Failures Redeemed – Br. Keith Nelson

St. Peter & St. Paul, Apostles

Ezekiel 34:11-16
John 21:15-19

St. Peter and St. Paul, whom we celebrate today, shared several things.

Both men had utterly life-changing experiences of the crucified-and-risen Jesus. This Jesus spoke to both men individually and personally. Each received a calling that only Peter and only Paul could fulfill.

Both men were tasked with stewarding the ancient traditions of their ancestors and faithfully making meaning of that stream of wisdom while at the same time living from the heart of a new awareness: that their Lord and Messiah had, in their experience, radically changed the course of that history. This new awareness was subject to misunderstanding and rejection; and so were they.

Both men were asked, repeatedly, to adapt to circumstances they could never have imagined; to adopt a new perception of how God communicated with God’s people; and to embody a new paradigm for gathering and nourishing the community of God. The limitless boundaries of this community – nothing less than the Body of Christ — took them on an odyssey far from home, spiritually and geographically.

None of these things, in themselves, made them saints. None of these things even made them very impressive people. There is a paradoxical reason that the Church and the world know the names Peter and Paul: following their own very different paths, they relinquished the authority that comes with human charisma. This progressive renunciation allowed the authority of Jesus more and more to shape their choices, hallow their successes, and especially to redeem their failures.

The paradoxical reason that we remember Peter and Paul as pastors of God’s flock is that they knew, better than most, what it meant to be harassed and helpless sheep. Before he was Paul, Saul of Tarsus knew what it meant to be stricken blind, led by the hand, and proven profoundly wrong by the Word of God he had so violently persecuted. Peter knew the desolation of remorse when he broke down weeping, having denied his association with Jesus three times at Jesus’ darkest hour. On the other side of these narrow doors, each man found himself in a strange new reality. Nothing looked, felt, or sounded familiar anymore — other than the strangely familiar voice of Jesus, asking questions that shook them to their core: “Why are you persecuting me?”[i] and “Do you love me?”[ii]

The words of the prophet Ezekiel would have given voice to both their sense of failure – and to their deepest gratitude for a Savior: “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.”[iii]

The questions from that strangely familiar voice – “Why are you persecuting me?” and “Do you love me?” – are questions so penetrating that they could be the unmaking of a person, an unraveling in the awful knowledge of how tragically one had failed the truest Friend one could ever know. But because the questioner is God, whose sole purpose in asking is that we turn and live in gratitude for another chance, it is gratitude that lifts us from the abyss and restores us to the flock.

This overwhelming gratitude at being found in a small, narrow and hopeless place; brought back; bandaged up; and made strong again is at the heart of what it means to lead with the heart of Jesus. Peter and Paul owed everything to the guidance they received from the crucified-and-risen Jesus in crucial moments of profound personal limitation, even impossibility.  In these dark places – prisons, roadsides, and sinking ships – they were carried by the strength, the skill, and the sensitivity of a Good Shepherd who refuses to abandon even a single sheep. Not even them.

In the end, simple Peter and humble Paul were put to death as martyrs for the gospel that had saved them. By tradition, Peter was crucified under the sweeping persecution of the emperor Nero in around the year 64; and Paul is believed to have been beheaded by the sword sometime between 64 and 67. Before their deaths, they had died and risen many times over in the crucible of discipleship. In the end, they must have known fear and passed through darkness.

But they also must have heard a strangely familiar voice, reassuring them: You have fought the good fight. You have finished the race. You have kept the faith.[iv]

You have fed my sheep.

Blessed Peter and Paul, whom we remember today.

[i] Acts 9:4

[ii] John 21:15

[iii] Ezekiel 34:12; 16.

[iv] 2 Timothy 4:7.

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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on June 29, 2023 at 08:44

    Br. Keith: We often think it might have been easier for the original disciples to be converted because they experienced Jesus first hand. But your homily made me realize how much they had to ‘unlearn or un-believe’ to begin to follow Jesus. They were not blank slates. They had to reject everything their religious tradition had taught them. Not so easy. Thank you for the marvelous insight. I am even more awestruck with their faith when I consider their conversion from this angle. Elizabeth Hardy+

  2. Tudy Hill on June 29, 2023 at 06:37

    Thank you so much, Br Keith, for this insight into the power of God working in us. It is humbling to read about the great ones among us who have been broken… and revived.

  3. Lisa Leonard on June 29, 2022 at 16:35

    Thank you for this beautiful and deeply meaningful sermon.

  4. Cameron on June 29, 2022 at 06:40

    On this day 47 years ago a beloved friend of mine died of cancer. She and I were both teenagers. These words were spoken at her funeral where I heard them for the first time: “she fought the good fight …she finished the race… she kept the faith.” Such a gift to hear these words again on this day of remembrance I recognize every year.
    In this time of clouds and thick darkness, amid the clamor that seeks to deceive and divide us, thank you, Br. Keith, for reminding us of the task still and always before us: Listen for my voice. Feed my sheep. Follow me.

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