Saturday, May 12, 2007

the conversion of peter and paul (john 21; acts 9)

In the common lectionary, the church in its wisdom has matched two stories that give us insight into two of the most prominent of the early Christians, Peter and Paul. It is an understatement to say that Peter and Paul have had an enormous influence upon Christians throughout the world, from the formation of the Roman Catholic Church to the translation of the gospel to into almost every language and culture to the role of women in leadership.

Peter and Paul are both exemplary and flawed: we look up to them as role models in the faith, and yet we have our issues with them. In the New Testament---and most of the New Testament is shaped by these two apostles---Peter and Paul are portrayed as very human figures. Nothing is glossed over. They are real, flesh and blood people, just like us.

This morning we will reflect on two passages that are pivotal for Peter and Paul. You might describe these as their conversion experiences, or their call experiences. Within the two passages there are similarities and there are differences. And my hope is that within these two passages we will discover something about ourselves, about our own need for conversion, about our own callings.

First Peter. Jesus has appeared on the beach to the disciples, after the resurrection. They share a meal, in this case breakfast, bread and fish. There is rich symbolism here: we think of the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus’ own statement that he is the bread of life, and of his call to fish for men and women.

After the meal, Jesus and Peter are in conversation. Jesus asks Peter the same question, three times: “Do you love me?” And three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, I love you”. And then three times Jesus gives a command: “feed my sheep”. Many in the early Christian community heard in the three questions and three responses an echo of the three denials of Christ by Peter at his arrest. In fact, many interpreters see John 21 as the early church’s response to the question “what happened to Peter, how was Peter restored?” The one who denied that he knew Christ, who fled when it became too difficult and dangerous and disturbing, is now in a face-to-face conversation with Jesus.

It is a conversation that has to do with conversion and call. The conversion is about what Jesus wants Peter to do, about what will be required of Peter. The one who said “I am the good shepherd” is now calling upon Peter to feed his sheep, to care for the Christian community, to love others, Jesus had said at another meal, as I have loved you. And yet this caring will be costly. Peter will stretch out his arms, in suffering, and the one who is the leader will be led to places that he would rather not go. The way of the cross, for Jesus, will become the way of the cross, for Peter. After this, Jesus says simply, “follow me”.

We shift our focus now from Peter to Paul, although early in the story his name is Saul. Saul is on the way to Syria, on the Damascus Road. Saul was prominent among the persecutors of the earliest Christians. Luke tells us that he was present when Stephen is martyred. Along the way Saul is struck by lightning, he is blinded, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul responds, “who are you, Lord?” The response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”.

This incident is so important that it is told three different times in the book of Acts, like a family story that we keep repeating, because everything turns on it.

God uses Ananias to interpret what is happening for Paul. Ananias receives a message, an impulse from God that he should go to Saul, and lay hands on him, so that he might receive his sight. Saul’s immediate response is understandable: “Lord, how can I reach out to this person? He is a threat to us. He has been complicit in the murder of our people”.

We sometimes feel an impulse to reach out to people, beyond the church, don’t we? Maybe to invite them to be a part of what God is doing in this church? Perhaps to be a part of a small group, or to attend a worship service? And sometimes we are held back. What keeps us from reaching out: “He might be offended. She might not respond. He is too busy. She might reject me”. We can think of a number of reasons for not getting involved in someone else’s life, even when we feel an impulse to do so.

Ananias has a wonderful excuse: Saul is the enemy and he is dangerous. But God says, simply, “Go, for he will be my instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and, by the way, he will experience great suffering along the way”. The way of the cross for Jesus, will become the way of the cross for Paul.

And so Ananias listens and responds, he intervenes, he goes to Saul. And watch what happens. He goes into the house of Saul, he lays hands on him, and before a word is spoken he says, “Brother Saul”.

He includes Saul as his brother before Saul ever says a word. That is evangelism. We sometimes think evangelism is about how the other person will respond, but it really begins with us. What if we imagined that the person we are being sent to is already our brother or our sister. Saul is radically different from Ananias, and yet Ananias already knows that he is his brother in Christ. He is already a part of the family.

And so Saul’s sight is restored, he was blind but now he sees. He is baptized, he eats, he regains his strength.

These are the formative experiences of conversion and call in the lives of Peter and Paul. To Peter, conversion is coming face to face with the compassionate shepherd who loves him. For Paul, conversion is a blinding flash of insight, seeing the whole world in a new way. For Peter, conversion is a reminder of much that he had been taught over a period of time. For Paul, conversion is a radically new orientation in life.

