Most historians agree that the two most influential leaders of the early church were Simon Peter, the big fisherman, and Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul. Christianity would not be as we know it today had it not been for the influence of these two individuals. These two individuals could not have become who they were had it not been for the experiences described in Scripture.
Our Gospel reading focuses on a time of upheaval and confusion in the life of Simon Peter. He was one of the original followers of Jesus. Early in Jesus' ministry, Andrew had met Jesus and was so impressed he brought Peter. Impulsively, Simon Peter signed on. He saw Jesus rise out of obscurity and become a national celebrity. He also watched as Jesus' fortunes changed and the opposition in Jerusalem hardened. He stood with the rest in absolute amazement on that Friday afternoon as he saw Jesus crucified on a Roman cross. There was nothing left of the Jesus movement: crucified, dead, and buried.
Simon was among the group that first heard the women coming back from the tomb on Sunday morning, claiming that it was empty. He heard the rumor that Jesus was alive again; the Abba-Father had raised him back to life. Simon Peter even went to see the grave site, and he was present on those two Sunday nights in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He saw Jesus extend his hands and let Thomas examine the nail prints.
Peter saw all of it, but he didn't know what to make of this last phenomenon. His world had been turned upside down three times. The first when he met Jesus, the second when the whole thing seemed to collapse, and now these bewildering stories of resurrection.
Alvin Toffler taught us a few years ago that the human psyche can process only so much radical change before it tends to shut down. People either blow up in frustrated violence or they regress back to some earlier, simpler mode of being. It was this latter course that Simon Peter seems to have taken. In the midst of all of this confusion, Simon decides to go back to the one thing of which he is certain: making a living as a fisherman. He's not the first person to return to his roots under the pressure of great complexity.
The story of Saul of Tarsus is different. As far as we know, he never had any direct contact with Jesus during the days of our Lord's life. After Jesus had been killed, the disciples claimed he was resurrected, so Saul began to hear a great deal about Jesus, and found it utterly repulsive.
Saul was a highly educated, sophisticated theologian. He'd had the best of rabbinic training, which meant that he had a very exalted concept of what God's Messiah was going to be like. Jesus of Nazareth was not it by a long shot. In fact, the mere suggestion that a Galilean peasant—who had wound up being crucified by the Romans—would be God's Anointed seemed to Saul to be an absolute insult to Judaism. He proceeded to do to these heretics what his hero King David always did to his opponents: he eliminated them as quickly as possible. Saul was intent on obliterating believers in Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus when our first lesson begins.
Saul and Simon, two men who were so radically different, encountered Jesus Christ in different ways, and most unexpectedly he spun their lives around 180 degrees. In both cases Jesus came, and their worlds were never the same. Perhaps, next to the resurrection itself, no two events were more significant for later church history than the reassimilation of Simon Peter as a follower of Jesus and the radical conversion of Saul to become a witness to the Gentiles. These stories are so brimming with implications and so mind-boggling that all kinds of things could be said about either one of them.
This morning I want to focus on one feature that is common to both of these stories. In both of these cases, Jesus showed more interest in the present and the future than in the past of either one of these men.
Peter and Saul were each fearful of the past
The amazing truth is that, at the moment of their encounter with Jesus, each of them was burdened with terrible memories of the past. I imagine Simon Peter could not get off his mind the way he handled himself on the last night of Jesus' life.
That evening at supper our Lord had been unusually somber. Then in the middle of the meal, he had said to the disciples, "We are about to be tested as never before. We could betray everything we have worked for. We need to pray for strength not to crumple under the pressure."
Simon Peter was so full of himself, so naive, so unconscious, so arrogant that he responded brashly by saying, "Jesus, you don't have to worry about me; I'm strong. I don't know about the rest of these guys, but there's nothing in me that is capable of betrayal. I will stand with you even to death. When it comes to me, Jesus, you don't have to worry."
A few hours later, after Jesus was arrested, the whole ground shifted under Simon's feet. Fear did what it's capable of doing to any one of us. It turned him into a frightened animal. All it took was a slave girl saying casually, "Aren't you one of the followers of the man they've just arrested?"
That pushed Simon over the edge. He began to fill the air with angry recriminations and denunciations. He was saying, "I don't know him. I've never heard of him. I'm not one of his followers." While those words were still echoing back and forth, there was this rustle up where Jesus was being interrogated. They brought him out. You could see he'd been roughed up pretty badly. Jesus looked at Simon, and Simon looked at Jesus. Simon realized that Jesus had heard everything he had just said.
