He Forgives Traitors

Third Sunday of Easter Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

One of the ways we can understand our order of worship each Sunday is to split it into two halves: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, or Mass, or Holy Communion. Now, that liturgy is pretty flexible and can be expanded or shortened depending on our needs, but some things cannot be changed, one of which being that a passage of the four Gospels must be read at every celebration of Holy Communion. When we do this, we are making a statement about the connection between the word of God – more specifically the life and teaching of Jesus Christ – and the spiritual nourishment which comes to us through the means of bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. We are saying that through the words of sacred Scripture, whatever else is being taught to us, every word from God is a call to come to him, to respond to him, to repent of our sins, to find comfort and refuge in him, to be filled with his life-giving presence.

It is this word declared to us which then prepares us to meet him at his Table and feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving.

It is clear from the way we conduct our worship, that the record of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection in the four Gospels is treated with a special dignity and reverence. We have a beautiful Gospel Book, and we carry the Gospel into the midst of the congregation singing alleluias, celebrating that through Jesus Christ, about whom the Gospels testify, the word of God has come near to us, and indeed was made incarnate as a human being amongst other human beings. The Gospel, then, is central to our worship as it is to our faith. When we read the other portions of Scripture on a Sunday we are often listening to the unfolding of a story.

This is particularly true with the relationship between the First Lesson and Psalm, and the Gospel. In all other times in the year, our First Lesson is taken from the Old Testament and paired with a Psalm which helps give some devotional context for the passage. Careful listeners might see threads of connection between the First Lesson and the Gospel, often with a type of Jesus, a Christ-figure, proclaimed by the Old Testament, then to be fulfilled or amplified in the Gospel. Other times the First Lesson exposes a question or problem deep within the human condition, to which the Gospel Lesson responds. In the Old Testament we find ourselves and we find our longings, and in Jesus Christ all our longings are met.

Yet there is one time a year when the First Lesson is not from the Old Testament. This is during Eastertide, where we read from Acts. The Acts of the Apostles is the record of the first generation of Disciples of Jesus after his resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. Chronologically it would make maybe more sense to read this after the Gospel in an order of worship, but its place as the First Lesson is purposeful. If when we read the Old Testament we look for signs and foreshadowings of the Messiah, when we read Acts we are also looking for the life of Jesus Christ as he works through his New Covenant people.

What we are saying is this: Just as as the Old Testament people of God have in their midst a presence and a voice which points them and us toward Jesus Christ, so too does the Church find that in surprising ways the presence of Jesus stays with us now through the Holy Spirit. When we read Acts alongside the Gospels on a Sunday morning in Easter, we see that the life and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is now lived out powerfully, miraculously, and remarkably amongst the first generation of Christians.

This is one of the things which is meant when we say that Jesus is raised from the dead. We do mean that Jesus rose bodily, yes, but this is not a mere historical anecdote to justify our existence, but rather is a description of our new reality, that those things which we saw the man Jesus of Nazareth doing and teaching in the Gospels, are now done and taught all over the world through us, his people, who are his body because we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

And so today we meet Jesus raised from the dead. We are thrust into a sad scene, reminiscent of a time three years earlier. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, and several other Disciples have returned to their familiar lives. Without their Rabbi to lead them, they have no future and so we find them fishing on the sea of Tiberias. A man stands on the shore and shouts to them, asking if they have caught any fish.

Sound familiar?

The Disciples put their nets on the other side of the boat just as the man said, and the nets are filled with fish. Peter is filled with hope at this sight, and boldly leaps off the boat to swim to shore. I wonder if the sight which meets him makes his stomach churn.

Jesus has prepared a charcoal fire.

The last time we read of a charcoal fire is in John 18, and around it were the servants and guards of the High Priest in Jerusalem. And it was around this fire in the dark that Peter found himself denying that he had ever known this Jesus of Nazareth. But in this light of a new day, the fire is out to a different use. Jesus is making breakfast and invites his friends to eat with him.

And it is around this charcoal fire, in the daylight surrounded by his friends, that Jesus addresses Peter.

“Do you love me more than these”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” he replies. And Jesus calls him to take care of his sheep.

And Jesus asks again. “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

And a third time.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Here the penny drops, and Peter is grieved in his heart. For as many times as Peter denied knowing his friend and teacher, Jesus has asked him if he loves him. Peter is brought face-to-face with his failure and his betrayal. The charcoal fire. The three questions.

