The Third Sunday of Easter, 5 May 2019

Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
St. John 21:1-19

Background: Conversion

In the lectionary for this day we have conversion stories, the “conversion” of the disciples named in the Gospel who choose to follow Jesus, and the account of Paul’s Christophany on the way to Damascus. It might be good to look at the notion of conversion apart from the religious principles that might seem to accompany it. Of special help here is the thought of Lewis Rambo, Professor of Psychology and Religion at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Readers interested in a more complete sampling of his thoughts on conversion should read his book, Understanding Religious Conversion. Here are his seven steps of religious conversion.

1.    Context – The content of what an individual brings with them to the point of conversion. It includes how they were raised by their parents, their education, work, and social and cultural context. What brings them to the point or consideration of conversion is a product of either crisis or testing of the values imparted to them in the past.
2.    Crisis – Life events, spiritual questioning, or life dissatisfaction can trigger a crisis of faith. How the individual uses the moment may or may not lead to growth or subsequently to conversion.
3.    Quest – Here the individual searches for how to resolve the crisis and explores what the open options might be. Whether or not the individual opts for any of these alternatives depends on the whole of what they are offering and appropriate entry points.
4.    Encounter – This is the most social of the steps, one in which the individual meets or seeks out another individual who has experience with the alternative that the quester has chosen to explore.
5.    Interaction – Entering the alternative, the individual has experience of the community, teachings, and values present in the alternative. 
6.    Commitment – The individual formalizes a relationship with the new community, or values.
7.    Outcomes – Continuing experience with the new community, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the conversion. 

It would be an interesting study to take either Paul or the other disciples through these steps.

First Reading: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

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 is not only a singular act for Paul, who changes his religious viewpoint and teaching, but for Luke as well who recounts it three times (9:1-19, 22:3-22and 26:4-23). It underscores not only Paul’s personal experience, but models what Luke was hoping for and indeed witnessed as hundreds of Gentiles began to see the Christ as Paul had encountered him. The account in Acts is striking as the Saul of the persecutions is contrasted with the blinded Paul who is gradually brought to the light that is Jesus. Here again Luke connects the Hebrew Scriptures with the experience of Paul in the language of the theophany.

The conversion begins with a name, called twice. Thus, Paul follows in the steps, or rather hearing, of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Samuel. Then there is the existential question, “Why are you persecuting me?” This is an important question that demands understanding. Paul’s intentions were to persecute those who were followers of this Jesus. And now the realization is that these people, the intended victims of Saul’s persecution, these people are Jesus, and Jesus is embodied in these people – the Body of Christ in nascent form.

There is a period of darkness that gives way to light, fasting that gives way to a feast, emptiness that gives way to being filled with the Holy Spirit. One wonders what the meal is that we see in verse 19, “He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.” Was this meal the Eucharist, a further encounter with the Body of Christ? When we eat and drink in the Eucharist, might we expect strength?

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Do you think that this is an Easter experience? Why?
  2. In what ways is Paul blind?
  3. What are his eyes opened to see?

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 .
     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,
10    "What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
11    Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; *
Lord, be my helper."
12    You have turned my wailing into dancing; *
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy .
13    Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever .

This psalm is called a “Song for the dedication of the house,” perhaps the Temple or an altar or other sacred site. As we get into the text of the psalm, we will see a familiar pattern witnessed in the conversion of Paul and the disciples. There are contrasts: “you have lifted me up,” “life as I was going down to the grave,” “weeping at night, joy in the morning.” “you have turned my wailing into dancing.” This is a psalm that recognizes the reality of death and the understanding that God will raise us up. The psalmist argues for the necessity of this being raised up, “What profit is there in my blood…will the dust praise you?  The psalmist anticipates the joy that comes with being lifted up from death, a lifting up which we see in the Jesus raised up from death by God. 

Breaking open Psalm 30:
  1. Who has lifted you up in your lifetime?
  2. What were you saved from?
  3. Whom have you lifted up?


The Second Reading: Revelation 5:11-14

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.

Deep, now, in the vision of the divine, we find ourselves (as is often the case in Revelation) in the throne room of God. I am immediately reminded of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, “The Worship of the Lamb.” It is a vision that we cannot objectively accept – it will take the time of contemplation and meditation to plumb its depth. Oddly enough it takes an ordinary occurrence, the slaughter of a lamb, and makes it an extraordinary event filled with angels and archangels, incense, song, and prayer. It is the exclamation that follows the Crucified One – Amen! Let it be so. It is the divine’s hope that this vision will become the reality on earth.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. What in the altarpiece above resonates with you?
  2. What seems unfamiliar or strange?
  3. How would you describe the worship of the Lamb?

The Gospel: 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."

If we left last Sunday’s Gospel, John 20:19-31, with the notion that it was the end of John’s Gospel, we are probably right. In this pericope we have an addendum to the Gospel which seeks to connect the Easter Jesus with the mission that is demanded by Easter. We have two stories, 1) The disciples and the Risen One – fishes and Eucharist (John 21:1-14), and 2) Jesus gives Peter a mission (John 21:15-19). The missional aspect of the first pericope is unmistakable – the gathering of a multitude of fish. It calls to mind “now you will fish for men and women.” (Mark 1:17).  What we might overlook is how we are empowered to do this mission. Jesus calls to the disciples to eat the meal he has prepared – the eucharist. He invites them to “come and have breakfast.”The implication is that prior to this meal they were unfed, unsatisfied. Now filled they can continue the mission.

The second pericope focuses on Peter, and in a three-fold charge Jesus points Peter into the future of the church. What is interesting is that in the previous pericope Jesus meets the disciples and Peter at a charcoal fire – the locus earlier of Peter’s denial – a three-fold denial. Thus, the three-fold charge. We meet Jesus in the guise of a shepherd countless time in the Gospel, and now that role is shared with Peter, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” We see the same kind of momentum in Luke/Acts where both Peter and then Paul take on the guise and work of Jesus. Here Peter will also take on the laying down of his life as well. Jesus uses language to indicate to Peter his future, “you will stretch out your hands,” an indication of Peter’s own crucifixion. Is suspect we must ask ourselves where and over what will we “stretch out our hands”?

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How are you a “fisher of men?”
  2. Who is missing from your church?
  3. Who are the lambs and sheep?

Central Idea:               Commitment and Outcomes

Commitment:             Paul’s baptism and eating (First Reading)

Commitment:             The elders fell down and worshiped (Second Reading)

Commitment:             The disciple’s gather at Jesus’ breakfast (Gospel)

Outcome:                    Regaining our strength (First Reading)

Outcome:                    Praising God (Psalm) (Second Reading)

Outcome:                    Following Jesus (Gospel)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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