Sermon: Perfect Disciples (Easter 3, Year C)
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Why does Jesus pick these followers? What is it about the guys in our readings today that Jesus was like “yes, I choose you, Saul, as the apostle to the gentiles, and you, Peter, are to feed my sheep”? I don’t think any of them would be my first choice for apostles.
Saul was still “breathing threats” when he was called
Ananias was like “um, are you sure?” to the Lord himself.
The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus when they first saw him.
Peter had denied Jesus three times the night of his arrest.
Why did Jesus pick *these* people?
The gospel author says this is the 3rd time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection. Those first times the disciples were hiding out, afraid of what would happen to them now that their leader had been executed by the government. We don’t really know, in John’s gospel, why the disciples ended up in Galilee after those first 2 resurrection appearances. Since that’s where they started following Jesus, maybe they thought to go back there because they couldn’t think what else to do. They had met a wonderful teacher. They had seen signs and glory. They had seen death and now resurrection. They have seen the resurrected Jesus, but…what are they supposed to do now? I can imagine that the disciples are still in grief and shock over what happened in Jerusalem. They saw their friend and teacher be arrested and executed for his teaching. Couldn’t that happen to them if they continued his ministry? I can see why they might head back home to Galilee, to regroup and find some familiarity after the disorientation of Jerusalem. Maybe they just wanted something familiar to ground them in the reality of life on earth. So Peter proposes a fishing trip. It’s what he knows. Fishing is what he and James and John were doing when Jesus found them the first time.
Peter, he’s always the most enthusiastic, isn’t he? Always the first to take whatever Jesus or anyone says to the next level. The first to proclaim Jesus as the messiah, the guy who says he’s gonna build some houses for Jesus and the other prophets at the transfiguration. He’s the one who climbs overboard to try to walk on water with Jesus. The one to cut off a guy’s ear when Jesus is arrested. He’s the one who’s fishing naked, and who jumps in the lake rather than wait one more minute for the boat to get to Jesus. And he’s the one to vehemently deny Jesus not just once, but three times, on the night of his arrest. Jesus asking “do you love me?” three times is a reversal of those denials. I wonder if Peter had been obsessing over that night. Thinking about what else he could have, should have said, or done. If he could have changed what happened, what he would do if he got another chance. And Jesus appears, gathers them around a campfire, maybe even that reminded Peter of gathering around the courtyard fire after Jesus was arrested, of the words he wishes he could take back. Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?” and Peter, out of all the disciples, is the one who needs the chance to answer that question. Peter knows exactly what it feels like to realize he has denied Jesus; Peter knows exactly how important it is to declare love instead.
We also heard a different sort of resurrection appearance today. The story of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul, the man from Tarsus, who will soon be known to us as the apostle Paul, is traveling from Jerusalem to Syria in order to seek out and arrest people who are following the teachings of Jesus. Saul knows his Bible. He knows the teachings of his forefathers. He would recognize the vision and voice he hears as the sort of thing that happens to the prophets in the history of Israel. This is different from the Hebrew prophets. They were already following God when they were called with a particular message. Saul did not believe in Jesus when Jesus appeared to him. God is doing a new thing here. Before this moment, the experience of Jesus was limited to those in Palestine. Now Jesus is showing up in Syria? To people who aren’t even followers? What is happening. Saul is called to bring the gospel to those spread over the entire earth. Not just those who already share his Jewish faith. Not just those in Palestine.
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he describes the encounters of resurrected Jesus with the disciples. Paul describes himself as being “untimely” born since he did not come to be a follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry, and in fact was a persecutor of those who were preaching the gospel of Jesus.
But Paul did encounter the resurrected Jesus, just later than the other apostles. Maybe instead of “untimely” being a negative, we can see the transcendent power of God. God is untimely, or maybe, God is not *limited* by time. Encounters with Jesus are not limited to his 3 years of earthly ministry. The resurrection is not limited to Easter Sunday, or even to the 50 days of the Easter season. Even those of us “untimely born” can encounter Jesus.
Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus is a new revelation of God. Jesus is not the savior of only people within certain geographic boundaries. Jesus is not the savior of only people who met him during his brief few years of public ministry. God reveals to Saul that the good news of Jesus is not limited by geography or time.
Ananias seems like a regular guy. Cautious, and pious. Ananias was a disciple. We don’t really know much about his backstory. Maybe he had come from Palestine, but all we really know is that he was a Jewish follower of Jesus living in Damascus. He seems like he’s well-informed and knows his own mind. Ananias seems like the sort of guy you could come to for advice and he would make sure you were making a good decision. And going to help the man who has come to your city with the purpose of arresting you does not seem like a good idea. But that is exactly what God tells him to do. This person who has been persecuting those who share his faith, this person who has the ear of the authorities, he’s supposed to go help him? And not only is Ananias supposed to heal his blindness, but the very person who is persecuting them is going to become a great apostle? It doesn’t seem right. So Ananias makes sure, he asks God: “you mean the evil guy who’s coming here to arrest all of us?” And God says “yes, him. go.”
