You know how to make God laugh, right? Tell him your plans.
Welcome to the Third Sunday of Easter. I think it ought to be called “Saints Peter and Paul Sunday,” for the conversion of St. Paul and the redemption of St. Peter. Both were good men, with strong personalities, and yet, they were also different in so many ways. One was a fisherman, the other a “doctor of the law.” Both were honorable, with strongly held beliefs about how they should live, and plans for what they wanted to do with their lives. But God had other plans—plans for the redemption of the world—and both Peter and Paul were destined to help play a part in that.
Simon Peter features prominently in all of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. He was a leader and an example-setter… sometimes for the good, and sometimes by demonstrating what not to do or say… by “taking one for the team,” if you will. He was one of the first to be called as an Apostle, and the first to confess Jesus as Messiah (Luke 9:20). With John, Peter was present for the Transfiguration of our Lord (Luke 9:28-36), and at many other pivotal moments of Jesus’ ministry. And Peter was brash. Sometimes he said things and did things without really thinking them through. He almost walked on water once (Matthew 14:22-33). The Gospels are full of references to things Peter said and did, some of which probably caused Jesus to roll his eyes. And on those occasions when Jesus called out his disciples for their lack of faith, Peter was usually one of the main culprits. And yet Jesus loved him… and named him “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18). For all Peter’s faults, scholars often refer to him as “chief” among the apostles.
But I’m pretty sure that Peter wasn’t feeling all that great about his relationship with Jesus at the outset of today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s rewind a bit to the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and execution. During Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, he had strongly admonished Peter for his resistance to having his feet washed, pointing out that failure to submit to such washing constituted a barrier to Peter’s ability to love and serve others (John 13:1-20). Peter had dozed off when he was supposed to be keeping watch with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, waking confused and bleary eyed, just in time to cause injury to one of the High Priest’s slaves… an injury Jesus would then have to heal (Luke 22:39-53). Another reproof. And then the denial… not once, not twice, but three times…. just as Jesus had predicted, despite Peter’s protestations of faithfulness (Luke 22:54-62). He wasn’t there to help Jesus carry the cross. He wasn’t there to stand with him on Calvary. He wasn’t there to help bury him. Those had been dark days for Peter, filled with guilt… regret… and shame. That golden day on which Jesus had called him “the rock” must have seemed but a distant memory.
Then there was Mary’s news of the empty tomb, a foot race with John… and the dawning reality that Jesus had kept his promise. Against all odds, he really had returned from the dead (John 20:1-10)! I wonder if Peter felt a combination of overwhelming joy… mixed with dread. He seems to have been “lying low” during the early post-resurrection appearances. He’s not mentioned in either John’s or Luke’s account of Jesus walking through walls to appear to the disciples in the upper room, which seems odd given how large Peter looms in so many other Gospel stories. Perhaps he was there, perhaps he wasn’t… in any case he (atypically) wasn’t calling attention to himself. Peter was having a tough time, and as many of us might agree: when the going gets tough… the tough go fishing. I guess there’s just something about “fooling fish” that helps make us feel a little better. But I also wonder if Peter was regressing a little bit… he had been a simple fisherman before meeting Jesus and, now that he had proved (to himself at any rate) that he was patently unworthy of being one of Jesus’ followers, maybe it would just be best if he could just slip back into his former obscurity. Only, Jesus wasn’t about to let him get away with that.
“Children, you have no fish, have you?” Perhaps Peter thought back to the last time someone had given him fishing advice, and about how that person had changed his life when he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19). And that’s all it took. All of Peter’s guilt, regret and shame melted away in an instant and he jumped into the water and swam to meet his Savior. I can imagine the other disciples watching Peter thrashing his way towards the shore to meet Jesus, saying to themselves, “Peter’s back.” And he was. Oh, he still had some work to do… some repentance and reconciliation to be undertaken. Jesus wasn’t going to minimize Peter’s shortcomings. But he would forgive them… and set Peter on the road to becoming the leader that the church in Jerusalem needed him to be.
And let’s not forget Saul. While he may not have been brash in the same sense as Peter, he was certainly just a wee bit cocky… or “confident in the flesh” as he put it: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). Pharisees typically get a pretty bad rap in the New Testament. They were, in essence, Jewish “fundamentalists” who ascribed to, and promulgated, a strict interpretation of Mosaic Law. Pharisees were among the most educated and literate members of Hebrew society and Jesus often singled them out (along with the Scribes) as hypocrites for their prideful-ness and for failing to “walk the walk” when it came to adhering to the divine Law that they espoused. That said, being a Pharisee was a pretty big deal. Most Pharisees tended to view themselves as the sole arbiters of what was good and right in Hebrew society. I expect we all know a few of those… right? And Saul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee… a stickler for detail and zealous in harassing and persecuting this upstart Jewish sect that believed that their Messiah had come… and that his name was Jesus. In fact, Saul was present for the stoning of St. Stephen (Acts 7:54—8:3). Heck, he might even have been handing out rocks for people to throw. And yet… and yet… God had a plan for Saul, who would become Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. And it began with a blinding flash of light that knocked that Doctor of the Law off of his high horse and left him blind and helpless on the ground, but with ears newly-attuned to the voice of Jesus telling him what he needed to do to live into the purpose that God intended (Acts 9:1-20).
What plans do you have for your life? Are you pretty sure, as Paul was, that you have it all figured out? You’ve decided what you want to do, and who you want to be, and you won’t let anyone or anything turn you from that path? Look out. Or you might be wondering if life has passed you by: maybe your ship came in, but somehow you missed it. Maybe you think, like Peter, that you’ve managed to make such a mess of things that you’ll never be able to get back on track. Think again. Perhaps you’re afraid that you’ve accomplished whatever it was that you were sent here to do, and now you’re just marking time. Unh-uh. If you’re still here, then God isn’t through with you. God. Never. Wastes. Anything. And that includes your time. Each of us has a part to play in God’s redemption of the world and, like Peter in Jerusalem and Paul in Antioch, and Ephesus and Corinth and a whole raft of other faith communities around the Mediterranean Basin, we are called to “be church” in our own little corner of the God’s creation, loving our neighbors and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world in great need of hope.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?