Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) – Saul’s light from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Psalm 30 – For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Revelation 5:11-14 – Angels at the throne: “Worthy is the Lamb…”
John 21:1-19 – Breakfast with Jesus. Jesus forgives Peter. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Acts 9: The Turn-Around Life
Do you know someone who has made a complete turnaround in their life? It may not come to you right away. You may have to go on a long walk and think about it.
Some have fallen into addiction. Some have been abusers. Some have been to prison. Here we must be honest. Many, maybe most, aren’t able to turn around.
But some do.
Today’s story is about a turn-around life. Saul’s turn-around is so life-changing, he even changed his name to mark his rebirth. Saul the murderer became Paul the apostle. 13 of the books of the New Testament are attributed to him.
The story comes from Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament, volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. Acts is all about what happened to the disciples after the resurrection. These disciples had lived with Jesus, and travelled with Jesus, taking part in his healing and preaching ministry. They had travelled through Galilee, Samaria and Judea. They had seen leper colonies and crowds of thousands. And then their leader was brutally executed. Hung naked from a cross. When it all went down, they scattered. It was the women who stayed with Jesus at the cross, and John. It was the women who funded Jesus’ ministry. It was the women at the tomb.
These were brave women. Although women were less likely to be crucified then men, we know women were crucified. And, Herodotus recounts (4.202.1 and 9.120.4) the female relations/spouses of crucified victims being killed before them in their sight, as part of the punishment.
The men eventually reassemble in the upper room. On Easter evening, John 20 tells us, the disciples were gathered with the doors locked because they were afraid.
So what made the disciples turn-around guys? What shocked them out of their timidity? It’s almost as if they saw a ghost. If not an encounter with the resurrected Christ, what on earth moved them from being frightened disciples of a failed leader, cowering in the upper room with the doors locked, into globe-trotting apostles who were willing to die for their faith?
And die they did. When they were stoned to death, the stoners laid their coats at the feet of Saul. Stoning is exhausting work. You work up a sweat. The leader watches the coats.
Saul was making his mark on the world persecuting Christians. Breathing threats and murder against the disciples. Threats and murder.
He was zealous to snuff out the cancer that was growing in the Jewish community. Acts 4 tells us there were already 5,000 “believers,” just in Jerusalem. These believers were lax about the law, critical of the temple, accepting of Gentiles at their table, exalting of a crucified criminal, putting Israel at risk from Roman persecution for supporting a false Messiah, and blasphemous for proclaiming a human being as “Lord.” (Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord.) Whether authorized, or on his own, Paul set out for Damascus to deal the church a death blow. He was in for a surprise.
According to Luke’s account, he began looking for people belonging to The Way. Christianity was not a doctrine or a theology. It was “a way,” a way of life. It was a graceful way of being in the world that involved eating with outcasts, becoming involved in a healing ministry, and proclaiming God’s love to the world.
What turned Saul around?
One thing I have learned from the people I have known who turned their lives around: There’s usually a turning point, a tipping point, or a bottom. People usually don’t change until they hit rock bottom. Some of you have been there. Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. You have to die before you can be born again. The only prerequisite for resurrection is you have to be dead. Being born again means dying to your old self. The old Adam, as Luther called it.
Too often we want Easter without Good Friday. We think we can have the resurrection without the crucifixion. Christianity without the cross. There’s a lot of that going around these days.
We don’t know what Saul’s bottom was. Maybe he looked down and saw how much blood was on his hands. Maybe he saw Jesus crucified. He was in the Temple Guard at the time. Or maybe he heard about it. There’s something about seeing innocent victims, that miscarriage of justice, that changes us inside.
Did you ever wake up and realize you were on the wrong side? Have you ever had a crisis of conscience and switched sides? Have you ever experienced what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul?”
Paul was on the road to Damascus and he saw light flashing around him. He fell to the ground and heard, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
For days he could not see. Then a man came to see him at the house where he was staying, on Straight Street. He was going to get his life straight on Straight Street. He laid hands on him in prayer, was filled with the Spirit, and something like scales fell from his eyes. He was baptized, and with that, Saul became Paul. He became a follower of Christ and lover of people.
Actually, Paul’s story is told three times in Acts, if you’re interested.
