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Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, "New Life: On the Road to Damascus"

Sermon 4/18/10, Acts 9:1-20, John 21:1-19

New Life: On the Road to Damascus

            I’ll admit to you that Paul hasn’t always been my favorite Biblical figure. When I read Paul’s writings, I see someone who is pretty full of himself and his own faithful discipleship. I think Paul thinks an awful lot of himself, and would be the first one to tell you, Biblically speaking, about how much he’s had to endure for the sake of the gospel. But over the years I’ve come to terms with Paul, at least, and though he’ll never be my favorite follower of Jesus, our text from Acts today, the story of Paul’s beginning in particular is one that I really enjoy, one that has stuck with me since I was a child. When the passage opens, we hear about Saul, a Pharisee, and his systematic and intentional persecution and execution of members of “the Way,” the name in the early church for followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, Saul is on the road to Damascus, hoping to find some of these followers as he travels so that he can hand them over to the high priest. But as he’s going, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus. Once in Damascus, he meets a man named Ananias, who was sent by Jesus to help Saul. Ananias lays hands on him and says, Jesus, who appeared to you, has sent me “so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized, and over the next several days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
            Eventually, this Saul is known to us as Paul. He’s the only person to whom Jesus speaks in this way in the scriptures, in this ‘appearance’ of sorts after the resurrection. Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of the Way to a follower of the Way is one of the most dramatic stories of conversion in the Bible. But as dramatic as this story is, I almost decided not to preach about it today. In conversation with one of my pastor-friends this week, I mentioned to her that I’d been thinking about switching my plan to preach on the Acts text and Paul to preaching on the gospel and Peter instead. I figure that more of you have had gradual faith journeys, gradual growth in your relationship with God, rather than sudden epiphanies and revelations and 180 degree turn-arounds like Paul. So maybe Paul isn’t so easy to relate to – maybe we can appreciate his experience as fascinating and unique, but what can we learn from Paul, without being skeptical that Jesus will ever speak to us in quite the same way? As I expressed this to my friend, and indicated that I meant to lean towards Peter’s story in John instead, she suggested that perhaps the message of my sermon today was just that – talking about how different the spiritual journeys of Peter and Paul are and how that’s ok – not all of us have Paul’s kind of experience – not all of us have Peter’s. But we all have the potential for God to work new life in us, in whatever form, over whatever timeline that new life comes.
            Before we move on, let’s take a quick look at another piece of Peter’s story from our gospel lesson. We find ourselves in this strange post-resurrection time, where Jesus is spending these last days with the disciples before he returns to God and sends the Holy Spirit upon them. These are the last times that Jesus has to prepare them to carry out the ministry that he’s been about for years in such a direct, in-person way. And he’s taking full advantage of this time.
            In this unique story that appears only in the gospel of John, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others decide to go fishing, but catch nothing. But then, after daybreak, Jesus appears to them on the beach. Jesus gives them advice on a better spot to fish, and suddenly the nets are full to overflowing. After they are done, they go ashore, and find that Jesus has prepared breakfast for them – fish and bread. They share this meal together with Jesus, and then Jesus sits down for a tête-à-tête of sorts with Peter. He asks him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says,“ and then he asks Peter again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter repeats his answer, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep,” Jesus says, and a third time asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” We read that this time Peter is hurt that Jesus asks him again – he clearly must not be convinced of Peter’s answer. So Peter responds differently this time – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep.” He foreshadows with his words that indeed he does know – he knows that Peter is committed to discipleship and that his discipleship will bring him suffering. But his final words to Peter in this passage are the same as some of the first Jesus ever spoke to Peter: “Follow me.”
