From The Acts of the Apostles
Meanwhile 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 travelling 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.’]
Acts 9:1–6 [7–20]
1 I will exalt you, O Lord,
because you have raised me up •
and have not let my foes triumph over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried out to you •
and you have healed me.
3 You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; •
you restored me to life from among those that go down to the Pit.
4 Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; •
give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye,
his favour for a lifetime. •
Heaviness may endure for a night,
but joy comes in the morning.
6 In my prosperity I said,
‘I shall never be moved. •
You, Lord, of your goodness,
have made my hill so strong.’
7 Then you hid your face from me •
and I was utterly dismayed.
8 To you, O Lord, I cried; •
to the Lord I made my supplication:
9 ‘What profit is there in my blood,
if I go down to the Pit? •
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
10 ‘Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; •
O Lord, be my helper.’
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; •
you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness;
12 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; •
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
Then 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 honour 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 honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’
And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
After these things 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 lake. 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 and 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.’
Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter
“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asked Peter. What does Jesus mean by using the word, “these”? The Greek word used can signify either things or people. So what is Jesus asking? Is he looking accusingly around the group who had just finished breakfast? Or is he staring into the middle distance reflecting on the things of the world? What are “these” which Peter loves less than Jesus?
We all know how much we love our husbands or wives. We all know how much we love our children. Do we love Jesus more than “these”? It is a simple question, but can we answer with just a simple, “Yes, Lord, I do”? Can we answer as unequivocally as Peter did, as Jesus showed himself to the disciples? They knew it was Jesus, but said nothing about it.
Jesus was what we might call, “the elephant in the room” – no one wanted to blurt out as Thomas did previously, “My Lord and my God.” Still they knew, didn’t they? However, they said nothing, much as we stand by when there is injustice of any sort, the gross sort such as the events in Syria, or … well just about anywhere on earth, wouldn’t you say? The disciples were silent even though their Lord and God was in their midst.
Then Jesus asks Peter that most difficult of questions, “Do you love me more than these?” The Greek word for love is the standard for the Church – αγαπη. Jesus uses this (what we call “difficult”) word when he addresses Peter. He is quizzing Peter about his deepest of loves. Is Peter’s love something which far surpasses the everyday care we bestow on “these” round about us, whether they are people or things. Do “these” mean the people with whom we mix? Do we love the Lord more than anyone else we know? Jesus is asking Peter this most awkward of questions. – And by extension, because we are also disciples, he is asking us as well – do we love Jesus more than these?
But I wonder – is this the right question? Last week I reflected on the theology of Martin Luther King. His conception of the “Beloved Community” has made me stop and think whether we can love anyone or anything more than anyone or anything else.
I would think that this is at the core of christian love, this αγαπη – this love at the core of the christian life. King sees it as at the core of his Beloved Community. This community fulfills the law Jesus laid on us. Each and every citizen upholding the law with his life if need be. ‘Like the Good Samaritan, each of us is called to risk her or his life for neighbour. King spoke of love as the dangerous altruism that aids us on the journey toward reconciliation. Love refuses to categorize … ’
The Good Samaritan, I believe, is the personification of christian αγαπη. Who else would care for a stranger so thoroughly? Would we help the person no one wants to even look at to the extent that we would stand surety for his care? This love the Samaritan shows goes far beyond anything we would do for our friends and neighbours, never mind the totally unknown stranger. The Samaritan puts our love for anyone to shame. What sort of love do we have for “these”? – as Jesus asked Peter in our reading. ‘King speaks of love for self, neighbour and God as “the three dimensions of the complete life.”’ Once the complete life is in play, there can be no favouritism to quote Paul. Love of God, neighbour and self all feed one another and love turns everything we understand of “how the world works” on its head. No longer does the self regulate everything. No longer is the neighbour someone whom we have to get one over on. We can all think about how the world taunts us into the shallow life of “eat, drink and be merry”, because there is no hope in that “world”.
But in King’s world, hope is the mainstay. Hope promotes love of God, neighbour and self. I would say hope describes the three dimensions of the complete life, that life characterised by christian love, αγαπη.
Ordinarily the interpretation of the story is that Jesus is asking whether Peter’s love is greater than the love of all the other disciples. This is the usual way we look at this story, isn’t it? But with the Beloved Community in mind we have to forego that explanation of the story, don’t you think? Jesus is asking Peter the hardest of questions, isn’t he? Don’t we all want to answer Jesus with the most hearty “YES, of course.” But with all the disiples on the beach we are silent. So How do we show it? How do we reply?
“Feed my sheep.” Jesus tells us. Nowadays what does that mean? Not many of us have experience of sheep, do we? Even as a symbolic statement about the followers of Jesus, feeding sheep is pretty difficult for us to make sense of, isn’t it? I know I am stymied when I look at my neighbours and consider how I can “feed” them. It seems to me that they are all well nourished – none are in need, according to the way we normally think about these things.
For the Lord, our great shepherd, it is quite clear – the flock is now in our hands. We need to keep it safe and sound. It is up to us to care for our neighbours.
How can we do that? In the joy of Easter we need to look back at the incarnation and passion of Jesus. King knows that grace is incarnate in the believer. The image of God is waiting to be liberated and show itself to this disparaging world, this world which in terms of hope has got it all wrong.
According to King, the death of Christ on the cross was a sacrificial act not only because it transcended race, creed, class and nationality but also because it was dangerous and excessive – Christ offered his life as an oblation for the healing of relationships and communities. If the example of the Good Samaritan inspired King’s commitment to build communities of reconciliation, the death of Christ on the cross was the guiding star that led him to side with America’s poor in demanding economic equality, social justice and redress of their grievances.
We need to live in that beloved community which nourishes each and every one of us, where everyone is reconciled with each other. We need to express that love of self, neighbour and God which is beyond all the understanding of the world. We have to wake up the world to a new order, communities reconciled within and without, people reconciled to one another because it is right. We have to live as the people of God’s gracious gift. We have to be a people at peace, reconciled. I say, if ‘Good Friday represents the dangerous and excessive altruism of Jesus Christ’, let every day become Good Friday so that the Good Samaritan in all of us will have an outing on every road we travel, so that his words will be our lives, “Follow me”.