- Acts 9:1-20
- Acts 22:6-16
- Acts 26:12-18
Does Paul ever tell the story? As a matter of fact he does, but quite differently, and in the third person. Here it is, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Here is my harebrained idea. I think Paul had a retinal detachment. In Galatians, Paul describes having a physical infirmity, and mentions eyes. Galatians 4:13-15:
You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; 14 though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.
So he’s got an eye problem. I’ve never had a retinal detachment, but I hear floaters and flashes are a sign. Remember at his conversion Paul saw “a flash of light.”
A retinal detachment, by the way, doesn’t make it any less miraculous. If God wanted to give someone a flash of light, a retinal detachment is as good a way to do it as anything. God uses the ordinary for extraordinary purposes. A man who was persecuting others, became one of them in that moment.
So what does it take for a turn around life?
- You have to be ready. You can’t make someone else have a turnaround.
- You have to hit bottom. Everyone has a different bottom. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.
- You have to die to yourself. Can’t rise again if you aren’t dead.
- It takes a community. Ananias came and baptized Paul. He became part of a community. My friends who had turnarounds had community. One friend had a church that pushed him into a recovery program.
- You have to have hope. Something to live for. One friend told me he was in love. Another had tremendous support from his parents.
- God shows up. Jesus showed up in the locked room for the disciples. God showed up for Paul. God often surprises us.
- Unconditional love. Grace. One person told me, I couldn’t have made it if I didn’t know how much I was loved. The law never works. It may kick us in the butt, but it has no power to transform. Only grace can do that.
You may not be able to make turnaround happen, but you can create an atmosphere where it’s more likely to happen. Get ready. Embrace the crisis. Die to yourself. Find a community. Find hope. Acknowledge your higher power.
No one is beyond God’s grace. No one. Not you, not me, not them out there. We have a God who raises the dead, who transformed Saul the murderer into Paul the missionary and author of most of the New Testament. Imagine what God can do in your life.
Other random meanderings about Paul and Acts
Based on the names of the public figures in Acts, and other historical markers in Paul’s letters, we know there is a narrow window of time here. If we hypothetically place the crucifixion at 33 A.D. and Paul’s execution between 62 and 64 A.D. (Nero?), we have a span of thirty years in which to place Paul’s three missionary journeys, four if you include his final trip to Rome.
Of course, we have no account of Paul’s demise. It is a historical curiosity that one does not exist. Why does Luke leave us hanging? If Paul was tried and executed in Rome (the most likely scenario) then why doesn’t Luke tell us? Clement seems to think Paul was martyred in Rome. If Paul escaped execution and successfully launched his hoped-for mission to Spain, living to a ripe old age, sipping sangria on a beach in Barcelona, why doesn’t Luke tell us? We must assume he simply doesn’t know. Or perhaps he didn’t finish the story. Still, Acts seems to come to a decent conclusion. If we presume Luke is writing in 90 A.D. the events in question have already taken place decades ago. It is possible that Paul got swept up in Nero’s persecution of Christians following his burning of Rome, which he blamed on them. Perhaps Paul ended up at one of Nero’s human party torches. More likely, scholars say, he was tried and beheaded (the death penatly of choice for Roman citizens, who could not be crucified) in 62 A.D. before Rome burned.
In any case, Paul’s conversion had to have happened pretty soon after the crucifixion and resurrection. Some have even suggested 34 A.D.
But is this a conversion? James Dunn (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, now on sale digitally for $2.99) questions if we can call this a conversion at all. Has Paul left Judaism behind for a new religion, or does he understand himself as still a Jew? After all, Paul’s “conversion” doesn’t change his belief about God. The God who is revealed in Jesus is the same Creator God of Genesis, the same God of the Covenants. As a devout Jew, Paul said the Shema twice a day. It is doubtful that changed.
His conversion, however, is central to his theology. Paul says this gospel came to him “through revelation… when God chose to reveal his Son to me…” (Galatians 1:12, 16). It did not come from human beings. For Paul, the hidden wisdom of God is revealed through the Spirit. A. N. Wilson (Paul: The Mind of the Apostle) reminds us that Paul was a mystic. He had had life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. Paul’s own description of his conversion in 2 Corinthians 12 reads much like an out-of-body experience. Paul admits he’s not sure himself.
