Third Sunday in Easter
April 18, 2010
“Paul was a zealous, stubborn, committed iconoclast. He firmly believed that God had done something new in the world in the person of Jesus the Christ. Those of us who share his faith, even if we disagree with some of his stances, may do well to attend to his manner of proclaiming it.”
- Sandra Hack Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul
“Peter, Paul, and Mary”
Mary was in the Garden.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the hillside, casting an orange glow across her face.
Her breathing was rapid and heavy, and sweat was beading on her forehead.
Her heart felt as if it was pounding out of her chest.
Not 20 minutes before she was running through the streets of Jerusalem, shadowed in the darkness before dawn, still clutching the basket of precious oils against her stomach.
She had run to the house where John and Simon Peter slept to tell them of what she had seen.
The stone rolled back from its resting place.
The tomb empty and exposed to the cool early morning air.
Her eyes had not been playing tricks on her. What she reported to John and Peter had really occurred. They came running back with her to confirm what she had seen.
But they just stood in the mouth of the tomb looking befuddled. Staring at the folded piles of linens as if they were trapped in a waking dream. Rubbing sleep from their eyes, they returned to their lodgings.
Leaving Mary behind to stare at the gaping hole, her chest heaving from the sobs that she could no longer hold inside.
Where was the body of her beloved teacher? Who had taken it and why?
On the fringes of her awareness she sensed the presence of a gardener standing beside her.
But her eyes remained fixed on the empty space before her, and in the brightening light of the garden, Mary wept.
Peter felt numb.
He and James and John and Nathanael and Thomas, and two others of their brethren, had wandered the streets of Jerusalem in a fog for days. Now after a weeks walk they had returned home to Galilee, and sat together as a group in the dark of night, staring out at the rolling waves of the sea of Tiberius.
The cold wind was biting into their flesh, but still, Peter felt nothing.
The thrill of the apparent resurrection of their teacher, and friend, had begun to wear off. The world did not come to an end. Judgment day had not arrived. Creation had not been renewed.
Had what they had seen in the locked room in Jerusalem really occurred? Even Thomas was beginning to question what just a few weeks before had been as true to him as the sun rising in the morning.
The threat of possible arrest that had hung over their heads seemed to have dissipated, and the disciples felt that it was finally safe to return home.
They didn’t know where else to go.
Their money had run out. Their families still needed to be fed.
Even if they had continued on their mission, how would they even begin to explain what had occurred? Who would believe them?
And who would believe Peter? The man who denied that he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times. Who would trust a man who now had a reputation for being dishonest and disloyal?
Simon Peter stood and leaned straight into the teeth of the wind, looking out at the vastness of the blackened sea.
"I am going fishing," he said to the others.
They said to him, "We will go with you."
Then these seven disciples of Jesus walked into the swirling waves,
got into the boat, and pushed off from the shore.
They cast their nets all night long, heaving the heavy mass of twisted ropes into the sea over and over again, but they caught nothing.
Demoralized and having lost their last shred of hope, they headed back to land, just as the dawn broke over the horizon.
Peter’s shoulder’s sagged, as he sat with his eyes cast downward staring at the bottom of the boat. The shallow waves lapping at the side indicating they had reached the shoreline…Peter had not yet noticed the lone figure standing on the beach, patiently awaiting his arrival.
Saul of Tarsus was a man on a mission.
His stride was long and purposeful as he kicked through the dust on the road to Damascus. His right hand men he had enlisted to travel with him marched at his side, encircling him like a human shield, protecting him from potential attack from apostates and marauders along the road.
Saul was not a big man in stature, but he was a rising star in the ranks of the Temple leadership and he had made a name for himself as the one charged with eradicating the blight of the so called Jesus movement.
Saul had serous business to attend to in Damascus.
The high priest of Jerusalem had relented to his demand that the letters addressed to the synagogues of the surrounding cities be turned over to him for examination. Any hint of evidence that men or women who resided in these cities were followers of this rogue Jewish sect known as The Way would warrant swift and punitive action.
Saul had discovered the existence of just such a ring in several of the letters addressed to Damascus. His anger at this discovery was palpable.
