A brilliant man once said, “It is our choices that define who we are and not our abilities.” I love that quote because it is so true. We lift up people in our world that are unique because of their abilities especially athletic abilities. While I too love sports and enjoy watching people play their game with agility and style their abilities should never trump their choices. So, if you can shoot the daylights out of a basketball or a golf ball kudos to you, but if you are a jerk then you’re just a great athlete and not a great person. Athletic ability wanes character continues to grow and develop. Today’s lessons emphasize this simple truth.
Saint Paul, while he was still Saul, was a very gifted and devout Pharisee. His world was formed around the certainty that his race was chosen by God and that the law was God’s gift to God’s chosen people. All of these statements are true, but Saul understood God’s promises as exclusive to him and the rest of the Jewish faith. He chose to become a zealot for his faith to the point of persecuting the church. It is the young man Saul who was responsible for Saint Stephen the first Christian martyr. You may wonder how any person of faith could justify violence against others. It’s not that difficult to understand because in Saul’s eyes Jesus and Christianity was a threat to the one true faith. Saul believed to his core that wiping out all Christians was the only faithful way to defend his faith. We see this twisting of scripture all around us today. The Klan, Patriot Prayer groups, and other purported Christians use their faith to promote violence. The belief behind their theology is that they are defending the faith from outsiders. How people get to that point takes a lot of mental gymnastics and very little thought, but they firmly believe what they practice and believe is both holy and God’s will.
It doesn’t just take radicalism to highlight the hypocrisy of zealous belief systems. We have all had times in our life where we felt that our opinions and our values were absolutely right and if anyone challenged those values or opinions they were downright evil. Remember when we were younger and we knew the answer to every question without a shadow of a doubt? Remember when our world was black and white, right and wrong. We have all been Saul at one time or another in our lives and if we are blessed we get smacked upside the head to see that the world is actually a very complex place. We also come to find out that what we held so dear to us that we would kill for it at the end of the day isn’t really all that important. Somewhere along the way we received enough life lessons that we learned what was really important in life – love, mercy, and forgiveness. What was really right in life was grace and the gratitude we developed in receiving God’s grace.
Saul, once he realized the magnitude of God’s love and the truth that Jesus was God’s Son not only changed his name, but changed his whole way of being in the world. Saul went from persecuting Christians and despising gentiles to proclaiming Jesus’ name and converting gentiles. Paul had amazing abilities, but in the end it was his choices that defined him. Peter’s legacy is shaped by his choices too.
Today’s Gospel lesson is really a call story. This same lesson is found in Luke chapter five where Jesus calls the disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John. In our lesson today it is a post resurrection call and sending story. In Luke the disciples are full of potential and chock full with ability. They are young strong men willing to follow Jesus. In the gospel of John these are all men who had made poor choices. They had abandoned Jesus to die on the cross and Peter even denied him three times. Peter, who was willing to fight to the death with Jesus was unwilling to “Pick up his cross and follow him.” Jesus calls Peter to task for his failings and turns the tables on him. When Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him Peter proclaims, “Lord you know I do.” Actually, Peter what the Lord does know is that when it’s time to stand up and make a choice you ran the other way. The interaction between Jesus and Peter is Jesus thumping Peter on the head and saying, “Hey I know you and I know your short comings. Don’t just say, ‘You know I do’ show me that you love me.” In this interaction between Lord and disciple you have forgiveness, absolution, and penance. Peter does change and his choices become bold and fearless. Where prior to the resurrection Peter was fearful of the cross as a newly forgiven and commissioned apostle he doesn’t blink in the face of persecution. Peter knows the truth of the gospel and that truth has set him free.
The most amazing aspect of these stories is what it reveals about God the father of Jesus. God, whose abilities are never in question, reveals his true nature through his choices. Jesus’ father is a loving, merciful and forgiving God who sees the potential in even the most vile of people. Let’s be honest, Saul was a vile person. However, God saw more in Saul than a persecutor of the church he saw an ambassador for the faith. God chose Saul to be his apostle which no one saw that one coming. Furthermore, God used Peter, the one who cowardly denied Jesus and abandoned him in his time of need to be the founder of his church. God uses the weak and vulnerable in the world to do his will which reveals a great deal about God. God doesn’t work from and ability God uses weakness and frailty to do his will. Why? I believe it is to shame us when we brag about our strengths and abilities as if that makes us better than other. God sits back and reveals how in God’s hands our weaknesses are actually our greatest strengths, but how do we get there?
We get to the point of being God’s instrument through humility. We have to fess up that we don’t know the answer to every question and that how we see the world isn’t actually right or the only way. Owning our arrogance and handing our pride over to God is the first step. They don’t say pride cometh before the fall for no reason. Pride dies hard, but through God’s love and grace beautiful gifts can grow in their places.
Peter and Paul’s transformations from knuckleheads to faithful disciples gives me hope. God’s willingness to use knuckleheads to achieve his goals of love and peace is where I rest that hope. In the end its God’s choices and not his abilities that will define how this crazy world will work everything out. I just pray that my own pride and arrogance won’t get in the way of seeing the beauty of God’s gracious will.