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 circumst