April 14, 2013

Peter on the Beach and Paul on the Road

Passage: Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’


According to the website TreeHugger, across parts of Australia, more than a few people reported hearing “strange voices chattering high in the treetops—mysterious, nonsensical conversations in English.  But while this phenomenon is certainly quite odd, its explanation isn’t paranormal. It turns out that escaped pet birds, namely parrots and cockatoos, have begun teaching their wild bird counterparts a bit of the language they picked up from their time in captivity.”  We much prefer it when apparently strange things have an explanation that fits neatly into the logic of our experience.

In the sermons of this Easter season we are focussing on the theme that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as presented to us by the gospel writers, is a one-off event of worldview shifting proportion.  The resurrection of Jesus forges its own logic; it creates its own world of meaning; no seismological scale can measure the magnitude of the upheaval it causes.  Attempts to fit it into the logic of our experience in this world of death fail; such attempts end up diminishing the story and undermining its significance.  The risen Jesus calls us to align our thoughts with his thoughts; his presence forges its own reality for our lives.  His experience defines ours; as the Apostle Paul put it—he is the first fruits of the resurrection life.

1. We can observe it on the beach beside the sea of Galilee with Peter and with Paul as he travelled on that Roman highway that connect Jerusalem with Damascus; Jesus’ incursion into our lives occurs at his initiative in a manner beyond our comprehension.  Now some may object that Paul’s Damascus road experience wasn’t an appearance of the risen Jesus like those of Peter and the other disciples.  Listen to how Paul spoke about it; “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters* at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.* 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 18:8)  Paul puts his experience in the same category.

As we consider the meaning Jesus’ resurrection forges over our lives this point becomes clear to us—our Lord always reveals himself when and where he wills, in a manner beyond our comprehending.  Jesus comes seeking us; as we are apprehended by him we in turn take hold of him.  Peter had gone fishing on Galilee to provide the necessities of life; Paul was on the road to Damascus doing what he considered God-honouring duty.  Neither man looking for Jesus.

Jesus meets his disciples when and where he wills.  The logic imbedded in the good news of Jesus is that our coming to him is a response to his summons of us.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University.  She is the author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God."  In a commentary posted on the CNN website she describes her research into the people’s claims of hearing God speak audibly.  (A commentary that CNN carefully noted were opinions solely those of the author).

Luhrmann wrote: “There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia. Except that usually it’s not.  Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. … By contrast, schizophrenia, a most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.”

In her concluding remarks she stated:  “Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard.  But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception.  History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.”

I found this anthropologist’s article interesting for a number of reasons.  One of the refreshing things about her work is the open-minded way she approached the subject.  So many simply reject the idea of hearing from God out of hand because of prejudice; they hold views that pre-judge any such claim as unfounded because, they believe, there is no God who speaks or if there is a God he is too busy or uninterested to talk with us.  It was the tag line of Dr. Luhrmann’s article that caught my attention” “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.”

The chief characteristic of God revealed in the scriptures is that he speaks. I am not saying that the work of one anthropologist makes this truth more palatable to people.  Rather, the point I make is that her work stands out as unusual; in the field of anthropological studies such an approach as hers is rare.  The fact that such an approach—that dares to challenge the prevailing assumptions—is rare illustrates that the logic of the gospel is not the default logic of humanity.

So when we come to church the idea that Jesus himself is looming before us summoning us to himself; speaking his own word of comfort to us in our sorrows; making his presence known that we might have courage for the week ahead; this idea is counter to the logic of most of what we experience in the rest of life.  No one can explain how it is that Jesus is looming before us; but we can apprehend that it is so.  Jesus promises unfailingly to meet us as we gather in  his name; always to address us in the proclamation of the gospel; ever to speak his word in the reading of scripture; every time to sustain us in the sacrament of his supper.

2. Playwright and poet Susan Glaspell wrote: “I can’t think of any sorrow in the world that a hot bath wouldn’t help, just a little bit.”  You know the kind of relief to which she is alluding in this sentence.  There is something about the physicality of life that is profoundly precious to us.  Our physicality is so woven into the fabric of human existence that we have no experience of life apart from it and much of the wonder of existence experienced because of it.  At the same time the pains that come in it make us wonder if the physical is all that important.  Humanity has this love/hate relationship with the physical.

The resurrection forges its meaning in that everywhere the Easter stories affirm that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.  There is physicality—transformed indeed—but physicality nonetheless about Jesus.  If you stumbled on this beach breakfast and saw Jesus and Peter walking down the beach you would observe two men chatting as they walked along; you wouldn’t see one man talking as if to an imaginary friend.  Paul clearly experiences the same with respect to Jesus; in his discussion of the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:35-57) he says that the chief characteristic of this body—patterned after Jesus—is that this is a body that does not decay.  But it is a body with physicality nonetheless.

I find that many Christians today are surprised by this idea of the bodily resurrection of Jesus; it surprised the first disciples as well.  These first followers of Jesus had to have their perceptions reshaped by the reality of the risen Jesus; so too for us today.  The bodily resurrection is the first fruits, says Paul; the first fruits of the remaking of the entire creation itself.  It hasn’t entered the imagination what God is preparing for us.

