Better Call Saul
Acts 9:1-6; John 21:1-19
Good morning. When I was in seminary, taking my first class in preaching, I was taught to focus on a single text in my sermon. That is, I was taught that, no matter how many pieces of scripture are read in worship, if I wanted my sermon to be clear and concise, I needed to focus on just ONE of the scriptures. This morning I’m going to ignore that advice completely.
Both of our texts are call stories. These are stories of how someone came to be called to ministry. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, most of these stories take place in the first couple chapters, as Jesus calls the twelve disciples. Jesus always asks some version of the question, “Will you come and follow me?” The correct answer is always yes, or, “Here I am, Lord.”
Our first text is from the Book of Acts; it’s the call story for the Apostle Paul. It’s one of the most striking call stories in the Bible. I’m sure many of you are familiar with it. Before Paul was called to be an apostle, he was named Saul.
Saul was a faithful Jew and a persecutor of those disciples who followed Jesus. He was going to the synagogue in Damascus to find more followers of Christ. But something happened on the road to Damascus. A light from heaven flashed around Saul, and then he fell to the ground. Saul heard the voice of the Lord, who said: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was blinded by the light; Jesus told him to go to Damascus and await instructions.
The story continues in Damascus. There Saul met a disciple named Ananias. Jesus also visited Ananias in a dream and told Ananias to go visit Saul and to heal him of his blindness. At first, Ananias is surprised—Saul had persecuted Christ’s disciples. But Jesus tells Ananias that Jesus will use even Saul as an instrument to bring the name of the Lord, “before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” Instead of punishing Saul, the Lord saw fit to use him. Ananias heals Saul, who then becomes the Apostle Paul and spreads the story of Christ across the Roman Empire. Saul was given a chance to repent and he took it.
Saul was not alone on the journey. He had a moment of clarity and heard the voice of the Lord. He was helped by other disciples, like Ananias. Saul lost his sight, but it was restored to him and he participated in a new creation. For me, this is one of the most important parts of the story—Paul’s conversion experience isn’t complete until he meets Ananias. This is a reminder that faith isn’t something we do on our own. God’s work in the world is accomplished through an entire faith community; we can’t do this on our own!
The story of Saul and his conversion on the road to Damascus is very familiar. Perhaps we’ve heard it so many times that we don’t fully hear it anymore. Or maybe we hear it, but we don’t really hear the call to repent. I mean, how many of us really think of ourselves as persecutors of Christ or other Christians? I think most of us believe we’re reasonably righteous—nothing crazy, mind you. We’re all good, modest Presbyterians. We do things decently and in order. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there’s anything in my life that is so wrong that I need to have a Road-to-Damascus conversion. The problem or temptation that underlies that kind of thinking is mistaken belief that we don’t really need to change.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of John tells a similar story. Peter and the other disciples are out in a boat and they haven’t caught any fish. They’re about to pack it in and go home—in fact, they’re on their way back to shore when a voice tells them to try one more time. Jesus tells them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” and sure enough, they catch a lot of fish. Peter and the other disciples didn’t recognize that it was Jesus until after they caught the fish.
The disciples were about to give up. They were tired and they wanted to go home, but then they heard Jesus calling them. They didn’t even know it was Jesus, but for some reason, they responded to the call. In this story, Jesus didn’t come with a blinding flash of light. He just showed up, on the shore, and told them where to cast their nets.
Later, as they’re eating some of the fish they caught, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks this question three times. Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Again, three times. And always, Jesus tells Peter to tend His flock. Finally, he tells Peter, “Follow me.” This is the very same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.
In each of these stories, Jesus calls for someone to change: Peter, the other disciples, and Saul. The circumstances surrounding the change were different in each story, but the call to follow Jesus remains constant—and the opportunities to change are always there. We are all called to care for the flock. But those ways aren’t always clear, and they change over the courses of our lives.
Each and every one of us has a call story, too—the story of how you came to faith or how you came to understand your own call to ministry. The truth is, very few of us have such clear and overwhelming experiences as Paul had on the road to Damascus. Some people do, and their stories can be very compelling. But sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that we have to have that same type of experience—and if we haven’t, we might doubt our own sense of call. Beloved, that just ain’t so! Never doubt your own sense of call!
When I was in seminary, I spent a lot of time writing and revising my own call story. I’m not going to go into that story now—this sermon is almost over; this isn’t about me. What I will tell you is that lots of people do ask me why I went into, particularly when they learn that I’m a second-career pastor.
I think a lot of people expect me to tell them about some kind of Road-to-Damascus experience. They want to understand why I would leave a good job to go to seminary—and take out $40,000 in student loans. Sometimes I wonder about that, too. But not very often, and not recently.
Jesus didn’t come to me in a dream.
There was no blinding flash of light.
My experience comes through what we call the still, small voice. This is a subtle awareness of the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life. I didn’t come to this realization on my own. It was a gradual conversion. It began when I recognized patterns in my life and it gained momentum when I shared my inner thoughts, questions, and doubts with my pastors and my church family. I wouldn’t and couldn’t be here today if I hadn’t had them to help me refine my sense of call.
Your stories of faith are holy and sacred things. Some of the women in our congregation are on a retreat this weekend. That’s a space that is specifically designed to share their sacred stories. Whether it’s on a retreat, here in the church itself, or through the relationships that we form here, it’s important that we continue to share our stories and reflect on how God’s call changes in our lives.
One of the most important things we do here in church is build and nurture relationships—with God and with one another. In a few minutes, we’re going to partake in the Lord’s Supper, a reminder of what it means to be in relationship with God. The relationships that we develop here are equally important.
Beloved, the world outside of our walls is a mess! Yet we are called to clean up that mess. I believe that relationship is part of the way we address the mess. I believe that we are better at practicing relationship here inside of the church; we do it better than the world outside of our walls.
People outside of our walls also have sacred stories. By engaging with them and listening to their stories, we can help them to identify what is sacred. We can create the space to share our own stories. And in the process, we can invite them into this space, into deeper relationships, and a sacred relationship with the risen Christ. Go! Cast your nets on the right side of the boat! Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to cast our nets. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!