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Do you love me?

4 Sing to the  Lord, you servants of his; *
give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness .

5 For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, *
his favor for a lifetime .

6 Weeping may spend the night, *
but joy comes in the morning . (Psalm 30)

In case #156 when I should have died but I didn’t, my classmates had planned an excursion after our graduation from high school. I was unaware of the exact details, but was just heady from finishing my high school journey and overjoyed with being invited by some good friends for a party. Because I did not know the exact location or exact details, when my parents asked my plans, I just avoided the question by making something up. My parents knew me too well and so must have suspected something was not as it should be.

My father, in an act that was both creepy and, in a way, comforting, followed me and watched as my friends and I got into a boat and motored out to an island just off shore from the Corpus Christi docks. There we played music and danced and laughed, fully enjoying our new freedom. Luckily, we got back to shore without harm being done.

The next morning at breakfast, my father casually asked how my night went. I began a long-convoluted story straight out of a bad novel. When I paused in my long tale, my Dad looked at me and said, “and how was the boat trip?” Looking back, he could have become furious with me, he could have shamed me, he could have grounded me—and maybe he should have. But the greater lesson was learned, my Father loved me, he knew I was growing up and would make mistakes but he trusted me to learn to make better decisions.  And just for good measure, he was there for me, keeping an eye out, loving me still.

We have two stories today in our scripture readings that show how God acts with his children. During Easter, we read from the Acts of the Apostles in place of readings from the Old Testament. And today we hear a story that is pivotal to our church. Saul is a man who is a religious zealot. We hear that he is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus (the Lord.) He had asked for “letters” so he could enter synagogues in Damascus. If there he found any men or women who were followers of “The Way,” which were what followers of Jesus Christ were called, he could bring them “bound to Jerusalem” to face punishment, even execution. He had already stood by in support of those who stoned to death Stephen, an early evangelist of Jesus. Saul is passionate and relentless for this faith.

He tells us in his letter to the church in Philippi “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:4b-6) He has no doubt in his heart or mind that he is doing the work of God by stamping out these blasphemers who dare to follow the one who claimed to be the Son of God.

On the road to Damascus, he is blinded by a light that flashes all around him. And then he hears a voice that asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” When Saul asks who is speaking, the response he hears is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The voice tells him to get up and go into the city where he will be told what to do. Because Saul has been blinded, he needs those who were traveling with him to take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus.

But God does not punish Saul forever for his persecutions. He does not leave him forever blinded and helpless, dependent on others for his life, reduced to begging. Saul’s experience with the bright light of Christ transforms him; making him a new creation.

God also enlists the faith and courage of another of God’s children, named Ananias. Ananias experiences God and is called to welcome Saul and help him make the transition from blindness to full sight, physically and spiritually. Ananias is told to go to Saul, to heal and instruct him as to his true mission–the very Saul who was a known persecutor of the followers of Jesus and who would have been a danger to Ananias. Empowering Ananias to face this persecutor, God uses him as an instrument of Saul’s conversion.

Saul of Tarsus becomes Paul the apostle, the one whose missionary zeal for Jesus leads him to spread the good news and gather new converts into churches from Galatia to Rome. The one who sought to persecute the Christian movement now becomes the most ardent proclaimer to God’s people of all races and ethnicities. Paul the apostle, whose letters are our earliest recordings of the life of the first followers of Jesus. Paul, whose testimony of the resurrection has shaped our tradition in the church. Paul, whose life was given so that he might achieve “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8)

Jesus sees us, offers us transformation, and stands by loving us still.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, we find the disciples returning to their fishing boats. Their imaginations fail them in seeing what Jesus has done and so they seek that which is comforting, familiar, controllable. But fishing throughout the night, they fail to catch even one fish. Even here in this environment where their competence is an expectation, their best efforts fail them. It is here where they hear a voice from shore inviting them to try the other side of the boat. And we are told when they cast their nets to the other side, their nets are filled to bursting with fish. The beloved disciple then recognizes Jesus. Peter, throws on moreclothes to jump into the water and swim ashore. We would expect nothing less from our dear Peter—the rock of our church!

