St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“With A Turn”
Collect: 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.
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."
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."
Conversion is not a word we use a lot in a liturgical setting. We attempt to do our best to raise our children in the knowledge and love of God, both in our families and in our churches. We want people to know from the beginning that they are a part of God’s movement through history, drawing all things and beings unto Godself, that they are a part of God’s kingdom. So, for many, there is no conversion, a changing of ways because they have always understood that they are loved and accepted by God. But even then, there is usually a point where people make a turn, at Confirmation, at a crisis moment, or in a call to deeper commitment.
More and more, people are not “cradle Episcopalians.” So much of our Church, the Episcopal Church entirely that is, started somewhere else or came from no religious background at all. If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, the expectation is that what comes first is the norm. In the Baptism Rite, adult baptism comes before infant/child baptism. It was an admittance that “Times, they are a’changin’.”
But you know me and words. Whether we know an origin behind a word or phrase, its etymology (history of meaning of words) can shape its use. When we know it, it can affect our understanding and thinking. “Conversion” is based on the Latin, Con- meaning with, and Vers- or Vert- meaning turn. Conversion, therefore means, “with a turn.” And a Conversation is “Turning to another.” Today, we have two conversions in our readings. In both, Christ confronts people. In both, Christ is not angry, nor abusive, nor retributional. In both, we see astounding love and grace given to two who by most of our standards did not get what they deserved.
Sts. Peter and Paul, the pillars of the Church of Christ, could not be bigger in our faith heritage unless they are Christ Jesus himself, and yet today we see both of them lovingly confronted by Jesus, and through that encounter with Grace, they were both dramatically converted.
St. Paul’s story has become a cliché-- “Blinded by the Light.” But that is exactly where we find him. He is on the road to Damascus, headed there to persecute the believers in Jesus under the authority and mandate of the Chief Priests in Jerusalem. He was a man with a mission. And then, in a plot twist to rival the best of the popular dramas on TV, Jesus calls out to Saul (St. Paul’s birth name). “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It reminds me of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, when God says “When you have done it unto the Least of These, you have done it unto me.” When Saul was persecuting the Church, from the stoning of Stephen the Deacon, to those in Damascus he was headed to haul back in chains, when the Church hurts, Christ hurts. Repeatedly in Scripture we are given the image that the Church is the Bride of Christ. When any of our spouses are in pain, or in trouble, or being hurt in any way we all respond in pain. I would rather hurt than to see Stephanie hurt. Most of you married folks would agree. That is one of the bonds of marriage.
When Jesus confronts Saul, that is where he comes from, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul, taken aback, says “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.”He heads to a house on Straight Street, and if you have ever been in ancient cities you know how rare a straight street is. And there he is given some time to Convert. To ponder. To think. To question EVERYTHING! This is not harmful, hurtful, or retributional. At least I do not see it that way, and filtered through the rest of Saul/Paul’s life I do not think he did either. He was given another chance. He was able to turn from a path that he would have regretted for eternity had he continued down it. Even in his writings he called himself the Chief of Sinners for what he had already done. (I Timothy 1:15)
The biggest sign of his transformation comes in his changing of name. Saul comes from the first ancient King. His name literally means “asked for,” and our St. Paul may have been a child for whom his parents prayed and asked of God that he be delivered to them. Now the change of one letter may seem to be small, but that letter makes a huge difference. It is a different name, with a different meaning. The One who saw himself as “God’s Gift that has been asked for” now becomes Paul. Paul means Humble, Little, or Small. And when he was blinded so he could see the true light, he was humbled, without question.
While St. Paul’s conversion was dramatic, I do not want to downplay the more subtle turning of Peter. It can mean so much as we unpack it. But the meaning is greater when we see it in the context of the rest of the trajectory of Peter’s life.
Jesus had died. Jesus had resurrected. Now what does this mean? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean to our day to day life? What does it convey as far as what we choose to do?
After he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, Peter made a choice. With the whole world needing to hear this Good News, he made a decision. He was going fishing. He went back to what he knew best. And being the leader that he was, people went with him. So often there is a temptation to go back to what we know. If you have ever dealt with someone coming from rehab, you know this to be true. They have to change everything. Old friends. Old places. They can be the triggers for old habits. That is exactly where the disciples went. Back to the same ol’, same ol’. And be honest with yourself, I will not ask you to raise your hands, how many of us have done the same at some point in our lives? For there to be wholesale change we have to let it ripple through all aspects of our lives.
We call Jesus our Savior and Lord, and those are not synonyms. Jesus saves us, hence Saviour. Jesus needs to be our Lord, he needs to be in charge of all aspects of our lives. Our choices can go back to what they were before Jesus, just like Peter did here. Or we can let Jesus in on our decisions and choices.
After a night of fishing, with nothing to show for it, Jesus gives them instructions. They follow it, and recognize their Lord. Peter, acting first and thinking later, dives in to get to Jesus as fast as he can. And then as breakfast is consumed he remembers things and I can imagine the full-of-life Peter getting quiet and introspective. Science tells us how strong a trigger for our memories scents are. We are taken back INSTANTANEOUSLY when we have a strong memory trigger.
In the Gospel of John (and in all of the New Testament actually) the word charcoal is only used twice. Here, along the sea at the breakfast. The only other time it is mentioned is at the lowpoint of Peter’s life. The night in question is the night we call Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was on trial at Caiaphas’ house, and Peter was in the courtyard denying he ever knew him. In Saul’s vision, Jesus is directly confrontational. In Peter’s early morning confrontation, Jesus is far more subtle.
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…”
The smell of charcoal, the memories of three denials. The weight of guilt. The tide of shame. Three times, “Do you love me?” The final response of Peter, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Of course he knows. Of course he knows Peter’s heart. Peter needed to hear PETER say it. YOU KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU. And with each response of yes, Jesus tasks him to shepherd his flock. Peter may have written Peter off, but Jesus never did. Peter’s conversion, his turning, was an invitation to come back to home, a direct invitation to remind him that there is no need to run away. He still had a place, and always will.
So do we all.
Conversions, turnings, are the foundation of the Church. There are none who are natives. God does not have grandkids. We are all the Children of God. And as our Shaker brothers and sisters sang, “By turning, turning, we come round right.” Amen