The thought of it broke Simon's heart. There was Jesus surrounded by enemies, being treated like an animal, and there comes to his ears the sound of his best friend's voice. What is that voice saying? "I don't know him. I've never heard of him. I'm not one of his followers."
Simon thought how utterly abandoned Jesus must feel. What a total failure his life must have seemed at that moment. The one Jesus had poured the most of himself into is now denouncing any connection whatsoever. The memory of it was enough to crush absolutely Simon's heart.
My guess is that it's the memory of that humiliating failure that may explain why Simon reacted as he did after the resurrection. I'm suggesting that when the women came back and said the tomb was empty, that there were some angels saying that Jesus is alive again, Simon was elated at the thought. On another level, he was filled with terror. He knew that if Jesus was back again, he was going to have to look into those eyes and account for that terrible time of betrayal. Maybe the reason he decided to go fishing was not just to get back to a simpler mode of life. Maybe he was running from contact with this one who remembered so much. A certain reading of our lesson this morning would support that premise.
Later we see the seven disciples who'd gone back to the Sea of Galilee. They were either so rusty in their skills or so discombobulated about all that had happened that they weren't having any success in their fishing. They'd been at it all night. As the sun was rising, a figure appeared on the shore and called out, "Have you caught anything? Why don't you cast your nets on the right?"
They put the nets down and could hardly believe the catch they were getting. Maybe it was the sound of the voice or what happened when they obeyed, but at that moment, the beloved disciple made the connection and said to those in the boat, "That's Jesus over there. That's the Lord who met us here first. He's back again." On hearing those words, Simon who had been stripped for work, put on a garment and dove into the sea.
The traditional interpretation is that Simon was so elated to see Jesus that he jumped in to swim ashore ahead of the other disciples. But if you'll read the lesson carefully the very opposite could be the interpretation. He may have jumped in the water to escape seeing Jesus. He may have been so filled with horror at having to come to terms with his past that he actually tried to avoid contact. But as he jumped into the water, maybe he came to himself and realized that there is no spatial solution to a guilty conscience. If you try to run away, you take the conscience with you. There's an old saying that if an ass goes on a journey, it's not going to come back a horse.
Where we are does not change what we are or what we have done. Maybe Simon realized there's no way to run from the past. Even though he may have jumped into the sea in terror, he finally straggled up on the shore after the rest had brought in the fish. The burden of his past likely filled him with horror.
Saul felt much the same during his three days of blindness after his encounter with Jesus. Jesus had literally knocked him off his high horse with a blinding light and a voice, saying, "Why are you persecuting me, Saul?"
Saul, realizing that this is God himself, said, "Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you persecute."
That must have come as an incredible surprise. This one that had so repulsed him was, in fact, God's Messiah. Suddenly it dawned on Saul that he had been fighting God himself. He had been opposing the very one he was supposed to be serving. To a person of no religious concerns, that might not be important. But to Saul, God was everything. He wanted to be on God's side above all else. To discover that he had been contending against God instead of serving God must have been a terrible humiliation. Then, the terror must have come. What is God going to do to me after what I have done?
An ancient saying reminds us that it's a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. Saul must have thought, How can he be anything but angry, given what I have done?
God deals with their present and future
Both men, Simon and Saul, came to their fateful encounter with all kinds of baggage from the past. When Jesus begins to deal with these two people, he doesn't say anything about their past mistakes. He talks about the present and the future. God is more concerned for the future than the past. He's more interested in what we can yet become than in all the things we used to be.
If you ask how God could have this kind of mercy and this kind of hope, you need to go back to something that Jesus said all through his ministry. He said, "I came not to condemn the world, but to save the world."
If that is God's intention, then no wonder he's focusing on the future. The future is the only place of creative possibility. The past is unalterable. No matter how intensely you feel about what you did and didn't do, there is no way to go back. We can't undo or redo the things that make up our heritage. The only place left open and fluid, like clay in the hands of the potter, is the realm of the future. God is more concerned about that than he is about all things that make up the great past.
Simon and Saul became spiritual giants because they accepted God's way of looking at time and chose to focus on the future, not on the past.
We've all known people who simply can't let go of the way it used to be. They are filled with their own remorse, regret, and anger at what other people did to them back there. All they can do is rehash the past and stay so enmeshed that they're crippled in terms of the future. They don't know how to lay down what used to be.
