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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=135


 

3 Easter Year C (April 10, 2016)                                     St James', Peace River

One of the paradoxes of the Easter season is that its stories don't just focus on Jesus. Up until Good Friday, it  really was all about Jesus – discerning who he is, what God is doing in him, and where it is all leading. There are other people in those stories, but even the most dramatic things that happen to them (like Lazarus coming back to life!) really serve to illuminate the person who makes those things happen. You might expect that to be even more so, once we get to Easter morning and begin to encounter Jesus newly alive, with all the awe and wonder and questioning that comes with his new status. But from here on, the spotlight is actually on the other people in the story. We do learn some interesting things about Jesus after the resurrection – that locked rooms don't keep him out, for example, and that he is not easily recognizable, but also that he is still quite capable of preparing and sharing breakfast with his friends! But the stories, both at the end of the gospels and as we move into the book of Acts, take even more interest in the people who meet Jesus and speak with him, and on what is happening to them – how they too are changing.

As we continue through this Easter season, in particular, we are going to meet some of those people, especially in the first reading of our services (from Acts): Tabitha, Cornelius, Lydia, and the unnamed jailer who imprisoned Paul and Silas. Astonishing things happened to them because of Jesus' resurrection. The Sunday School class is actually using that as a theme for the coming month – as they get to know some of these “Easter people”, and come to realize that they are not just Jesus' friends, but our friends too, because we are also Easter people whose lives are changed by knowing Jesus now. More than that, though: because one of the ways that our lives are changed is that we are brought to centre stage. The spotlight, which is the actually the light of Jesus himself, is now shining on us. The work that God was doing through Jesus, in the early pages of the gospels, is now happening where we live and work and serve and communicate.

Today we get a two-for-one deal, as we hear the stories of two of the original Easter people – Peter, one of the first to follow Jesus and one of the first to meet him again after he rose from the dead; and Paul, one of the original enemies of the Jesus movement, who would become the last to be recognized as an “apostle”, sent by Jesus himself to live and share the good news of Easter. The thing that strikes me immediately about both these stories is that they are both complicated, in an entirely realistic human way, which we can understand and (I hope) have some sympathy with. The twists and reversals in the relationship Peter and Paul each had with Jesus, reveal and highlight their distinctive characters, but by doing that they also invite us to see how the same thing happens to us. Being transformed by the new life of Christ does not make you a clone of Jesus and of all the other Christians that have ever been. Quite the opposite: it allows you to be who you really are, and to unleash your uniqueness in a way which becomes part of the story God has always been wanting to tell.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let's reintroduce ourselves to Paul and Peter. The conversation Jesus had with Peter is literally the very last act of the gospels, and that in itself draws our attention to it. It has a lot of echoes of what we already know about Peter. He is quick to jump into things – in this case, literally, as he dives out of the boat as soon as he know it's Jesus on the shore. That too is a little echo of another scene where Peter gets out of a boat – only this time he doesn't care if he sinks or not! But Peter's impulsiveness can also be a problem, as he was forced to recognize a couple of chapters back, when he tried to follow at a distance when Jesus was arrested, and ended up denying three times that he even knew who Jesus was. That's the biggest echo in today's passage – Jesus' three questions to Peter reminding him, and us, of the three times the bystanders asked him if he was a disciple.

Peter has to dig deep to even look Jesus in the eye at this point. As wonderful and amazing as it is to see Jesus alive – it means that Peter's denial will always be with him, just as much as the wounds would always be in Jesus' hands and feet. There is no getting away from it. But Jesus does not condemn or reject, he simply persists: “Do you love me... Do you love me... Do you love me?” And in that moment two things happen to Peter. He becomes able, at last, to do what Jesus asks him to do – to tend the sheep and feed the lambs, to look after others who are putting their faith in Jesus, because he finally understands just how hard it can be, and what people really need – not getting whipped up into excitement with a pep talk, but forgiveness, and the certainty that Jesus trusts and believes in them.

