Third Sunday Easter Year C – April 9, 2016

Ah… St. Peter and St. Paul, founders of Christianity; fathers of our faith. Simon Peter, who, in Jesus’ most difficult time, denies knowing him — three times!; Saul of Tarsus, rabid persecutor of Christ followers.  Peter and Paul, deeply flawed, like the rest of us; and transformed by the risen Christ. Jesus asks, “Peter, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!  The woman says to Peter, ‘You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?’  He says, ‘I am not.’ A second time Jesus says to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’  Peter answers, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ They ask him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ Peter denies it saying, ‘I am not!’ One of the slaves of the high priest asks, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’  Again Peter denies it, ‘No, I was not in the garden with him!’

Jesus says to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter says to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Did Peter deny Jesus or did he really love Jesus?  The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Jesus’ questioning evokes Peter’s denial, but it also transforms it into a powerful affirmation of mutual love, service and commitment. By the end of this personal exchange, Peter’s affirmation of love has grounded his willingness to do what Jesus asks of him: to tend and feed his sheep, to follow Jesus. It’s a role that will both lead the fledgling church and lead to Peter’s own execution. Like Peter, Paul — Saul — meets the risen Christ in the midst of his day to day work. Saul of Tarsus, a Hebrew of Hebrews; a Pharisee, blameless under the law. Part of his role as an over- zealous religious leader is to extinguish any threats to power and truth as he knows it; this means eliminating Christian Jews.

That was Saul’s work of the day, when he meets the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. The weight of his actions overwhelm Saul when he is questioned by Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He listens, and the message is clear. Saul is called to conversion, and for him conversion to faith in Jesus Christ demands repentance. Like Peter in the Gospel lesson, Paul is confronted by the victimized, denied, and persecuted Christ. He must repent— turn completely around — to face Christ, to hear Christ, to follow Christ.  He does just that, and becomes both a leader of the faith and one of the persecuted. The day to day meets the miraculous; sinner and saint — all of a piece when opening to an encounter with the risen Christ. I’ve been thinking about my own encounters with Jesus Christ. As is common in the Southern Baptist tradition in which I was raised, I first met Jesus when I invited him into my heart at age 12.

That moment, along with my baptism, remains strong in my memory, and that relationship with Jesus has carried me through both difficult and joyful times in my life. Like Saul, I became very comfortable in my faith, though, to the extent that I knew all the answers, not just for myself but for everyone else as well.  And then I discovered my sexual orientation and lived years with doubt, confusion, and shame — until I encountered the risen Christ. I had finally taken my partner’s advice to meet with Freddie Nixon. Her husband Vic was then pastor at First United Methodist in Russellville. Telling my story and striving to find a way to integrate my faith and sexuality, I explained to Freddie that wherever I went to church, I needed to know that people who called themselves Christian had indeed confessed their sin and invited Jesus into their lives. Freddie, after a thoughtful pause, explained that some people would probably explain their faith in that way and some would not. Others might even say that they had no faith.

And ALL were welcome there. A light as intense as the one that blinded Saul went on inside my head…. All are welcome!  Wow!  I realized that even as a beloved child of God, my perspective was skewed, and that even as I so often felt marginalized, I had held onto a belief that did the same thing to others.  (pause) The risen Christ irrefutably sets things on their heads, and there’s no going back. The call narratives of the Churches’ two great leaders involved confronting their complicity with the dominant ethos of violence, exclusion, silencing and outright persecution of Christ — “the least of these.” Like Peter and Paul, our lives as followers of Christ need that confrontation with the risen Christ, calling our duplicity and hypocrisy to task; not just our personal sins, but our denial of the ways in which our privileged lifestyles contribute to others’ suffering.

It’s knowing that we will meet Christ in the ordinariness of the day to day — keeping our eyes and hearts open to such an encounter; repenting when we fall into sin and turning back to the Lord; knowing that an encounter with the risen Christ can exceed anything we could ask or imagine; that is where our prayer is answered — “Your Kingdom come on earth.” Jesus says, “Do you love me?… Feed my lambs. Jesus says, “Do you love me?… Tend my sheep. Jesus says, “Do you love me?… Follow me.  Amen.

Resource: Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, & Ronald J. Allen, Eds. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2012.