            I can only imagine the inner struggle, the pain, the searching that must have been going on inside of Simon Peter during this conversation. Peter might have felt conflicted about Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, he was filled with joy at the prospect that Jesus was alive. But was he also afraid, after how totally he’d denied knowing Jesus in the critical hour? Guilty? Embarrassed? Wondering if Jesus would still want anything to do with him? Wondering if he would still be used by God? Used by Jesus for ministry? Was Peter wondering if he’d screwed up beyond redeeming? And so I think it is no accident that Jesus asks him this question, “do you love me?” three times, just as Peter had three times denied even knowing Jesus. It is an act of graciousness on Jesus’ part – he is letting Peter know that he is forgiven, and he’s giving Peter a chance to say out loud that he is committed still to being a disciple. It brings Peter full circle. Yes, he messed up. But yes, there is grace, and Jesus needs to help Peter move on from his self-doubt, move on from wallowing in his own mistakes, and move on to the next chapter, literally and figuratively. So while Paul’s story is a story of a complete turn-around from a persecutor of Jesus to a proclaimer of his good news, Peter’s story throughout the gospels is a story of two-steps-forward, two-steps-back faith, perhaps one many of us relate to more easily, as Peter blunders and stumbles, but eventually becomes a rock of faith.
            The setting of Paul’s conversion is on the road to Damascus. The Greek word used in the Bible for road is hodos, which is also the word for path, way, or journey. In fact, when I said Jesus-followers were called followers of “the way,” that word is hodos – the path, the way, the journey. And when Jesus says he is the way in the gospels, again, that word is hodos – path, way, journey. Jesus is the road, the path, the journey – and his followers are those who are on the road – on the journey. The very earliest way then, to define followers of Jesus, was with a word that represented not a state of being, not a resting place, a static state, but a movement, something you would travel on, something that would require you to move along to follow. You don’t stand still on the road – you travel and journey along it. That’s what Jesus-followers are – those who take the road that is Christ.
            On Easter Sunday, we talked about new life, and whether or not we believed new life was for us – how hard it is to believe that new life is really going to happen in our own lives and experiences. But as I read the stories of Paul and Peter today, I wonder if we have so much trouble believing in our own new lives because we keep thinking of new life as a static, one-time event, rather than the hodos – the path, the journey on the road of Jesus. Paul’s new life came when Jesus turned him around to travel the road in the opposite direction he’d been going. Peter’s new life came step by struggling step – over time, through events, over years of listening to Jesus, and then years of serving Jesus. Maybe if we start remembering that new life is a journey, not a destination or a finish line, we’ll be better able to see new life at work in our own experiences. And for each of us, though we may be on the same road, followers of the same Jesus, our new life experiences can be as different as Paul’s is from Peter, even though we’re going the same hodos – the same way.
            Next month, we’ll celebrate confirmation, and join in affirming several of our young people as they make a public commitment to being followers of this way. One of their assignments in their coursework is to interview someone who is a part of this congregation – not their mentor or a family member, but someone who is part of this body, and to ask them, learn from them, what that person’s spiritual journey has been like. How did they get to be a part of this congregation today? I don’t know how the confirmands feel – usually it takes them awhile to get beyond the essay they have to write about the interview – but this is one of my favorite assignments for them. I love reading the essays the write, and in the past, I’ve loved hearing about how surprised our youth are to discover that adults didn’t always have a straight and simple path to today. Youth sometimes think that you all are spiritually stable, deeply believing, know everything about the Bible, have all the answers – and sometimes, then, that puts your experiences out of range for them – they don’t think they can ever be the kind of believers that you are. But what they don’t know is what your hodos – your journey with Jesus – has really been like. They don’t know the twists and turns, the hills up and down in the road of your faith, your travels seeking new life. And so these interviews can be eye-opening, when they learn that you too have struggled and wondered, even as you’ve had moments of faith and understanding and clarity.
            But it isn’t just our confirmands who need this eye-opening experience. We need the reminder too. As you look around you, if you look beyond any family who might be here with you, how much do you know about the spiritual journey of the people sitting near you? Do you know why and how the people here came to be sitting where they are? Why do they follow Jesus? What “new life” experiences have they had? What common threads are in your journeys? How have your travels on the path been completely different? I challenge you, between now and May 23rd, when we celebrate confirmation, to informally complete the same assignment the confirmands are – find someone in this congregation whose experience on the hodos you don’t really know – and find out whether they’re more like Peter or Paul, and whether they feel confident of new life in them all the time, or struggle, like you sometimes do, to let new life move them along the path.
            Saul started out looking for followers of the Way. What he found out was that he, too, was on the Way, the path of Jesus, heading straight for new life. Let’s follow along the same Way. Amen.


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