has appeared the second time to the disciples, and a group of the disciples decided to go fishing. Not too strange. They were, after all, fishermen. This must have been an odd time for them. Still in their minds was the memory of Jesus’ death. They knew one of their own had handed him over. Possibly they were remembering their own behavior during his trial and crucifixion. May they were thinking about their confusion and joy when it became clear to them that Jesus was in some very real way alive among them again after the resurrection, talking and teaching again, wishing them peace, talking about forgiveness and the Spirit being among them. You know, I’m guessing that even though the disciples were thrilled to have Jesus with them, they also were somewhat disconcerted and puzzled, and maybe they not quite sure what to make of it all. Remember, these are the fellows who didn’t take direction very well when Jesus was right there alive with them, and were fairly clueless about his, and their, mission. Simply having the post-resurrection Jesus with them didn’t make them get purposeful! So, it seems they did what we tend to do when we aren’t really sure of the right thing to do…they fell back on the thing they knew, the thing that they were sure of and in which they felt comfortable. And who knows, they might have just been hungry and broke and needed to earn a few denarii besides!
Among them is Peter. Peter who very soon after encountering Jesus for the first time falls to his knees and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Peter, who when he sees Jesus walking toward him on the water says . "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." But then who a few minutes later is sputtering in the waves, half drowned, having panicked and lost faith. Peter, the one who, when Jesus inquires about who it is the disciples believe him to be blurts out, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Peter who wants to build tents at the transfiguration. Peter, who like the others, falls asleep when Jesus asks them to watch with him. Peter, who asserts "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Hotheaded Peter, who on the day Jesus was arrested cut off the ear of the high-priest’s slave to defend Jesus, and within hours denied that he ever heard of Jesus, to save his own skin.
Oh-so-human Peter, who, in today’s Gospel, when he realizes it is Jesus on the shore, jumps into the sea and lets the rest of the disciples haul in the catch. This catch so reminiscent of the one on the first day they met Jesus. He must of have been thinking of that day. I wonder what else he was thinking. About the crucifixion and his part in that whole awful drama? Was he wishing that he could turn back the clock and have a “do over?” Was he thinking, “How will it be with us when I meet Jesus one on one again, how can I face Him, what will I say, what will HE say?” We have no record if Jesus spoke with Him at the other gatherings, but we know that today, Peter and Jesus do come face to face.
Jesus has fed them, and when they finished, Jesus turns to Peter. “Simon, son of John,” Jesus addresses him by his full name, “do you love me more than these.” These? These what? These other fellows around us? These boats and nets that he used to catch the fish he made his living with? We don’t know. Jesus is not specific. But Peter knew. And he answered Jesus, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.” And Jesus responds with a charge for Peter....”Feed my lambs.” But once is not enough for Jesus with Peter. Once is not enough to ask, “Do you love me?” Again, Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answers again in the affirmative, and again, Jesus gives him a task, telling him to “Tend my sheep.” And again a third time, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter, God love him, is hurt at that, that Jesus needs to keep asking. Oh, How quickly we can forget our own failures and betrayals! Ever been there? “Oh, How could ask me, you KNOW I love you!” But Jesus never loses either His patience or His focus. Again, He responds with the task, “Feed my sheep,”
Yes, this is a conversion story, too. That day on the beach Peter was healed, reconciled, converted and called again to his life. He knew beyond a doubt that day on the beach with Jesus that he was forgiven and reconnected to Jesus. He experienced that his act of betrayal was wiped away by a power that was stronger than anything he had ever known before. We know from the “rest of the story” that Peter did indeed follow the call and that he did become a leader in the new faith movement that followed Pentecost and that he did die a martyr’s death “to glorify God.”
Peter often ends up serving as a kind of alter-ego for me. Often when I encounter Jesus, my first thoughts are how absolutely unworthy I am, and my first inclination is to run away, afraid somehow that He will see and reject my sinful self. Forgetting of course that He created me, loves me, knows and graces me, not in spite of who I am but because of it.
I am this Peter who has in one moment such faith, believing that if Jesus commanded it, I too could walk on water, and in the next, screaming in fear and sinking in the waves. And somehow, I believe I am not alone in this!
So sure one breath that God is who God is, but then in the next, faltering, confused, questioning and unsure.
I too have a hard time staying awake, staying conscious, paying attention in the way God asks of me. It is too hard sometimes, too painful to see the things God asks me to pay attention to, listen to, have compassion for, do something about. So, like Peter and his friends, I fall asleep.
And like Peter, it is so much easier to just haul out my sword and whack off someone’s appendages (figuratively of course—we ARE in Minnesota) than it is to stand by quietly and own the truth. Yes, I do stand for Jesus. Yes I am with Him. And with them, too. Those He touched, and ate with, championed and healed. Yes, I am here for them, too.
And, like Peter when I realize it is Jesus on the shore of my life calling me back, I want to hide myself, run away, have a do over. But like there was for Peter, there is something in that invitation that is so gentle, so welcoming, so full of grace and peace….come and eat, be fed….that I, that we cannot resist. And so we do come and are fed. And the conversation can begin….”Do you love me”….not once the question is asked but again and again until the answer satisfies. And not simply “do you love me” but do you love me MORE THAN THESE. Peter knew what it meant. What “these” were. Friends. Boats. Nets. Fish. Being “Peter the guy who catches the most and shiniest fish on Tiberius.” Whatever it was, he knew. We know. And Jesus asks us, “Do you love me more than them?” Hard question. Scary question. Question requiring something in the answer.
And then, if we answer yes, what happens? We are given a task, work….and not easy work. The work that Jesus did…the care and feeding of the least and the hardest. The stuff that got him killed, and he wants us to participate in it, too. It’s no wonder by the third time Jesus asked him, Peter was feeling sad. Two weeks out from “He is risen Alleluia!” and we are into the hard nitty gritty of the gospel. We are called to the task of creating God’s kingdom on earth. We are fitted to this task not by virtue of our own great strength or virtue but by grace. God’s promise to us is not that that it will not be hard work, that there will be no struggle, no pain, no times when we will fall flat on our very human little faces. But God’s very real promise to us is that in the resurrected incarnated redeemer, we have a risen One who has destroyed the power of death, the “big d” Death and our own little daily deaths. God says to us in Jesus that He asks us to do nothing that has not already been done for us. This is what we say “Alleluia” about!
Peter finally understood. No fear is too great to overcome, no sin too great to be forgiven. This Love, indeed, conquers all. And so we -- like Saul the persecutor who became Paul the Disciple, like Ananias, like Peter, and every other follower who has been converted and transformed by the grace of God can join the psalmist in proclaiming: "You have turned my mourning into dancing....O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever!"
So accompanied by them and all of those in the great cloud of converted witnesses before us, we go back once again to the sea shore. Breakfast has ended, and Jesus calls us by our name and asks, “Do you love me more than these? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”