Sermons That Work

For Centuries, in Many…, Easter 3 (C) – 2004

April 25, 2004

For centuries, in many parts of the Early Church, virtually all baptisms were reserved for the Great Vigil of Easter. The entire year was built around this, and the centrality of Easter Baptisms was shown in many ways. One of these ways is still very much with us. The readings from scripture we hear during the Great Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost—especially the sections from John’s Gospel—were originally chosen to help open to the newly baptized, and to the whole Christian community, the meaning of their baptism and of their life in Christ.

While the Pascal Candle burns, the word of God is to help us learn what it means for Easter to be real: what it means for us to be a part of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Today we see what it means for the resurrection to be real for three people: for Saul, for Ananias, and for Simon Peter. While each has a different story, they all have much in common with each other, and with us.

Let’s start with Saul. Saul was a Pharisee—and a good one. He was a successful and ambitious man who had a mission: he was trying to contain, if not destroy, what he saw as an heretical sect of his beloved Judaism, a cult called “The Way,” made up of the followers of one Jesus of Nazareth. And as Saul was going about this mission he had with him something very important—he had letters from the Sanhedrin. Those letters were his legal authority to extradite Jews anywhere to Jerusalem for trial. These letters were sort of a rabbinic “gold card,” a sign of Saul’s success, of his influence, and of his power. Saul had made it in his chosen field, and he had the credentials to prove it. Those letters were a big deal, and Saul knew it. It was with those letters in his pocket that Saul discovered that Easter was real.

He discovered that he was wrong, that he had persecuted the God he sought to serve; and he discovered something even more important than his own wrongness. He discovered the power of God’s grace. And through that grace everything changed. Saul discovered that everything he had done, as totally wrong, as misguided, as fundamentally evil as it was, all of that was so completely overwhelmed by the reality of the presence of Christ that it wasn’t even mentioned. Saul was not condemned for his past. Instead, he was told how to begin something new. And we never hear about those letters again. Those very important signs of his power and of his status just drop out of sight.

We know what happened to Saul; we don’t know what became of the letters. (We can assume they were left somewhere.) He couldn’t possess both those letters and the new life; there was no way.

Ananias enters the picture here, and only here. Everything we know about him you just heard. We know that he was a follower of Jesus who had to make a choice between doing what he felt God wanted him to do, and doing what made sense. He knew about Saul, he knew Saul was his enemy, and the enemy of the Church. He doubtless knew the comfort that comes from having someone to hate and fear and name as “evil”—and so make it easier to name himself “good.” He knew that to reach out to the one he had named evil was dangerous, stupid, and, well, uncomfortable.

Like us, Ananias would prefer that grace and transformation happen to him or to his friends. The idea of an enemy being chosen upset his entire world. So he argued with God, and he had to choose. If he chose to obey, he had to do something with his preconceptions, with his hatred, and with his fear. He had to leave them somewhere, (the same place Saul left his letters) in order to be able to go to his enemy, call him “brother,” touch him, and heal him.

The main thing we know about Ananias is that he chose well: he gave up his old ideas and took a big risk. And that risk gave to the church and to the world the ministry of Paul.

Then there is Peter. While the Gospel story mentions seven disciples, it is really about Peter. It is about Peter who had, around a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the High Priest three times denied Jesus. It is about Peter who, in spite of everything that had happened after the crucifixion, had gone home to Galilee. It is about Peter, who decided to go fishing because that was who he was—he was a fisherman and he thought it was time to settle down and go back to what he was best at doing.

All this messiah-chasing was just too much for Peter. But it was over now, and there were fish to be caught, a living to be made. It was in the middle of this very secular activity that Peter found himself faced with Jesus—and with a net full of fish. A lot of fish, dragged up on the shore, fish that were worth a tidy bit of money. Fish that could be the start of a new business: “The Former Disciples Fresh Fish Emporium, Inc.” All Peter had to do was get those fish to market—now. Before they started to rot.

Instead, Peter stayed for a meal, where around another charcoal fire Jesus broke bread with them, and in the breaking of the bread Peter and the rest knew Jesus, and things changed again—Easter became real. A choice had to be made; and fish were left.

All those valuable fish were left at the same place Saul left his letters, and Ananias left his hatred and his fear. They were left behind. Behind is a good place—a big place. There is plenty more room behind, at that place where things get left. Most of us have a thing or two we need to add to that pile—the pile of Peter’s rotten fish and Paul’s letters of authority, and Ananias’ hatred.

We often think about renewal, and change, and revival in terms of God, or the preacher, or the church or somebody giving us something; in terms of having something more added to who we are. But much of the time renewal is not about getting something; it is about giving something up. Often, what stands between us and renewal, between us and living out much more deeply what it to be a baptized Christian—is not something we lack, but something we have; something we refuse to let go.

Paul, Ananias, and Peter each had very different issues, (status, prejudice, money) but they also had the same story, the same choice. Each had to choose between something very important and very real to them—and the call of God—a call that, even at its clearest, is ambiguous, and involves risk. None of their choices was easy.

It would be nice if there were a list of easy-to-spot, visible things that I could pass out or hold up and say, “if you just gave up these—everything would be all right.” (There have been a lot of attempts to do that.) But such lists always fail: they always fall short; they always miss the point. And they are, as a rule, unnecessary. Most of us know what our piles of fish, or our gold cards, are. We know our issues, or we know how to find out. We don’t need that sort of reminding. What we do need is to be reminded of, and the real point of it all, is that there is hope. The resurrection is real.

Paul did quite well without his letters of authority, Ananias gained much from what he had to surrender, and Peter didn’t need his fishing business nearly as much as he thought.

There is a pile of rotten fish out there, with a few official letters, and some other stuff on it. We have our contributions to make to that pile. And that is all right. For Christ is risen. That means that the choices Peter, Paul, and Ananias made, and that we are called to make, are possible, they can be done; and these choices lead to life—to fuller and better life.

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Christopher Sikkema


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