St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 9.1-6. (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19
Several sermons could be preached from these passages, for they are full of significance and meaning. In what follows, I will attempt to tie several of these passages together. Let’s begin with Psalm 30.7-10 (NRSV):
7 While I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”
8 Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.
9 I cried to you, O Lord; I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
10 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
In your own experience, how often have you felt comfortably secure only to have some life–changing experience happen? You may suddenly be told you have cancer, you may experience an auto accident, or encounter an experience that totally reorients your life. As I have said before, growth rarely takes place apart from some adversity. Can you imagine raising a mighty oak tree in a hot house? It would probably look wonderful, but if moved outside, it would not be able to withstand the winds of real storms.
In our previous consideration of the Gospel of John, we noted Peter’s denial of Jesus; we further noted virtually all of the disciples, in one way or another, betrayed Jesus when they deserted him at the time of the crucifixion.
But Peter felt he was secure in his faith; after all, he told Jesus that he was willing and ready to lay down his life for Jesus. While the Gospel accounts do not confirm it, we believe it was Peter who drew his sword when they were about to arrest Jesus. Yes, he was so secure he was ready to die, but Jesus responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13.37-38; NRSV). Peter betrayed Jesus over a charcoal fire. Luke 22.60-61 tells us when the cock crowed the third time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. Peter went out and wept bitterly. So much for “While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed.’”
Today’s gospel opens with a few of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. Peter announces that he is going fishing. The others agree to join him. Peter’s conduct is likely a reflection of his insecurity. He still remembers the look in Jesus’ eyes – a look that pierced his very soul and being. He will never forget that look.
When we are insecure, we tend to return to what we know best – we move toward security in an effort to regain our balance. I witnessed this phenomenon on numerous occasions when working in human resource management in a unionized plant. When we would promote a person from the union ranks to foreman, I knew it was only a matter of time before a grievance charging the foreman with doing hourly work would appear on my desk. When the pressure was intense, the foreman would return to some hourly task. Peter was insecure – it was time to go fishing.
Now I might throw out a word of caution here. I can imagine some of you are thinking – yeah, he just bought a new boat. Give him a bit of insecurity and he will be on the water! In my defense, fishing is not what I know best – I am still learning. Nonetheless, it is still a good place to think!
You know the story – over another charcoal fire, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” We suspect that “these” refers to the other disciples, but as the word employed can also be neuter, Jesus may be asking, “Do you love me more than everything else?” As Scott Hoezee (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel) reminds us, Jesus was referring to agape love – the sacrificial depth of love that comes from God. When Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” he did not use the word for agape love; he used phile – the word for brotherly love or friendship. Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs. Jesus asked the question again using agape love, and again Peter answered using phile love. Jesus then told Peter to tend his sheep. Jesus asked the question a third time, but this time he used phile, the word which Peter used. Peter answered, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phile) you.” In response, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus then told Peter that when he was young, he would fasten his own belt, but when he grew old, someone else would fasten a belt around him and take him where he did not want to go — in other words, to be crucified. Then Jesus issued a command, “Follow me” (John 21.18-19; NRSV). Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love for him three times – once for each denial. This was Peter’s second conversion which led to the command to follow Jesus.
In Acts 9 we have the story of Saul’s conversion. I am sure that Saul also felt secure in his work of rounding up members of The Way. After all, he had men who accompanied him and the requisite letters and the authority of the high priest. Yet Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus and heard a voice which said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul was struck blind; in a flash of light, he instantaneously went from security to insecurity. God called Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, and told him to meet Saul. Ananias reminded the Lord of what he was asking; “You know, Lord, Saul might kill me.” Ananias obviously felt there were better things for him to do – perhaps to teach Sunday School, run the nursery, or even be junior warden, but God said, “Go, for he is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9.15; NRSV).
What are some practical applications we can draw from these readings? First, we have already noted the tenuousness of our own security. We tend to take pride in our security, but as these stories show, worldly security can be stripped from us in an instant. Consider Job! He lost everything but his wife, and was then afflicted with loathsome sores. On those occasions when his wife would tell him to curse God and die, I suspect he was wondering why God did not allow Satan to throw her into the bargain.
Second, these stories show us that Jesus meets us where we are at. Peter was fishing, with no luck I might add. Everyone who fishes knows what that is like! Jesus told him and the disciples to cast their net on the other side. Upon doing so, they were overwhelmed with an abundance of fish. And these weren’t little fish, like Lee catches. These were big fish – 153 of them. There was probably some significance to that number, but if so, it’s been lost. Jesus meets us where we are at. For Peter and the disciples it was literally in fishing and a post-resurrection breakfast over a charcoal fire with some tasty fish. Note how Jesus twice asked Peter if he loved him with God’s sacrificial agape love, but the best Peter could offer was the phile love of friendship. On the third request, Jesus met Peter where he was at, and asked him if he loved him with phile love. With each question, Jesus gave Peter a monumental task – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I suspect Jesus knew that peter would come to love him with pure agape love, but he met Peter where he was at. Jesus also met Saul where he was at – on the road to Damascus while hunting followers of the way. Hmm – fishing and hunting – how is that for proof texting?!
Third, when Christ meets us where we are at, and we respond to Christ’s call, we experience joy and thankfulness. Life may not be easy – it may lead to a cross, but as long as we are obedient, we will experience joy and thanksgiving. In Psalm 30, the psalmist exalts God for the healing he has experienced: “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave” (Vs. 3). When our illusions are shattered, when our sense of security is demolished, we experience the darkness; we may even weep. The psalmist acknowledges this when he says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Vs. 6). In verses 12 and 13, the psalmist continues, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore, my heart sings to you without ceasing, O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.” That sounds like someone who has experienced the power of resurrection!
The power of the resurrection is available to us. God is willing to meet us where we are. Are we willing to respond to God’s call? If we do, we will ultimately come to experience the joy of worshiping God “with the myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands.” Like them, we will sing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We shall not only hear the myriads and the thousands – we shall also hear “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev. 5.11-13; NRSV).
Christ meets us where we are at that we might ultimately meet him where he is at. And as the old hymn says, “What a day of rejoicing that will be.”