One of the major themes of the readings appointed for the Easter season is vindication. As we saw last week, this is a prominent theme in the sermons towards the beginning of Acts: Humanity put Jesus to death as both a criminal and a cursed victim of sacred violence, but God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. But today we see vindication play out in perhaps more ordinary — but no less important — ways in the lives of the two men who would shape early Christianity more than any others, Peter and Paul. Both men had had big ideas and plans about being faithful to God, but as we will see, both failed in pretty big ways. In today’s readings, God offers each a second chance — a fresh opportunity at life.
Peter is generally understood to have been one of Jesus’ closest companions and a leader among the disciples during Jesus’ ministry. He is the first to vocalize his understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, the long-awaited Anointed One who would restore and renew the people of God. He was the one who had the faith to walk out on the water to meet Jesus during the storm. He was among three disciples who accompanied Jesus at his Transfiguration. And, in the garden of Gethsemane, he was ready to defend Jesus with violence. So, Peter had every reason to be confident when he rejected Jesus’ suggestion that he would deny him three times before that very same night was done.
And yet, as the story goes, Peter did just this: When confronted about knowing Jesus outside the court where Jesus is being tried, he denies it, three times. In today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus surprises the disciples while they are fishing. In his typical, impulsive form, Peter immediately jumps out of his boat and swims to the beach to greet Jesus, leaving the others to bring the boat, now over-laden with fish, to shore. After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside, and asks him — three times — if he loves him. And, three times, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Each time, Jesus responds by commanding Peter to tend to his flock, that is, to take responsibility for the care of the Christian community. Three times Peter had denied Jesus; now, Jesus has offered him three opportunities to proclaim his love for him, and three times Jesus calls him into the fullness of his new life and new responsibilities. There is no room for self-doubt or impostor-syndrome now: Peter has been fully vindicated in Jesus’ eyes.
Whereas Peter had lapsed in faithfulness through personal failure, Paul — then still known as Saul — lapsed through success, but success in a wholly mistaken cause. When the execution of Jesus did not quell the divisions within the Jewish community over Jesus, but rather seemed to be exacerbating them, Saul took a leading role in trying to excise this threat to the unity and purity of his faith. In the name of orthodoxy — of faith, of God — Saul persecuted the Christians, getting permission from the High Priest to arrest any of those who proclaimed Jesus and the resurrection. But, Paul is stopped in his tracks:
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.” (Acts 9.3-6)
Saul obeys Jesus’ instructions, goes to meet with Ananias, a believer who had been instructed by the Lord in a vision to receive and instruct him. And the rest, as they say, is history. Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. His concerns about the purity of the people of God are vindicated, but flipped on end and he ends up blowing open the doors of what the people of God look like.
These are stories of new life just as much as the resurrection story is. Peter was languishing in guilt and shame and was called to the new life of not only reconciliation with Jesus but by being entrusted by him to look after the community he would leave behind. Saul was raging in opposition to Jesus and his followers, and yet was called to the new life of faith in Jesus and was entrusted by him to expand the reaches of community of faith to those outside Judaism. (If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation — the old is gone, the new has come!)
This should come as a welcome relief for those of us who try and fail to live up to our best selves before God and others — that is, for all of us. God is in the business of vindication, not just for our perfect lord, but for everyone, no matter how — or how badly — we may have messed up. Whether we are looked upon as cursed because of the actions of others, like Jesus; whether we have lost courage in a moment of truth, like Peter; whether we have done wrong to others in the name of ‘right’, like Saul; God is in the business of vindication. God longs for us to be reconciled, restored, and renewed in life, purpose, and relationship.
And so, as we enter this week, let us rejoice in this truth of the Easter season: The old is gone, the new has come. There is the chance for new life, for all of us. Thanks be to God! Amen!