Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Hearing the Call
When Isaiah heard the call of God, he answered “here am I, send me” he did have some reservations. He wasn’t sure that he was worthy of such a call (Isa. 6:1-8). When Jeremiah got his call, he wondered if God had the right person in mind -- I’m not a good speaker, and besides I’m too young (Jer. 1:1-3). Even Moses protested, not being sure he was the right candidate (Exodus 3). Receiving and responding to God’s call is often complicated. I’m a pastor today, but I really didn’t want the call. Oh, I was ordained, but I expected to teach prospective preachers, not be one myself. But God can be relentless. While I don’t put myself in the place of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Moses, I do understand the dilemma they faced. And perhaps that’s the way it should be. Remember Simon Magus? He was so eager to get the call that he was willing to pay for the opportunity (Acts 8). The result for Simon is that he gave his name to the infamous act of buying church office (simony), something no one wants to be accused of.
In this week’s lectionary we read of two calls – that of Peter and that of Paul. The Risen Christ calls Peter to feed his sheep, while Jesus calls Paul to be his agent to the Gentiles. These become the primal stories of the early church. Upon their ministries the church appears to be built. While their callings are different, they’re related through the one who issues the call – the Risen Christ. Indeed it is the one whom Revelation hails as the Lamb who suffers and yet is raised, who calls them to their tasks.
I will begin my meditation with the Johannine vision of heaven. Angels surround the throne and boldly shout: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12 NRSV). It is this Lamb who has been slain, who now sits on the throne of heaven (in this vision) with whom we’re concerned during this Easter season. The passage reminds us that Easter represents God’s triumph over death. The Lamb was slain, but the Lamb now lives and receives glory and honor. If you’re willing to do so, you can let the music of Handel’s Messiah take you into the heavenly courts so that you can join in the festivities. Too often our worship of God is perfunctory. It’s a matter of rote and mere ritual that lacks passion and power. But that isn’t the case here. Yes, Easter worship should be not only joyous, it should be empowering. It’s in this context of heavenly worship, that we hear the call of God.
The gospel reading comes from the hand of John while the one we call Luke writes the word we hear in Acts comes. Luke has his own gospel story, so we must be careful in how we connect John and Acts. When it comes to the Gospel of John, Peter doesn’t always fare well in John’s hands. As we read this closing story in John’s Gospel, which as Lee Hanson reminds us could be a later addition to the story, it does seem as if Peter is getting his comeuppance here.
In John 21, Jesus makes another appearance to the Disciples, who are now back in Galilee. They’ve gone fishing, but they’re not making much headway. They’d been at it for hours and had nothing to show for it. Jesus, however, has the answer – throw the nets on the other side of the boat. Now, you might wonder why a non-fisherman would know more than experienced fishermen – but then in John we have no inkling that Peter, Andrew, James and John have this as their prior vocation. In any case Jesus feeds them and then has a conversation with Peter.
After they finish their meal of the fish Jesus helped them catch, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three times whether Peter loves him. While much is made about the change of wording from agape to phileo, we should be careful about making too much of it. More important is Jesus’ call for Peter to feed his sheep as an expression of his love (whether agape or phileo).
As we hear Jesus question Peter three times, perhaps we should take into consideration Peter’s denial of Jesus – something he did three times (Jn 3:36-38; 18:15-25). Peter may be hurt by Jesus’ reminder of his earlier failure to stand tall when questioned about his relationship, but in any event Jesus issues his call and Peter is transformed by it. About this encounter, Maria Teresa Dávila writes:
In his questioning, Jesus evokes Peter’s denial but also transforms it into a powerful affirmation of mutual love, service, and commitment to leadership. By the end of the interrogation, Peter’s affirmation of love for Jesus also grounds his willingness to do exactly what Jesus is asking of him – to tend and feed his sheep, a leadership role that will lead to his martyrdom in Rome” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 202].
