Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon, Easter 3C, Acts 9:7-20; John 21:1-19

The Monday night bible study that meets at Susan’s place had a fun time last week; or, at least, I had a fun time.  We spent about two hours looking at Chapter 18 of Matthew.  We discussed little children, how to treat sinners, forgiveness, pastoral care and gouging out eyes.  It was a good time.

One discussion topic was the issue of little children.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus called a child into their midst and basically said, “This one is the greatest; and whomever welcomes one such as this welcomes me.”

It was pointed out that, at that time, a child was seen as a person of no importance, much like a slave and/or servant.  There were a lot of reasons for this, but for us to be great in the kingdom of heaven, we must see ourselves as people of no importance; we must see ourselves as slaves and servants.  Something I brought up was that Jesus reached outside the circle of disciples to bring in the child.  Once again, Jesus demonstrates his habit of calling outsiders to become insiders, reminding us that we must do likewise if we are to welcome him.  He who called us into discipleship also calls those whom we consider outsiders and people of no importance.

That theme of welcoming outsiders runs through today’s lesson and gospel in the calling of Saul and the catching of fish.  In Saul, we hear the story of the ultimate outsider.  And in the gospel, we are shown that Jesus asks us to cast our nets in places we would never think to cast.

I’ll start with Saul.  He begins as an insider.  He says that he was, “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee and blameless under the law.”  He was one of the gatekeepers of Israel, called to stamp out unorthodox teachings and beliefs, and to uphold the traditional teachings and values of the religion.

This traditional, orthodox Pharisee runs up against the Jesus movement – a liberal movement that advocates the inclusion of Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners.  It pushes for the elimination of man-made barriers that restrict access to God.  It welcomes outsiders and it threatens the way things have always been done; it not only threatens the status quo, but it threatens it in the name of God.  So Saul, either appointed or of his own volition, sets out to eliminate the movement and to keep things as they were meant to be – pure, holy and undefiled.

Being on the inside of the institution placed him on the outside of the movement.  And those in the movement saw him as not only a threat to the movement in general, but as possibly the very source of their own death.  For those people who were not yet called Christians, Saul was the ultimate outsider.

God, however, had other ideas.  Saul is struck blind, told he was persecuting Jesus, and taken to Damascus.  While there, God comes to Ananias in a vision and told to welcome Saul.  Here again we are given a story of God bringing in and welcoming outsiders.  God calls whom God calls, and often calls them from unexpected places.  The lesson for us, through Ananias, is to trust God and to welcome them as God welcomes them.

Another story of God calling people from unexpected places is in today’s gospel.  Here we have a post-resurrection story of the disciples doing some very unsuccessful fishing.  After a night in the boat, Jesus calls to them and tells them to cast the net to the right side of the boat.  They do so, catching 153 fish.  The disciples return to shore only to meet Jesus already grilling up some fish and bread, and he tells them to bring some of their fish to add to the meal.

This story is interesting on several levels, but I’m only going to focus on one.  One of my favorite gospel passages is John 10:11-16.  I use this passage at funerals because Jesus basically says, “I have other sheep that you don’t know about.”  I find this both important and comforting because, at funerals, there are people from many different places who need to be reminded that only Jesus determines who is part of his flock and that he is willing to include those people whom we consider outsiders.

In today’s gospel, we see that Jesus not only has other sheep we don’t know about, he has other fish as well.  Just like the disciples didn’t know about the fish on the other side of the boat, or where he got the other fish already on the grill, we also don’t always know from where Jesus will call people to follow him.

Today’s passages from Acts and John, and the passage from Matthew I first mentioned, are all about our willingness to include the outsider.  They are about our willingness to accept people we wouldn’t normally accept.  They are about our willingness to trust Jesus when he says, “I have other sheep, other fish, other people, you don’t know about.”

Scripture in general, and the gospels in particular, continually call us to expand our borders.  They continually call us to take down the walls we build up, challenging us to stop fighting to protect God and the way we’ve always done it, in favor of casting our nets on the wrong side of the boat and welcoming people who threaten us.

Today’s lesson from Acts, supported by the Gospel, gives us two ways of being the church:  we can be like Saul and work to protect God and the church through the persecution and elimination of people we deem a threat; or we can be like Ananias, trusting that God has other people we don’t know about, and welcome those who threaten us into the household of God.

The answer we give will determine how people in this town see the face of God.


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