Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Today in our texts we have stories about two men, two men who are fundamental to our Christian story. Today, I’d like to compare and contrast these two men, Saul and Simon. Both have complex journeys of faith. I think that their journeys are helpful to us as we journey into faith.
At this point in our Gospel story, we can see that Simon Peter is one who is a real follower of Jesus the teacher, but he is not sure about what he should do in Jesus’ absence. In this period right after Jesus’ death, Simon Peter is probably not sure where he stands. He has tried to defend Jesus, he has tried to deny his association with Jesus, he has witnessed the resurrection and Jesus has shown himself to be among them still even after death. But what does Simon Peter do now? Maybe he still fears that he too might be persecuted and killed if he associates himself too closely with Jesus. Maybe he wants to believe that Jesus has overcome death, but he can’t figure out what that will mean for him.
In this period, not sure what he should do, Simon Peter goes back to his livelihood. He and Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples gather at the Sea of Tiberias. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." Tehe others say, we’ll go with you. And they go fishing. They are out all night and they don’t catch any fish.
Maybe we can relate to this story about Simon Peter—we’ve tried to be good followers. But sometimes we’ve had doubts. We are at moments strong defenders of the Way—standing up for Jesus in our midst, speaking out, getting into conflict with others (like cutting off the ear of the soldier) on behalf of the oppressed. But at other times, we feel abandoned by God. We look around and it seems that we are all alone. We try and find God and the tomb is empty, we have no clear idea about what we’re supposed to be doing. Even if we’ve had glimpses of God’s presence in our lives, we feel unsure. In this moment, maybe the best thing we can do is get back to our human work—just go about our daily livelihoods, even though that work is hard.
I wonder if that’s where you are today. You might be in a phase when you feel God’s presence strongly—guiding you, comforting you, bringing you joy. Or you might be in a phase when the tomb is empty, and you aren’t sure what God is calling you to be or do. You might have glimpses of God’s presence, but might not be feeling God’s comfort. These periods come—it is not a sign that God is not in your life, it’s just that it is hard to discern God’s direction for you. We might feel this absence around sickness or other sufferings. We might notice that the liturgy that in the past has been so comforting leaves us cold this Sunday. We might find that sometimes prayer comes often and strongly and other times, it seems that our prayers don’t come or we wonder if our prayers are being heard. I find it helpful to remember that in moments when my faith is not crystal clear or as strong as other times, I am not alone. I join Simon Peter and every other disciple is this phase of not knowing. It’s important to remember that faith has its seasons, it’s progression. It is not static. We don’t become believers or followers once. We are constantly negotiating, learning, coming closer, seeing and hearing more and then pulling back or seeing less clearly as our lives progress.
But if we, like Simon Peter are in an “unknowing” or unsure phase of faith, what does this Gospel reading say about Jesus’ presence? Jesus comes to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He doesn’t walk out on the water to meet them, but he appears on the shore, waiting for the disciples to come near. As he watches them, he calls out. He points out that they have no fish. I can hear him saying, “Nothing in your nets, hey?” And then he gives clear instructions, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat.” And when they do, they find the net filled with fish, making it so heavy that they can’t lift it out of the water. Peter gets dressed, jumps in and pulls the net to shore, harvesting a miraculous catch. On the shore, Jesus invites them to add their fish to the fire and they share a meal of bread and fish. What a feast.
At a time when our faith is clouded, we might see God’s presence distantly—on the shore. We might listen for instructions and find that the simple but maybe unexpected instruction leads to a different result. It’s important to see that Jesus waited for the disciples to see him on the shore, and then he gave direction. After the meal, Jesus and Simon Peter have a conversation. Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves him three times—and three times Simon Peter answers, “Yes, I love you.” This conversation comes after Simon Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus after his arrest. But Jesus isn’t condemning Simon Peter. He’s not yelling at him or chastising him. Jesus isn’t asking Simon Peter to repent, or to demonstrate his faith in some dramatic test. No, Jesus is patient and kind—reminding Simon Peter that the most important question is “do you love me?” Even the denials in the garden have not stopped Jesus from loving Simon Peter. God’s love is always there—he is patiently waiting for us, standing on the shore and calling to us. Jesus is hoping that Simon Peter will say yes, I love you with conviction. And when Simon Peter does affirm his love, then Jesus tells him that he must “feed my sheep”, “feed my lambs”. Simon Peter is hurt because Jesus keeps asking if he loves him, and he says, “you know everything”, “you know I love you.” In this dialogue we can feel the real love. Have you ever asked someone you know loves you if they do? Ever said to your partner, or your child, or your friend, “Do you love me?” Even though you know the answer is yes, you ask because in this dialogue of love, you come closer to the other person. And this is how it is between Jesus and Simon Peter or between Jesus and us. Jesus asks us if we love him, and thereby affirms his love for Simon Peter, his love for us.
