Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." 13But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. .... After this he said to him, "Follow me."
A reading from Acts chapter 7: While they were stoning Stephen he prayed “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice “Lord, do not hold this sin against them. When he had said this he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.
I’m not so sure that the really miraculous thing about Saul’s experience happened on the road to Damascus…sure the pure drama of being blinded by a light and hearing a voice from heaven is great material for a Cecil B Demille movie… but for me the real miracle took place after he arrived at Damascus. Saul (which was his name before he changed it to Paul) well, Saul, we are told, was breathing threats and murder. The very oxygen entering his lungs was self-righteousness and a drive to purge what was impure out of the religion he excelled at.
He was present at and indeed approved of the stoning of
Steven, the first to be killed for following Jesus and now Saul had
secured the full support of the religious authorities in Jerusalem to
hunt down other followers of Jesus, bind them and deport them to
Jerusalem where they would stand trial and likely follow their brother
Steven in martyrdom.
They had been warned, those Jesus followers in Damascus
that Saul was coming. They were understandably afraid and likely angry
that their fellow Jew was hunting them down.
I know I would avoid the guy at all cost were I in that situation. So when Ananias heard in a vision that he was to go and actually seek out the guy he’s trying to avoid, he had every reason to pull a Jonah and go the exact opposite direction but he didn’t and the result changed everything. The event of Paul’s own transformation may have started on the road to Damascus but it couldn’t actually take hold until someone else’s conversion could take place. Because Paul didn’t really have new eyes until the death and resurrection of Ananias’ own fear. You see, conversion, if we are going to use the word, doesn’t happen in private. It happens in community. Paul’s transformation didn’t really happen until Anninias, one whom he persecuted, laid hands on him and called him brother. This act of forgiveness and reconciliation was I think so powerful that the scales on Sauls’ eye could not help but fall. The old way of seeing did not stand a chance in the face of such undeserved mercy and reconciliation. He laid hands on Saul and called him brother…and it was perhaps the perfect sermon. Our brother Annanias had experienced the risen Christ and believed that God can raise the dead. Even Saul.
Much later in the book of Acts, Paul will stand before
King Agrippa and recall again his transformation that started on the
road to Damascus and Paul will ask “Why is it thought so incredible to
any of you that God can raise the dead?”
And all I can think of is “Do I think it so possible that God can raise the dead that I am willing to see it even in the person who I’ve written off so completely. Can I believe it possible that God can raise the dead that I am willing to see it in even the most despicable parts of myself that I’ve written off completely? Look at Saul. He was arrogant and forceful … a manically driven ideologue and God goes “I could use someone like you, you Saul will be my instrument. I will use your annoyingly certain personality, your rhetorical brilliance and your passion all the things you used to persecute me I will use to lift my name" says the Lord
See, conversion doesn’t mean a change in personality. Just a change of purpose. And that purpose is to be purveyors of life abundant. The kind of life offered in the crucified and resurrected one. The kind of life abundant that only comes from receiving and giving forgiveness and reconiliation that the secular world will never ever stand for. There is no justice as we understand it in a man seeking out his persecutor laying hands on him and calling him brother. I’m fairly certain that I cannot muster up that kind of reconciliation on my own. But Jesus says you don’t have to. Jesus says “I’ll go first”. Before he is even dead on the cross he asks God to forgive those who put him there. He lays hands on his own deniers. Goes so far as to make a grilled fish breakfast for them. He goes to his persecutors and brings peace. And what allowed Anninias to lay hands on Saul and call him brother, what allowed Steven to ask for the forgiveness of Saul and the others who killed him is that they had been made Easter people. Because Jesus had said It's ok. I'll go first.
In our Gospel text today Jesus says to Peter come and I will feed you around the very fire from which you really boffed it. I imagine Peter’s olfactory triggered memory of another charcoal fire. A charcoal fire on the night of Jesus' arrest around which Peter warmed himself with his own self-protection and fear. Denying his Lord and warming his hands. And now the risen Christ offers him a grilled fish breakfast on the beach. Jesus kind of snacks his way through the gospels even after he’s died and come back to life. As a side note I’m kind of amused by the academics (The Jesus Seminar) who have clever little explanations for everything in the Bible…like that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead…it’s just that his spirit and memory were so powerful to his followers that when they were together that it almost felt like he was really there. “Yeah, remember when Jesus was dead but his spirit was so strong that it felt like he grilled us some fish on the beach? Man the memory of that guy can really make a delicious breakfast!” So I may be naive and superstitious but I actually believe that Jesus was there in the flesh grilling fish because seriously, doesn’t that just sound like something a guy who was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton would do if he came back from the dead?
So he makes a charcoal fire and cooks breakfast for his friends including Peter his denier. And he does such an unbelievably loving thing and gives Peter 3 chances to proclaim his love. 1 for each of his denials. Do you love me Peter? With the smell of charcoal in his nostrils I wonder if Peter could answer yes without tears in his eyes. I have failed you Lord and denied you in your hour of death despite everything in me that knew it was wrong but yes. 3 times yes. I love you Lord. How could he not be overcome with the pain of undeserved mercy and a second chance. This mercy was not tender, it was a blunt instrument. This is a forgiveness that kills the thing which wronged it. The part of Peter who denied Christ dies at the blow of the blunt instrument of undeserved mercy and something new is born. It is the Peter who has encountered resurrection. He sees differently. Scales have fallen from his eye and he is now an Easter person. And Christ doesn’t skip a beat. He creates these Easter people because frankly he has an agenda. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. It’s called the great commission. Follow me he says. It's ok. I'll go first. But go and be what you have received. Practice the forgiveness and reconciliation I bring to you. Because there’s a spreading of the Gospel that can only come from a forgiven sinner like Peter and Paul and me and you. And we are an Easter people.