For Peter, call is all about becoming more compassionate, sharing the love of God with those in the household of faith. For Paul, call is all about going into the world, sharing the grace of God with those who are outside the household of faith. Peter is the shepherd. Paul is the evangelist. Peter’s focus is internal. Paul’s focus is external. Later, in Acts 15 but also in Galatians, their two callings sometimes come into conflict. They each meet the risen Lord, but their experiences of conversion and call are very different; very real, but very different.

Now what does all of this mean for us?

Most of us do not encounter a flash of lightning in the sky, or hear an audible voice, and yet conversions still happen. And so the question, in the season of Easter, is simply about our own experience of the risen Christ, and our own sense of where he is calling us.

A friend shared this image with me recently. An acquaintance of his loved working with old cars, and was obsessed with one in particular, a Mustang. He purchased the Mustang, and began the laborious process of transforming it into its original condition. There were really two steps in the process: first, to rescue the car, and then to restore the car. The restoration was an involved process, because it included scraping away all of the rust, before the painting could begin.

In Jesus Christ, we have been rescued. God does not give up on Peter, or Paul, or you or me. The cross is the sign of God’s desire to rescue us, even when our pasts haunt us, even when we have been at odds with all that God represents. But there is more than rescue. There is also restoration. Every person is created in the image of God, in the image of a God who is love, in the image of a God who loves the world so much that he gave his son. This is slow and laborious process of restoration. It is the painful conversation between Peter and Jesus, or the blinding reorientation of Paul on the road to Damascus.

Conversion is not watching a television program, or hearing a preacher, and then settling it all, in a few minutes, and then moving on. Conversion is a lifelong process of being restored into a relationship with the One who created us in the first place. And a part of that conversion is the call to give our lives for some purpose, and here again call takes different forms.

For Peter, the call is to take care of the sheep. For Paul, the call is to share the gospel with the gentiles. What is your call? In our congregation, the call takes a diversity of expressions, and that is the beauty of the Christian community. One is called to sing. One is called to be a Stephen Minister. One is called to give medical care in Haiti. One is called to spend the night with the homeless. One is called to befriend a middle school boy or girl. One is called to teach. One is called to make the church more welcoming to gays and lesbians. One is called to share the catechism that he learned as a child with confirmands. One is called to teach the Bible in prison. One is called to practice hospitality to a family in grief. One is called to support the church financially. One is called to love adults with disabilities. One is called to be an advocate with people suffering with MS. One is called to befriend foreign missionaries.

I am sharing, in these moments, calls I have witnessed with my own eyes, in this congregation. I want you to reflect on God’s call in your life, this morning. A few comments about call: God always calls imperfect people, like Peter and Paul, like you and me. The way of the cross for Jesus will become the way of the cross for you and me. Call will at times involve suffering. Call will lead us to places we had not imagined ourselves going. And our callings will take different forms, as different as our life stories.

I want to very briefly share some of my own experience of conversion and call. It begins in the midst of a difficult adolescence, partly due to changes within our family, partly the result of racial turmoil in our deep south community, partly due to normal teenage confusion. There were changes in our family, changes in the schools (due to integration and busing), and changes in my home church, which always seemed to be in some kind of crisis. In those years everything that was settled became unsettled. It is the grace of God that I survived those years. I was a pretty self-absorbed teenager, and I did not have the benefit of a youth ministry like the one that is led by Teresa and others here at Providence.

As I began college, I joined a fraternity. In short, life got pretty excessive, as you might imagine. At some point I realized that all of this was not leading to a good place, and I was not becoming a person that I liked very much, although I did not give it a great deal of deep thought. And so I resigned from the fraternity, as quietly as possible.

For some reason I found my way to a campus ministry group, and over time something began to happen. I was an outsider, at first, but along the way this became a home. Later I talked about all of this with the pastor of my church, whom I had never really known, and just the idea of sitting down and talking with a preacher was something I had never imagined myself doing! No audible voices, no blinding flashes of light, but it was a turning point. I embraced this faith as my own. Something had been salvaged.

In time the conversion became a call. I began to try to integrate what this meant in my own life. My studies shifted from biology to psychology to theology. And I began to explore the call: what would I do with my life? I have lived long enough to be able to look back on some of it all, and gain a perspective. I can only say that, for me, the call has been and is to the church, and to this church.

There is much about life in the church that you and I cannot control. There are no set office hours, we don’t go home at 5, I don’t give people grades. We relate to anyone who walks through the doors. It is somewhat unpredictable. The local church is not perfect, but the local church is real, and it is where Christ is. And as surely as Peter has a call and Paul has a call, this is my call. It is sometimes like a salvaged car, and there is a lot of rust to be scraped away, but at times the light shines through, and God’s grace is visible.

Now, I want you to think about your own conversion. Where has God shown up in your life story? When did you feel closest to Christ? And I want you to think about your call. What shape will your own calling take? What are you doing with your life?


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