These are fascinating Scripture passages, each deserving of careful dissection and reflection, but we don’t have time for that in a sermon. But let’s take a quick look at some interesting and curious things about these passages, not all–or we would be here for hours this morning.
First we have the story of Saul’s conversion: the persecutor of the early church who loved God so passionately that he thought that the way to serve God was to prevent change, and to haul off all those people who were disrupting life in the synagogues in the Roman empire to jail and worse. Flannery O’Connor once said of Paul: “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” He had been on a high horse, for sure, in his zeal that led him to breathe “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Paul has to be taken to the house of a man named Judas on a street called “Straight”, perhaps reminding us of another Judas whose life took a crooked path to a dead-end. The disciple Ananias who lived in Damascus is given the responsibility to help the senseless Saul regain his capacity to see, and he sure doesn’t want the job. Who among us would want the task of having to relate to someone who has intended you and your community deep harm? Could you do it?
The Gospel story comes after it seems that the book has ended at the end of chapter 20. But, as if to suggest that the story of Jesus has no ending, we are given this additional story of the third appearance of Jesus. It is interesting to note that there were only 7 disciples present this time, and they have decided to go back to life as it used to be– despite those two earlier experiences. The seven include Peter, who denied Jesus 3 times; Thomas—who had to see and touch the wounds of the risen Christ; Nathanael—who had early on exclaimed: “Can any good come out of Nazareth?”; the sons of Zebedee who don’t deserve to be named perhaps because their egos had gotten too big to be tolerated very well in the inner circle; and two others who are unnamed, although we learn later that one of them is the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. As for the other 4, the author or redactor of this epilogue gives us no clue. They are clearly not part of this core group, and have probably gone home and back to their old routines, thinking: “well, it was fun/meaningful/exciting (take your pick) while it lasted.”
A couple of interesting tid-bits from the Gospel story: Note that the disciple fish for fish in the dark. John’s Gospel makes a great deal of the light-dark dichotomy. At daybreak, the light reveals someone standing on the beach. Working in the dark produces nothing; whereas working in the light, in the instruction of Jesus, produces such a catch of fish that they can hardly pull it in. Perhaps it is meant to remind the reader of Luke’s account of the miraculous catch of fish early on in his Gospel, Chapter 5 to be exact, when Peter, and the sons of Zebedee, are called to become “fishers of people.” Despite the diversity of fish caught—which is the presumed meaning of the number 153—the net doesn’t break. The net later becomes an image of the church. The metaphor may mean to communicate that diversity will not break or destroy the church. How wonderful that would be if we could give up the effort of trying to exclude those that mainstream society often designates as “junk” or “trash”, or somehow, unworthy of inclusion and ministry within the church!
Another curiosity of this text: Only in this passage does Jesus invite Peter to “follow him”. Nowhere else in John’s Gospel is such an invitation given to Peter.
All that is Bible study and more could be said, had we time.
What I want to talk about is the effect of love. Love, my title for this sermon says, changes. Changes what? you may ask. Love changes love itself. Love change the lover. Love changes the beloved. Love change everything. Love itself changes, as we all know: first it begins with fascination, then moves to infatuation. In its first stages, the lover wants the beloved to be the magical person in their life who completes them. Such love, puppy love we call it, is self-centered, and seeks to elevate the self by acquiring the love of the one whom one adores, as if it were a possession. In more mature stages of love, love recognizes that to truly love requires a wholeness in each partner that can be melded together. As love blossoms, it begins to unfold in far more complex ways, and realizes that more complex responses are required between lover and beloved. It is not that there are empty places that the beloved will fill. One has to fill in one’s own empty places and then love deepens, and broadens, and can “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things,” as St. Paul so eloquently write. Eventually, love becomes what the Greek word agape signifies: that self-giving form of love that would sacrifice limb and life for the sake of the beloved, a love that so unites the lovers that they become extensions of the other. So love per se, in itself, as an emotion, changes in quality, and in its actions.
