Taking us where we did not wish to go
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
[The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Around the time of graduation from Knox College, there was in some ways an even more exciting and also worrying time. All the graduates would gather at Knox College one afternoon and receive an envelope. In that envelope was the name of the church where you were going to be appointed for the first two years in your ministry.
Thirty-six years ago new ministers didn’t have a choice about where they served for the first two years of ministry. There were quite a few churches that received subsidies from the National Church and to make sure that these churches had ministers the General Assembly had decided that new ministers would serve these churches.
Now we got to interview with Mission superintendents from all across Canada. We got to write down three choices of areas we wanted to go to. I think we put BC, Ontario and the Maritimes as our three choices…
But when the day came you opened up your envelope and you could be appointed anywhere in Canada from Whitehorse to Gander, Newfoundland.
To kind of paraphrase scripture. The Presbyterian Church in Canada took ministers by the belt and took them where they might not have wanted to go.
And often there were places that nobody wanted to go, but someone had to go. And so not everybody was happy on envelope day.
I was appointed to Armstrong, British Columbia.
At the time, I think there was a sense that God was sending you somewhere, and the appropriate response would be something akin to what Isaiah said: “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
Or maybe even what Mary said: “may it happen to me, just as you have said.”
But it is a part of life, isn’t it, that someone can take you by the belt and send you somewhere. Send you somewhere about which you have no choice.
In fact, it is the premise of life itself. You didn’t choose to be born. You didn’t choose your parents. You didn’t get a whole lot of choices about where you grew up, what school you attended, what church or faith, or lack thereof was foisted upon you by your parents.
Many of us grew up in an era of totalitarian parenting. Not that parents didn’t love you, but you weren’t necessarily consulted a lot on the decisions that affected the family. Jobs, moving, houses, mortgages, finances, discipline, education, faith…etc…etc…
Parents took you by the belt and you went the direction that the parents wanted whether you wished it or not.
And life has many other instances of going a direction you didn’t plan to go.
My son called me several years ago from British Columbia. He told me that he had been laid off, with no notice and he had a family to support.
A week later he was on a plane to Alberta with a new job to go to…but it wasn’t what he wanted.
Or nearly everybody has a story of some sickness or illness that caused a major change in the family life. Cancer is a belt that takes you where you don’t want to go. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes and many other diseases and ailments are the same thing.
One of the realities of getting older for many if not most people is the day that they have to leave their family home because of age, or infirmity.
My mother left her own home a year ago and transitioned into a senior’s building where she has her own apartment. But she doesn’t have to cook meals. A shuttle provides transportation mid-week to doctors and grocery stores. They clean her place and do the laundry and there is onsite health care.
Thankfully the transition went well. My mother is happy and well-looked after and has lots of people to talk to, but the truth is, it was getting to a place where she wouldn’t have a had a choice about moving. Thankfully she made a choice to move, before the family or the government made the choice for her…
But for many seniors, it gets to a place where they need to move or have to move, and they don’t want to move.
It is very hard and for some can be quite traumatic. I know one person I visit who within the space of a few weeks, had a fall, lost a driver’s licence and ended up in a senior’s home. That person said that they felt like a prisoner. They didn’t have a car. Their mobility because of the fall was restricted. They were in a new place and didn’t know anybody.
It was tough.
All of us go through things in life, where someone takes us by the belt and takes us where we didn’t want to go.
Two of my children can tell you stories of moving here 16 years ago. They didn’t not want to come. It was so hard. One child went to school and came home and said the kids are weird here and she wasn’t going back. The next day she did not get out of bed to go to school. The other found it so hard that he actually went back to PEI to finish high school.
Being taken by the belt and taken where you do not wish to go.
And I want to tell you that being taken by the belt and taken a place where you did not wish to go… can also be a spiritual experience…
Case in point is a guy by the name of Saul on the road to Damascus.
Saul was a religious man. Very devoted to God, to the one true faith, and he was appalled at those who he thought were subverting his faith.
And the text says: “…breathing threats and murder…”
That sounds like it could have been written yesterday, doesn’t it?
…breathing threats and murder.
According to one site I found on the internet there have been in the first four months of 2019, 711 terrorist attacks and 3,239 fatalities and numerous other injuries.
And that is just from identified terror groups. It doesn’t count solo acts of hate crime, such as the New Zealand shooting which happened at mosques in Christchurch where 50 Muslims were killed and 50 injured.
Nor the recent shooting at the California synagogue where one woman was killed after shielding the rabbi.
I would also like to mention the deaths of over 250 people in bombings against Christians Churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
Breathing out threats and murders. Why? Because Saul was right and every other religious group was wrong. Saul was doing what God wanted. At least he thought so.
Saul was on his way to Damascus to get Christians, hurt Christians, imprison Christians, wipe out Christians…
And Jesus took him by the belt and took him where he did not wish to go…
According to Paul, Jesus met him there on the road. Jesus appeared in light.
Now if you read the few verses before the Road to Damascus story you will find that Christians or Christianity was not know as Christianity at the time of this incident, but it was known as The Way.
So Saul was on his way, to get rid of the people of The Way, because they were doing it the wrong way.
And the voice from heaven asks something interesting, “Why do you persecute me?”
