April 10, 2016
3rd Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Rod Sprange
Forgiveness, Redemption, Call to Vocation
Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
I heard a joke on CBC morning radio on Tuesday. It was a typical riddle from a young boy for his dad. What is green and smells like red paint? Anyone guess? The answer of course is green paint; the colour doesn’t alter the smell. It's so obvious when we are told. But we look for clever answers. This can happen when we read scripture - sometimes we are so busy trying to figure out a complex meaning we miss the obvious, simple answer.
Today’s stories about Peter and Saul being confronted by Jesus simply speak to me of forgiveness, redemption and call to vocation. Forgiveness. Redemption. Vocation. We use these words a lot in the church, but have you ever spent much time thinking about what they really mean? These are critical ideas that go to the heart of Christian belief and life.
The Good News today is that in these two stories Jesus demonstrates forgiveness, and shows us redemption in the form of belonging and with the trust implicit in his call to vocation.
Let’s take a look at Peter’s encounter on the beach first. I’m going to skip over the fishing part for today and focus on the tense conversation between Jesus and Peter by the charcoal fire.
We need to remember that with the Gospel according to John, there are no wasted words - John doesn’t pad out his writing with unnecessary descriptions. So the charcoal fire has meaning and is an important element in understanding what is going on in Peter’s mind and heart.
Remember, Peter was the one at the last supper who said he would never betray or abandon Jesus, he was prepared to die for him. But, Jesus told him he would deny him three times that very night before the cock crowed in the morning. Peter is adamant that he will not. Yet, like the others he runs away when Jesus is arrested. But he follows the guards to where they take Jesus. It is a cold night. Peter comes to warm himself by a charcoal fire. You know that distinctive smell. it is by that fire that Peter denies he knows anything about Jesus - not once, not twice, but three times!
Peter has been carrying that memory and the guilt ever since. Each time he thinks of it he wants to crawl into a dark hole and disappear. His stomach turns over, he feels sick and ashamed. You know how smell can bring memories to mind - you smell turkey and think of past Thanksgivings or Christmases. Maybe you smell a pipe and remember a grandfather. Smells are very very effective in evoking memories and emotions like happiness and sadness, and guilt. So imagine what the smell of a charcoal fire is like for Peter.
So here we are on the beach, the Risen Christ is cooking fish over a charcoal fire. Peter is thrilled to see Jesus, yet full of shame from the memory made so vivid by the smell of the fire. Peter needs to be healed of his guilt, to know he is forgiven, to be redeemed, before he can forgive himself, and that can only be done by Jesus.
Jesus asks him three times - Do you love me? and three times Peter replies Lord, you know I love you. And gets rather frustrated that Jesus would ask him this three times. It would probably be later that he would realize he needed to affirm his love for Jesus the same number of times that he had recently denied him. How does Jesus respond to Peter’s answer that he loves him. Does he say, oh that’s ok then, I forgive you for abandoning me? I forgive you for denying me? No. What Jesus does is demonstrate his forgiveness and acceptance by calling Peter to help him shepherd his sheep. Jesus was saying I am trusting you with carrying on my mission. Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep - become their shepherd for me when I am gone.
Peter would never forget what he had done, but the gift of being asked to express his love for Jesus, and entrusted with the sacred task of leading the new movement must have helped take away the feeling of guilt and to know that he was not only forgiven but had been redeemed, he belonged - he just needed to respond to Jesus call - I can imagine him responding in his heart - I will, Lord, with God’s help.
In our Eucharist liturgy the presiding Priest proclaims God’s forgiveness - but we actually experience that forgiveness when every one of us is invited to the table, to receive the sacraments of bread and wine. We belong, you belong, every one of you. There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God’s love - or that is beyond Jesus’s redemption. All you have to do is respond “You know Lord that I love you”, and put out your hands and receive with thanksgiving.
If you want another example which shows you the depth of Jesus’s forgiveness just look at the story of Saul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on his way to Damascus.
