Scripture Readings: Acts 9:1–20 | Psalm 30 | Revelation 5:11–14 | John 21:1–19
“After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:19).
Last week we spent some time reflecting on the New Creation reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and God’s gift of forgiveness of sins through His blood. This forgiveness has been at the core of the Christian message from the very start… flowing from everything that Christ has done, especially the cross. It is a central tenet in the great Creed’s of the worldwide Church, the foundation of everything the Christian faith proclaims. As the theologian Ben Myers unpacks in his book on the Apostle’s Creed, we Christians believe “that we stand not by our own achievements but by the achievement of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We believe that the spiritually strong and the spiritually weak are both sustained by the same forgiving grace. We believe that we rely solely on grace, not only in our worst failures but also in our best successes. We believe that if ever we should turn away from grace, if ever our hearts grow cold and we forget our Lord and become unfaithful to his way, he will not forget us. His faithfulness is deeper than our faithlessness. His yes is stronger than our no.” In short, there simply is no Christian faith without forgiveness. But how often do we stop to ask what we’re forgiven for?
That is, to what end? What purpose and what plan does this forgiveness point us to?
Our Scripture readings this morning offer us two stories where people who come face to face with the Risen Lord, and find forgiveness are drawn into a whole new life, beyond anything they would have imagined.
Turning to the Gospel of John, we hear the story of St. Peter, who had been a disciple of Jesus from the very start. Peter stands out in all of the Gospels for his eagerness to be the first… to push ahead, to speak up, and to jump in with both feet… a tendency which more often than not got him into trouble. But think of some of the amazing moments Peter had experienced by following Jesus: stepping out of the boat and walking on water… even if his fears and doubts got him wet in the end; getting the chance to see the Lord revealed in glory on the mountain top, with Moses and Elijah… even though he put his foot in his mouth by blurting out silly suggestions; Peter even has the honour of being the first follower of Jesus who publicly called Him the Christ… even if he had the wrong idea of what the Christ had come here to do.
But for our Gospel reading today to truly hit home, we do well to remember one other moment from Peter’s story on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. At the last supper, Jesus was trying to prepare His followers for what was to come: “Little children,” Jesus said, “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” (John 13:33-38).
And that’s just what happened. At the crucial moment, when the chance to lay down his life for his Lord finally came, Peter’s resolve crumbled. He denied that he even knew Jesus three times, and abandoned his Lord to die.
But three days later, Peter was racing to the empty tomb, and was part of the surprising Easter party when the Risen Lord popped in on His frightened disciples… granting them peace, and giving them His Holy Spirit. Peter was part of those days of excitement, wonderment, and joy as the new reality of the resurrection of Jesus, and all that went with it, started to sink in.
And yet… today’s Gospel reading finds Peter following a different path. Sometime after all the events of Easter, we’re told Peter returns to his roots: “I am going fishing.” He says to six other disciples who were with him, and together they “went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” (John 21:3)
Peter had led his fellow disciples back to their old familiar lives… their old work… their old world, as if nothing had really changed. But this is exactly where the Risen Lord shows up in Peter’s life to renew both His gift of forgiveness, and His call to follow.
Just as Peter had once denied that he was with Jesus three times, Christ now asks Peter three times the question: “Do you love me?” Each time, instead of his typical boldness, Peter timidly answers “yes”… and each time he does the Risen Lord affirms Peter’s new mission: “Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep.”
There is too much going on in this exchange to touch on right now, but the overall picture John is painting for us is one of restoration and commission. Of Peter being invited into a renewed relationship with his beloved Rabbi, whom he had denied, but who had still forgiven him… and not only that, who had entrusted him with work to do: to care for Christ’s ‘flock’, that is, the Church… the new community of believers, who would need someone to love and guide them in the days to come.
This mission would not be easy. In fact, it would eventually call Peter to lay down his life… dying for the sake of his Lord as he once claimed he was willing to do.
But now Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19).
From that day on, Peter the fisherman became Peter the shepherd… the pastor of the newborn Church, sent to help them faithfully follow their Lord.
I think it’s time to turn now to another story of someone who finds forgiveness and a whole new future in the face of the Risen Christ.