Jesus doesn’t ask, “why don’t you believe in me?” nor does Jesus ask about his faith life. Jesus asks Saul about his actions…his violence.
Saul has divided the world into those who are in and those who are out and those who are out are not worth keeping, so it doesn’t matter if they are hurt or killed.
Saul, why are you hurting people?
Saul, says “Who are you, Lord?”
And the reply is “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…whom you are hurting…”
Because every time someone inflicts violence on child of God, Jesus hurts. Jesus is persecuted.
And yet what does Jesus do? Saul is not hurt or killed, or even punished. He is loved and cared for and sent a guide…
…to lead him from his way…to the way of Jesus….
The way of love…the way of grace…the way of love… the way of inclusion… the way of forgiveness…the way of reconciliation…
And Saul gets to his feet. He is physically blind. But that is a metaphor for his spirituality.
He is blind to what God really wants and the way for followers of God to live.
Followers of God do not hurt and do not do violence. They don’t breathe out threats and murders.
How do we know that? Because we see Jesus on the cross loving and forgiving.
How do we know that? Because the risen Christ does not get revenge or hurt but asks his followers to love and include and teach people the way of love.
How do we know that? Because Saul, the one most instrumental in the death and capture of Christians after the death and resurrection of Jesus, is not punished or hurt or killed or banished, but is forgiven, loved, included and given new purpose…
To change his ways so that others would be on their way, not to breathing out threats and murders…but to inclusion and love.
And if you read farther on in the chapter you will read that Ananias is sent to be his teacher, his spiritual guide and while Ananias resists…
After all it seems to Ananias he might be walking into the lion’s den…
…the Lord says to Ananias:
Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.
Saul is being pulled by the belt in a new direction. It is not to cause suffering, pain and hurt. It is to suffer and endure pain for the sake of Christ.
It is to take up his cross in the service of Jesus.
And we are Paul.
We have persecuted Jesus.
You might not have taken a gun to someone, or imprisoned them, but most of us have breathed out threats and violence, or at least imagined them, to those who were wrong, to those who were our enemies, to those we thought were the enemies of Jesus.
We are Paul, certain that our faith and our way is the right way, and certain that others are the enemies, that others are in the wrong.
We are Paul, on the way to get our own way, against the people who don’t see it our way.
And Jesus is here today to take us by the belt and lead us humans the way humans don’t want to go. The way of peace for all. The way of forgiveness for all. The way of grace for all.
We read from the book of Revelation today one of the visions of John, which paints a picture of God’s will and way and the culmination of God’s purposes.
Let me quote from Revelation: Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
The picture is of billions of people (and maybe even animals) all praising God.
Listen again very carefully. Then I heard every creature.
Every Creature. Those in heaven, on earth, under the earth (or in hell) and in the sea.
Most people think of the terrible imagery of the Book of Revelation and think it is all about Judgement and death and that Jesus is going to come back and wipe out all the evil people and just live us good Christians.
That is not the message of the Book of Revelation. The Book has a warning that if we do not follow the way of Christ and we humans continue in a violent way, we may well bring down Armageddon on ourselves…
But the ultimate vision is that of every creature included, loved, being peaceful and being loving.
And the one who is the Lion of Judah becomes a Lamb, and this Lamb does not hurt us. This Lamb takes on the hurts of this world and only gives love back.
And that is the message to Peter today. Only give love back.
Don’t give any negative energy back. Absorb that negative energy and give love back.
Because today’s story of Peter starts back with his betrayal.
Three times Peter denied Jesus, while Jesus was under false arrested, being tried, tortured and executed.
And yet Jesus does not stop loving Peter and grants him the miracle of the abundance of fish.
It is a metaphor of the abundance of grace, love and forgiveness, for Peter, and indeed for all of us.
And while all of experience things in life that take us by the belt and lead us where we do not wish to go, we experience from God our nets being full to overflowing, with love and grace… with forgiveness and mercy… so much so that we cannot pull the net in…
And so Jesus stand before Peter and asks him three questions, to countermand the denials.
Peter do you love me.
Not Peter, do you believe the bible.
Not Peter do you believe in the virgin birth or the apostle’s creed, or the Trinity?
Do you love me?
And each time Peter replies. “Lord of course I love you. You know that.”
Then Peter, let me take you by the belt and lead you my way.
Feed my sheep. Feed the people of the earth. Care for them. Love them. White Sheep, Black Sheep, Muslim Sheep, Jewish Sheep, Christian Sheep, Buddhist Sheep, Atheist Sheep, Agnostic Sheep, Boy Sheep, Girl sheep and sheep who don’t know what they are. Good Sheep, Bad Sheep, Gay Sheep, Straight Sheep, Old Sheep young Sheep, left leaning Sheep and right leaning Sheep, and all the sheep in the middle sheep, rich sheep, poor sheep,
All sheep… You don’t hurt the sheep, or kick them out of the fold. You love them and care for them.
And that is how we Christians can work together with those of other denominations or faiths or even with those who have no faith.
If we can agree on feeding the sheep. Caring and loving for people.
For that is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. To love all the sheep and care for them and feed them.
That is what it means to Christ take us by the belt and lead us… not the way we wish to go, but the way of love, the way of God, the way of Jesus.