From this reaffirmed place of God’s love for us and our love for God, we can hear the command of discipleship—“feed my sheep”. In other contexts, we hear, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Go out and look after the least among us, build up the community, provide real care. Share your fish. Jesus doesn’t say, “go out and preach”, he says here, go out and do my work. Jesus who has been the shepherd of the flock is empowering Simon Peter and sending him out do continue this work. This time, he’s telling him not to continue as a fisherman (or even as a fisher of men), but is instead sending him out to feed his lambs.
At the end of this passage, Jesus reminds Simon Peter of the death that he (Simon Peter) will suffer. Jesus tells him that he will be bound in a girdle in his old age and he will be led to death where he doesn’t want to go. Jesus is predicting Simon Peter’s martyrdom. He is telling Simon Peter that this is what it means to be a disciple—“Follow me.”
The story of Saul is a story about a different kind of faith crisis. Unlike Simon Peter, Saul has not been a follower of Jesus. He has been a persecutor. He’s not someone who lacks faith—he’s someone who is sure that he’s right. In this period after the crucifixion, Saul is still on the mission of rooting out Jesus’ followers and continuing to arrest and imprison those who are not aligned with the authorities. Saul is an enemy of Christ.
From this place of adamant denial, Saul is converted. I know some “Sauls”. Friends and colleagues are not just “non-believers” they are adamant atheists. I have some friends of other religions (or even other denominations of Christianity) who believe that they have the only right way to God. The atheists are sure that religious people threaten their way of being. Atheists might equate “enemy of the state” to include all people of faith. Other faithful people believe that anyone who does not share their particular belief is an enemy. They are sure that a person of faith who seeks to follow divine authority will necessarily threaten the social structures that order society. Saul saw the world as black and white—anyone not of his faith was a threat.
So when Jesus engages Saul, he does it in a dramatic way—he has to break through Saul’s strong convictions. He comes to Saul and deprives him of sight—makes him blind. We could say that Saul had always been blind to Jesus’ power and glory, but in this removal of his sight, Saul comes to know that he can’t see.
For three days, Saul is led by his colleagues. He doesn’t eat or drink, and he cannot see. Finally he meet Ananias who tells him that Jesus is the Lord, God and restores his sight. Saul is brought to faith by another follower of Jesus. The voice of the Lord came to him directly—but instead of clearing up his faith, the voice took away his sight and pointed him towards the Word from another disciple. It’s important, I think to listen to what Christ says to Ananias, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias is instructed not to judge Saul, but to convey to him that he has been chosen to be an instrument of God. Ananias is commissioned to tell Saul that he is going to be God’s messenger to the gentiles. And the Lord tells Ananias—I’ll show him myself how much he is going to have to suffer to do my work, you just tell him that he has been chosen. So we have a progression—Saul the persecutor is struck blind by God, Ananias the faithful is sent to Saul. Saul’s sight is restored when Ananias shows him what he is called to do and be.
So I want to contrast these two people—Peter and Paul. Maybe their double names has some meaning—both take on new roles along their faith journeys. Simon becomes Peter the “rock”. Saul becomes Paul, which means little or small, but who becomes “the cornerstone of the Church”. Simon Peter is a follower, he has been with Jesus during his life. Saul is one of the persecutors, a Jew who is part of the high priests and an agent of the Roman authorities. In this post resurrection, pre-ascension phase, both are visited by the Risen Christ. Both have their faith shifted by an experience of the risen Christ. In Simon Peter’s case, his faith is built up in a dialogue with Jesus about love—the love between them is affirmed and Simon Peter is sent out to “feed my lambs”. In Saul’s case, his faith is totally changed—he is brought from unbelief through a period of blindness to a calling—go out and build the Church among the Gentiles. In Simon Peter’s case, the dialogue happens directly with the Risen Christ. In Saul’s case, the messenger is a believer—Ananias.
I take from this contrast a message about how our faith progresses. We go from periods of clarity and comfort, through periods of darkness. Maybe we are in a phase of not knowing what God is asking of us. Or maybe we are in a period of outright rejection of God’s call to us. But Christ responds with love and care. God wants us to affirm our love for God and sends messengers to us. Sometimes we see Christ in the faces of the people around us and hear the message from them. Other times, we hear the message from another Christian, a follower who is already on the path. When we hear the call it might be to do God’s healing and feeding work, it might be to be go out be a prophetic voice, a missionary or evangelizing voice. In these messages both Peter and Paul are warned that they will suffer because this is what “following Christ” means. But they are also shown the power of divine love, a love that calls them closer to God and sends them out to show God’s love in the world.