Rather than walking away from his hapless disciples, Jesus prepares breakfast as the fishermen haul their catch to shore—153 fish we are told. (They keep track of their attendance as well!) Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him, “Do you love me?” Three times Jesus asks Peter this question. Three times Peter says, “You know I do.” Three times Jesus tells Peter to care for God’s creatures.

Jesus’ appearance on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias speaks volumes about God’s way of dealing with his children. Jesus sees his struggling followers confused and disheartened and he offers them a way forward that is fruitful. “Try the other side of the boat,” he says and there they find abundant life.  He spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and guiding his friends. He grills bread and fish for the hungry disciples. And he makes a space for Peter to be healed of his guilt and grief.

Peter must have been painfully aware of the last time he stood near a “charcoal fire.” For it is in John 18 near another “charcoal fire” where Peter denies knowing Jesus three times as his friend and teacher undergoes interrogation and torture. But rather than becoming a stage for shame and rejection, Jesus meets Peter in this familiar place and creates an opening where Peter is held accountable and yet knows he is deeply loved.

Jesus could have turned away. Jesus could have shamed and punished. But three times, Jesus invites Peter back into relationship. Jesus gives him the choice, “Do you love me? Tend my sheep.” God’s grace always invites us back into relationship. God does not shame. God does not reject us. God invites us to the table. God feeds us. Nourishes us. Gives us what we need to return to ourselves, to our true calling, to our ability to live by faith, in hope, in assurance of God’s promise.

Now when our actions cause harm to ourselves or to others, we are not let off the hook. In God’s love, we are held accountable for how we have fallen short of our true potential. But in God’s love our acknowledgment of sin is not for our punishment or our shame, but so that healing and wholeness can begin. In God’s love, we can begin to repair the broken places in us.

Peter has regrets, and these regrets have scarred his soul. But rather than leaving him here, Jesus calls him back to himself and gives him work to do. Peter must do the work of Jesus and tend the flock. Somehow healing begins and new life burst forth.

Jesus sees us, offers us transformation, and stands by loving us still.

In the stories of Saul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, Ananias’ trust in God’s promise, and Peter’s healing and commissioning on the beach we hear God’s priorities. Jesus does not waste a moment on revenge or shame or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house or avenge himself on Rome or punish the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Instead he feeds, he calls his beloveds by name, he shows his wounds to share his suffering, he restores and heals.

He also wastes no time on proclaiming his triumph. Even at the height of his glory he chooses humility. He continues to show himself in peace to those who betrayed and abandoned him. He continues to invite them to feed his sheep. In all these accounts, we are reminded that the story of the Gospel and the story of the resurrection is that in the face of all that can go wrong in our lives and in the world, love does not fail. Love wins, love perseveres, love overcomes and heals all that is broken, weak, wrongheaded. My earthly father knew this. Love is what makes us strong. Love is what guides us toward wholeness.

Last Thursday night, I gathered with brothers and sisters of many faiths to declare that in a world where hate claims so many innocent lives–where shootings and bombings and other acts of violence, even in places set aside as sacred, have become painfully common –that in this time the only way, the only true way forward in life is through love. Love that is willing to see in every person the divine image of God–just as Ananias was willing to trust in Saul.  Love that seeks to serve rather than to diminish–as Jesus prepared breakfast on the beach for his disheartened disciples. Love that makes a space for reconciliation and healing-as in Jesus’ invitation to Peter. Love that stands with all, especially those most vulnerable. Love that respects the dignity of every human being.

Like Peter, if we claim to love Jesus, if we desire to follow Jesus, we are called to love. Christ calls Peter and Paul as Christ calls individuals and communities of faith, to act in love not only when it is easy, familiar, and reciprocal, but also when it takes courage, selflessness, and risk. These times, are times that call for our best love of God, friends, neighbors, and even those we see as enemies. No one is unworthy of God’s love and so no one is unworthy of our love. These times cry out for acting in the love which the living Christ calls us and that the risen Christ will bring to life within us for the sake of us all.