There is a story of two Buddhist monks walking in a drenching thunderstorm. They came to a stream, and it was swollen out of its banks. A beautiful young Japanese woman in a kimono stood there, wanting to get to the other side, but afraid of the currents. In characteristic Buddhist compassion, one of the monks said, "Can I help you?"
The woman said, "I need to cross this stream."
The monk picked her up, put her on his shoulder, carried her through the water, and put her down on the other side. He and his companion went on to the monastery.
That night his companion said to him, "I have a bone to pick with you. As Buddhist monks, we have taken vows not to look on a woman, much less touch her body. Back there by the river you did both."
The first monk said, "My brother, I put that woman down on the other side of the river. You're still carrying her in your mind."
That is characteristic of so many of us. We cannot meet something in the road of life, do it, put it down, and move on. We continue to be obsessed with the past at the expense of the future. Because Jesus came not to condemn but to save, he was more interested in what Simon and Saul could yet become than all the terrible things they had already done.
Our past has a tremendous gift to give us in terms of its teaching. To forget the past completely would be a great tragedy, but we can remember the past too much. We can be too obsessed with the way it was and never glimpse how different our future could be.
Years ago, a thunderstorm came through southern Kentucky at the farm where my Claypool forebears have lived for six generations. In the orchard, the wind blew over an old pear tree that had been there as long as anybody could remember. My grandfather was grieved to lose the tree, which he had climbed as a boy and whose fruit he had eaten all his life.
A neighbor came by and said, "Doc, I'm really sorry to see your pear tree blown down."
My grandfather said, "I'm sorry too, it was a real part of my past."
The neighbor said, "What are you going to do?"
My grandfather paused for a long moment and then said, "I'm going to pick the fruit and burn what's left."
That's such a wise way of working with the past. We do need to pick its fruit. We do need to learn its lessons. Amnesia is a sickness and not an asset. But having learned what the past can teach us, we need to pick the fruit, burn what's left, and go on.
We must be more interested in the future than the past
I was working with these biblical stories during the week of the Rodney King verdict in California. I am dismayed by this whole chain of events. I'm dismayed at whatever Rodney King did that caused the police to stop him. I'm dismayed at the kind of force used to subdue him. I'm dismayed by the jury's verdict. Most of all, I have been dismayed by the destructive events that followed.
I'm amazed at how contagious destructive evil can be. It is the terrible seduction of evil that we are provoked to imitate the very thing that we abhor. I look with horror as black people pull white people out of cars and begin to do to them the very thing that police had done to Rodney King. If, in order to defeat the beast, we become a beast, then the only thing that wins is bestiality. I have been heartsick at the way the sickness of our culture has broken out everywhere we look.
Then I come back to the way Jesus reacted to Simon and to Saul, and I come back to the incredible idea that God is more interested in the future than in the past. I realize that if we're going to make any kind of progress out of this terrible week, then we have to learn the lessons of our past. There's much back there of which we should be ashamed, and we have to learn those lessons or we'll repeat them. Having learned those lessons, we've got to forget some of the past and believe that God still has the potential for making a different and better future than we have seen this week.
These Scriptures call us to sense that what we can yet do is more important than the terrible things that we have already done. There's the possibility of a legal system with liberty and justice for all. That's what we have to strive for. If we simply bog down into our sordid past, we will be condemning ourselves and each other. Nothing will come from it.
The one who was knocked to the ground on the Damascus road was a man who had done to Christians exactly what those law enforcement officers did to Rodney King. Saul had beaten people senseless in the name of his fanaticism.
When the man who had beaten other people was himself knocked to the ground, Jesus didn't proceed to pummel him the way people have pummeled each other in the wake of this decision. He didn't beat Saul because Saul had beaten other people, but rather he opened the way for Saul to become a different kind of person. He offered him a way to become a witness of love instead of an instrument of violence.
Later on, Paul would say, "After what he has done for me, this one thing I do: forgetting those things that are behind and reaching forth for those things that are ahead, I press toward the mark for the prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
The high calling of God, my brothers and sisters, is that we learn to live together in justice and love—black and white, rich and poor, people with every color skin and every political idea. The high calling of God is not that we kill each other, as do enemies, but that we learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If we can make our response to this week the same as Jesus made to Simon and to Saul, if we can believe that God is still more interested in the future than the past, then even this terror can give birth to something better.
Oh, Jesus Christ, fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may be less of what we used to be and more of what we ought to be. Please, please. Amen.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
The late John Claypool served as rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and professor of homiletics at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.