3. When Peter becomes aware that it is Jesus standing on the shore he immediately charges to the beach.  You know how it is when there is something between you and a friend that needs to be cleared up; you want to get it dealt with but are not quite sure how to bring the subject up.  Maybe Peter hopes for a few moments with he and Jesus can be alone before the others come; but he just can’t find the words to say—“I’m sorry I denied knowing you”, sounded so lame given that he bailed on Jesus in his most trying hour.

Finally, after breakfast Jesus says to Peter, “Let’s go for a walk.”  The one question Jesus has for him is, “do you love me”.  In this first question, “do you love me more than these”, Jesus is bringing to mind that upper room meal when Peter boasted that even if all the other disciples bailed on Jesus he never would.  In his question “do you love me” Jesus uses that strong word that is used of the self-forgetful, self-giving love of God (agape).  Peter responds with a weaker word for love (philos), “you know I’m fond of you, I care for you”.  Peter now knows better than to profess too much.

When Jesus asks him the third time, do you love me; he uses Peter’s weaker word.  Peter are you sure of this much?  Peter is hurt by this question.  Is there something you need to get out of the way between you and Jesus?  Here is Jesus’ question to each of us.  Do you love me?  There was a time when I thought my usefulness to Jesus in the call to ministry was at an end; I had rendered myself unfit for such service.  You will note that in Peter’s restoration each time Jesus says “feed or tend my sheep”; the purpose of Jesus question is to enable us in his service, never to throw us overboard.

“How do I know if I love him”, one might ask.  Do you feel drawn to serve him? Do you do things which you would not do except for his sake?  Are you happy to hear of him, in sermon or devotional thought?  Does the mention of his name warm you heart?  Does it give you pain to hear Him name trampled on?  If so then with Peter we can confess, you know that I love you.

It is not surprising that in the Peter’s first letter he describes the evidence of faith in Jesus Christ this way; “although you have not seem him, you love him.”

3. When Paul first arrived in Damascus the Christians there were, not surprisingly, cautious.  Luke tells us that the Christian people in Damascus were amazed at the preaching of Paul. “Isn’t this the man who slashed and scythed those who called on the name of Jesus?” They are amazed that the arch-persecutor of Christians has become a disciple and a witness.

Paul had been the chief villain in the savage treatment accorded the earliest Christians. He harassed them, hammered down the door of their homes, had them imprisoned, and had even arranged for some of them to be put to death. And then he is found standing up in Damascus , the site of his inner and outer turnaround; he’s commending Jesus Christ even as he urges hearers to put their trust in him. Someone had overtaken him on the Damascus road; the same one had overwhelmed him, taken him out of himself, and therein altered him forever. He in turn now overwhelms those who are already Christians. They now stand amazed, beside themselves, at what God has done.

We must never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ makes. We now have a different standing before God (from condemnation to acquittal.) We now live in a different relationship with him (from indifference or hostility to love.) We possess a different self-understanding (we are a child of God, no longer a cosmic orphan.) We are motivated by a different aim in life (from hedonism to self-forgetful service of our Lord through our suffering neighbour.) We should never minimize this difference.

On the other hand we should never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t make. Our Lord’s incursion into our lives doesn’t make us silly or freakish or psychotic; doesn’t change us so as to make us unrecognizable. Our Lord’s incursion doesn’t mean that the quiet woman suddenly becomes a man-eater or the assertive fellow a wimp. A difference like this would merely point to psychological imbalance, even outright mental illness. Instead God adopts, newly deploys whatever we are. The zeal and persistence and undiscourageability Paul showed in persecuting Christians are the same zeal, persistence and undiscourageability now rechanneled in the service of Christ and kingdom and church.

It was the same with Malcolm Muggeridge after he had come to faith. The waggish sense of humour and the splendid turn of phrase and the sharp eye for contradiction and corruption that marked Muggeridge’s journalism during his pagan years were precisely the same qualities that came wonderfully to be used on behalf of the gospel.

Our union with Christ doesn’t make us something we aren’t. Instead it redirects, re-channels, and re-deploys what we are in the service of Christ and kingdom and church. This point is important. I think there are many thoughtful, earnest, eager people who are attracted to Jesus Christ, who want to stand with him, and who want to do on behalf of others what they know discipleship mandates them to do.  But they are held off by one thing: they fear that faith in our Lord will turn them into religious oddities, psychologically bizarre, somehow distorted.  They must be brought to see that intimacy with Jesus Christ doesn’t turn us into religious screwballs.  Instead it redirects whatever we are into the service of him whose mission it is to heal the raging haemorrhages of the human heart and the world at large.


It would be hard to overstate the influence of these two Apostles, Peter and Paul, to the life of the church of Jesus Christ.  Their influence continues today and in some respects increases with each new believer welcomed to the church.  I leave you with another of those meanings that the resurrection of Jesus forges in our lives.  The purpose of the incursion of Jesus into your life and mine is to render us his own and call us to service of him, a service that will render far more than we can ask or imagine.