Saul was an extremely devout Jew. A Pharisee. A true believer in the God of Israel. Someone who was vigilant in following the letter of the law of Moses. He was sure that he knew what God wanted, what was righteous and what was blasphemous. He had taken it on himself to purge the Jewish church of the blasphemers who stubbornly continued to say that Jesus of Nazareth had been the Messiah and that he had been raised from the dead on the third day. In his mind these people were tearing his church apart, they were making nonsense of the whole idea of Messiah. These people had to be stopped. According to Acts he was present at the brutal stoning of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr.
Saul had persuaded the Chief Priest to give him a letter of authority to hunt down and arrest the apostates who resided in Damascus (a city to the North of Galilee). He was a very dangerous man in his righteousness and was terrifying the new members of ‘The Way’ - the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, It’s a long, arduous journey to Damascus from Jerusalem. Saul, full of righteousness, was probably praying and meditating as he rode on, mile after dusty mile. He seems to have been getting close to Damascus when his meditating is suddenly interrupted by a blinding light. Possibly he thought he was having a vision of God’s glory - he is startled so much he falls to the ground. Then he and the others with him hear a voice asking “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul asks - “Who are you Lord?” and the voice replies “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Then the Risen Christ directs Saul to go on into Damascus where he will be told what to do. Saul has been blinded by this light. This is analogous of the spiritual blindness that is driving him. He is led by the hand into Damascus and waits for three days. Jesus visits Ananias in a vision and convinces him to go to Saul - which he is frightened of doing. Ananias visits Saul, lays his hands on him saying, “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”. Then something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. Again, this analogous of the spiritual blindness falling away from him allowing him to see the world as God intended.
But notice the way Ananias greets Saul - “Brother Saul”. He has already accepted Saul and is telling him he belongs! What better way of demonstrating Jesus’s forgiveness of Saul’s terrible persecution of the new church than by calling him one of their brothers and healing him physically and spiritually. Saul immediately went to be baptized and began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God!
Two remarkable stories of forgiveness and redemption demonstrated by a call to serve, and the implicit trust and confirmation of belonging.
I think many of us wonder if we are worthy of serving Christ. All of us have things in our past that make us cringe - or sorrowful - or perhaps for which we are carrying around a heavy burden of guilt. Jesus doesn’t want us to carry guilt - he died for us that our sins would be forgiven and that we can move forward free from the burden of sin and death. Free to belong to God’s family, free to serve Christ in different ways. There is no one who Jesus cannot redeem and commission in his service. There is no past sin that he cannot forgive or that disqualifies us as disciples. Let’s pray that recognizing our past mistakes and God’s forgiveness helps us to be more compassionate and forgiving of others.
We haven’t all been called to be preachers, or priests, or deacons. All of us have been called to a far greater role - to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world. To bring peace, cry out for justice and offer healing, and to help proclaim the Good News especially to the poor, the sick and the outcasts. Each of us is called to undertake these tasks in different ways - in different walks of life and family situations. You have been called to serve Christ in the world, probably in more than one way, but make no mistake you have been called. Perhaps it’s as a mother or Grandfather, perhaps as a teacher or shop assistant. Maybe you have been called to serve Christ as a manager, or factory worker. What you do in the world is important. Who you are is important.
Every encounter you have with another person is an opportunity to show them the face of Christ - and to recognize Christ in them - some people make that harder than others. And some days the whole thing seems more difficult. But, wherever we spend our days we are called to work out our baptismal promises - every day of the week. We are Christians 24/7 not just for an hour and fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning.
This Pentecost, May 15, we will be doing something special. We will be offering to commission all who wish in their various roles. We will have the opportunity to come forward and be commissioned as teachers, parents, managers - whatever role it is that we have in the world. Pentecost seems the perfect day - the day when the church received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit through whom Jesus calls us and it is the Holy Spirit who encourages and strengthens us in our Christian ministry and to uphold our baptismal promises. So I invite you, between now and May 15 (five Sundays from now) to think and pray about the role that Jesus has called you to perform in the world, and to come on the Day of Pentecost and receive the church’s blessing and commissioning for that role.
You are brothers and sisters in Christ - members of Christ’s body. In the words of Hymn 502 - you are salt for the earth, you are a light on the hill, you are a seed of the word. Jesus calls you to nothing less than helping to bring forth God’s Kingdom.
I pray we can all respond to Christ’s Call - Yes Lord, I will with God’s help.