The main character in the Easter story that we tend to focus on is, naturally, the one who died and who three days later was resurrected; Jesus. Yet it can often seem hard to relate to this story, whilst we believe it and are saved by it, and it can be hard to know how to respond. This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a couple of Sundays after Easter 2013 (Edit: link to recording) in which we will kind of forget about Jesus for a moment and focus instead on Peter and Paul; those early apostles whom founded the ecclesial tradition in the aftermath of the ascension of Christ.
“Let’s start with Peter. Peter, who was also called Simon, was the first disciple to be called by Jesus, along with his brother Andrew, and James and John. According to John’s Gospel Peter’s Brother Andrew had heard John the Baptist testify that Jesus was the Son of God and that Andrew then told Peter that Jesus was the Messiah.
Peter was there from the very start of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee and as he traveled with Jesus and the others he saw the impossible happen on a regular basis.
He walked for miles through the country side from village to village, from town to town.
Travelling with Jesus he saw the crowds gathering from miles around, he saw the Pharisee’s and other religious leaders challenging Jesus publicly and he saw Jesus’s responses to them. He watched and listened as Jesus turned traps that were designed to catch him out on those who were trying to trap them.
Peter was there when the crowds of 5000 and 4000 were fed by Jesus with just a couple of loaves and some fish.
He was there when the crowds were so persistent that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t find time to eat.
Peter saw Jesus place his hands on the blind and when he removed them, they could see!
Peter was there!
He was there when Jesus taught in parables and told stories to teach, he sat by his feet with the other disciples as Jesus preached to the next crowd and the next.
He was there when Jesus touched the lepers and saw their skin clear.
He was with Jesus as Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners and gentiles.
He was the one who answered Jesus’s question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ with ‘You are the Christ’.
He saw Jesus coming down from the Hills after he had gone away to pray and he was there when Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem.
Peter was there when Jesus said that the temple would be destroyed and three days later be rebuilt.
Peter was at that Passover meal and ate of the bread and drank of the wine.
Peter was there,
from the beginning until the end.
Yet as he saw miracles and heard Jesus teaching so often that he probably knew it off by heart the question remains, did he understand? Did he ‘Get it’?
Now Paul, or Saul as he was known at first, wasn’t a fisherman and he didn’t experience Jesus’s ministry first hand. No, rather than being a poor labourer living from day to day Paul was a Pharisee. He was born in Tarsus of Cilica but grew up in Rome, indeed he was a Roman citizen, and he was thoroughly trained in the Law by a guy called Gamaliel.
This guy Gamaliel was not just a Pharisee but he was a Pharisee who was honoured and respected by all the Jews that went to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish courts where all the respected teachers and Rabbi’s and Priests, including the High Priest, would meet to discuss important issues.
As Paul was taught and mentored by Gamaliel he would also have been respected; when you’re taken on and trained by the best then it’s reasonable to expect greatness and Paul was a great Pharisee.
In his letters his writes that he was, to all intents and purposes, the perfect Pharisee that kept to every single command found in the Law, no one else could match his passion and zeal for obeying the Law.
Paul knew the scriptures inside and out and the more he heard about this Jesus person, the angrier he got!
He knew that the Lord God, the one true God that was the God of Israel, was the only God.
There were no others.
And this God was not like us humans,
he was holy.
This Holiness meant that he was distinct from not only other gods
but from creation.
God was special,
As such his chosen people, Israel, were to be different, to be set apart. So when Paul, as he probably was there with Gamaliel, heard about Jesus dying on a tree and being raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God, he would have had all sorts of alarm bells ringing in his head!
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says ‘If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and his body hung on a tree, you must not leave the body on the tree overnight because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse’. For Paul this would have sprung to mind and what the disciples said MUST have been wrong.
How could someone who was under God’s curse be exalted to sit at God’s right hand?
You can guarantee that the more the Apostles went around healing people and teaching in the Name of Jesus, Paul would have done his homework and found out what they said about Jesus.
The more he learned, the more disturbed he would have been!
This man called Jesus claimed to be the way, the Truth.
The Torah alone was the way,
it was how God guided people in their lives,
and God himself was the Truth.
No man could be the Truth,
only the creator of everything could be the Truth.
This Jesus had ridden a donkey into Jerusalem; he was clearly pretending to fulfil the old prophecies about the messiah.
But no messiah would die a week later.
This Jesus, this guy who claimed to be God and who had broken that Sabbath and mingled with sinners had deserved to die.
