Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
John, in this gospel, is clearly making the connection – and so does Peter. For Peter must have felt full of guilt and remorse. He remembered back to the Last Supper, where – full of himself – he remonstrated: ‘Lord, you will never wash my feet. I’m ready to follow you, and never wash my feet.’ I’m ready to follow you, and I will lay down my life for you. Brave words, which must have haunted him. For only hours later he would deny him three times.
But here, by the lakeside, by this charcoal fire, a different Peter sits with Jesus. No longer full of bluster, but full of repentance. He comes to Jesus with empty hands, and Jesus, with such grace and gentleness, forgives him, and calls him again, three times, to feed his sheep – to be a shepherd of Christ’s church.
The old Peter has died, and Jesus takes his empty hands and fills them with his strength and power. “For if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. Everything has passed away – see, everything has become new.” The calling of Peter is matched in drama and poignancy perhaps only in the calling of Paul.
This extraordinary account of the conversion of St. Paul is our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Saul, as he was called then, was a powerful and gifted man, but also the church’s most ardent enemy. “Breathing threats and murder” against any disciple of Jesus, he was on his way to Damascus to arrest and bind any he could find. Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
For me, the most poignant moment comes next – as poignant as the charcoal fire. Saul has been blinded by the light. So that powerful, feared man had to be led by the hand into Damascus. What could have been more humiliating for this proud man to have to put his empty, outstretched hand into the hand of another, to lead him and guide him. But just as Peter, the strong and skilled fisherman had to come empty handed to Jesus, so Paul, strong and powerful, had to put out his empty hand in trust.
As Saul walked in darkness, something died. Saul had encountered Jesus, and the old Saul died. And when after three days, Ananias laid hishands on him, and he regained his sight, he was a new creation And Saul, now Paul, would write to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[ii] After three days he received his sight. Immediately after receiving his sight, he was baptized.
Here, in the middle of the chapel in the Easter season is the font – the place of baptism – and a reminder of our own baptism. As I was reading and praying with these two stories of Peter and Paul, the imagery of hands stood out for me. Peter and Paul both come to Jesus with empty and open hands. Hands are very powerful symbols:
- They can be clenched aggressively.
- They can be used to fight or to wound.
- Or they can be opened, empty and waiting to receive.
Every time we put our hands into the font, or in the the water stoup at the entrance to the church, we open our hand and remember our own baptism. For in baptism, we too, like Peter and Paul, we too died. We died to sin, and rose to new life in Jesus Christ. “For if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Everything old has passed away – see everything has become new.
What experience of dying and rising do you have? Have you, like Paul, perhaps had a profound and dramatic conversion experience? A time when you handed your life over to God, and, as it were, put your hand in Jesus’ hand, to be led and guided by him?
Or have you, like Peter, had the experience of being unable to carry on in your own strength – of coming to Jesus empty handed? “I cannot live my life any more in my own strength. I am simply not strong enough” Of coming to Jesus in need, and hearing those gracious words: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”[iii]
But until we are willing to die, like Peter and Paul, until we do acknowledge our need for God, we will never experience the utter joy of being forgiven, healed, restored, and empowered. Once we have experienced that grace, there’s no going back. There’s no going back to a life where we trust in our own power and strength. Once we have known God’s hands upholding us and strengthening us, nothing else will do.
So today, on this 3rdSunday of the glorious Easter season, open your hands – trail them through the holy waters of baptism – and give thanks that you have died, and are now alive in Christ. Come to the altar and open your hands empty and expectant to receive God’s strength and life in bread and wine.
And in our hearts give joyful thanks that there isno going back. For we are in Christ and are a new creation. Everything old has passed away – see, everything has become new. Alleluia!
[i]2 Corinthians 5:17.
[iii]2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
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