Vicar Emily Beckering; St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles; texts: Acts 12:1-1, 9:1-18; John 21:15-19; 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 17-18.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It might be rare, especially for congregations in the ELCA, to celebrate the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul this Sunday. So why do we join with the greater church throughout the world today in remembering these saints? Is it to learn from their example? To hear of their faith in order that we might imitate them?
We are mistaken if we focus solely on what the apostles did, for their very lives witness to what the Triune God did through them. We do not keep the feast only to honor their names, but in order to attend to how God worked through them for the sake of the world so that we can hear and see and know Christ’s call for our own lives.
Jesus’ call to them is the same that he gives to us today: to follow him.
Part of these apostles’ witness is that often before we can follow Christ, we must first turn back from where we have been going, from harmful ways that we have been living.
Jesus’ first word to us today is an invitation to turn around, to change.
This is how Jesus begins his work in the apostles: by calling Peter and Paul to turn around. He asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
It is likely that Peter could not but help remember denying his Lord as Jesus asked him three times if he loved him. Jesus, however, does not scold him or punish Peter. Instead, he asks this question, and with it, he calls Peter back to his side. Peter is called back from the fear that caused him to deny Jesus, and even more, back from the fear and shame of this betrayal so that he may once again follow him. The three questions and commands that Jesus speaks to Peter are an absolution: Peter is forgiven. Jesus has not given up on Peter, but rather is calling him back into relationship and putting him to work.
When Jesus first called Peter to follow him, he put down his fishing nets and left them behind in order to fish for people. Now, Peter must put down his failure in order to follow once again.
Jesus also brought about a change in Paul through a question. We recall from the book of Acts that on the road to Damascus, Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In order to follow Jesus, Paul had to turn from killing the sheep to feeding them. Christ did not destroy Saul, even though he has so grossly misunderstood God’s will and work. Instead, Jesus calls Saul by name, forgives him, and gives him a new purpose.
Today, Jesus also asks us a question, “Do you love me?” With this question, we too are invited to turn from harmful patterns, from everything that holds us back from following our Lord, from all the ways that we have failed to feed the sheep, and thus failed to reflect Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Jesus calls us back from feeding ourselves, our desires, our interests by insisting on our own way, from feeding the hungry only when it is convenient for us, from not binding up the injured by ignoring the wounds of our neighbors and the wounds that we ourselves have inflicted, from not bringing back those who have strayed because we are afraid of telling the truth, from seeking the lost with force instead of carrying them in love, from all the times that we are nudged by the Spirit to reach out to someone, and ignore it because of what we think it might cost.
If we are to follow him, then we must leave all of this behind.
Yet, with the command to feed his sheep, Jesus not only turns us from harmful patterns, but restores our relationship with him and with one another. In response to all the ways that we have not reflected him or his love, Christ proclaims to us today, “You are forgiven.”
With this forgiveness, Jesus calls us back from worrying that we won’t be able to recognize him or the Spirit’s work in our lives. In our first reading, Peter didn’t recognize how God was at work for him through the angel until after he had already been rescued from prison. We don’t always need to know—and we won’t always know—how God is at work in us for our neighbors or in our neighbors for us. But the witness of the lives of Peter and Paul is that even in prison, in rejection, in failure, in denial, in death—in all the places where it is most difficult to see it—Christ is still at work leading us and all people back to the Triune God.
With this forgiveness, Jesus also calls us back from the fear that because we have failed before, we have lost value in his eyes, and from the fear that we have messed things up beyond the point of repairing, that we won’t be able to do what he asks or that we don’t have what it takes to follow him, to love as he loves. Even before Peter learns to feed the sheep, Jesus already welcomes him in and entrusts the ministry to him.
In response to our tendency to fall down, to fear, to wander away from where God would have us go, Jesus does not cast us out into the outer darkness, but turns us around, forgives us, and invites us to follow again saying, “Feed my sheep.”
Through him, we see the very heart of God; the God who refuses to lose any one of us. The God who yearns to have relationship with us and all people. Rather than force us into that relationship, however, God has chosen to invite us into it, to transform us and the world through love: a love that is shown through imperfect disciples.
Because Jesus’ command to Peter to tend the sheep follows Peter’s denial, we know that Jesus’ choosing of Peter has nothing to do with Peter’s own abilities. There is no special worthiness on his part. He witnesses and cares for the church because Christ calls him and strengthens him to do the work to which he was called.
Likewise, as Paul testifies to us in his second letter to Timothy, the strength of his witness, his ability to fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep faith all rests solely on Christ, who stood by him and gave him strength so that through him the message might be fully proclaimed. We are promised that as was done for Peter and Paul, the Lord will stand by us and give us strength so that we too might witness to Christ’s love.
The choice of Peter and Paul demonstrates God’s working through the weak things of this world. God chooses what is foolish, weak, low, and despised so that anyone who boasts may boast in the Lord.
This, in fact, is how God has always worked.
The entire narrative of scripture is full of broken people. God created a nation to bless all nations through Sarah, who laughed at God’s promises, and Abraham who continually tried to take matters into his own hands because he couldn’t trust. God rescued all of Israel from slavery through Moses, a murderer who would spend his life speaking God’s word even though he couldn’t speak well on his own. God led a rebellious nation through David who committed adultery and killed the innocent. God called the Ninevites and set them free from sin through Jonah, who resisted God’s call and resented God’s mercy. God saved all of creation through the Son whom we rejected. God used the witness of these two flawed saints to build the church and to bring us to faith. And now the Triune God will love the world into believing—into relationship—by loving them through us, we who are weak and broken.
We celebrate the festival of the Apostles Peter and Paul because we need to be reminded what discipleship is and isn’t, what it does and doesn’t look like to follow Christ.
Following Jesus is witnessing to his love and mercy with our very lives.
This means time and time again to turn from saying, “Look at me,” and instead pointing and saying, “Look at Christ” when we see him at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Discipleship does not mean doing everything perfectly, but watching for how God’s perfect love is at work around us and through us. Discipleship is not having all the right answers or knowing where we are going, but trusting that the Holy Spirit will strengthen us to follow Christ.
We know what we are to do, how we are to witness; we have heard it three times today from our Lord, and he will continue to whisper it to us day after day and year after year as he walks with us, leading us: “Feed my sheep.”
We are to follow in Christ’s footsteps and do for one another and for this world what Christ has done for us.
Sometimes when we follow our Lord, we will be led out of prison. More often, however, Christ will lead us to give ourselves away. The death that Peter and Paul died glorified God because they reflected God’s very nature. If we follow Christ, then we will offer forgiveness when we are hurt, love when we are insulted, and seek relationship again and again even when it seems that all hope is lost. This is what it means to lay down our lives for one another, to feed the sheep, to love. By this witness, by our love, Christ will make himself known.
On this day, through the Apostle Peter and Paul, we are reminded just what God can do with the weak and broken. The Triune God takes imperfect people with tempers and thorns in their flesh who murdered and doubted and denied and uses them to invite all people into God’s work of redeeming the world. Today we are asked to do the same so that by our witness, others may come to know God’s love, forgiveness, and call in their lives.
To those of us who feel as though we have never heard him before, to those of us who have fallen away or are tired of walking, to those of us who have heard him many times, and many ways, the call is the same. Jesus says to us, “I have called you by name. You are mine. Follow me.”
Now, what will we leave behind, and who through our love will we tell?