And having died on a cross he was most definitely cursed by God.
To claim that this fraud had risen from the dead was preposterous.
Paul knew and understood the law far better than the average Jew in the streets, he knew that the price of Sin was Death and by everything he knew and believed: the stories and teachings of Jesus were Blasphemy.
That is why in Acts 8 Paul was breathing out threats of murder against the Christians, this heresy must be eradicated!
But even Paul, with all his learning, hadn’t grasped it, he didn’t understand yet.
So, we have Peter, a guy who was there. And we have Paul, the guy who knew his scriptures.
On the one hand we have experience; on the other hand we have intellectual and academic thinking.
And yet neither of these guys understood.
They just didn’t ‘get it’.
Although these guys are both very different, they did the same thing.
They rejected Jesus.
Peter followed Jesus around Israel and saw everything. Yet when he stood in that courtyard by the fire, straining to hear what was happening as Jesus was questioned in the courtyard, he denied that he even knew him.
Three times he was asked if he was one of the Disciples and for three years he had been the disciple that was always there, but three times he said ‘I am not’.
Whereas Peter passively cowered in the shadows, Paul’s rejection was literally violent.
He set about gaining the authority to capture those who were followers of Jesus, significantly he even sets out to capture the women. If you look in your Bibles in Acts 9.2 it says ‘whether men or women’.
Now sometimes modern translations decide that words such as adelphoi, which means brothers, should be translated as brothers and sisters because it was being used to refer to a whole group of people which included both men and women. However, this isn’t one of those cases. Rather than having a term that was collectively men and women the Greek text says ’andras te kai gunaikas’; literally ‘men both and women’ or ‘both men and women’.
This may seem like a minor point but it tells us two very interesting things.
The first is that in that male dominated culture whilst women were valued, they were not expected to be spreading philosophies or ideas.
They certainly couldn’t teach.
Normally religious revolutions and uprisings were very male affairs and yet here Paul is seeking to capture the women too.
This shows that women were talking about Jesus too, perhaps in that culture the expression would be more ’Even! The Women are talking about Jesus!’
The second thing that this tells us, Paul is so strongly opposed to the Gospel that he wants to stop even the smallest and most insignificant whispers of it getting out.
By seeking to capture both Men and Women, Paul denies Jesus in full.
We have the benefit that in hindsight we have 20:20 vision.
We know now who it is that Peter and Paul denied.
We know that Jesus is more than just the miracle worker that Peter walked with, we know that he is the one who Paul couldn’t believe.
We know that Jesus is the Son of God,
he is the revelation of the Father,
he is the one who came down from heaven and became truly human,
just like us.
He is the one who was crucified for us,
the one who died for us.
He was the one who rose from the dead to fulfill the scriptures,
and he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father!
Now, imagine you’re Peter.
You knew this Jesus guy, you were there!
You promised to be by his side no matter what but when it came down to it, you couldn’t do it.
Instead of following Jesus to the death, you cowered in the shadows and pretended that you’d never even met him. Later you see him die,
But then the impossible happens!
You hear that He’s alive, you search the Tomb and it’s empty! He appears to you with the others who had always been there but how do you react?
He is alive!
And now, now you understand who he is!
Now you understand who you denied.
You go out fishing, it’s your old trade and it feels good to be rowing and casting the nets over the side. You’re working hard and probably trying to sort things out in your mind as to what’s actually been happening, after all it was a world first. It would have been immensely overwhelming! Then you hear your old friend and teacher calling from the beach. John, who’s with you, is excited! It’s the Lord! And in that moment Peter ‘gets it’. This is the Lord! Peter grabs his clothes quickly and dives into the water, right now nothing else matters than getting close to Jesus. A few moments later and everyone has arrived on the beach and Jesus is eating with them.
But then Jesus takes Peter aside and he asks him ‘Do you love me?’
Not, ‘why did you deny me’? He didn’t condemn Peter for what he did, what he wanted to know was not
‘why didn’t Peter understand then?’
‘Does Peter understand now?’
‘Do you love me?’
Peter says Yes.
Three times Peter denied Christ, but now, three times he says he loves him.
I like to imagine that at this moment Jesus smiled at him and as he walked back to the other disciples he says ‘Follow me’. Not just back to the disciples, but for the rest of his life.
Peter finally ‘gets it’ and is reconciled to Jesus and forgiven for his denial. For Peter the proof of the pudding was in the eating, literally. Jesus eating the bread and fishes confirms the resurrection truth and the entrance of the New Covenant with God. He is no ghost or spirit but a genuine, or authentic, man of flesh and blood.
