Here’s my sermon for Easter 3. In the New Testament reading we hear how Saul encounters Jesus, and in the gospel reading how Jesus calls Peter to follow him.
Jesus, after the resurrection, needed to do some recruiting. He had twelve posts to fill – he needed twelve apostles to be the founding leaders of his church. So how did he go about it? Place an advertisement in the Jerusalem Times? Draw up a list of interview questions? Get an interview panel together? Job description and person specification?
And if Jesus had carried out background checks – character references, criminal records checks, and so on – of those he wanted to be his apostles where would we be? Would he have appointed them? Or would he have decided that they weren’t suitable candidates for the job?
After the resurrection the eleven – the original twelve minus Judas Iscariot – had been keeping their heads down because they were fearful of the Jewish authorities. Whether they had actually done anything that the authorities deemed to be criminally wrong we shall never know because Acts doesn’t tell us, but they may well have had their names on an official blacklist.
Paul, of course, is a different matter. Paul – or Saul as he was originally known – was, to be blunt, not a particularly nice person when we first come across him. He is a religious zealot, hounding followers of Jesus, arresting them and putting them to death simply because he didn’t agree with their religious beliefs. He wants every follower of Jesus off the streets.
Saul, Luke tells us, is breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. And he goes off to Damascus to arrest and bring back bound to Jerusalem anyone he finds who belong to the Way. The Way is what the first followers of Jesus called the new movement – it wasn’t until later that they became known as Christians.
And on the way to Damascus his life is changed.
Jesus appears to him. And he asks Saul why Saul is persecuting him. Saul asks who he is, though I can’t help thinking that an intelligent person like Saul must have had an inkling – this was no ordinary encounter along the road. But ask he does – and Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting …”
And at that moment Saul’s life changes. As well as his name – he changed it to Paul.
I don’t think that anyone with Paul’s background would ever get through the selection procedures for ordination today. I doubt he’d get through the psychological profiling, even if the church overlooked his somewhat dodgy past as the hatchet man for the authorities.
And yet Jesus chose him. Just, as we heard in our gospel reading today, Jesus chose those who had deserted him. And just as he chose Simon Peter who had turned his back on Jesus and denied knowing him. Jesus seems to have had a habit of choosing the most unsuitable people to be his apostles. After the resurrection at first neither Peter or Paul had any apparent desire to follow Jesus and preach about him. If either of them had found themselves being considered by the Crown Appointments Commission (the body that chooses bishops in the Church of England) today – and it’s pretty certain that they wouldn’t – I don’t believe for a minute that they would be selected for church leadership. Far too unstable.
But Jesus doesn’t choose people to be his followers after taking up character references and doing background checks. He doesn’t find out what school you went to or whether you have a first-class degree. He sees beyond the exterior – he sees what lies within a person’s heart.
The important thing to remember about Paul’s call is, of course, that it came from Jesus, not from people. And Jesus wasn’t about to wait and see if the other apostles agreed. The same is true of Peter – he had denied knowing Jesus, yet Jesus still chose him – his call came from Jesus, not from people. Jesus didn’t stop to ask for anyone else’s opinion.
And Jesus wants everyone to follow him. And he calls everyone to follow him, no matter their background, their history. He calls each one of us to be his followers. There’s no entry examination, no interviews to get through, no checks. Good job he doesn’t look too hard at our past record and take it into account, isn’t it! He simply says to each and every person as he said to Peter, “Follow me.”
And yet, people often find it so hard to do that. Sometimes people find it hard to be a Christian. They find it hard, not necessarily because they don’t want to follow Jesus, but because they feel unworthy somehow. They feel that if God knew what they were really like he wouldn’t want them. Or they feel that they’ve done things in their life that they’re ashamed of and don’t want to face up to. Or other people make them feel that they not very good Christians, or they’ve been told by someone in the Church that their lifestyle is wrong or that they don’t conform.
God, of course, knows exactly what you are like – and he loves you and wants you to follow and serve his Son Jesus.
The thing is, if any of us we waited until we were good enough to respond to the call of Jesus, our churches would be empty. And there’d be no priests either. The message today, from Paul, from Peter, from the other disciples, is that Jesus isn’t bothered about our past. He’s bothered about our future. And he calls us no matter what or who we are, no matter what our lives might be like under the surface. He tells us he loves us and he says to each of us as he said to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ He says to each of us, as he said to Paul, ‘I know what you’ve been doing and how you’ve been behaving – and I forgive you and want you to follow me.’
That’s all there is to it. Of course, if we are willing to be open to the call from Jesus who loves us and simply wants us to love him and follow him, we have no idea where that might lead. For Peter and Paul it meant martyrdom, traditionally on the same day on the 29th June in probably the year 64. Jesus called Peter, the denier, and Paul, the persecutor – and they both laid down their lives for Jesus.
The thing is Jesus knows exactly what each of us is like. Jesus knows exactly what a background check on your past would bring up. He knows exactly what a psychological profile would show. And he isn’t bothered, for he reaches out in love and says, ‘Follow me.”
Of course, if we follow him then – just as Saul’s life changed from Saul the persecutor of Christians to Paul the proclaimer of Christianity, so our lives change. We set the old life behind, whatever it may contain, and embark on a new future. What might it mean for each of us? There are never any certainties with Jesus except one – eternal life.
All we can do is be open to the possibilities of service and of ministry that Jesus might have for us, and embrace a future in Jesus’ service with humility, but also willingly – with the same kind of commitment and devotion that Paul and Peter showed as they embraced their futures as followers, and as apostles of Jesus Christ.