I wonder what I would do if Jesus suddenly showed up in a blinding light while I was driving to work. I wonder what I would do if Jesus said “you, Jessica, are persecuting me.” I wonder what I would do if Jesus appeared to me and said “get up, go pray over this man who has been trying to stamp out your entire church, because he’s going to become one of my greatest apostles.” What would I do if Jesus suddenly showed up at dawn, cooking me breakfast, asking me repeatedly “Jessica, do you love me?” I wonder what I would do if I suddenly realized that Jesus was asking me to do the opposite of what I had been doing?
That’s the thing about these stories. We think we know what’s going on in the world, this world where people who have the power to persecute others are feared, where we avoid our enemies, not seek them out, this world where when the fishing is bad, you don’t get fish for breakfast, where people who die stay dead. Resurrection. It turns logic on its head. Whatever would have been the expected reaction is reversed with resurrection.
Because of the resurrection, all those things that make the disciples imperfect in the world become the reasons why they are the perfect ones for the job.
Peter’s enthusiasm, that thing that gets him into trouble in every story, makes him the best person to take on the enormous task of feeding the sheep of Jesus, of tending the flock of disciples. The church doesn’t need people who already know how to walk on water, the church needs people who are always ready to jump in the lake to get to Jesus. Anyone with less enthusiasm would be overwhelmed and burnt out, but Peter is sure of his love for Jesus and God’s people. How is Peter going to feed the sheep? Who knows, but he’s going to make it happen through following Jesus.
Saul, so recently a persecutor of the church, becomes a champion of the gospel message. He has always striven to be the very best. Followed the Jewish laws as righteously as he could. Trying to make sure that everyone else was following his religion properly too. Not just people in Jerusalem, where he grew up, but he was on a journey to make sure this new dangerous group of Jesus-followers was put back on the right path. It was that very desire to spread righteousness and truth beyond Palestine that God used. Saul becomes the apostle to the gentiles, to spread the truth of Jesus. Saul can do this not only because he’s a well-studied Pharisee, able to communicate clearly to those who share his religious convictions, but also because Saul is also Paul, a Roman citizen. His connections give him more access to the wider Roman world than others might have. Saul is a persecutor of the church, but he’s also the perfect person to take the gospel beyond the normal limits.
Ananias is not the real hero in our story, but he is a disciple with a job to do. He is sent to heal the persecutor Saul. He is sent to make Saul ready to be the great apostle to the gentiles and kings. I don’t know about you, but I would be reluctant to help someone who was persecuting me. And not just because I was afraid of the persecution for myself, but also because I don’t want to help someone who hurt my friends. I might even be angry. If someone had hurt my friends, I would want there to be justice! I can hear that reluctance to help in Ananias asking if God *really* means for him to help Saul. Ananias wants what is best for his community. He does not want to help someone who is going to hurt him or his friends. But God reassures Ananias. He’s not going to hurt the church. Saul is going to spread the gospel wider than imaginable.
None of the people in our lessons today are perfect disciples. It is precisely their imperfections that make them the best people for the job.
God did not choose perfect people as apostles. God met them exactly where they already were. A fishing trip because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. The road to the neighboring country, with plans to arrest people who don’t follow your religion. And God asks them to do the very opposite of where they were headed. Peter, who had denied Jesus, who had gone back home and back to his old job, is given a new purpose. Ananias, wanting to protect the church, heals the future apostle to the gentiles. Saul, who had been persecuting followers of Jesus, immediately begins preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. Doing the thing that is the opposite of what they were doing because it is the thing that they are perfectly able to do.
We are not perfect. And God meets us exactly where we’re at. And then. Whatever we are doing, when we meet the resurrected Jesus, everything gets flipped around. Persecution has turned to preaching. Denial has turned to love. Death has turned to life! All the things that are the opposite of what we thought, all the things that we thought we would never, could never do, turn out to be the things that we are perfectly able to do.
The key is that Jesus takes us exactly as we are, and because of who we are. We don’t follow Jesus despite everything wrong we’ve done, despite being born at the wrong time, despite being in the wrong place. We follow Jesus because of those things. Maybe that’s not exactly it…..We follow Jesus, we do the things that Jesus said to do, because we have been created perfectly and particularly for those things. We don’t serve Jesus “despite” our shortcomings. It is our shortcomings that make us able to serve Jesus in the way that is perfect for each of us. We do not have to be perfect, we do not have to be always right. What matters is how we respond to resurrected Jesus.
When Jesus says “feed my sheep,” how are we supposed to respond? When Jesus says “you’re persecuting me,” how are we supposed to respond? When Jesus says “Go help that person who’s been your persecutor,” how are we supposed to respond? When Jesus says “follow me,” how are we supposed to respond?