The other thing that happens is that Jesus says something about Peter's impulsiveness, acknowledging it but also fitting it into the bigger picture of what God is going to do in him. “When you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished,” Jesus says. That was the impulse that drove Peter to follow Jesus, but also the impulse that drove him to denial. It's what needs to be transformed – though not annihilated, as we have already seen and will continue to see Peter jumping in feet first into new situations. But now he is not just thinking about getting himself into excitement or out of trouble. Knowing that Jesus trusts him to use his impulsiveness to advance the good news of the new creation, he does just that – until eventually it leads him to his own death, which by then he is able to embrace with courage rather than trying to avoid or escape it.

Paul's story is completely different because he is a such a different person from Peter – and yet it is also the same, in the sense that Jesus does the same kind of thing with him. Jesus meets him at exactly the point of his biggest and deadliest flaw, and then transforms exactly that aspect of his character into something that can give him a share in Jesus' life. Rather than impulsiveness, Paul's issue seems to be that he is just so sure of himself – even in a religious way – sure enough to dedicate himself to protecting what he understood to be the truth of his Jewish faith, by arresting Jesus' followers as they seemed to be contradicting that truth, and even singling them out for mob justice, as just happened two chapters before when Stephen was stoned to death “and Saul approved.” (Just to be clear, Saul was his original name, but after the passage we read this morning we only hear him referred to as Paul. Going by another name within the Christian community must have been a wise move, given his history!)

Paul could not have done what he went on to do, if he hadn't been the person he was. Being so sure of himself is what pushed him out beyond Jerusalem to places like Corinth, Galatia, Philippi and Ephesus, because he just knew that people there had to hear about Jesus too. It is also what made him bold enough to challenge the Greek philosophers in Athens, and to manipulate the levers of Roman power in just the right way to get himself carted off to Rome as a prisoner. But it is also clear that he changed, as a result of his encounter with the risen and glorified Jesus on the road to Damascus.

For one thing, he is no longer afraid of failure – rather he embraces it, as he continually encounters people who resist his message or try to punish him for it, and rather than being shaken by that experience he wears it as a badge of honour. Even within himself, he embraces his own weakness, something he often speaks about in the epistles. So his certainty and self-assurance no longer rests on his own opinion of himself, but on the loving forgiveness of Jesus, who met him where he was, and who trusted him enough to send him on his mission.

That is how it goes with each of the Easter people, from the 1st century to the 21st. When you bring yourself into this church and up to this communion rail today to meet Jesus, who is living and present with us here – you bring yourself, exactly who you are. That is not as easy as a thing to do as it might sound. Jesus has a way of looking at us, like he looked at Peter, which reminds us that there are aspects of our own character we might deny or be embarrassed about, which we would like to leave behind us when we face him, if only we could. But to feel that way is to underestimate how deeply God loves us, and how powerful is the new life that God gives.

It is exactly at the point where we feel most unable to face Jesus, or where we feel least able to serve him, or most ashamed of who we've been or what we've done – exactly at that point that Jesus invites us into new life. And he does that not by erasing that part of our identity or taking it away from us, but by turning it into something astonishing, as an artist can take the most ordinary or even ugly thing and transform its appearance by their creative work. Jesus does that by joining his life to yours, and yours to his, in a way which makes that most dubious aspect of your character something that reveals and focuses on his presence. That is what it means to be not just a disciple but an apostle – not just someone who is learning from Jesus, but someone who invites Jesus to go with you wherever you go.

There is something important there for each of us to reflect on: where is that place in your life that still needs to be touched by Jesus' forgiveness, new life, and transforming power – so that it can become the best thing you have to offer in his service? But there is also something for us to reflect on together, because it says something about the kind of community we need to be, in order for people to be able to encounter Jesus in that way. Can we be a place where people are encouraged to be who they are – not ashamed, but encouraged, and eventually transformed? Can we find ourselves loving our neighbours, not in spite of their flaws, but because of them, knowing that those flaws are the best thing Jesus has to work with?

And most importantly, can we accept that we are the people in the spotlight now – the people in whom the life and redeeming power of Jesus is at work and is communicating itself? That light is shining on you and through you, and it is shining on and through the person next to you. Like Ananias laying what must have been shaking hands on Paul to give him his sight back and make him God's instrument – we can be that kind of grace to each other, drawing each other into the fullness of fellowship with Jesus and all his friends, and into the work God wants to do in us as he makes us truly the people we, and God, want us to be.