I love the statue by the Sea of Galilee at The Primacy of Peter, a church built over a flat stone, allegedly the table where Jesus served breakfast to his disciples. This story has so many riveting details. Jesus cooking breakfast? Eating fish together? The fishing: notice in the Gospels the disciples never catch any fish without Jesus’ help!
The haunting conversation between Peter and Jesus is memorable, and cuts to the heart of what adherence to the risen Christ is all about. Jesus doesn’t ask him Are you doing what I told you to do? or Have you been good? Jesus wants to know from him and from us, Do you love me? Way too much gets made about the variation in the Greek between agapé and philo – as if Jesus yearns for agapé but Peter can only muster philo? These two terms are pretty much interchangeable in John’s lexicon – and Jesus and Peter would have been chatting in Aramaic anyhow.
Mary Magdalene’s plaintive puzzlement in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” is a fair starting point. What does this peculiar love feel like? Or look like? By the time Jesus parts from Peter, he has told him and us how.
But the question itself: I love the moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye surprises his wife Golde by asking “Do you love me?” Her reply? “Do I what? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, maybe it’s indigestion. Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow – After 25 years, why talk about love now?”
Without oversimplifying, church folks (and clergy) might hear themselves responding to Jesus’ query by saying For years I’ve read your book, sat in your pew, given money, tried to be nice, volunteered at the shelter, gone to seminary… But do you love me? I wonder about preaching a sermon that might list 3 or 4 simple, doable ways to love Jesus.
Of course, the simple fact that Jesus asks him not once or four times but three shows Jesus’ tender care, providing Peter with redemption for the three denials just a couple of nights earlier.
The shape of this love is explained to Peter, and it has to do with giving up independence, and private dreams, and then being led. It’s not about doing what you want, or doing what you want to do for God, for doing what God wants you to do.
Henri Nouwen wrote an entire little book that is a sustained reflection on this encounter in John 21: , which I commend regularly, a poignant expression of what loving and leading are all about. The business about the belt, and going where you don’t wish to go, are for Nouwen a vision of maturity: “The world says, ‘When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted. When you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, and control your own destiny.’ But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”
The ominous remark about Peter’s death fed the tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down – a curious development, as Jesus invites us not to invert his sacrifice but to be very much one with him. We wish we could follow Peter's career and life - and witness what really happened in his final hour.
Our Old Testament reading, which laughably (to me) is Acts 9, reveals something of the nature of the risen Christ. Not just a dead guy resuscitated, but a spiritual body, a body, recognizable, able to be seen and heard, yet utterly transformed, transfigured. Well after he’s ascended into heaven, the risen Jesus is still on the loose, changing everything. Appearing to Saul. Fulfilling Martin Luther King's admonition that "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." A blinding vision from heaven works pretty well too.
In this case, Saul, soon to be Paul. I don’t preach much about instantaneous, visionary conversion – but it is a thing, and I should find fresh ways to speak of it. Do we point to Luther’s dramatic experience when he “felt I was altogether born again”? or Wesley’s warmed heart? Do you have a story?
I love the suggestion, “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do,” which makes me wonder if that’s the word to us, that we discern our calling, the point of being a Christian, when we go into the city, and listen to the challenges and sorrows, the injustices and agonies of where real, and usually unchurched people live, work and play. You won’t take Jesus into the city. He’s already there.
Ananias intrigues. The greatest of Christians are debtors to someone who ushered them into the Body. Naming yours, or others will make great illustrations. He said “Here I am” – and so perhaps models the readiness for Paul, and for us. We’ll sing #593 from the Methodist hymnal…
Notice Church isn’t an institution just yet. It’s still called “the way” – and it might be a way, a path, a journey even for us as we reimagine things. Quirky thought: is there any irony that he is at the “house of Judas”? A common name, yes – but foes of Jesus aren’t tossed aside but redeemed in this story. Unlikely instruments everywhere.
The scales falling from his eyes – symbolic of the spiritually blind now seeing, such a key miracle in Jesus’ ministry – reminds me of Puff the Magic Dragon: “His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.” Childhood lost – so what did Paul lose when he saw the light? Plenty – and we hear the pain of his loss repeatedly in his letters: family, reputation, the security of the Law, much more.
[2 Caravaggio paintings above!]