There is also a significant shift in Paul’s attitude toward the law. Prior to his conversion Paul described himself as being zealous for the law. Afterwards, one cannot read Paul’s letters without gaining a clear sense that Paul has a decisively negative attitude toward the law:
- The law increases sin.
- The law reigns in death.
- The power of sin is the law.
- “What shall we say? That the law is sin?” He concludes it is not, but you can tell he’s struggling with the idea.
- By the law shall no flesh be justified before God. It may not be sin, but it is impotent.
- We have been released from the law, having died to it.
- As a Pharisee, Paul was “set apart” for the law. Now he tells his churches, he is “set apart” for the gospel.
- Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4).
- The law is a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3:6-9).
- Paul has died to the law in order that he might live to God.
This is clearly a conversion of sorts, from his training in the Law (Torah) as a Pharisee, to a religion of the Spirit, revealed through a personal encounter with the risen Christ, based on faith, with a negative view of the law. In fact, this law/gospel dialectic may be the only way to understand Paul’s conversion.
Michael Gorman (Apostle of the Crucified Lord) says that Paul was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew. He was simply a Jew who encountered the once-crucified Jesus. Dunn concludes that this is not a conversion to a new religion, but a conversion to a new sect within the same religious framework. It is not like a Hindu becoming a Buddhist. It is more like a Baptist fundamentalist becoming a Roman Catholic, or vice-versa. Paul remains a Jew, but he moves from being a Pharisee to a Nazarene.
With Paul’s conversion comes a very clear sense of call. God revealed “his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” (Galatians 1:15-16)
Perhaps this is a good time for the preacher to tell his or her call story. Few of us can claim to have had such a dramatic conversion experience, but we too have been called to what we are doing. How did that happen? In what ways has the risen Christ “shown up” in your life that drove you inexorably to the place where you now serve? Our people cannot begin to see the hand of God moving in their own lives if we cannot articulate the ways in which God is moving in ours. Some homiletics professors shun personal sermons. Granted, if every sermon is about you, something is wrong, but if Luke could tell Paul’s call story three times, and if Paul could mention it numerous times, comparing it to the call of Isaiah and the call of Jeremiah, certainly we can tell our story once in a while to show how God works in the lives of us ordinary, flawed human beings.
When did you first sense God’s call to ministry? To what is God calling you today? How can you tell? In what ways is Jesus standing before you, calling you to feed his sheep?
John 21: Breakfast with Jesus on the beach at sunrise
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
In my father’s copy of R. H. Lightfoot’s groundbreaking St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, 1956, Lightfoot delights that papyri have “recently” been found that suggest John’s Gospel may have been written as early as 100 AD. Still, of course, it is the last of the four Canonical gospels to be written. As such, our gospel reading is likely written ten years after Luke wrote the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts, which we just discussed.
A half a century ago, Lightfoot called chapter 21 the “appendix.” John 21 is also called an appendix or an addendum in my father’s copy of C. K. Barrett’s The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary with Notes on the Greek Text, 1960. Today, there is scholarly consensus from both a textual basis and a literary basis, that John ended his gospel with 20:30- 31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Amen. Great ending. If chapter 21 was added, it was probably done so early on. Chapter 21 appears in all but one of the manuscripts that we have of John’s gospel, but if John wrote it, like a bad preacher, he has several conclusions.
Was John the last surviving apostle? Did the church need to tag on stories that he had left out of the narrative? Robert Hoch (in WorkingPreacher.org), drawing upon Gerard S. Sloyan, says there is perhaps some unfinished business – some tidying up to do in chapter 21. There is still the unresolved question of who the greatest disciple is. And what of Peter? Do we leave him as the one who denied Jesus three times? How does he re-enter as chief apostle? Perhaps John’s editor is doing some damage control.
So John 21, “the appendix,” after having tied up the story, starts up again, “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…” The phrase “after these things” is vague. A day? A week? A year? The Sea of Tiberius is just another name for the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus first found the disciples. At the end of chapter 20 we were still in Jerusalem. Now we are suddenly way back up in Galilee. Matthew’s appendix does something similar. The Great Commission) (Matthew 28) takes place in Galilee.
This post-resurrection end-of-the-story account in John (21) is a pre-resurrection beginning of the story account in Luke (5).
