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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30:1-12. Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

The lectionary readings for Sunday demonstrate the dramatic reach of resurrection power. There is great reversal.

Psalm 30 speaks of being restored from “Sheol” and the “Pit,” the shadowy place where, as one writer puts it, “the dead were thought to lead a conscious shadowy existence . . ., they were not in torment, but had neither hope nor satisfaction”—a place where, perhaps, they awaited judgment. The Psalmist, “restored” from that place praises God because “you have turned my mourning into dancing; you taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:3 & 12) In the middle of the Psalm is one of my favorite promises, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (vs. 5)

In the Gospel lesson from John 21, we have a transformation from discouragement and doubt to full nets, exuberance, and faith. When some of the disciples go back to fishing it doesn’t go well. (vss. 2-3) Jesus, unrecognized at first, appears and tells them to cast their nets on the other side. Suddenly the nets are full. (vss. 4-8) Peter recognizes Jesus, puts on some clothes, and jumps into the sea. (vs.7) This is the same Peter who once tried to walk on the water only to become frightened and begin to sink. (Matthew 14:30)

He’s no longer the same Peter, although the transformation is not yet complete. This is also the same Peter who denied his Lord three times, and now he is given a new chance. Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers, “Of course I do,” after which Jesus tells him to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “feed my sheep.” I’ll leave it to others to parse the details of this encounter. What I see is that we are given second chances. There is hope even for those who have stumbled into the pit of despair and doubt and denial. Jesus still has a place for such people in his ministry and mission.

In the reading from Acts, we see that even a persecutor of Jesus’ followers can be resurrected and become the most prominent shaping voice of the early church. Jesus appears to Saul (whom we now call Paul) as a sudden flashing light from heaven (which literally blinds him) and a voice that speaks to him and gives him instruction. (Acts 9:3-9)

We see him transformed from persecutor to advocate. But not without another transformation. There’s a community of believers in Damascus, including Ananias, who is told to welcome this persecutor. (Acts 9:10-14) There is understandable fear and doubt, but Ananias is obedient, welcomes Saul and heals him from his blindness. (vss. 15-18) Saul/Paul remains for a time with the disciples and begins to preach in the synagogue. (vss. 19-20) Resurrection power not only changes a persecutor into an advocate. It transforms a group gathered in fear into a welcoming community.

In the tradition in which I grew up, this story of Saul’s “conversion” was taken as a model for all conversions. This is what was supposed to happen to each one of us upon our initiation into the way of Jesus—bright lights and all. Some of us struggled with that. Although there is a moment with some drama that I look to as my initial moment of conversion, and other moments of being held in overwhelming love along the way, very little of it comes in terms of bright lights and voices from the heavens, moments in which I was knocked down and blinded.

Most of us don’t start in the pits or as crusading enemies of the church. It is true that there are those who have come into the church from a life of addiction, from experiences of violence, etc. For some, the changes have been dramatic and visible. Many, however, have grown up in the church or have, at least, been guided by values consistent with those taught by the church. Maybe they have never even known a time when they did not feel the presence of Jesus’ Love surrounding and filling them.

For me the most significant transformations have had to do with self-image and going through times of trial. I grew up in what some would call “poverty,” although not in a “dirt-poor: existence. The conditions did not help my self-image. In today’s terms, I might have been one of those made fun of on the internet. My experience of Jesus and the church community told me different. I was worth something. I had a place in the scheme of things—a “scheme” which was about a love that embraced even me. Along the way, like most people, I’ve had experiences that have thrown me for a loop, setbacks and challenges that defied reason and filled my being with shame and pain. It’s why that fifth verse of Psalm 30 has so much meaning to me. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” I’ve not been Paul on the Damascus road, but I’ve known the power of resurrection in everyday human life and living.

I believe the bottom line is in the experience of an accepting community. Such communities are the body of the living Jesus. Not all churches live up to that ideal. Even the best fall short. It is such communities, though, that have sustained me again and again and again. Even those guided by a fairly narrow theology had room for a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, even welcomed him into leadership positions. Some, including Kairos, have been so much bigger, welcoming seekers of all kinds, people whose identities have been challenged by the larger society, people who are hanging on for dear life, people who have accomplished great things, people who have talents to be used in service and ministry, etc., etc.

Which leads me to some concluding thoughts about another theme in a couple of this week’s scriptures—the theme of light. Scripture tells us that “God is light.” (I John 1:5) It’s there is Saul’s experience on the Damascus road. I see it in the passage from Revelation with all its mystery. I’ve always thought, “If this is a picture of heaven, I’m not sure it’s for me.” As much as I enjoy singing, I don’t relish standing around singing “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” for all of eternity. (Revelation 5:12) Yet I am moved by the majesty of these few verses and picture them in a setting bathed by brilliant white light. The word “glory” contained in the song being sung refers to the glowing essence emanating from God. The Quakers speak of the light within, i.e., God’s light within us, shining in and through us. I don’t believe that the “light” is necessarily a dramatic external event. Not all of us respond to life’s powerful experiences in a dramatic way. Resurrection transformation can be a quiet inner, even recurring, experience. Whatever its form, I believe scripture intends it to be filled with illumination that will guide our lives, help us take next steps, lead us into communities of celebration and support.

Other notes:

1. Jesus is often known in mealtime experiences. It is in such experiences that his followers recognize him. This week’s Gospel lesson contains another of those times. It sounds much like those occasions of remembrance when we break bread and drink of the cup. This time it is a breakfast of bread and fish. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish.” (John 21:13) I once was part of a church where we regularly celebrated Communion around the breakfast table. “Eating” with, serving Jesus, communing with him, is a moveable feast. The table is set beside the seashore, on Glisan Street, at a walk-a-thon, in our homes, on the battlefield, in the boardroom. Anyplace is a place we can meet Jesus and he us, if we are ready for our eyes to be opened.

2. Verse 18 offers a proverb about aging and loss of control. When you’re young you can fasten your own belt and control your own life. That changes when you get older. In reality, younger people don’t always have as much control as they like to think, nor do all older people go through rapid deterioration. Nevertheless, this verse could call us to think about control and loss of control and how they affect us.

If this is, as some think, a look ahead at Peter’s death (or a report by a writer some years later who has already seen Peter’s death) it may point to crucifixion as his form of death (“you will stretch out your hands”). Verse 19 notes, “He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” Is Peter being reminded that love is not without cost? Receiving and giving Jesus’ love means putting one’s very life into those relationships of love.

Whatever the exact meaning, the passage ends with one of Jesus’ signature phrases, “Follow me.” Jesus is not just about Damascus road experiences. His call is to follow. The sign that we are in a relationship of love with him is in the following. Even Saul wasn’t stopped just so he could bask—or be frightened by or overwhelmed by—a burst of light. He was directed to a community and given a task. He heard and responded to the call, “Follow me.” The resurrected Jesus continues to speak those words to all of us across the ages, “Follow me.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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