3rd Sunday in Easter
3rd Easter 3.22 “Resurrection” Acts 9:1-22, John 21:1-19
Jesus rose from the dead. Great for him. But what about you? You could use some Resurrection too, I’m thinking? But hmm… how would you do that? I would suggest all three of our readings today are answering this question: how would you and I get in on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and share his victory over sin, death, and hell?
We’ll get to an answer, but it’s a roundabout way to get there, I’m afraid. Like Tom Waits, I always take the long way home. And, away we go…
Who is the greatest Apostle? Peter or Paul? It’s an old question, but I promise you: it bears significantly on answering our question of how we get in on the Resurrection of Jesus. So, bear with me: what do you think? Is Peter the chief of the apostles or is it Paul? It was a question the early church mused on and ended up calling it a draw. They are both commemorated on the same day, June 29—fitting, in that they apparently died in the same persecution Nero launched in the summer of 64 blaming the Christians for the great fire of Rome.
Why Peter and Paul as the finalists? Well, Peter is most prominent in the Gospel narratives and Paul’s letters take up a huge chunk of the New Testament. But I would suggest: those are the results of their greatness not the cause. No, weirdly: the question of their greatness first hinges on deciding which one was the greatest sinner!
Huh? Yes. That’s what our first and third readings today show us: the greatness of their sin. Saul breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, helped get Stephen stoned (with rocks) and had many tortured and imprisoned, till Jesus knocked him off his high horse and had him blinded by the light for three days to sit in darkness and think on his path through life…
Peter had denied Jesus, insisted they were not only not close, but they had nothing to do with each other, total strangers. That was bad. The angel at the tomb tells the women to “go, tell His disciples (and Peter)” of the Resurrection—Peter being pointedly excluded from the company of disciples! This (most astute readers have argued) is the real meaning of Peter’s statement at the beginning of our Gospel reading today: “I am going fishing”. It wasn’t a way to “while away the hours, conversing with the flowers, consulting with the rain”. No. It was a statement of vocation. The Apostle gig had not worked out for Peter; he was out of the club. And Jesus has appeared (briefly!) twice to them, but where is he now? Best go back to the fishing business, because it doesn’t seem like making a living off the Apostle gig is in the cards.
And the other six are all like “we’re going with you” that is to say, back to fishing or similar vocations rather than Apostling. This also changes the take on Jesus’ question to Peter: “do you love me more than these?” Jesus isn’t pointing to the other six and asking if Peter’s love for the Lord is greater than those guys’? Nah, he’s pointing to the fishing equipment and asking if Peter loves the Lord more than his old life as a commercial fisherman? It’s a question of vocation, of what road Peter will follow down the rest of his days…
But, back to the sin question: whose sin was greater? Paul’s for persecuting the church, imprisoning and murdering Christians; or Peter’s for denying he ever knew or had anything to do with Jesus? And of course the answer, Lutherans, is… Yes. They are equal because they are the same sin: the sin of unbelief—the sin of denying, of separating ourselves completely from Christ and his body the church.
Peter and Paul are the greatest of the Apostles—the paradigmatic disciples—because they show most powerfully and poignantly the great gulf we all must bridge if we are to get in on the Resurrection of Jesus and conquer sin, death, and hell ourselves. That’s why they hog so much space in the New Testament! It is the greatness of the obstacle they surmount, and the powerful way they show the way to follow Jesus that makes them great for us, and equally so.
Though, I must confess: I’ve always been a little more of a Peter guy than Paul. I know. Lutherans are supposed to be Paul fanboys because of all the hullabaloo the man in the yellow, I mean, white hat in Rome makes over Peter. Still, Peter’s my guy. Not just for his impulsive recklessness or his blue-collar grittiness. But for how he shows that faith is what you say about Jesus—and not just with your mouth (that he’s God and Christ) but with your heart and feet: that, when push comes to shove, you don’t want to be happy; you just want to be with him, through think and thin.
What Peter and Paul both show us is: the greatest (the only!) sin is unbelief, denial of Christ. Paul shows it in hatred for the church. But, I can relate more to Peter’s way:
“Jesus? Hmm… maybe I’ve heard that name, little lady, but honestly: I do not know him. I’m not a camp follower. Why would you think that? My accent? Listen, little missy: don’t you know that regionalist bias is the closest cousin to the racism that’s dividing our society, today? I’m going to pretend I didn’t just hear you accuse me of being a Midwesterner…”
When Jesus is hauled off for being a menace, a threat to public health and safety, it is natural to want to social distance from him, as we have seen in the emptying out of the churches the last two years. But hey, it was embarrassing, in lots of ways, to be a Christian, long before that. The fervent witnessing, endless canvassing, the schlocky architecture, the 70’s praise music, the t-shirts, the John 3:16 signs, the general lack of cool and class the church in the last half century has so often displayed makes sophisticated and urbane people shy away…
At the faculty club dinner, when the department chair’s voice comes, muffled through his N95 mask, “Surely, you’re not a Christian are you? One of those insurrectionist, science-deniers?” And as everyone chuckles, your face flushes and you stammer: “Me? A Christian? That’s crazy-talk!”
And the rooster crows. Cockle-doodle-do…
Oh, it’s so easy to deny Jesus, these days. So… tempting. And we all do it in little ways, and, some of us, in big ways. But the little ways Peter denies—the hidden, covert, slinking away from a Friend suddenly become unfashionable; that’s the deadliest way, I would say—more threatening for moderns than Saul’s fervid and flamboyant jihadism. Peter’s way seems less serious, more benign. As Luther said: “it’s the sins we think venial (minor) that are truly mortal (major).”
But the result is the same: if you deny Jesus is your hero, your master, your Lord, your Savior, your God that you worship above all—insisting there’s no place in his church with your name on it!— then… you’re separating yourself from Jesus in a way his cross and resurrection won’t touch. That move might win you friends and influence the influencers, here and now. But, at the Last Day? It’ll get you shut out of the only party that’s truly cool—effortlessly, eternally so…
We all shy away from Jesus, under pressure. So he comes and feeds us—fish, bread, the finest wine, supernaturally powerful. It’ll knock you on your ah…tail. He has one question, asked three times: “Do you love me, more than these…?”
You reply, with Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Now, you’re in on the Resurrection. Jesus says: “Follow me”; and you will. For Christ is Risen