SUNDAY, APRIL 10
READINGS FROM HOLY SCRIPTURES
Two conversion stories this morning. Two resurrection stories of two men caught in believing their own versions of who God is and what God desires. Two stories of change from breathing threats and murder to mercy and inclusion; from disappointment and confusion to hope and grace; from fighting to keep what they have to trust in abundance; from believing in what is right and real to a journey to love. It’s hard to describe what happens in a conversion or a call. I’ve spent the past four years trying to write my own conversion story. When we meet him in Acts 9, Paul wasn’t being a closed- minded jerk preserving his own privilege; in his eyes, he was making personal sacrifices to ensure the survival of his people, his family, his tribe, in the broadest and noblest sense. And Peter when we meet him in today’s story is back to where he first heard his call from Jesus, perhaps to preserve what he knows how to do, what he can make a living at.
These are not easy or simple conversion stories. If you’ve ever tried to persuade someone of Paul’s temperament, a fundamentalist, to change her or his mind, you know how hard that can be. And if you have ever tried to get someone like Peter to let go of what he is doing once he is set on something, well…No wonder Paul and Peter are so inseparably paired in tradition: two apostles known for their willingness to squabble with each other, impetuous, mouthy, convinced of their own privilege, and later paired in the memory of Jesus’ followers for their shared love of the church and martyrdom in the center of Rome’s imperial might. What can change the mind and heart of a Peter or Paul? For that matter, what could change the life of a person like me, like you?
All his life, before he first met Jesus, the central question in Peter’s life was ‘Will there be enough fish today for us to get by?’ and each day he braved the waters knowing that his life and others’ depended on the answer to that question. Peasants, in Jesus’ day, had two overriding anxieties: “Shall I eat today?” and “Shall I become ill and fall into debt?” Then he met the risen Jesus while fishing in the Galilee. He followed Jesus whose system was that if one person had food then everybody could eat, and there would always be somebody to care for the sick. It was a system based on interdependence and mutual sharing. In today’s story, Peter remembers his experience of God’s abundance so powerful that, were the boat not close to shore, it would have been in danger of sinking. After a meal with this Jesus, the central question in Peter’s life shifted from “Can I gather enough fish for me and my family to get by?’ to “Can I gather the fullness of the flock I am called to feed with the limitless love God has for us?’
Paul, who traveled far and sacrificed much to persecute others when he believed that the survival of his way of true religion was threatened, encountered Jesus on his way to Damascus, and suddenly the central questions for him were not about who is worthy to join the messianic banquet, but how many of all of those unworthy and made worthy can be gathered at the table to break bread with Jesus in a foretaste of the feast that will never end.
Paul is “breathing threats and murder.” He is desperate to keep his religion alive. As more and more Jews—people called to worship the God of Israel and be distinct from worshipers of other Gods—abandoned their cultural heritage to assimilate to the dominant culture, even adopting Greek as their first or only language, many asked themselves whether there would be enough Jews willing to be distinct from the nations to provide for the survival of God’s people. He based his life on the assumption that the survival of God’s people depended on making sure that God’s welcome—like all limited goods—was extended only to that limited number of people for which it was meant, only the elected, the chosen.
Breathing in threats and murder led Paul to judgment and violence in his version of goodness. Until he is stopped in his tracks by a flash of lightning and The Voice that knocks him over with the question, “Why are you persecuting me?” What? I thought I was protecting you, God. I was doing my best to protect “goodness.” How could it be that what I was doing was actually hurting not only me, but others and God of all? The threats and murder that he was breathing, that kept him alive, that breath was knocked out of him. He is left without vision, without a purpose, without what gave his life meaning.
Perhaps there are moments when perception shifts, when something like conversion happens—and it isn’t the same as being raised in the church. It isn’t really about belief, exactly—it is the moments we are freed from judgment, self-righteousness, the incessant compulsion to denigrate others to bolster our perceived goodness. It is the moments when our very identity is changed, our name and what we believe about our self and about others.
There is no such thing as righteous violence. Paul is the apostle who will, more than anyone, try to convince us that we are not, actually, righteous—but we live and breathe and love by the grace of god. It can never be about “us versus them”—it is about oneness. This is what enables him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
The disciples by the sea of Galilee are still breathing in brokenness and disappointment, brokenness as thick as the early morning mist off the Sea of Galilee, disappointment as pungent as the smell of fish on the fire. Nothing has gone the way the disciples intended. Judas’s enthusiasm erupted into betrayal; Peter’s devotion disintegrated into denial. Jesus’ body, first broken on the cross, goes missing from the tomb and then reappears—resurrected but wounded still. At least they are out of the locked room where Jesus came to them last Sunday. It seems that they have responded to confusion about what they are supposed to be doing by going back to what they know how to do. Perhaps Peter and the others wanted to go back to where they first heard the call from Jesus, where they were fishing in their boat, something with a tangible, reliable outcome. Like Paul they thought they were doing the right thing, the best thing, although in Peter’s case this is not turning out to be as reliable as what he remembered. After fishing all night the group is coming up with empty nets and empty hearts when The Voice interrupts them.
Jesus calls out to them from the shoreline, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” “No,” they answer, without knowing that it is Jesus calling to them. They do not recognize The Voice. They are breathing in emptiness and lack of joy, caught up in wondering whether tonight’s catch would be enough to provide for all of the tariffs and fees owed to the richer and more powerful classes just for the chance to make a living.
“Children, have you caught anything to eat?” “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” “Why are you persecuting me?” Have I told you how The Voice came to me? A nurse at the side of my daughter who had just been brought back to life after a cardiac arrest. It was the first time I could see her and all that I could say was, “I’m sorry, Temma.” “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” And the nurse seated at her side said to me, “She doesn’t need to hear you say, “I’m sorry.” “She needs to hear you say, I love you.”
“Do you love?” “Do you have love in your heart?” And, again, like Paul and the women in the empty tomb, it’s rather odd that the disciples listen to someone they didn’t even know. Maybe they are just so tired and disappointed, they aren’t even thinking much. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t hurt anything to try something new. And there is something about The Voice, something arresting, urgent. They are just about finished for the night anyway. One last try. And this time they caught so many fish that the net was overflowing. It’s like lightning from heaven, like dazzling messengers, like having my eyesight washed away in a big wave, like someone or something crashing into your life and making a big mess. or losing your heart in a crushing disappointment. In that moment John recognizes the abundance of life that is Jesus, my Lord and my God! And Peter jumps out of the boat and into the water to get to Jesus.
What awaits the disciples on the shore is a meal of bread and fish, just like the feeding of the five thousand. Remember? There is an abundance of love when you least expect it, when you think there is no future, when you wonder what you are doing, when you doubt that grace is real or question if grace is for you, when you are breathing threats and murder, disappointment and confusion. This is the resurrection conversion story we all need. Desperately. All of us. That resurrection is alive and well in our world. That Jesus will always show up on the shore and will ask again and again, “Do you love me?” And again, “Do you love me?” And yet again, “Do you love me?” The real question, for those of us who have met him, is not, “How can we survive?” But, “How we can gather enough friends, neighbors and enemies to take in the abundance that God is offering?” This is a new way, a new vocation, new name, new identity, this is all about love. Do this new thing. Let go of what you think you know. Dare to dream. There are some sheep waiting for just the gift, the food that you have.