So long as love remains in a state of neediness, it will tend to be demanding, manipulative, jealous. So Saul’s great love of God and of the Jewish law which he imagined to be his strength, became instead his weakness. He learned, as he writes in Galatians 2, that “no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
One might find a parallel between those who are currently declaring their great love for our country, and who are muttering veiled threats about taking back our country, while wanting to keep its benefits to themselves, rather than understanding that more complex times require something vastly different than the founders of our nation ever conceived, but whose ideals for the kind of society this would be can still give us guidance and goals for our life together, but not the specifics about how, in each time, to implement those ideals. Love becomes much more nuanced, and far more complex the more intense it becomes. Love rarely becomes simple, or without flaws and difficulties. So too with the objects of our love.
We all know, too well, that love changes the lover as well. If one truly loves another—or even an ideal, or say, one’s country—change is inevitable. Each of us has known love: love for our parents, perhaps, which made us want to either please them if they were persons whose love we sought and whose respect we desired; or perhaps, we learned that to truly love our parents we had to move beyond their limitations, their failings. We have each, I dare say, loved other persons—one who would become a partner in life; friend who over the years became more dear to us than we might ever have imagined. Some of us have loved the work that we felt was ours to do. In some of these instances, betrayals, the failure to sustain love and relationship over time through increasingly complex situations, can be soul-searing experiences.
You know that you have been changed by the act of loving. Sometimes you have changed for the better; but love’s capacity to tear our hearts in two can also cause us to hide from deep love ever again. No wonder love is so often betrayed as a cuddly cherub bearing a bow and arrow. Love can be sweet and can deliver hurtful arrows that may remain open wounds for the rest of our lives. No wonder that so many people keep their psychic distance from love, from commitment, even from close friendship.
Paul and Peter portray lovers whose love changed them radically and the one they loved—in Paul’s case, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Elijah and all the prophets. Saul—knocked flat by a light and a voice that says he is Jesus—doesn’t understand for some days what has happened to him, until Ananias came and prayed for him. In a community of prayer, love’s grace transforms the one who cannot see into one who at last doe see. He is restored to community through prayer, baptism, the sharing of a meal, and then begins his radical mission to bring the name of Jesus before Gentiles and Kings and the people of Israel.
In Peter’s case, his beloved was the itinerant rabbi Jesus, whom the power and principalities could not control and over whom death had no final say. “Do you love me,” Jesus asks Peter three times, to stand against the three-fold betrayal of Jesus by Peter. The question, in its tenderness, is an absolution. In the absolution come the restoration and participation in the breakfast feast of the coming kingdom—recalling the great feeding of the 5000 with the 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread; and in the restoration, there comes a commission, a task…follow me.
Finally, love changes the beloved, too. For love requires all those things Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13: patience; kindness; courtesy; respect. If God did not change, then the understanding of who God really is changed because of love.
Ours is not a God of absolute justice, whose law must be satisfied and the price paid in some measure for all the sin in the world. Ours is NOT a god that must be appeased by sacrifice. That is NOT what the Gospel or even the cross are about. What the Gospel of Jesus Christ presents is a God who, as the prophets before him also knew, makes all things new; the God of second chances, the God of grace; the God who longs for our love, who wants our reconciliation with our divided selves, for restoration to a relationship with all that is holy; who forgives and transforms us to lives of hope and meaning and purpose.
No wonder that we say, with the writer of First John, that God is love. Love changes love. Love changes the lover. Love changes our understanding of the beloved. Love must be freely given and freely received and freely returned. Love frees us from all that makes us unproductive. Love restores us to wholeness and calls us to community. And love invites us into a new future. Jesus asks you and me today: Do you love me? He wants to meet us where we are, to feed us, to absolve us from all the betrayals and half-hearted ways that we have done things, even living our faith, to restore us to fullness of community, and to send us forth with a meaning and purpose. So may we let the scales fall from our eyes, and see; so may we know that every one of us is invited by our holy lover to follow the one, whom John says, was in the beginning with God, and in him was life, the life that is the light of all people. The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Love changes everything. Amen.