21 June 2010

Easter 3 C

Sermon for 18 April 2010

Acts 9: 1-20

John 21: 1-19

by Sharyn Hall

In 1911, an American writer named Ambrose Bierce published a book entitled, ‘The Devil’s Dictionary.’ The entries in this special dictionary are witty, satirical and a bit cynical, but they often have an insightful element of truth. The definition in this dictionary, which is applicable to our scripture readings today, is the definition of a saint. “Saint, noun, a dead sinner revised and edited” Although this definition may sound cynical, upon reflection, it has more than a grain of truth. A saint is someone whose life is not flawless, but whose exceptional or good qualities are remembered as overshadowing the flaws.

In our passage from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we have the spectacular story of the conversion of St. Paul. Early in his adult life Paul was not a saint. Paul grew up as Saul in a Hebrew family in Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city, so he encountered many races and religious beliefs. His first language was Greek, not Hebrew, and yet he was devoted to the Jewish traditions of worship and to the study of the Hebrew scriptures. He was an urbane and educated man, even though he may have earned his living as an artisan. His determination to eradicate Christians may have been rooted in fear that the Christian cult would cause harm for Jewish people living under Roman occupation. Also these Christians were Jews, whose insistence that the Messiah had been crucified was a blasphemous insult to the Jewish faith. Paul’s intense hatred for Christians resulted in his violent persecution of them.

Paul was not a man of half-measures so the spectacular way in which he encountered the risen Jesus suited his personality. It was necessary to knock him down to get his attention, and to temporarily blind him to make him listen, but stopping his persecution of Christians was only half of God’s purpose. God intended Paul to become one of the most important apostles in establishing the early Christian church beyond Palestine. The irony of Paul’s importance as a Christian saint is an example of God’s infinite wisdom.

Paul was not welcomed by other followers of Jesus. They could not forget his earlier condemnation of their faith and their fellow Christians. They doubted his sincerity. They resented his determination to bring Gentiles into the Christian communities struggling to survive outside of Jerusalem. They questioned his right to be an apostle because he had never seen Jesus or been taught by Jesus. Paul constantly defended his mission against his opponents, all the while remembering in his own heart that he had much to regret in his early life.

Paul was not recognized as a great apostle, hardly a saint, while he was alive, and for many years after his death, he was forgotten until the writings of Luke in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles became well-known. Paul’s early persecution of Christians has been overshadowed by the enormous importance of his untiring work to establish the Christian faith in many centres around the Mediterranean Sea. Today the number of churches named in honour of St. Paul seems too many to count, and his influence on the Christian faith through his writing is surpassed only by the gospels.

Perhaps the only saint to rival the legacy of St. Paul is St. Peter. Scholars have become fascinated by the importance of Paul in the history of the early church, and as they investigate Paul, they have learned a great deal about Peter. It seems the two great saints did not always see eye to eye. They were both strong personalities. Paul was intense, irritable, determined and convinced that his mission was right. Peter was impulsive, quick to speak and act, and sometimes to regret his words and actions later.

Peter lived in the farming and fishing area of Galilee, not a cosmopolitan city. He would not have experienced other races and cultures like Paul; however, Peter had not only known Jesus, he had been one of the closest disciples to Jesus. He could recount the events in the ministry of Jesus and recall the words of Jesus. While Peter might receive respect from others for his knowledge of Jesus, Peter would remember in his own heart his failures to understand and support Jesus, particularly his denial of Jesus when Jesus was most vulnerable to danger.

Like Paul, Peter had a past, which would make him a sinner in the eyes of many people. Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny him before the cock crowed three times. If others knew that this prediction came true, it did not prevent Peter from becoming an important leader in the early church. In the end, the shame of his cowardly denial brought Peter a special blessing.

The risen Jesus went to Peter on the shore of the sea to absolve him of his sin. Three times Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him. Each time, Peter’s declaration of love removed the shame of his denial. Peter experienced the forgiveness of Jesus personally. The scripture says that Peter felt hurt because Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” Out of that hurt came absolution and courage to devote his life in faith to Jesus.

After his death, Peter continued to be honoured as a great apostle, as one who was given the keys to the kingdom to build the church. The Christian church in Rome is built upon the foundation of Peter’s apostleship, and yet like Paul, Peter’s sainthood is recognized by his devotion to God and to Jesus, despite his weaknesses and failures.

A saint is a sinner, revised and edited. Two saints, Peter and Paul, were also sinners. Their individual experiences were vastly different. Peter knew Jesus as a healer, teacher and close friend. Paul knew Jesus as a blinding light, the presence of God. Two very different men who sometimes argued.

Those of us who struggle every day to live the way of Jesus can be encouraged by the realization that great saints are made from sinners. We can be inspired to seek forgiveness, to be open to God’s presence, to remember the wisdom of Jesus and to live each day with renewed hope in God’s love. We can aspire to be one of the multitude of saints whom St. Peter and St. Paul called the people of God. Amen.

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