The history of the church has been one of intense conflict. And division. At the same time, it has also been a history of healing and unity.
There is a well-worn story of the man who was rescued from a tiny island where he had survived alone in the middle of the ocean. His rescuer, let’s make her a Naval officer, went ashore to discover that he has built a little hut for himself and two other structures. Pointing to one of the structures, she asks, “What is that building beyond your hut?”
He says, “That’s where I go to church,”
“And what about the other building?” she says.
“That’s where I used to go to church.”
Right? The history of the church is one of seemingly endless conflict and division. We hear in the passage from Acts how Saul was a persecutor of the church, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. And yet the story of Saul, better known to us as the apostle Paul, goes on to be a story of resolved conflict and redemption.
What struck me about today’s readings is the redemption of Paul, yes, but also the redemption of Peter, such a different character, such a different place in the narrative, and yet with striking similarities about the way God acts. Such that it was not so much their individual stories but the collective that stood out.
To speak first of Paul, or to Paul. It seems we have every reason to believe that you could never deserve our trust. You are a rigid and tireless defender of the old orthodoxy; you are dangerous in your certainty and righteousness. We have been told that you approved the stoning to death of our own Saint Stephen, for God’s sake! You are full of passionate intensity. And nonetheless God is determined to employ you in the spreading of the gospel and the formation of God’s beloved community.
And while we are naming unlikely saints, let’s not forget Peter. Quick to affirm Christ, quick to profess his loyalty, and sadly also quick to disavow his master when his own hide was in danger. Three times he denied his being a disciple in the hours leading up to Jesus’ execution. His failure would seem to mark him as another who would not deserve our trust. Where Paul is so slow to follow, Peter is impetuously swift to follow; where Paul seems untouched by fear in persecuting Christ’s followers, Peter is defeated by his fear at the most crucial moment.
And yet it is Peter who is at the center of our gospel reading this morning. Fearful and failed, he is still an acknowledged leader among the disciples. He announces that he is going fishing, and six of the remaining disciples accompany him. And when Jesus appears on the shore, although he is not the first to recognize him, Peter is nevertheless the first to act—always ready to take action: impetuous as ever, he throws on clothes and leaps into the water to rush toward the savior. And so, Peter: you are not the first to comprehend, you are impulsive to act, you are a man who has succumbed to fear in the time of crisis. And nevertheless God is determined to employ you in the spreading of the gospel and the formation of God’s community.
God is determined to employ both Paul and Peter; God is determined to redeem both Peter and Paul. So different in character, even coming into direct conflict at times. And God embraces them both. Again and again in scripture God chooses the unlikely; God turns hearts to fulfill the divine purposes. These are themes that we are abundantly familiar with. And yet there are in the details three factors, three characteristics of God’s way of acting, that we recognize as crucial, because they can make all the difference. (What would a sermon be without three somethings?)
The first characteristic is the immense generosity of God. This is so clear in the gospel today, where Jesus appears and immediately invites the disciples to breakfast, a breakfast that he has prepared. Not only does he reward their faith and obedience with this amazing catch of fish, but before they even bring their catch to shore, he has lit a fire and prepared bread and fish for them to share with him. Much like the eucharist that we will share this morning.
The method of God is to start with self-giving, to lead for example with this incredible world of ours, this lavish creation of which we are a part and in which we can delight. In that sense, God always makes the first move.
The second factor is related to God’s generous invitation, God’s self-giving, and that is God’s acceptance. Paul experiences this acceptance when he was struck to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Imagine the impact of that sort of acceptance. The master whose followers you are persecuting says not only that in attacking my followers it is I that you are persecuting, but rather than persecute you in return, I choose to appear before you, to engage you, to enlist you.
And after this acceptance that Jesus offers, we come to the third factor. And that is the response that God’s acceptance, God’s grace and forgiveness, elicits from us, the work that it demands. We all know that there is a relationship between forgiveness and action. If we apologize, if we ask forgiveness and do not change our behavior, it seems hollow. If we accept forgiveness and fail to seek a new path, the event is incomplete. With God it is the same.
Jesus tells Paul, get up, enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. Much has been given to you, you are accepted despite your persecution of me, AND your real work is just beginning. You are being commanded to serve, to understand to whom your life belongs. Religion in the end is not a private matter.
In a like manner, Jesus, who has been betrayed three time by Peter, puts him through some painful questioning, asking him to his dismay three times, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter declares his love, he is commanded to serve. Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep. You have been given the invitation to live with and be taught by me, you have been accepted despite your denial of me, AND the response that I ask is nothing less than your service to my people. Tending to the flock, tending to the least among you. Ever mindful of the God to whom your life belongs. Religion in the end is not a private matter.
For all their differences, Peter and Paul were leaders together in the explosive growth and vitality of the early church. So different, so dedicated, so successfully employed by God in the spread of the gospel of Christ. It’s a phenomenon that reminds me these two neighbors, Petra and Pauline who live on the island somewhere, down in Coupeville, I believe, although I might be making that up. Anyway, they live side by side on their little lots. Now Petra has a row of bamboo that runs down part of the boundary between them, and Pauline has a very large mature chestnut tree in her front yard. One day they were invited to have a barbecue across the street with one of their other neighbors.
So their host, when it came time for shortcake and coffee, said, “I wish you two would tell me how you get along so well. I can see how you, Petra, have a hard time growing anything in your front yard because of the shade from Pauline’s huge chestnut tree. And you, Pauline, have to put up with Petra’s bamboo that always want to spread into your yard.
And then I don’t know whether it was Petra or Pauline, one of them anyway, who said, “You know, it has not always been easy, but at some point, it might have been the time we were looking at our neighborhood on Google Earth, well, we both realized that we are both tending the same garden. We’re all tending the same garden. And somehow it has been easier ever since.
At one time I had understood that Rilla was going to be presiding today, so I thought it important that I conclude with a reference Mary Oliver. And happily, I was listening to an interview with Mary Oliver and heard this passage from her book of essays called Long Life.
She writes about our lives as a “gliding journey,” throughout which a little song runs, a few simple words that pass musically and continually inside our heads and bodies. “What does it mean, say [these] words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift I should bring to the world? What is the life I should live?”
The command of our God is written so clearly within the invitation. The invitation that is so clearly communicated in the earth that is so beautiful. In response to all that beauty, what can we say except What shall I do? what shall I give? what life should I live?