Texts: Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
We’ve got some very detailed stories from the bible today. Way too much to begin with a story or illustration that brings together all the loose ends and ends on a clever note. No, today it’s best to get right into things. Hang on, this will be a ride!
Peter and Paul. One story told in the book of Acts and another in the Gospel of John. Peter was old school, a Jewish fisherman from up the country. He saw Jesus die and it ended his world.
Paul was a Jew also, an educated Greek speaking urban dweller from Asia Minor. A professional in religious law. He was known both by his Hebrew name Saul, and its Greek cognate Paul. He did not see Jesus die, but thought of the resurrection of Jesus as fraudulent and dangerous. Paul wanted to end the world that began to appear as a result of the teachings of Jesus.
They’re pretty different, these two. Except for their Jewish faith. But their futures were unexpectedly woven together in unrelated encounters with the risen Jesus.
For all the detail that we get from the Acts story, Paul’s own account as told in his letters is much more brief and concise. This we do know: Paul was searching out Jewish people who believed in Jesus so that they could be brought to Jerusalem to face religious charges in the Temple.
But something happened to him on the way to root out Jesus believers from synagogues in Damascus. Paul reported a roadside encounter with the dead and resurrected Christ which left him senseless and unresponsive. Paul was carried by his fellow travelers on to Damascus where they left him to recover. We never hear what they thought about Paul’s incident.
The intensity and reality of that experience changed Paul forever. Acts says that after several days with the disciples in Damascus he, “Immediately…began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues…” Paul however says that he went away into Arabia for several years before taking up his mission to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God. Either way, Paul was completely transformed. There was no going back.
In contrast, going back is exactly what Peter was up to shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He’d seen the resurrected Jesus in the locked room, wounds and all, but in John’s gospel Peter seems to have had no idea what to do with that experience. He knew Galilee and he knew fishing, and that’s the direction he went. Though the numbers are vague, at least half the disciples went with him. Mostly, it seems, the ones who had come from Galilee in the beginning.
It is tempting to way overthink this story from John’s gospel. It’s another very detailed narrative. Let’s dispense with these details in short order.
Yes, they fished at night, probably with lights. There was no refrigeration. So they returned at daybreak to sell the fresh catch to brokers. They caught nothing that night. It happens.
Jesus called to them from the shore; he could have been a fish broker for all they knew.
Cast to the other side of the boat. No one understands this directive. Did Jesus ever just show off? Only one disciple figured out who it was calling to them. Of course it was the Beloved Disciple. What’s this all about? We don’t know. Who was that disciple? John has hinted that it might be Lazarus. And who’s better qualified to recognize Jesus raised from the dead than someone who had been raised himself, not all that long before. Someone, like Lazarus, who had been in the room that Jesus entered after the empty tomb.
Simon Peter put on clothes and jumped in the water. Okay. Think of the choices. Wash fish scales off your one set of clothes after a day of fishing, or just rinse your body in the warm lake water. It probably made perfect sense to everyone when this gospel was written in the first century. And you’d want some clothes on your body once you were back on shore.
Those fish in the net. 153. Was it a sacred number? No. The number of fish species known at the time? Not hardly. The number of churches that John knew? It’s a stretch. Did they typically get a count before selling to the fish broker? Yes. Were there a lot? Yes. Let’s just go with that. And remember that this is a story on a grand scale all around.
Then the part about love. Jesus asked about agape love. Peter kept talking about philos. Jesus was asking Peter to love him more than something. More than Peter loves the other disciples? More than the other disciples love Jesus? More than fishing? All these meanings are possible.
Let’s just say that Jesus thought Peter was capable of a lot more love. And that was his invitation to a life beyond fishing. A life of also tending lambs, tending sheep, and feeding sheep. All of which Peter eventually did after realizing that the love of Jesus had caught him up out of the depths of his grief and despair and returned him to full life.
John says that Jesus told Peter how his death would be. Here, Peter clothed himself, tying his belt around his robes. At the end, others did put ropes around him and led him to the place where he died, arms outstretched. Peter was crucified, to mock his faith in Jesus. But he went willingly. Because after all, if Jesus loved so well and died into the love of God and was raised from the dead, then it seemed like resurrection could be Peter’s future too.
The books of Acts and John’s gospel were written for more than entertainment. They were intended to instruct. Paul’s experience certainly sends a message that it’s acceptable for people to understand and experience God differently. Also, that when faith is used in ways that hurt other people, it is not the faith for which Jesus Christ died. But with God we can start over.
Peter’s life is a lesson about resurrection in two ways. First, we can be dead even when our hearts are beating and we are going about the things of daily life. From this death we can be raised. And also that the love that Jesus asks of us is an active love which takes the form of tending and feeding –that is, serving and teaching. Faith for us is much less about what we believe, than about how we love.
I leave for another time the Revelation of John. Except to say that it is a dream of a holy future. God was speaking to John in that dream, just as God spoke through Jesus to Peter and Paul. Always we are being shown the character of love and faith as brought to you by Jesus. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.