There are seven present in this story: Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee (James and John) and two unnamed “other disciples.” Improbably, this is the first time that the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in John’s gospel. If it were not for this appendix, we would not know about them at all in John’s account.
The Great Catch
Peter decides to go fishing. They pull an all-nighter and come up with nothing. At dawn, they see a shadowy figure along the shore. The hearer of John’s gospel knows it is Jesus, but the characters in the story do not.
Jesus knows they have caught nothing. He tells them to cast their nets to the right of the boat. Why right side of the boat? In antiquity, the right side was the best side. The right hand was the best hand. It was good to sit at the right hand of God. In Luke 1:11 the angel is on the right side of the altar. In Mt. 25:33 the good sheep are on the right, and the goats on the left. In Mk 16:5, the “young man” is on the right side of the tomb.
When they do cast the nets on the right side, there are so many fish they cannot haul in the nets. This text is filled with hints about the relationship between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is this beloved disciple who first recognizes Jesus, but it is Peter, naked Peter, who throws on his clothes, dives into the water, and swims to the shore. In the last chapter, recall that the disciple whom Jesus loved outran Peter to the empty tomb. Now Peter swims to the shore ahead of the beloved disciple. There is some posturing going on here.
Breakfast on the Beach
The rest of the disciples eventually make it the 100 yards to the beach, in the boat, dragging the net of fish behind them. Jesus is waiting, with fish and bread on a charcoal fire on the beach. It is a heart-warming scene at sunrise. Fish and bread were the same kind of food as in the feeding of the five thousand, in John 6. These are the staples of the first century Palestinian diet.
It is Simon Peter who climbs back aboard the boat and drags the net of fish ashore. Peter is responsible for bringing in and managing the great catch. There are 153 fish. A lot. And the net is unbroken. These verses are packed with symbolism.
Why 153 fish?
- Cyril of Alexandria said that 100 represented the fullness of the Gentiles, 50 represented the remnant of Israel, and of course, the remaining three is the Trinity.
- Jerome suggested that there were 153 types of fish in Jerome commenting on Ezekiel 4:9-12, says there were 153 kinds of fish in the world. This may have been what people believed in this time and culture. Every kind of fish = all nations.
- Mathematicians have pointed out that 153 is the sum of the first 17 numbers: 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17=153. It remains to be explained why this matters, but is a curiosity. Augustine noticed this first 17 numbers business too. He said that 10 was law (the Ten Commandments) and seven was gospel (the perfect number of grace). 10+7=17.
- Along the same vein, Augustine pointeD out one can make a perfect triangle of 153 dots with 17 dots on each side. A perfect triangle is the symbol of the Trinity.
- Or, maybe John uses 153, because that’s how many fish there were. Still, Barrett says, “it is improbable that it represents the fortuitous and precise recollection of an eyewitness.” p. 484
There is much symbolism in John’s gospel. Being reborn to Nicodemus becomes a spiritual rebirth. The woman’s water from the well becomes “living water.” The man’s blindness becomes the Pharisee’s spiritual blindness. We must watch for such symbolism in this story.
- Unbroken net: Undivided church.
- Great catch: Global mission. Making disciples.
- Peter is the identified leader, even in this gospel purportedly written by the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:24).
- There is a clear commission to Peter: Feed my sheep.
Once they have finished eating breakfast, Jesus puts it to Peter. “Do you love me more than these?” What? The fish? Let’s hope so. No, “these” refer to the other disciples. Love is the chief criteria for an apostle in this gospel of love. The question is asked and answered three times; the same number of times that Peter denied having known Jesus earlier in this gospel.
Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Jesus “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
Jesus: “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you
Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
This is clearly a commissioning. An ordination. An installation. A consecration. Peter is called to tend the flock. Likewise, Peter commissions the elders, in 1 Peter 5: “Tend the flock that is in your charge, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for sordid gain, but eagerly, not lording it over those in your care, but being an example to the flock.” This is an apt charge for any pastor.
Jesus then warns Peter that he will be martyred and gives him one final charge: “Follow me.”
What to preach?
For me, this is an evangelism text. The church goes fishing. And, lest we miss it, Jesus said it three times: “If you love me, feed my sheep.”