(The St Peter and St Paul windows of Trinity Cathedral face each other from the ends of the north and south transepts. The low-quality photos are my own.)
A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.
Do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Do you know what it means to be a follower of the Risen Jesus?
Our passages from the Acts of the Apostles and from John’s Gospel today introduce us to two of the greatest disciples of all time: Simon, Son of John, and Saul of Tarsus. We know them better as St Peter and St Paul–the two men God chose especially for the work of establishing, tending, and spreading his Church. We know them from their profound letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. We know them from the stories of their powerful words and deeds. We know them from their stained glass portraits here in the Cathedral. And we know them from the long shadow they still cast over Christian life.
Surely Peter and Paul show us the measure of discipleship. Surely their witness and example show us what it takes to follow Jesus. And surely, this should leave us shaking in our pews!
Does a disciple have to have the courage and conviction of Peter: boldly preaching the Good News, performing deeds of power and healing in Jesus’ name, and faithfully tending the flock of Christ until he is crucified—upside down?!
Does a disciple have to have the eloquence and the tenacity of Paul: tirelessly spreading the Gospel everywhere he went, facing hostile crowds and skeptical hearers around the Mediterranean world, braving all the disasters and indignities of first-century travel, and finally going up to Rome itself to proclaim the lordship of Jesus in the courts of the Emperor?
If all this is what it takes to be a disciple—if the trials and triumphs of Peter and Paul provide the template for the Christian life—well then I wouldn’t blame you if you headed for the doors right now. (Please don’t do that.)
But before we let the legacy of Peter and Paul scare us off, I want to call us back to the specific stories we have heard today. I want to look at these two men, not in light of what we know they will become or of what we remember about them from Church history. But I want to look at them just as we find them today, at the beginning of their lives as disciples of the Risen Jesus, and to consider what their stories can teach us about the life of discipleship.
It is not a promising beginning. On the one hand we have Simon Peter, the most eager, the most outspoken, and the most assertive of Jesus’ inner circle of followers throughout the course of his earthly ministry. Simon is always rushing ahead, making promises we know he can’t keep, offering explanations we know he doesn’t fully understand. Simon is a loudmouth, full of bluster and bravado and false confidence. And Simon is the one who, as Jesus approaches his passion and death, denies ever knowing his Lord just in order to save his own skin.
Our Gospel today tells us that Simon Peter remained the leader of Jesus’ followers event after the Resurrection. In the midst of their joyful confusion and happy bewilderment at meeting their Risen Lord, Simon led them back up to Galilee to return to the life they knew before they ever met Jesus. So it is that this morning we find the disciples right back where they started: fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee in their little, leaky boats, with nothing to show for their work but their empty nets.
On the other hand, we have Saul of Tarsus: the most zealous, the most feared, and the most hate-filled of the persecutors of the early Church. We meet Saul for the very first time as he looks on approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told of Saul’s single-minded mission to destroy the Church of God. This morning, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” received official sanction for his effort to search out early followers of the Way—women and men who walked in the way of the Risen Christ—and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.
So there we have them: Simon, the rudderless, thoughtless, faithless fisherman; and Saul, the ruthless, pitiless, vicious religious fanatic.
What on earth can these stories teach us about being a follower of the Risen Christ? How in the world do these miserable men become the great disciples we’ve heard about?
When we look at Simon and Saul at the beginning of their ministries, we find that what binds together their lives and stories is one thing–and one thing only: The Call of God. What makes these two men disciples–in spite of their faults and failures, in spite of their hatreds and their hurts–is the Call of the Risen Jesus.
It’s easiest to see in Saul’s case because his transformation is so sudden and stark. Traveling along the Damascus road, doggedly pursuing his goal of total destruction for the Church, the zealous young Pharisee meets the Risen Jesus in a blinding flash of light.
Imagine his bafflement and confusion; imagine his wonder and his fear. Everything Saul knows about himself and his world, everything in which Saul takes pride and to which he has devoted his life, is overthrown in an instant. Darkness descends upon him. Three days Saul spends in blindness and in prayer, fasting from food or drink. And when, on the third day, Ananias comes to him at the Lord’s command and lays his hands upon him, and the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, we see the fruit of his encounter–we see the power of God’s Call. Saul the Pharisee is baptized, and begins to preach the name of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. A disciple is born.