Acts Chapter 9 tells the story of the transformation of Saul, better known by his Greek name Paul, which he will adopt much further down the road.
We are introduced to Saul as a persecutor of the disciples of Jesus from the very start… standing by and watching with approval as Stephen, the first Christian martyr is stoned to death at the hand of his fellow Jews. We quickly learn that Saul is a Pharisee, a zealous member of this religious movement committed to keeping the laws of the Covenant, and to keeping God’s people on the right track. As we know, the Pharisees were often seen as the moral police of their day, pressuring their fellow Jews to follow their vision of what it means to be holy in the eyes of the Living God… a vision, we also know, that often conflicted with what Jesus our Lord was up to.
Now, long after Easter and Pentecost, as the Christian community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was spreading like fire in Jerusalem, Saul took it upon himself to try and silence their message about the Risen Lord forever. Saul stands out in the story as a driven enemy of the Church, eager to put an end to any who spread the word about Jesus. Acts 8:3 says “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” His actions help to scatter the Christians from Jerusalem into the surrounding region, but this is not enough for Saul. Next, he seeks out authority from the chief priests to hunt down Christians in other cities too, starting in Damascus.
But while he was on the way, Saul has his very own encounter with the Risen Lord, and ends up blinded, bewildered, and suddenly unsure of what to do. Led by hand to Damascus, Saul has to wait there, unable to see, fasting for three whole days… until the Risen Jesus comes to him again. Or rather, until the Risen Jesus meets Saul through one of His followers, a man named Ananias.
But before this fateful meeting takes place, Ananias has his own life changing meeting with his Master. In a vision, the Lord tells Ananias to go find Saul and lay “hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” (Acts 9:12). Now Ananias knew all about Saul of Tarsus, and how dangerous he was… how much evil he had done, and how much more he still could do. But the Risen Lord knew all this too, and He still had chosen to forgive… and to draw Saul into God’s plan to bring His forgiveness to the world. So, when Ananias tried to resist Christ’s mission of mercy for him to deliver, the Lord replied “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
And that’s just what happened. Ananias goes to Saul, embodying the forgiveness of His Lord, and God’s grace starts to pour into Saul’s life… transforming him from an enemy of Christ and the message of the cross, into one of our Lord’s most dedicated messengers of the Good News, sharing the Gospel of Jesus, the Risen Lord, to the nations.
Of course, this mission would not be easy either. Jesus Himself says that Saul “must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16), but as Saul would later come to understand, his own sufferings were simply a part of sharing the Living God’s self-giving love with the world… a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, who calls us all to pick up our own crosses and follow Him… and find true life.
Both Peter and Saul have dramatic stories of finding forgiveness in the face of the Risen Lord, who then called them both to follow Him and share in God’s work in the world. They both had been forgiven, but not just for themselves, they were forgiven in order to share this New Life they had received with others.
Peter’s forgiveness turned him into the shepherd of God’s family… called to care for, guide, and lay his life down for their sake.
Saul’s forgiveness turned him from a fearful enemy into a faithful messenger, sent out into the world to bring the Good News of the Risen Lord beyond the borders of Israel, and draw all people to Christ.
And even Ananias had his life turned upside down by God’s forgiveness… called to embody God’s love, even for His enemies, and taking the risk to invite them to find reconciliation and New Life in the Risen Jesus.
So, our question today is: what have you and I been forgiven for? What does the love of the Risen Lord have in store for us and for our Parish?
Whatever it is, it probably won’t be easy. Changing the world for good never is. There will be times when we will be tempted to stick to what’s familiar, like Peter was. Or to get caught up in our own agendas, like Saul was at the start. Or to resist the risks of putting this Good News into practice, like Ananias. Or any number of unknown challenges, that may come our way.
Yet even so, the Risen Christ has called all of us, Peter, Saul, Ananias, you, and I to follow Him. And as we do so, we can trust that in His time, He will show us what we have been forgiven for, and He will empower us to accomplish it through His Holy Spirit.
We all have our own stories, our own ways that God has been at work in our lives, bringing His mercy, and grace, and forgiveness to life in and through us. But as different as our stories may be, one thing is for certain: we have not been forgiven for nothing. Amen.
 Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, ed. Todd Hains, Jeff Reimer, and Sarah Awa, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 116.