Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
But the Lord said to him, “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 went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Today’s scripture tells of how two repentant followers of God enter into communion with Christ after working against him. For Peter, he repented of leaving Christ to die when the risk of death came to him. For Paul, his repentance was for murder, actively seeking out Christians to be threatened into abandoning the faith or else to be killed as blasphemers. In both situations, we are presented with genuine repentance and the acceptance of the offender back into the family of the faith. For Peter, this acceptance would lead him to his ministry in Rome, for Paul his entire ministry journey throughout the Eastern Empire.
What is interesting about the way in which the scripture describes their repentance, is that despite the varied nature of the wrongs the committed, the same sort of action preceded and followed their reconciliation to Christ. We see in both situations actions grave enough to cause discomfort for anyone involved with them – standing by while an innocent man, your friend, is dragged off to be killed… Dragging off innocent men to be killed. We do not have to think long to think of places we have seen such brutality today.
Whether it is in the shootings of children, or of unarmed People of Color, the persistent wars which rage across the world, or even in the day to day violence we unleash against those around us – the reality of hatred and violence in the world leads us within the church to equally weighty responsibilities. On the one hand, we are called to minister to the broken, those who are hurting and who face death every day simply for their existence. On the other, we are to minister to the offender, to those who commit violence, those who kill, those who are oppressive and hateful and in all ways and at all times work against the kingdom of God.
Though we may say of the first responders, “Well, who wouldn’t want to take care of those who are hurting,” we must be honest with ourselves that we often don’t. When faced with a person in pain, it is much easier to give them a sympathetic smile a halfhearted prayer, and then leave them to suffer as much as they were before we saw them. If we sit for a moment, it would not be hard for us to see the faces of all those people we have denied helping because of our own discomfort with their pain. How many people did we see struggling with groceries or to walk and but kept walking cause we had our own work to do? How many times have we seen someone on a street corner begging and decided that we knew better and that they would just use it for something wasteful? How many times have the opportunity to do good presented itself, and then we simply let it pass?
In the same way, we may say, “How can I take care of those who are violent, how can I ever treat them like they belong in the community of faith again?” The answer to this is that we are surprisingly ok with dealing with those who hurt others, as long as they hurt the sort of people that we do not value. What we do not like to do is ask that those who do harm repent of it. Consider those cases where women have come forward to name their abusers? For many of us, the innate response is to question the woman and not the man, “How could you be sure? Do you really mean? But what were you doing?” Or else consider our reactions to the death of unarmed civilians, especially unarmed civilians of Color. “They must have done something. They should have just complied. See how they moved their arm there, they shouldn’t have moved their arm.”
It is interesting that in both cases the decisions about what someone needs are moved from the individual to us, to we who have set ourselves up as judge and jury of all the world. In the former case, we have decided who among the poor and afflicted are worthy of our support, of our aid; in the latter, we have decided who and what can be accused of violence, and whose voices should be believed when they are raised against others. The economy of God is one of grace given to all, but we usually turn it into an economy of grace toward ourselves and people like us.
Now, there are moments when the violence that we see is responded to by those in the church. Again, this is usually times when people like us are hurt, but we do respond. How then do we fare? How good at we at helping those neighbors that have passed our initial checks? This is variable, and the church has done wonderful things to support Christians suffering. However, we are also known for our cruelty, for those reasons expressed above and for many other unspeakable evils committed across centuries of history.
The Church is the most important group to ever exist. If we believe that we are truly those who testify to the risen Christ and work to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, then we cannot be anything but important. However, this calling can make us prideful people. We bear Christ into the world, we embody Christ for those in need, but never at any point do we become Christ in authority. This is something which we lose, and it is what causes us to do wrong, rather than to do the good we are called for.
The two examples from scripture today are important because it displays two responses we can have to trouble and the two ways that we assume Christ’s authority in doing so. For Peter, he decided that Christ was as good as Dead, not worth helping and risking himself in the process. For Paul, the power that was taken was not passively determining who could live or die, but the complete assumption of power over life which comes in the decision to kill. Both these figures make decisions which only Christ ought to make. Anytime we withhold help or deliberately harm, we become God in our own eyes – we hold back the work of God and advance our own desires.
We as the Church are asked to give without question, to help people, to take up our cross and die – this is not a negotiable position. Whenever we start putting limits on our works, we begin to deny our primary work in the world. This work is to preach the Gospel, yes, but also to embody the deliverance of the world in our actions. We are not simply the proclaimers of a world to come, but the embodiment of that world in the here and now. This is not primarily reflected in our willingness to forgive, as we are often told it is, but in our ability to serve one another and suffer for those we have wronged.
In the case of Peter, his willingness to let Jesus die was replaced in his ministry in Rome. He went to the seat of the empire that had been threatening the Christians since they were just Jewish peasants in a backwater province. The follower who abandoned Christ at the cross was now in the midst of those who crucified him, working not to destroy or hurt them, but to bring them into the Kingdom and make them realize the evil they have committed. There is no attempt by Peter to make the evils of Rome somehow mean less. It is not a mission to make the Romans feel better for killing or the Christians feel better for being killed.
To modernize the example, Peter does not walk among Palestinian corpses and explain that their deaths were necessary for the security of a nation. Peter does not come to those who killed unarmed citizens and say, “You were only doing your job, they should have just listened to you.” Peter instead enters into the life of those who suffer, he works with them to relieve their pain. Peter wants the Romans to stop killing, Peter wants to protect the Christians who risk being killed. It was not enough for him to say, “I love you, Lord.” He had to work among the flock of the faithful, he had to suffer for their benefit – fiving up his safety and suffering death on the cross just like his Lord and God.
Paul similarly had to work to repent of his assumption of God’s power. Paul, having actively rather than passively hurt people, had to completely change his life. He gave up the rights which his placement among the Pharisees afforded him, he gave up holding any possession, and he became the most prolific preacher of the Gospel. He suffered and worked and advocated for those he had oppressed – Gentiles, Greeks, Christians – all these people he decided to work with in order to further the Kingdom.
Paul’s testimony is one in which we see someone suffering beside those he had hurt – not minimizing the harm which he caused, not excusing himself in any way, but taking on the repercussions of the harm he caused and working for the good of all those who he once called enemies, those he saw as lesser. The reality of forgiveness, the reality of our call to serve the least of these, is that we are never called to just say, “I am sorry.” Or “God bless you.” And then not doing something about someone’s situation or the wrong which we caused.
If we want to be forgiven for denying Christ, then we must tend the flock we abandoned in the process – even if that means we have to die for them. If we want to be forgiven for those we have hurt passively or actively, then we must be willing to advocate fully for them, to work in authentic ministry with them, even if that means we plead their case to the Emperor and die as a result as Paul did. The question of following Christ, and of making amends, is never if it will be difficult, it is not about if we will suffer. Instead, we must ask, “How we must suffer.” The example we have, of Paul and of Peter suggests an answer already. We are not to minimize or erase the suffering real suffering of others, but at all times offer ourselves up to suffer with them, suffer for them. To proclaim the Gospel at all times in words, in service, and in action. – Amen.