The Third Sunday After Easter, Year C, April 7, 2013
Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s readings, we have three “call” stories. Now, a call story is a story about God calling you to do something. The most obvious people in a community with a call from God are pastors. After all, like most churches, the ELCA will not ordain anyone a pastor unless they genuinely believe that you have been called by God to the ordained ministry. But pastors aren’t the only ones God calls. In fact, God calls all kinds of people to all kinds of work. And sometimes that work is something that lasts a lifetime, and sometimes that call is just for one thing, right then, right now. It’s often something we wouldn’t have chosen, and from the outside it can look kind of strange. God works in ways we don’t understand, ways we would never have chosen, and sometimes God calls us to do things we would never have imagined.
Our first lesson tells the story of the conversion of Saul. You’re probably more familiar with him under a different name: Paul. You see, “Paul” is a more Greek-sounding name, so it’s what Saul called himself when dealing with Gentiles. So, since we are the spiritual descendants of the Gentiles that Paul brought to the faith—and because most of our knowledge of Paul comes from the letters he wrote to those Gentiles, which have been included in the New Testament—we call him St. Paul. It’s easy to think of Paul as a wise church leader, an apostle sent by God to preach the faith and guide new believers. It’s not so easy to remember that before he was a believer in Jesus Christ, Paul persecuted the church. He was a devout Jew who believed that the teachings of Jesus were leading his people astray from the true word of God, and so he sought out followers of Jesus and prosecuted them. At least one of those trials, that of a deacon named Stephen, resulted in an execution. And after Stephen’s death, Paul travelled to Damascus to seek out other followers of Christ to bring to trial. Paul was a devout man who genuinely, honestly believed that he was a righteous man following God’s will … except what he was doing was directly against God’s will!
Now, if it was you or me, we would not say that this guy would make a good follower of Christ. If it was you or me, we’d look at this man who was responsible for the death of a faithful Christian and was seeking others to persecute, and we’d say “this guy deserves what he gets—he doesn’t deserve salvation! He doesn’t deserve God’s love! Get rid of him. But that’s not what God did. God did not attack Paul. God did not think Paul was beyond redemption—God knew better. God came to Paul and showed him the error of his ways. God called Paul to a better and truer and deeper understanding of God’s Word. Imagine what it must have been like for Paul: God turned his entire world upside down. Everything Paul thought he knew was wrong. God did have work for Paul, but it wasn’t what Paul was expecting. When he started out for Damascus, neither Paul nor anyone else could have imagined where that journey would lead him. God called him out of his comfortable certainties, his narrow righteousness, into a fuller understanding of God’s love that demanded to be shared with the world. The call that God gave Paul, which began on that road to Damascus, would last Paul’s whole life long and transform the fledgling movement known then only as “the Way”, which would eventually be called the Christian Church.
The second call story in today’s lessons is that of Ananias. Unlike Paul, we don’t know much about Ananias. He seems to have been an ordinary follower of Jesus Christ, nothing special about him that anybody can see. The only other time he’s mentioned in the Bible is later in Acts when Paul tells the story of his roadside experience, referring to Ananias as a “devout follower” of God. There was nothing special about Ananias … except that when God called him to do something, he did it. Put yourself in Ananias’ shoes. He knew darn good and well who this Saul of Tarsus that God was sending him to was. He knew that Paul had been persecuting the followers of Jesus. He knew that Paul was responsible for the death of Stephen, and had come specifically to attack followers of Jesus—like Ananias himself! Paul was a clear and present threat to his continued life and livelihood. If you were him, would you have wanted to go heal Paul? No! If it were me, there’s a good chance that I’d look upon Paul’s blinding as the least of what he deserved, and take pleasure in his misfortune. So it’s no wonder that, when God called Ananias to heal Paul’s blindness, Ananias questioned God.
And yet, when it came down to it … Ananias went. He followed God’s call to heal and teach Paul, and in so doing he participated in something he could never have imagined. By healing Paul and teaching him the basics of the Christian faith, Ananias helped start Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Without Ananias’ healing and witness, Paul could not have learned about Jesus, he could not have travelled throughout Greece and Turkey spreading the Gospel, and he could not have written the letters that have added so much depth and richness to our understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Ananias’ call to heal and teach Paul lasted only for a short time, and yet it enabled a spread of the Gospel beyond anything anybody had seen yet.
Then, in the Gospel, we have a call for Simon, who was nicknamed Peter. Peter, by the way, means “Rock,” and I’ve always wondered if that was a reference to how hard his head was. Peter was not the brightest of the disciples. If there was a way to misunderstand, Peter would do it. If there was a way to screw up, Peter would find it. Peter had some of the best moments of any of the disciples, where he “got” who Jesus was better than anyone else … and each time he immediately followed it up by proving he was still missing the boat. You may have noticed, in today’s reading, the funny thing he does: he’d taken off his clothes to fish, presumably so as not to get fish guts and stuff on them. Seeing Jesus on the shore, he is overwhelmed with joy! He’s going to swim ashore to meet Jesus because he can’t even wait for the boat to get there! And before he jumps in the water and gets soaking wet, he put all his clothes on. Usually, people take their clothes off before they go swimming, but not our Rock. Not the brightest crayon in the box, our Peter. If I were interviewing for a church leadership position and someone like Peter was one of the applicants, I would hesitate. If I were to pick a disciple to be the backbone of the early church, without knowing Peter’s later role, I would have picked a different one. Yet Jesus singled Peter out, calling him to “feed Jesus’ sheep,” to care for all of God’s children, and telling him that this call would end with Peter suffering for Jesus’ sake.
And Peter answered Jesus’ call, knowing it would lead him into danger and hard times. He didn’t miraculously become a different person, he didn’t miraculously become suave and sophisticated. He never stopped being a bit dense. Yet God used him to bring many others to the faith. Peter never managed the sophisticated theological arguments that Paul did, but that was okay. That wasn’t what Peter was called to do. Peter was called by God to tell the story, to tell how he had experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus, to tell the story simply and honestly. And, when disputes among the followers of Christ came up, Peter was called to give common-sense answers and pass on what God told him. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. Through his honesty, his openness, his willingness to follow God even when he didn’t understand what God wanted him to do, Peter had a profound impact on the early Christians. He helped them see God’s work in their midst, even when it went against what they expected God would want. Peter fed God’s sheep with simple, wholesome Good News.
In all three of these call stories, God called people we wouldn’t expect to do things we wouldn’t expect. He picked the enemy of the faith, the ordinary follower of Jesus, the dimmest of the disciples. And he didn’t call them to do what they expected God would want them to do. Paul never imagined that he would join the very group he had been persecuting in God’s name. Ananias never expected he would heal and mentor a man who had been the enemy of his people. Peter never expected he would be the heart of the followers of Jesus, one of their great leaders. Yet through their actions, faith in Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world. We would not be here today without them.
And we shouldn’t be surprised that God calls unusual people to do unusual things. After all, God is one who does the unexpected. God is the one who chose to save the world through his own death. God is the one who came to earth not in a palace, but in a humble stable. God is the one who came to challenge the forces of evil not like a lion, but like a tiny lamb. Our God is always turning the world upside down and right side up. We worship the lamb that was slain, who loved the whole world so much that he could not bear to see any part of it suffer. We worship a God who calls all of creation to himself, not just the big and might and good but the small, and stupid, and wrong, and bad as well, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, calls them to new life with the risen Christ.
God calls all of creation to rejoice in the Resurrection, and to participate in Christ’s saving work in the world. God calls us, too, every single one of us. We all have our part in the choir of all creation. We all have our part to play in the Good News. It may be big, it may be small, but in everything we say and do we are called to proclaim the good news that comes through Jesus Christ. The question is, will we answer God’s call? Will we follow where God leads us, even if it’s not what we would have chosen or anticipated? Will we let the love of God shine through our words and our deeds?
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!