But notice that the change in Saul has not been accomplished by Saul’s own decision or choice. The change in Saul has not been accomplished by his days spent in fasting and prayer. The change in Saul has not even been accomplished by the ministry of faithful Ananias.
Saul has been changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. Saul has been transformed because the Lord has chosen him for an instrument “to bring [his] name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.” The unexpected, unasked for Call of God is the root and source of Saul’s discipleship.
And that Call is the root and source of Simon Peter’s discipleship as well. Imagine Simon’s shame and dejection as he remembers denying that he ever knew his Lord. Imagine his confusion and even his fear as he hears word of the Resurrection and remembers the teaching of Jesus: that “He who denies me before others, him I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Imagine his anxiety and his excitement as he realizes that the man walking along the shore of Galilee is Jesus, and he throws himself into the water, swimming with all his might to meet him. Imagine his anticipation and trepidation as he watches Jesus eat his breakfast by the lakeshore, marveling that this is not a vision, or an apparition, or even a resuscitation, but that the same Jesus who was crucified is now risen to new life.
And imagine, all through this difficult, wonderful morning, how Simon Peter’s dread and joy must’ve grown in equal measure. For after breakfast, Jesus asks him the question that he feared and hoped for: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”
Three times that question comes. Three time it pains Simon Peter to hear it and to answer it. And yet that question works backwards into his soul, undoing the damage of his three-time denial of Christ. And once the memory of his own shame, his own failed expectations, his own self-centered following of Jesus has been conquered by the presence of the Risen Lord, the Call comes also to Simon Peter: “Follow me.” A new disciple of Jesus—a disciple of the Resurrected Jesus—is born.
But note again that this call doesn’t come to Simon through his own decision or choice. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his three years of discipleship during Christ’s earthly ministry. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his eager swimming to Jesus. The change in Simon is not even accomplished by his faithful answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” to the painful questions posed by Jesus.
Simon Peter is changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. The Call of God transforms the baffled, bumbling fisherman into the bold, courageous shepherd of God’s flock.
By that Call, Simon the fisherman now truly becomes Peter, the rock on whom Christ’s Church is built. By that Call, Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Apostle–the bearer of the message; the one who is sent to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world.
Brothers and sisters, I asked at the outset of this sermon, “Do you have what it takes to be a disciple?” See now that a disciple is not measured by his own deeds or disasters! A disciple is not measured by her own faithfulness or failures! The life of discipleship comes from the Call of the Master. To be a disciple is to hear the Call of the One who can and does accomplish what he promises: the One who raises the dead to life, and who calls into existence the things that are not.
And the startling message of our Scripture readings today is that that Call to discipleship can come to anyone, anywhere. The Call came to a fanatic overcome with hatred, consumed by his bitter intention to bind and judge the servants of God, and he became Paul. The Call came to a faithless fisherman, a man of lowly estate who slunk back to his boats in confusion and shame, and he became Peter. The Call came to every kind of unworthy, unlikely, unwelcome and unwanted person in the ancient world, transforming them by its power and giving them grace to become the disciples of Jesus, the mothers and fathers of the Church.
And the Call comes still. The Call has come even to the poor sinners who stand and minister to this congregation in this place. The Call comes to us, your priests, right in the midst of all our faults and foibles, our intemperance and our incompetence, our silly pride and our stubborn pretension.
And, by our ministry and through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit of God, the Call comes to you. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be followers of the Risen Jesus. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be empowered to proclaim the Good News of Christ in your every word and deed. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may speak the Name of the Lord before the nations, before rulers and authorities, and before the whole chosen people of God.
The Call of discipleship comes to you: God himself calls to you, dear people, and speaks again those simple, wonderful, costly words: “Follow me.” And it is that Call, and nothing else, that makes you a disciple.
Won’t your rise up out of your blindness and heed that Call? Won’t you swim to shore from those fishing boats—those same old worn and weary fishing boats of routine and habit and inertia and comfort—and fall at the feet of the Risen Lord?
Beloved people of God, hear today the Call of Jesus. Become true disciples of Christ, not through your work and witness, not because of your choice or decision, but by the power of his eternal Call.
Follow him, and learn the power of that Call to claim you, to change you, to use you to his purpose, and to carry you, perhaps, even to places where you do not wish to go.