I am intrigued by the resonances I find between two of the readings our Sunday lectionary invites us to consider this morning. Both the passage from Acts and that from the Gospel of John tell us stories of significant encounters with Jesus by men who would later have an important role in establishing the early Church.
In Acts, Saul who would become the apostle Paul is initially set on persecuting followers of Jesus, and goes to considerable lengths in his determination to do so. In John’s Gospel, the apostle Peter is floundering about, seemingly at a loss as to what to do after his denial of Jesus before the crucifixion. Both Saul and Peter are with others when Jesus meets them, but Jesus seems to be confronting each of them individually, as if those with them fade into the background for the moment.
Both encounters have extraordinary aspects, a light from heaven in one, a strange catch of fish in the other. I’m not sure what to make of these aspects, but I suspect they might somehow find echoes in our own lives of extraordinary experiences we perhaps have had of God, experiences that are difficult for us to put into words without seeming to diminish their significance for ourselves, a significance that is no less real for being usually less dramatic.
Apart from other common elements in the two stories, such as the role of food and the somewhat ominous indications that hardships lie ahead for both men in following Jesus, I want to suggest that the stories echo each other in two ways in particular. Jesus asks each man a question that resets the course of his life, and in each case other people help to bring about the necessary shift.
I wonder what it was that made Saul so furious against the followers of Jesus. Whatever it was, he was being consumed by a destructive rage that he seems to have regarded as righteous anger, until the risen Jesus himself stopped him in his tracks. That encounter and the question Jesus asked him changed his perspective entirely and revolutionized his life. Saul’s irritation was replaced by peacefulness as he began to build up that which he had been trying to destroy.
I wonder what embarrassment and shame Peter was feeling when he found the risen Jesus himself waiting for him on the beach. Despite his brash self-confidence earlier, he had denied Jesus just as Jesus had said he would and as he couldn’t imagine himself doing. After appearing to Peter with other disciples several times, to reassure them as a group and to equip them for future ministry, Jesus now singles out Peter for an interaction that would restore and strengthen their relationship.
I am told that the original Greek text of our gospel passage uses two different words that are both translated into English by the word “love”. The first couple of times Jesus questions Peter, he is asking whether Peter loves him devotedly, while Peter replies that he loves Jesus affectionately. The third time, Jesus asks whether Peter loves him affectionately, perhaps as if to accept from Peter the kind of love that he is able to give right then, confident that greater love will develop in Peter in time as he follows Jesus.
In each case, Saul and Peter are drawn to Jesus through the involvement of others. Ananias accepts Saul as his brother in Christ while laying his hands on him to renew his vison. The Beloved Disciple recognizes the presence of Jesus before Peter does, enabling Peter to respond by moving towards Jesus.
Through the presence of his Spirit within us, I believe Jesus meets us where we are in order to draw us deeper into the life that he offers. When we have set out on a harmful course, however convinced we might be that our motives are righteous, Jesus meets us on the path of our intention and asks us why we are going to do what we are going to do. When we have failed and disappointed ourselves and others, Jesus meets us on the shores of our lostness to ask us about love, that most primary motivation. How do we love? Whom do we love? What do we love above all else? Do we really know how much we are loved?
I wonder what stories we might have to tell one another about encounters with Jesus on the paths and shores of our lives. What are the questions Jesus has asked us there? Who are the people Jesus has sent to help us find our way back to him? Have we sometimes found ourselves enabled to be those people to others? Thanks be to God if so.