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

And Jesus repeats his commission to Peter the third time: Feed my sheep. And he adds to it:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”

Peter ought to have been with his friend to the very end, standing trial with him, and even being crucified alongside him but he was a coward and a traitor. He denied knowing the Messiah and left him to suffer alone. Yet Jesus restores Peter and sets him on a path which will take him to a death like Christ’s. This seems like a strange way to save someone, to restore them, to reconcile them, but what Jesus is giving to Peter is not a second-class kind of forgiveness, a mere tolerance of him while leaving him on the benches. When Jesus meets his disciple, his restoration of him is total and complete, even entrusting to him the intimacy of a martyr’s death. And those who die for a cause are those with whom the cause will be most intimately associated. Peter will live a life of caring for Jesus’s followers, and will die for the honor of his name.

This is what reconciliation meant for Peter, and this could only happen because Jesus rose from the dead and met him personally, and in the hearing of all the disciples forgave him and fully restored him. If this were not the case Peter could have just supposed that he was forgiven, as though his betrayal didn’t really matter, and then argued with the other Disciples that he should take that accustomed place as their leader. Yet Jesus restores Peter in the daylight, with the witness of the other Disciples so that their trust in him could be restored and so that they could see the total extent of Christ’s power to forgive sin.

Peter of course is not the last traitor to be turned from his ways.

Over the last couple of weeks our readings from Acts have proclaimed the mystical, supernatural life of the early Church as they lived in Jerusalem, sharing all they had, preaching, and healing all who were sick. Jesus truly was alive and worked through his disciples. Yet this euphoric moment was soon to end. As the numbers of the Church grew, so did conflict with the authorities of Jerusalem. Stephen, one of the first Deacons, is put on trial for blasphemy and then stoned to death. This first letting of blood unleashes a wave of violence against the followers of Jesus, presided over by a Pharisee named Saul. The first followers of Jesus flee the city, taking the message of the Gospel and the miracles of healing with them. Not satisfied with ridding Jerusalem of the followers of Jesus, Saul petitions to be sent to Damascus to continue to round them up. He believed himself to be doing God’s will, yet he has made himself an enemy of God and of his messiah Jesus Christ.

Yet Saul discovered on the day he traveled to Damascus that the followers of Jesus were not deluded zealots. That the Lord God was with them, to defend them and lead them. Their claims about the resurrection were right, and Saul knew it the moment the light blinded him on the road. But Jesus meets him where he is, on the road to Damascus, on his mission to slaughter the Christians. Jesus meets the enemy of his people, and turning aside the wrath which he deserves for his violence, Jesus speaks to Saul.

“Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do”

It is another way of saying “follow me”

And so Saul arrives in Damascus as he had planned, but not in strength. He has been humbled by finding himself suddenly blind. In the city of Damascus is Ananias, whom the Lord sends to minister to Saul in his weakness. Ananias is understandably doubtful of this calling, but he has been made a member of Christ’s body by the Holy Spirit and the life which Jesus lived in his body on earth, is now the life lived through all of his disciples. Jesus by a vision revealed himself to Saul and could, by a vision, have cured his blindness or spoken to him, yet the reconciliation between Jesus and those who hate him has also to do with bring them into the community of his disciples. And so it falls to Ananias to be that witness, that member of the body of Christ who will lay his hands upon Saul in a touch of love, in an embrace of welcome, in a connection to make him whole.

When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ who rose again from the dead, we are saying something radical: That those who have made themselves enemies of God by their sin and acts of cruelty, by participating in the worldly systems which put Jesus on the cross, can now be reconciled to the one they have wronged. Forgiveness of sins is just a pleasant idea, a salve for the conscience, without a Christ who truly rose from the grave. Yet because he did, he can meet his enemies and sit and eat with them, and speak to them face-to-face, and bring them into the new life of his new kingdom. And he does this now through his body the Church which is throughout the world, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, embracing as sisters and brothers those who had been enemies of God.

Let us not despair that Christ as ascended into heaven, but rather let us always remember that our Lord Jesus has made us his perfect body on earth, and that we can see throughout the history of the Church, and even in our day, the wonderful life of Jesus Christ now refracted through a million prisms, shedding the new light of the resurrection upon a gloomy and dark world. And may we more and more find ourselves living the life of Jesus wherever we are, for as Peter was met by Christ fishing, and Saul met when traveling on the road, it may be our hands that are be the very hands of God to those who have even until now been his enemies.

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