He is The Lord.
However, Persecuting Paul requires a different form of proof.
On his journey to Damascus in pursuit of those troublesome Christians there is a suddenly a light from heaven flashing around him. The sense of the Greek is that although he has companions on the road with him, only he is surrounded by this light. This light might remind us of the lightning that surrounded the Israelites at Mount Sinai when God re-establishes his covenant with them, or of the transfiguration when Jesus shines radiantly with the Glory of God. In several places the Israelites saw the Glory of the Lord within the clouds or lights and here Paul sees the glory of the Lord shining around him.
Some think that as he looks up, he actually sees Jesus because he later writes in 1 Corinthians 9:1 ‘Am I not an Apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord with my own eyes?’
As he’s surrounded in a heavenly light like nothing he’d ever seen before, he falls to the ground. Then a voice calls out ‘Saul, Saul’. Here he is being called by name by Jesus in a heavenly light. Paul’s mind would have instantly recognised the connotations with verses such as Isaiah 45:4 ‘Why did I call you by name when you did not know me? It is for the sake of Jacob, my chosen one’ or perhaps he would have noticed a parallel between his behaviour towards the son of David and his Namesakes behaviour towards David himself.
The Voice continues,
‘why are you persecuting me?’
He replies, though I imagine he had a pretty good idea, ‘Who are you Lord?’
‘I am Jesus’.
The Greek uses two words for ‘I am’one after the other to make it a most definite ‘I AM’. It’s the same as when Jesus says ‘I am the way the Truth and the Life’. Here Jesus is revealed to Paul as that which Paul had vehemently denied; Jesus is God,
the great I AM of the Burning Bush in exodus.
In a single instant everything Paul had thought about these Christians and their supposedly heretical Christ, was radically changed! He had had all the learning and hadn’t understood, but now he has seen the light, excuse the pun! Blinded, Paul is guided by the hand to the city.
Peter had been there and not understood,
Paul had been educated and yet didn’t understand.
Peter hid from the truth,
Paul declared it a dangerous lie.
Peter was forgiven by Jesus on the beach
while Paul was called on the road in a surprise encounter.
These two men couldn’t have been more different, they heard and experienced the gospel in two different ways and responded differently. But neither of them understood and both of them rejected it. In both cases it was the powerful truth of the Resurrection and of Jesus’s actual identity as more than a miracle worker but as the Son of God himself that broke through their misunderstandings and enabled them to see the truth.
I could ask you whether or not you are or were like Peter.
Perhaps you, like myself, have grown up in a Christian family, you know the Bible stories and go to church regularly.
Or perhaps you are or have been more like Paul,
strongly opposed to the gospel because of your own philosophical understandings or objections.
But I don’t think that the question is whether you are or have been like Peter or Paul,
I think the question is do you understand?
Have you taken on board the Gospel of Jesus?
When he calls your name, do you answer him?
We all have our own stories of our own lives,
and they are all different to our neighbour’s stories of their lives,
but it doesn’t matter if you story is more like Peter’s or Paul’s,
what matters is that your story is a part of Jesus’s Story.
So how can we take part in that story? At the very start of Jesus’s ministry he told Peter to follow him, and after everything they went through they ended up on that beach and Jesus said ‘Follow me’.
But how do we do that?
When Paul is called as Saul, Jesus sends Ananias to tell Paul that he was to be a chosen implement to preach the gospel to the gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel and Paul does it, he travels from Jerusalem to Rome via most of the Mediterranean countries. It’s easy to look back at them and say ‘well they were called to big things and God was with them, but what am I supposed to do?’
We are called to tell the story.
By telling the Story of what happened two thousand years ago and of what we’ve seen in our own lives
we become part of the story.
We are called to share it with others and pass it on so that other people can know about Jesus so that they too can know that he is the Son of God and that they too can enter into relationship with the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second part
is to be community.
Jesus died so that we could be reconciled to the Father, so that we could be called ‘friends of God’. As such we should try to repair broken or damaged friendships with each other, we should try to get to know one another better, to support one another in the big things and the little things so that we, the church, are united to both God and each other in the Love of Christ as a witness to the world that
Easter really is something to get excited about.”
If you would like to hear the audio recording of this sermon then head over to Youtube.
(Preached on 14th April 2013 at Necton All Saints Church. The Passage was John 21:1-19)