Today we read stories about how Jesus met with two of the most important saints and apostles: Peter and Paul. I will walk through those stories with you in a minute, but first I want to offer a different thought:
The daffodil in the garden has a right to exist and to praise God according to the gifts God gave it.‡
And in the same way:
Now let us return to our stories and consider what that meant for Simon and Saul.
The first story is about Jesus and Simon Peter, along with several of Simon's fellow fishers.
Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, and the two sons of Zebedee, were there, together with two other disciples.
The place is the sea of Galilee, which at that time was officially named for Tiberius.
The time was after the resurrection. The disciples had seen the empty tomb. They had seen Jesus raised to life again. They had heard reports of Jesus seen by others on the road to Emmaus. But it was before Pentecost. They were not yet filled with the Holy Spirit. They were unsure of what they should do.
There are 50 days between the festival of the Passover, remembering the departure from Egypt, and the celebration of God's giving the law to Moses at Pentecost. There was no reason for Jesus' disciples to stay in Jerusalem for all that time. So they went home.
Simon Peter said, "I'm going fishing!" The others said, "We'll go with you." They went out in their boat. But they didn't catch a thing that night.
Peter is being true to himself as God made him – as well as he knows himself. He is a Galilean in Galilee. He is a commercial fisherman from a commercial fishing family. He is a man of action. He needs to do something. So he says, "I'm going fishing." It is the best thing he knows for him to do.
Early the next morning Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize who he was.
The result of doing the best they can is that Jesus comes to them.
Yet Jesus is unrecognized when he comes. They walked together throughout Galilee, Judea, and the surrounding areas. They had seen seen Jesus after the resurrection. It was getting light and they weren't far out from shore. Yet Jesus is unrecognized when he comes.
Jesus shouted, "Friends, have you caught anything?" "No," they answered. So he told them, "Let your net down on the right side of your boat, and you will catch some fish." They did, and the net was so full of fish that they could not drag it up into the boat.
When Jesus comes, and when they follow his direction, they have success at their fishing.
Jesus' favorite disciple told Peter, "It's the Lord!" When Simon heard that it was the Lord, he put on the clothes that he had taken off while he was working. Then he jumped into the water. The boat was only about 100 yards from shore. So the other disciples stayed in the boat and dragged in the net full of fish.
Simon Peter is true to his thick-headedness. He has to be told that the man on shore is Jesus. As soon as he realizes, Peter does not hesitate but leaps into the sea. This also is who Peter is.
When the disciples got out of the boat, they saw some bread and a charcoal fire with fish on it. Jesus told his disciples, "Bring some of the fish you just caught." Simon Peter got back into the boat and dragged the net to shore. In it were 153 large fish, but still the net did not rip.
Jesus has fish but he asks for fish from the fishermen. His fish and their fish combine to make the meal. Jesus asks them to give something from what they have, not something new that they don't know how to find. Yet both the fish on the fire and the fish in the net are gifts from Jesus. They have fish because Jesus gave them the directions to catch the fish.
Jesus said, "Come and eat!" But none of the disciples dared to ask who he was. They knew he was the Lord.
Now they knew who he was. Like us, these disciples had certainty about the Lord only after his identity was made obvious. First they needed someone to point Jesus out, then they watched him work, and only then did belief take hold of their lives.
Jesus took the bread in his hands and gave some of it to his disciples. He did the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from death.
Jesus and the fishermen share breakfast. They eat the fish gave them and the fish that Jesus helped them find. Jesus gives bread to the fishermen, something they did not have and did not bring with them. Symbolically, Jesus adds to who Peter is.
Simon the fisherman had a right to exist and to praise God according the gifts God gave him. Jesus does not disown the one who denied him, but instead adds to the gifts that Simon already had.
Jesus saw more in Simon Peter than Simon saw in himself. Although Simon may never have fished that lake again, he does not stop being true to who God has made him. He remains a fisherman, he continues to be impetuous, but he becomes a saint and an apostle and uses these gifts to spread the love of Jesus.
The second story is about Jesus and the man named Saul (whom we call Paul). There are a few others, but except for Ananias they are unnamed. Saul is the key character, and he is not a very pleasant one to start with.
Saul kept on threatening to kill the Lord's followers. He even went to the high priest and asked for letters to the Jewish leaders in Damascus. He did this because he wanted to arrest and take to Jerusalem any man or woman who had accepted the Lord's Way.
Saul had committed his whole life to God and to the purity of God's people – as best he understood what that meant.
The encounter in this story takes place on the highway in rural Syria. The time is after the belief in Jesus' resurrection had begun to spread beyond the borders of Galilee and Judea. But it it still very early in the history of the church.
In this story, the most exciting part comes first.
When Saul had almost reached Damascus, a bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice that said, "Saul! Saul! Why are you so cruel to me?"
"Who are you?" Saul asked.
When Jesus came, he was unrecognized. Saul knew many things about Jesus, but he had not walked and talked with him. Unlike Simon Peter, Nathanael, James, and John, Saul really didn't know Jesus. Saul also knew the words of the Bible very well. Saul knew the words of the prophets, but did not know the man who had fulfilled them.
