Third Sunday of Easter – April 14, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)Psalm 30Revelation 5:11-14John 21:1-19

By Russell Pregeant

The account of Paul’s life-changing vision in Acts 9:1-6 is a powerful sequence in itself, but it is greatly enhanced by the optional verses 7-20. The initial description of Paul as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” and obtaining authorization from the high priest to have members of “the Way” bound and brought to Jerusalem establishes him as an archenemy of the gospel. His “conversion” experience is thus a dramatic turnaround, a point that his blindness and subsequent healing by Ananias serves to highlight. Sight v. blindness is of course a standard metaphor for understanding versus ignorance, but in this case it takes on an additional nuance. Paul’s blindness comes after his encounter with the risen Jesus, when he is already in a receptive state, which is indicated by the fact that he enters into prayer when he is led to Damascus.

The reader is thus encouraged to recognize stages in the process of transformation, most particularly an intermediate state in which a person whose belief system is suddenly challenged enters into a state of confusion before the new state of clarity emerges. Another contribution of the optional verses is that they emphasize the role of the faith community in the individual’s faith journey. The appearance of Jesus in the vision in vv. 3-6 is the event that initiates the conversion process, but it is only when someone already established in the faith lays hands on him that the process reaches an effective stage: it is then that the scales fall from his eyes, and it is only after that happens that Paul receives baptism.

Verses 19-20 then bring the transformation to completion: first, Paul remains with the disciples a few days, presumably receiving instruction; then, as a climax to the whole sequence, we find Paul proclaiming the gospel. It is striking, however, that up until that point Paul remains quite passive. The risen Jesus and the community of his followers are the active agents. This is consistent with the book of Acts as a whole: on the one hand, the apostles are dynamic and courageous missioners; on the other, it is the Holy Spirit that drives their activity. Yet another contribution of vv. 7-20 is that in vv. 15-16 we get a preview of the specific mission God has in mind for Paul, together with a warning that his task will involve great suffering—something to which his temporary blindness can be seen as a subtle indicator.   

The turnaround in the gospel lesson is less dramatic than Paul’s conversion. The fact that the disciples have returned to Galilee and are fishing is often taken as a sign that they have forsaken their calling, so that Jesus’ encounter with them is a call back to discipleship. This interpretation is appealing, but a literary approach to the gospel speaks against it. It is generally recognized that chapter 21 is an addition to a first edition of the gospel, added by a redactor who has probably re-shaped the original to bring it more in line with the “mainstream” version of nascent Christianity that has developed outside the sectarian Johannine community. By itself, the story might well have constituted a resurrection appearance that served to rehabilitate the disciples after the despair brought on by the crucifixion. However, in its present context it follows upon earlier appearances, as in fact 21:14 explicitly acknowledges: “This was the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” The disciples not only know that Jesus has been raised, but they have already received the Holy Spirit and have been commissioned for mission (20:21-22).

In its present literary context, then, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples in 21:1-19 is an extension of the theme of post-resurrection appearances. But what, then, does it accomplish if the disciples have already been sent into mission equipped with the Holy Spirit? First, it strengthens the missionary element, which is really only hinted at in 20:21-22, through the imagery of the miraculous catch of fish. The symbolism is clear here, as it is in the parallel in Luke 5:1-11: the task of “fishing” for human beings as converts will be successful beyond all imagination. The inverse point is that the task in which Jesus found the disciples engaged was misdirected—a point symbolized by the fact that they were fishing on the wrong side of the boat. We can thus imagine them in a state of confusion, having received a post-resurrection commission but having no idea how to carry it out. They have thus returned to their old lives in Galilee. For a third time, however, Jesus appears and reveals himself to them. The sending in 20:21-22 was itself a reiteration of 17:18-20, where Jesus refers to the disciples’ commission and to “those who will believe in [him] through their word.” In the present story, there is no explicit act of sending, but the imagery makes the point indirectly.

The second contribution of the lectionary selection is to emphasize the communal nature of the mission. The fact that the net remains unbroken, despite the impossibly large number of fish (21:11) indicates the unity of church, echoing 17:21 (“that they may all be one”), even as it includes a broader spectrum of believers than did the original, sectarian Johannine community. And two other elements stress the task of maintaining the internal life of the church alongside that of “fishing,” making the former, in fact the primary point. The breakfast of fish and bread that Jesus provides is suggestive of the Eucharist, the community’s central act of worship. And Jesus’ command to Peter (“Feed my sheep”/Tend my lambs”) in vv. 15-17 makes ministry to the community’s needs the primary expression of love for Jesus, just as it is in 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

The third contribution is to give Peter a place of prominence alongside the “beloved disciple,” whose special status was recognized in 19:26 and who was given preeminence over Peter in the race to the tomb in 20:1-10. Although the “beloved disciple” is present, it is Peter who jumps into the sea to meet Jesus and who then receives the command to “tend Jesus’ sheep.” This emphasis on Peter also gives further emphasis to the unity of the Johannine group with the larger community that looked to Peter as their leader.

The prediction of Peter’s martyrdom in v.19 stands as a solemn reminder, in the midst of the joy and sense of triumph in the Easter season, of the cost of discipleship. Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” which concludes the verse, thus creates an ironic juxtaposition. It is almost as if he says, “You will die if you do so, but follow me anyway!” Against this background, Revelation 5:11-14 provides a celebrative counterpoint; but here, too, there are indicators that the theme of ultimate triumph cannot be disconnected from that of tragic cost. The angels and creatures and elders who surround the throne of God in heaven celebrate the risen Jesus precisely as “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” In context, moreover, the heavenly scene is part of a pattern, as the reader is shown, alternatively, scenes of unimaginable suffering on earth and unimaginable joy in heaven.

In a somewhat similar way, Psalm 30 involves a “reversal theme,” embracing “anger to favor, weeping to joy, mourning to dancing.”[1] But of course, as appropriate as the use of this theme is for the Easter season, the reference is not to an utterly unique event, but to the kind of reversal people experience with some frequency. And this is perhaps a good reminder that the Easter paradox of life-out-of-death “works” for us not simply because it is different from what we experience in the everyday world but also because it helps us to see those “ordinary” experiences in a different light—just as the “ordinary” experiences help us understand the import of the resurrection.

Both the emphasis upon the community’s role in faith development and the implication that this development comes in stages provide significant points of contact with process-relational thought. If it is true that we are fundamentally relational in nature, then as personal as faith is, and as irreplaceable as is the individual’s faith-response, we do not in fact either come to faith or remain faithful on our own. Nor is the faith we develop at one point in our lives adequate for the next stage of life when challenges will be different. And this means—as those mystics who wrote so powerfully of “the dark night of the soul” knew so well—that we can expect not one but many periods of “blindness” (like Paul’s) or confusion and misdirectedness (like the disciples’).

[1] Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 102.