The Third Sunday of Easter - 14 April 2013
Saint John 21:1-19
Background: Acts of the Apostles
During the Sundays of Easter, the first reading is devoted to a series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles, a summary of the apostolic age usually attributed to Luke. While the certainty of this authorship is not firm, we are clear about the audience and the cultural context of the book. The author spoke Koine Greek (Hellenistic Greek), which was suited to his readers, gentile Christians. The tradition is that the book was written in Antioch, by an author devoted to the work of Paul. The title is not assigned by the book, but was suggested by Irenaeus (IInd Century). If we look at the initial paragraph of the text we might see the title as being either “The Acts of Jesus”, or even “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The initial sentence suggests either: “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
We know of other “Acts”, namely “of Thomas”, “of Andrew”, and “of John.” This type of literature was common in the first Century, and was usually composed of epic tales concerning individuals, or communities. Next week we will look at the purpose and resources for the book.
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."
This reading concerning the conversion of Saul (Paul) is briefly mentioned in the eighth chapter (verse 3) as well. It is a profound and unusual event that summons Paul out of the life of Saul. This Lucan reconstruction of this seminal event in the life of Paul establishes as a Christian. Later he will be established as an apostle as well. One device that Luke uses is to first have Peter mirror the life of Jesus with its acts and sayings, and then Paul is mirrored in the same manner. Here, however, is the foundation of identity and vocation.
The picture that stands out for us is Judaism in dispersion, with the High Priest in Jerusalem having some suasion over Jewish communities outside of Palestine (here Syria). We are not dealing with a small group of people, either. The community in Damascus was of some size, so the actions of Paul following his vision are of some significance. If we are correct in understanding that Acts was written around 80-85 CE, then there could have been a sizeable community of Christians in Damascus as well, perhaps even prior to Paul’s work there.
That Saul (Paul) should fall on the ground presents an image common in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ezekiel (1:28) has a vision of the Most High, and upon seeing it “I fell on my face and heard a voice speak.” Such actions were common to people blessed with a divine vision, such as Daniel and others. What follows are a series of questions, that causes Saul to review his life. We might wonder whether the “me” in the “why do you persecute me?” question relates to Jesus or to the early Christian community. The conversation becomes clearer in Acts 22, where Paul makes a defense before the Jerusalem community. Here, however, it is just Saul and Jesus in a life-changing conversation. Thus the blind and dumb Saul is asked to “go into the city.” The religious and ritual nature of what is to follow is underscored not only by the receptiveness of Saul (his blindness – vulnerability) but also by his fasting (and neither ate nor drank).
The actions of Ananias seem to mirror the actions of the healing Jesus. He lays his hands on Saul – an action that is not taken from healing stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, but rather an action that comes from the Christian tradition about Jesus. There are some verbs noted in the command of Jesus to Ananias that speak about the apostolic nature of the man who would soon be Paul. Jesus says, “I have chosen,” “I will show”, “he must suffer”. The Christian nature of the laying on of hands is especially noted in the gift of the Holy Spirit that results. What follows is baptism (interestingly, it is Peter who later in the Acts relates that the act of Baptism must be completed by the gift of the Holy Spirit). One wonders what food was taken? Might this be a Eucharistic reference from which the strength came?
Breaking open Acts:
1. When did you first believe?
2. How do you react to Paul’s conversion story?
3. Have you ever been blind – have the Scriptures ever opened your eyes?
Psalm 30 Exaltabo te, Domine
I will exalt you, O LORD,
because you have lifted me up *
and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
O LORD my God, I cried out to you, *
and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; *
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
Sing to the LORD, you servants of his; *
give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, *
his favor for a lifetime.
Weeping may spend the night, *
but joy comes in the morning.
While I felt secure, I said,
"I shall never be disturbed. *
You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains."
Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear.
I cried to you, O LORD; *
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
"What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; *
O LORD, be my helper."