Saul was an intellectual, a scholar, and something of a fanatic for religious purity. He did the best he knew how to do with what he knew of the truth. The result of doing the best that he knew was that Jesus came to him.
"I am Jesus," the Lord answered. "I am the one you are so cruel to. Now get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do."
Saul's encounter with Jesus on the road came as an opportunity of faith. Saul was invited to believe that Jesus would instruct him step by step. First he should continue to Damascus. He would have to wait to find out what came after.
The men with Saul stood there speechless. They had heard the voice, but they had not seen anyone. Saul got up from the ground, and when he opened his eyes, he could not see a thing.
From the point of view of Christ's church, Saul hadn't been able to see anything for a long time. Only just now did he realize it. Saul had been blind in his mind and spirit, but only when blinded in his eyes did he recognize that he had not seen.
Someone led him by the hand to Damascus, and for three days he was blind and did not eat or drink.
Someone – one of Saul's self-righteous friends or another traveller on the road to Damascus – led him into the city. I wonder if it was hard for Saul to let himself be led by the hand. It certainly was not what he was used to. Perhaps Saul's need to be led on the road helped him to accept his need to be led by Jesus.
Saul was not the only character in this story that Jesus led.
A follower named Ananias lived in Damascus, and the Lord spoke to him in a vision. Ananias answered, "Lord, here I am."
The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the house of Judas on Straight Street. When you get there, you will find a man named Saul from the city of Tarsus. Saul is praying, and he has seen a vision. He saw a man named Ananias coming to him and putting his hands on him, so that he could see again."
It is rare, even in the Bible, that we are able to see the complete web of events through which God works wonders. In this story, Jesus explains the details to Ananias and we are allowed to know them at second hand.
Ananias replied, "Lord, a lot of people have told me about the terrible things this man has done to your followers in Jerusalem. Now the chief priests have given him the power to come here and arrest anyone who worships in your name."
Ananias is a good and loyal follower of Jesus. But it is difficult for him to imagine the good that Jesus can see in Saul. What Saul has exhibited so far was not very promising. Ananias is taken aback; he doubts that he heard the instructions correctly.
The Lord said to Ananias, "Go! I have chosen him to tell foreigners, kings, and the people of Israel about me. I will show him how much he must suffer for worshipping in my name."
Ananias did hear, and when the instructions are confirmed he hurries to follow them.
Ananias left and went into the house where Saul was staying. Ananias placed his hands on him and said, "Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me. He is the same one who appeared to you along the road. He wants you to be able to see and to be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Suddenly something like fish scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see. He got up and was baptized. Then he ate and felt much better.
"And he could see, and he was baptized, and, with nourishment received, he gained strength." Not only did Saul's body get stronger when he started to eat again, but also Saul's true strength increased as he accepted the nourishment from Jesus. Saul was baptized – and he gained strength.
Saul of Tarsus had a right to exist and to praise God according the gifts God gave him. Jesus does not disown the one who persecuted him, but instead adds to the gifts that Saul already had.
Jesus had seen much more in Saul than the Christian believers could see, more than Saul could see in himself. Saul had committed himself to God's Law. When Jesus added God's grace and forgiveness, when Jesus showed Saul a window to God's power, then Saul committed himself to more than he had known. Then Saul himself became much more.
Saul remained a scholar and a traveller and something of a fanatic, but now his debating and his travels and his unflagging commitment were used to spread the love of Jesus. Saul became a saint and an apostle.
I have a right to exist and to praise God according to the gifts God gives me. Sometimes I have found myself wondering whether I should be using talents that God hasn't given to me. I seem to think I should be somebody else. Should I be fishing on the other side of the boat?
Simon wasn't fishing from the wrong side of the boat. Simon went ahead and did the best he knew how with life. In doing his best, Jesus came to him. The result of being the best that we know is that Jesus will come to us and form a relationship with us.
Being a saint does not arise from what a person does, but from how she (or he) stands with God. Saintliness is a relationship with God. It is relationship which we saw unfolding in the stories about Simon Peter and about Saul. The actions of a saint grow out of this relationship. The actions of saintliness are the fruits by which we are able to recognize mature sainthood.
Let me give you another metaphor: A tree does not become a mighty oak by producing acorns, but an oak tree will produce acorns by being what it is. In maturity, the essence and the effect are inseparable. The necessary path to producing acorns is – first of all – to be an oak. The oak tree has a right to exist and to praise God by being tall and sturdy and by producing acorns.
You, too, have a right to exist and to praise God according to the gifts God gives you. Is there a road to Damascus for you to travel? Perhaps; but traveling to Damascus is not at the heart of your call. Saul was on that road doing the best he knew how to do and in that best Jesus came to meet him.
The necessary path to becoming God's holy people is – first of all – for each of us to be who we are, as best we understand that. The result of being the best that we know is that Jesus will come to us and form a relationship with us. In this relationship, our best is transformed. In our relationship with the risen Jesus, our fishing draws people to the love of God, our traveling carries the word of God to strangers.
Scripture quotations from
Bible For Today's Family: New Testament
(Contemporary English Version)
American Bible Society, 1991.
Portions of this sermon are adapted
from earlier compositions:
† November 2, 1980
‡ October 28, 1985
* June 29, 1999, the Feast of Holy Peter the Apostle
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