As a Pharisee, an appointed watchdog of the law, he loathed these people of the “The Way.” They were heretics and blasphemers, and they dared to make the claim that some backcountry Nazarene criminal who was put to death by the Roman state nearly 3 years before, was the Messiah, the anointed one, a true prophet of God.
These people were vile. If needed, he would burst into their homes and drag them kicking and screaming into the street, men and women alike.
He would not stop until every last believer of this depraved sect was imprisoned or eliminated. He had heartily approved of the execution of that rabble-rouser Stephen, and the others of his ilk, those vermin disciples named Peter and James, would soon meet the same fate.
As Saul and his companions neared the outskirts of Damascus the noonday sun moved directly overhead. Saul wiped his brow and lifted his gaze upward at the source of this unrelenting heat.
Suddenly there was a blinding flash, as if a thousand stars had exploded in the heavens, and the mighty Saul of Tarsus fell to the ground.
Paul, Peter, and Mary.
Three stories of three people standing on the precipice of change.
These tellings of these three stories take us right up to the moment before conversion.
The moment before everything in their world was turned upside down.
Mary saw the empty tomb and her first assumption was that Jesus’ body had been taken away.
Then Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden, called her by name, showed her that his prediction of his resurrection was true, and told her to go tell the others.
Mary was converted from a doubter to a witness and a believer.
Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest.
Then Jesus appeared to Peter on the beach, called him by name, gave him three opportunities to proclaim his love for his teacher and friend, and told him to feed and tend to his sheep.
Peter was converted from a denier to a trustworthy and loyal leader.
Saul persecuted the Jewish Christians because he believed that they followed a false Messiah.
Then Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, called him by name, showed him in dramatic fashion that he was indeed sent by God, and told him where he would find the man who would open his eyes to the truth.
Saul became Paul, and was converted from a violent persecutor to an ardent evangelist for the cause.
Three stories, three conversions, three lives changed forever.
The Gospel writers tell us these stories not just to lift them up as extraordinary examples of extraordinary individuals who were changed by an encounter with the risen Christ.
But to lift them up as ordinary examples of ordinary individuals who were changed by an encounter with God.
God met Mary in her grief.
God met Peter in his despair.
God met Saul in his anger.
God meets us in the same way.
These stories are our stories.
At some point in our lives we’ve all stood in the garden weeping over a loss.
We’ve all sat in the boat casting our eyes downward in dejection.
We’ve all walked along the road clenching our fists and seething with righteous indignation.
We’ve all stood on the precipice of conversion.
The moment where we are given the choice to change our lives,
and given the chance to change the world.
Some of us have had memorable moments of conversion.
The moment where we reached the end of our rope or hit rock bottom, and we reached out to find something to hold onto, and we found God.
Some of us have more gradual conversion experiences.
Where we sensed that something was not right in our lives or in the world and we began to make changes for the better.
Some of us have never had what we would call a conversion experience.
What we have are moments of confirmation.
The positive experiences that validate our choice to live our lives in love and compassion.
Regardless of how we’ve experienced conversion in our lives, what our lectionary readings have to teach us today is that our conversion, the impulse we feel to change our lives and our world, is an ongoing opportunity.
There is never a point where our conversion is complete.
And there is never a point where we can claim we are too far gone to change.
The conversion of Saul to Paul, which we heard in our reading from ACTS, is perhaps the most dramatic example of this.
Paul’s is a true night and day conversion.
And given his zealous personality it’s no wonder that Paul worked to spread the Christian message just as fervently as he once worked to oppress it.
But why did God call Saul to become Paul?
The most obvious answer is because he was a threat to the Jesus movement’s survival. If Saul did not have his conversion experience, where would the Christian church be today? Most likely there would be no church.
The strange little sect of Jewish Christians known as “The Way” would have died out like many others that came before. Saul would have rounded up the disciples and either had them killed or thrown them into prison for life.
The spread of the gospel would have never gone beyond the settlements of Judea.
We might also consider that God called Saul to conversion because God knew that Paul was the best sales and marketing man around.
Paul was what sociologists call a connector. Connectors are socially extroverted individuals who know a lot of people and who use those connections to their advantage.
Author Malcolm Gladwell addresses this phenomenon in his book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell uses the story of the ride of Paul Revere as an example of the influence that connectors have in our world.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere and William Dawes set out separately on horseback and rode from Boston towards Lexington to warn the populace that the British were planning an attack.
Revere rode the northern route, and Dawes rode the southern route.
In the towns that Revere passed through, the leaders were alerted, church bells rang out, and those informed by Revere sent out riders of their own. The news spread like a virus and the next day the British were soundly defeated in Concord by the colonial militia.
In contrast, the local militia leaders in the towns that Dawes rode through – Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, and Waltham - were never alerted and few men from those towns turned out to fight. So few men turned out from Waltham that some historians concluded that the town was pro-British. It wasn’t. Waltham didn’t find out the British were coming until it was too late.
What made the difference between these two rides is that Revere had the social gifts of a connector, Dawes did not. While Dawes’ social circle didn’t extend beyond the city of Boston, Revere would routinely ride between Boston, New York and Philadelphia making connections along the way.
On that fateful night in 1775, Revere knew where to find all the local militia and town leaders, he knew which doors to knock on first, and he thought nothing of stopping strangers on the street to tell them the news.
Paul of Tarsus was cut from the same social cloth as Paul Revere. As a rising star in the Temple he was well connected and knew exactly who he could count on and who he needed to avoid. He was well traveled and already had connections in far-flung cities, and his social gifts allowed him to easily make connections in the cities that were new to him. And once he established these connections he used his pastoral skills and knowledge of rhetoric to dash off letters that kept the faithful encouraged and inline.
Regardless of our own personal feelings about Paul’s theology or his teachings – which I’m sure will come up in the sermon talk-back in today’s forum – we must admit that without Paul we probably would not be here today talking about his influence on the Christian church, because there wouldn’t have been a Christian church to influence.
Paul’s conversion is an extreme example of how God calls us to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news of the gospel is that the recreation of this world is not complete - we are called to live as Jesus did – in love and compassion – and in partnership with God we will re-create the world anew.
This is the message of the resurrection – God is doing something NEW in the world and we are a part of the plan to make it happen.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t react to this news with the same fervor and enthusiasm that Paul showed. Our reaction is more like that of the disciples.
In our reading from John’s gospel, we find that the disciples, after having experienced the resurrection of their beloved teacher and friend, did not run shouting into the streets proclaiming the news of this new thing that God had done in the world.
They still lived in fear for their lives, and Peter was weighed down with the guilt of his denial.
The resurrection did not change them. Instead, they went home, and they went fishing as if nothing had ever happened.
We do much the same today, when we fill our church sanctuaries on Easter Sunday proclaiming that “Christ is Risen indeed!” and then return to our lives as if this had no bearing on our day-to-day existence.
We are not truly changed by the resurrection.
We’re not truly changed by this new thing that God has done in the world.
We’re not truly changed by the gospel – the Good News of God’s unconditional love and compassion.
We’re not truly changed because we don’t always understand how these words that we hear in church every Sunday are meant to connect with our lives.
A recent poll of churchgoers in 3 Christian denominations revealed that while 90% enjoyed listening to sermons, and 62% said that sermons gave them a sense of God’s love and helped them to understand Jesus,
only 17% said that sermons have motivated them to change –
to make changes in themselves, or to seek change in the world.
As a future pastor, I can say that this is where we have failed you.
This is evidence of a disconnect going on between what we hear Jesus calling us to do and what we actually do in our lives.
Why does any of this matter? We may ask.
It matters because the world is not going to change unless WE work together with God to change it. We are an integral part of God’s plan.
And it is through moments of conversion, big and small, that God calls us by name and sends us out to do the work that needs to be done.
God called Mary, and God called Peter, and God called Paul.
And God calls us.
And just as Jesus called Peter out of the boat and commissioned him to feed and tend to his sheep, Jesus calls us out this boat, out of this nave, to go out into the world and do the same.
To move outside the walls of this sanctuary and to work together to make the world a better place for all of creation.
To create a world that lives and breathes love and compassion and justice and peace.
The gospel is nothing if it does not change our life.
What change – what conversion – will you experience today?