When I saw the man pull up to the church doors, I was afraid. I am ashamed to confess that I was fearful when the man with olive-coloured skin, his neck wrapped in a scarf worn by Arab men, knocked at the door of the church. It is all the negative associations mainstream society has built up around people from the Middle East that went swirling through my brain in that moment.
What would I do? Act, based on my fear — and ignore, reject, send away this man?
I therefore read the story of Saul’s conversion this past week through the eyes of Ananias, who is called by God to attend to Saul. Of course, Ananias at the point of his calling, does not know what dramatic change happened in Saul’s life on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He objects. You might say, understandably: “Lord, I have heard how much evil this man has done to your saints in Jerusalem … he has authority to bind all who invoke your name” (Acts 9:13-14). Ananias was scared. How does he get past his fear?
We normally associate the beginning of Paul’s story with his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus when light flashed around him and Jesus spoke to him. But the story of Paul, formerly Saul, begins earlier.
In fact, the first time we read of Saul’s name is during the stoning of Stephen outside the gates of Jerusalem (Acts 7). More to the point, The first time Saul’s name is mentioned in the Bible is right before and after Stephen prays: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:58-60). In other words, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, including Saul, at the moment of his death. Saul needs forgiveness, as he stands by “approving” (Acts 8:1) of the killing of one of Christ’s most passionate, ardent and faithful followers.
I have often wondered why God would later choose this Saul — the worst enemy of the early church — to become its greatest advocate. You cannot design a more effective and impressive strategy! In a war between good guys and bad guys you take out your primary enemy. But how is it that God would even have the heart to consider him? After all, Saul does not come with the right resume, to say the least.
I believe God answered the prayer of Stephen made at the moment of his death. The reason the drama on the Damascus road happens in the first place is because God listened to Stephen’s request to forgive Saul and the others who stoned him to death. I believe Saul was a forgiven man already before that “light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3). God honoured the prayer asking for the forgiveness of sins.
Peter, too, realizes forgiveness from the risen Lord. The Gospel text (John 21:15-17) is set up that way: Three times Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” This three-times echoes the three times Peter had denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:54-62).
Peter felt ashamed for this transgression against his friend and his Lord. Then, when Peter sees Jesus by the lake shore, he “puts on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the water” (John 21:7). Normally, when we go swimming more clothes come off than on. Why does he put on clothes to get into the water? I would suggest this action echoes the Adam and Eve story from the first book of the bible, Genesis.
When Adam and Eve realized their shame and guilt after disobeying God, they clothed themselves (Genesis 3:7,21). It seems that donning clothes in the presence of God is a penitential act — a confession of sin, and an expression of the guilt of sinning.
That is why we read this intentional dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The conversation has a liturgical feel to it, as if Peter needs the ritual of the speech to finally recognize and believe the truth of his forgiveness and being loved.
Here, there is an interesting wordplay on ‘love’. For example, ‘agapao’ is the the kind of self-giving, dedicated, total-commitment, unconditional type of love frequently associated with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this love that Jesus asks of (Simon) Peter the first two times the question is asked: “Simon, son of John, do you love/agapao me?”
Peter, on account of his guilt, can only respond affirmatively to that question using another Greek variation of love — ‘phileo’ — which is a heartfelt and emotional type of love often expressed between good friends. He, in effect, answers by saying he can only love Jesus as a friend. He can do no more. He is stuck in his guilt. And that is why Jesus needs to continue pressing. When Peter answers again that he can only ‘phileo’ Jesus, we see an incredible shift on the part of Jesus:
The last time Jesus asks: “Simon, Son of John, to you love me?”, Jesus switches to ‘phileo’. He meets Peter where he is at. He validates Peter’s feelings. He allows Peter to be where he’s at. And that acceptance, then, releases the power for Peter to grow. This conversation, I believe, is the moment when Peter finally forgives himself. After Jesus loves Peter, Peter is able to love himself.
When we know we are loved by a God who initiates contact with us, who reaches out to us in our pain, and forgives us, then and only then can we do God’s work of loving others. Only when we know we are forgiven, and loved unconditionally by a God who can relate to us, then and only then can we ‘feed God’s sheep’ effectively and powerfully. Until that time we will live bound by and stuck in our guilt and our sin, and therefore in our fear.
The good news, is that our conversion and our salvation is not something we can do. In truth, there is nothing we can do to ‘save ourselves’. These heroes, giants, of the faith — Peter and Paul — do not gain their status in Christian tradition because of anything they did! Quite the contrary: the biblical witness shows in both cases that their conversions were all God’s doing, despite and especially because of their downfalls.
God saves. God calls. God empowers. All because of God’s forgiving love. Before we lift a finger to do anything for God, we are already forgiven. However we respond to that call, it’s already given. Given by a God who totally ‘gets us’ and already loves us.
Yes, I relate to Ananias. His first, and habitual reaction, is fear. And yet, praise be to God, he doesn’t lead with fear and judgement. He doesn’t deny his fear; he just puts fear in its proper place. He doesn’t stay put in his house. He doesn’t ignore, deny, or turn down the call of God which is to do something risky even reckless.
Instead, He leads with love and trust of God. And therefore he experiences the great things God is already doing in the lives of the saints. He, along with Paul and Peter, can now ‘feed my sheep’.
I am grateful to have met that young man after opening the door of the church to him. He was, after all, a believer in the God of compassion and love. And he just wanted a quiet place to pray for a few minutes.
Praise be to God!