You have turned my wailing into dancing; *
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
The superscription for this psalm is “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house (Temple), for David. The simple initial idea, “I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have lifted me up,” (or in Alter, “you drew me up.”) is deeper (no pun intended) than we might initially think. The image embedded in the verb is of drawing water out of a well, and thus the psalmist sees himself being drawn up out of the water (death) and returned to life. The dependence of the psalmist on God for all the realities of life is then explored in the verses of the psalm. The following verses repeat the themes of death and then health – “Sheol” and “the Pit” are used in Alter’s translations of verse 3. It is as if we were seeing a double-sided coin, and it is perfectly stated in verse 5, “For his wrath enduring but the twinkling of an eye, his favor for a lifetime.” The strong contrasts of the poem seem to comment on the strong contrasts of life and death, of humankind and God.
The fine tradition of arguing with God is seen in verse 9, where the psalmist contends that it is not in God’s best interest to have a people “gone down to the Pit”. The “dust”, he contends, cannot praise God
Breaking open Psalm 30
1. Have you ever been lifted up out of a difficult situation?
2. Who did the rescuing?
3. Can you identify with the psalmist here?
I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
"Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!"
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
"To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"
And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Now the song of the elders (4:11) becomes the song of “myriads of myriads”. This song, however, is more complete in that it describes the complete dimensions of the Lamb’s power and glory: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. Seven distinct qualities that express the fullness of the Lamb’s qualities are multi-dimensional with the first four describing the dominion of the Lamb, and the final three the response of the angels. All of creation is included in this praise, including the sea, the ancient dominion of chaos, destruction, and death (see the Psalm above). The recipients of this praise are the Ancient of Days (seated on the throne) and the Lamb (the Christ) who together are enthroned on (cf. Psalm 22) the praises of the angels, the creatures, and creation.
Breaking open Revelation:
1. Which of the words describing the Lamb best suits your thoughts about Jesus?
2. How do you praise God?
3. Where do you praise God?
St. John 21:1-19
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."
In this chapter we have a departure from John’s usual style and vocabulary. You might want to look a comparable pericopes: Luke 5:1-11, and Matthew 14:28-31. It may be an addition, but it is an early one, appearing in all manuscripts. For Luke, and the remainder of John, the resurrection appearances are limited to Jerusalem, but her we are in Galilee, where it all began. Here the appearance is limited to seven of the disciples, who all are named, excepting two. Perhaps the number is used to indicate the perfection of the vision. Also interesting is the fact that they do not recognize Jesus, something that they had already done in the previous chapter. It seems that we are looking at an independent tradition here. What is present here is life as it was lived in Galilee. Even the command to cast the net on the right side of the boat is not indicative of a miraculous call – the right side was traditionally the lucky side of the boat. The draft of fishes, however, is a sign of what the future is to be like, especially for Peter, given the verses that complete this narrative. Peter is depicted here, however, not so much as a prince and leader but rather as the impulsive character that he was. Was that the power behind the message that he will soon be bidden to bear?
The theme of abundance is prevalent, not only in fish (which recalls the multiplication of the loaves) but in the meal set by Jesus. A Eucharistic note is struck here, and the tradition notes that this is the “third” revelation of Jesus to the disciples. Similar notions to the scene in Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) where there is little resurrection of the risen Christ until the breaking of the bread seem to sound here as well.
Now all of the attention turns to Peter, who is questioned by Jesus, three times. The three denials are met with three confessions of love and belief. Peter’s primacy here is unquestioned. He seems to be the fulcrum that will guide the power of the message. The journey that is described for Peter, cleverly couched in the verse that describes the loss of power in life, will lead to a place “where you do not want to go.” Like Jesus before him, death is the culmination of Peter’s ministry. Nonetheless, the call is still given, “Follow me.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What do you like about Peter’s impulsiveness?
- How might have it helped him in his mission?
- Are you impulsive in your faith?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday.
O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller