The Conversion of Paul, the Redemption of Peter, and Ours, The Third Sunday of Easter, April 14th 2013
The Third Sunday of Easter, April 14th 2013
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20] Psalm 30 Revelation 5:11-14 John 21:1-19
The Conversion of Paul, the Redemption of Peter, and Ours
What incredible lessons we have today! We have the redemption of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s name was Saul of Tarsus and named after Saul who was the first king of Israel and a full six inches taller than any other man in Israel. Now Jesus named him Paul, meaning the little one in Latin, paulus, -a, -um. Jesus called Simon Bar Jonas the “Rock” or “Rocky” as we might say today, because Peter or petros means the “rock” in Greek. It is “Cephus” in Hebrew. Jesus may have intended the name to be funny, like calling an all-black cat “Snowball,” because Peter seems to be so shaky and act so impulsively. At the last Supper, “No you will never wash my feet.” Then he exclaims, “Not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” He’s naked in the fishing boat. When the beloved disciple says, “It’s the Lord!” Peter puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea. Disappears, perhaps ashamed, leaving the disciples to haul the net by themselves and then when Jesus asks for some fish, he pulls the net in with the 153 fish all by himself. He is also the first to accept the Gentiles as Christians, baptizing Cornelius the Roman centurion and his family. He is also the first to break the kosher laws and then when the faction from Jerusalem frowns on the Gentiles, he no longer eats with them, so St. Paul has to reprimand him to his face. When he is crucified at the end, he says, “No, not like my Lord.” So they crucify him upside down, if we can go by tradition.
But Jesus chose him to lead his followers and he did so, even though he must have been turbulent and torn in many ways within. Christ chooses us with our faults and all. Denying Jesus three times instead of being faithful was his big whopper, however, and Jesus did not just overlook it. He brought it up, so Peter had to come to terms with it.
Now consider St. Paul: What is more dramatic than the way Jesus stops Saul dead in his tracks and changes him into Paul, his missionary to the Gentiles? When in Western history “the Philosopher” is mentioned, they are referring to Aristotle; but when they write, “the Apostle,” they mean St. Paul. He is such a towering figure for the early church. But really because of his writing: Listen to what the Corinthians said of him: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech is of no account!” (2 Cor 10:10) There he is the arch-enemy of those who follow the Way as Jesus followers were called, before they were first named Christians in Antioch. He probably had ambitions to become the High Priest himself, because he gets letters from him to be able to arrest and bring these followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem from Damascus. As a young man he had watched over all the coats of those who stoned Stephen and must have heard him pray: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” and watched him die. Those who taught that Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation took place through him and not from Moses’ law had to be rid of and wiped from the face of the earth.
His entourage in their unholy mission suddenly had a light from heaven flash around them and Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?””
And the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The light had not only knocked Saul to the ground, but also struck him with blindness. Those with him had to lead him by the hand to Damascus where he did not eat or drink for three days. When he prayed, Jesus sent Ananias to lay his hands on him to fill him with the Holy Spirit. Something like scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored. He got up and was baptized, and after taking in some food he regained his strength and the one who had hunted down, tortured, and persecuted the followers of Jesus, now publicly proclaimed him in the synagogues.
That was a one hundred and eighty degree turn and Saul now having become Paul had to learn how much he would have to suffer for the sake of the name that is above every name, Jesus. The whole litany of his suffering, his many floggings with rods, his being whipped five times, that means, five times, receiving 40 lashes minus one; being stoned and left for dead, imprisoned and shipwrecked – it can all be found in Second Corinthians 11:22-29. I remember once seeing a film about his missionary journeys and how those coming to arrest him were pounding at the door and the disciples lowered him in a basket from a window that was in the wall of the city, allowing him to escape the hands of his captors just in the nick of time. Being a saint is supposed to be boring and only sin is supposed to be exciting. That is a complete deception, because the mission of Christ is the most exciting and fulfilling life that there is. It is full of adventure – unless our faith has become nothing but a nominal thing, without our heart in it and without our zeal for the Beloved Community in this society filled with violence and injustice.
The number of large fish, 153 of them, in Peter’s story is very intriguing. Of course, there is the possibility that they counted the fish and that’s just how many were in the net. But the number stands out in a striking way so there are many theories about what it means. One holds that, known at that time, there were 153 varieties of fish in the Sea of Galilee. Thus the number stands for universality or catholicity, because “catholic” means universal. So all the different people of the whole world will not tear the net of the Gospel or divide the church. All the nations of the world will be captured by the net of the Gospel and pulled to shore by St. Peter to follow Jesus. In the prophets the nets are also designed to capture the nations of the world for Christ. We cannot yet fathom what that means, nor has the church come into its own as yet to order the nations on the way of peace.
One hundred and fifty three is a very unique number and if you will allow some arithmetic, like my philosophy last time, then just consider 3 times 3 times 17 = 153 or seven plus ten = 153. It is the third appearance of the risen Lord and Peter denied Jesus three times and seven disciples are listed. I just can’t find ten in the story. They are 100 yards away from the shore. Some say that the Ten Commandments are there filled by grace. So 3 times 3 times 17 = 153. Consider this: 51 times 3 also makes 153. Psalm 51 is the psalm in which David repents. Peter has to repent three times, so 51 times 3 = 153. 17+16+15+14, etc. all the way down to 1 = 153. Online one can find all kinds of operations that become 153, so that mission can be done in all kinds of ways in the presence and by the command of risen Christ to catch people in the nets of the Gospel and to bring them to Christ.
Peter denies Christ over a fire in the high priest’s court yard and it is over a charcoal fire that Christ asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” This Church has also been fishing through a night of many years without catching many fish. But when the risen Christ is present, after the day breaks and the dawn brings light, Christ tells us to throw the net to the other side, and the net get filled to bursting, but does not tear. I remember sending the 40 passenger GMC church bus out into Coney Island for the first day of vacation church school and day camp and 65 kids came back with it, hanging all over the bus.
Christ was not only speaking to Peter and while he was still hiding with shame, the other disciples had drawn the miraculous fish catch to shore. They had gone back to fishing for fish, but it was now truly a breakfast of faithful champions there with the risen Christ, ready to draw all the people of the world to him. So Jesus does not only challenge Peter, who merely denied him three times, but he challenges us who have denied him in our secular world countless times. Christ asks you and me: “Do you love me?” What about you? Do you love Jesus?
I was checking out the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and how Jesus quoted it in the New Testament. I was surprised. He changed a word. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” and the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 22:37 and 39). Jesus changed the word “might,” which we find in Deuteronomy to “mind.” So we have to love God, not only with our heart and soul but also our minds, because this world represents a real challenge and many minds have turned away from our faith.
Have you told God lately that you love him? Or have you told God lately that you love her? God, of course, transcends gender. The point is not that God became a man in Jesus Christ, but that God became a human being in Jesus Christ. And Jesus also speaks to you and asks you, “Do you love me?” What won’t we do when we’re in love? Just think: When you are filled with love, you will not count the cost; you will bear all things and your burden will feel light. You will give and give and do it with rejoicing. Finally you will even become the one you love: you, too, will become a Christ, another follower who knows the Way and knows 153 ways to invite others to join you on it. Amen.