As we hear this message, what do we hear? Does Jesus confront us with our own duplicity and betrayal, even as he calls us to love him and take care of his sheep? It would seem that it is this love that Jesus speaks of that enables Peter to move past his own betrayal, to service. Peter might not have stood tall once before, but Jesus notes that the time will come when Peter will stand tall – as an old man. And then Jesus says to Peter – and to us – “follow me.”
If Jesus calls Peter to a service of tending the sheep (the people of God), despite his record of betrayal, Saul of Tarsus receives his call even as he is in transit toward his goal of arresting Jesus’ followers who have fled to Damascus. Saul is not nor has he ever been a disciple of Jesus when the call comes. Instead, Saul is “still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” when the call comes (Acts 9:1 CEB). He’s no mere functionary; he’s zealous in his pursuit of those who would dare to follow Jesus in spite of the continuing cease and desist orders from the religious authorities. Introduced in Acts 7, where he serves as the official witness to the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul has a new mission and he aims to complete it. Saul is so intent to fulfill his job that he embraces violence. Why? It seems as if Saul is convinced that these followers of Jesus threaten the values he holds dear. How often do we see this to be true – when one’s values or beliefs are threatened, persons and communities turn to violence to protect what they hold dear? We might look at Paul and take him to task for his behavior toward Jesus and his followers, but Christians would in time take up the same “calling.” For the first three centuries of the church’s existence it faced sporadic, but real threats to its survival. Despite this threat the community grew in strength and numbers. Those early Christians knew something about persecution from firsthand experience, so you’d think they’d have learned a lesson from it. Such is not the case. Within a century of the church’s embrace by the Empire, the Christian Emperor Theodosius put the persecuting power of the state to suppress all challengers to the official orthodox faith. If one chose to step set outside official parameters, Theodosius gave the orders to execute offenders. How can this be? Perhaps Theodosius feared what might happen if there were too many religious possibilities. And down through the ages, this response has been implemented time and again.
Returning to Saul -- armed with letters to the Jewish authorities in Damascus, he has headed out, hoping to round up Christians who had moved there from Jerusalem so he can take them back to face trial. That way these folks can suffer the same fate as Stephen and Jesus. But something happened along the way that changed everything.
The phrase “Damascus Road experience” is part of our cultural vocabulary. It denotes a sudden and dramatic conversion experience. Few of us can offer testimonies quite as dramatic as that told by Saul, who gets knocked off his horse when a light from heaven blinds him. But the surprises don’t end there. As sometimes happens in scripture, a voice from heaven calls out to him. It’s the risen Christ, who demands of Saul: “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (vs. 4). Saul is confused and unsettled by all of this – it’s not surprising. He answers – “who are you, Lord?” Why it’s me, Jesus – that you’re harassing. So get up, go into Damascus, and then you’ll learn your fate.
Maria Dávila reminds us that like Peter, Saul (Paul) had become complicit in the “dominant ethos of violence.” But, there is hope of reclamation. Saul had gone to Damascus with one agenda, but his lifework got changed in a moment in time. Dávila writes that “recognizing that authenticity in our lives before the risen Christ is necessary for the foundational and missionary tasks of the church, and it is an essential step in affirming lives dedicated to leadership and service, whether clergy or laity.” One must recognize one’s need for grace if one is to participate in a ministry with and among those who also suffer violence (p. 203).
The official lectionary reading focuses on the first six verses, though it’s helpful to keep in mind verses 7-20. It is in these verses that we learn what Saul’s calling will be. Through the agency of Ananias, a Christian living in Damascus, Saul learns that the Risen Christ has called him “to be the chosen agent who will carry the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.” Much of the remainder of Acts will tell this story. Paul will experience success, but not without a great deal of suffering.
As we hear these two stories – one lifting up Peter’s call to care for the flock and Paul’s call to preach the gospel – we are faced with a question: How shall we respond when the Risen Christ calls out to us? Will you and I be willing to say: “Here am I, send me?”