In the Name...
As a family was assembling for a baptism, the priest noticed that there didn't appear to be a godfather present. "Who's the godfather?” he asked. There was an embarrassed silence until the grandmother leaned over to him and said, "Never you mind. We had enough trouble getting the name of the father."
For its first few centuries, the Christian Church normally administered the sacrament of Baptism only once a year on the great festival of Easter Eve and the entire liturgical year was originally built around this practice of Easter baptism. Indeed, in our lectionaries today, the scripture readings we hear on the Sundays after Easter have been chosen to recapture this and help us understand what our 'new life in Christ' is all about.
And, in today's scriptures, we see what that new life means for three people: Peter, Saul, and Ananias - and while each has a different story, they all have a lot in common with each other, and with us.
Let’s start with Peter. The scene from our Gospel takes place in the days after Jesus had risen from the dead. We know that he appeared to the disciples on a few occasions in Jerusalem. He told them of things to come and said that he would be going away again, this time to his Father in heaven. So what did that mean for Peter and the disciples? It meant that life on earth had to go on. There's not a lot of money in the disciple business. So, as we read today, Peter returned to Galilee and decided to go back into the fish business. After all, one must be practical.
Well, it looks like Peter is on his way to getting his career back on track. One hundred and fifty-three is a lot of fish and the first thing Peter knew he had to do was get them to market right away. But, instead, he hung around for a meal and a chat with Jesus. And it was during that chat, with that great heap of fish, all that money, all that security, literally staring at him, that Peter discovered something very important. He discovered that he was wrong. God had other plans for him.
As we read, Jesus says to Peter, "Tend my sheep". In other words, the fisherman is being told that it's time for a career change. He's going to become a shepherd. The shepherd of God's people. But, didn't he have shortcomings? Wasn't he impulsive? Hadn't he even denied Jesus? Sure, but, Jesus doesn't mention any of that. He just tells him to get on with a new job. As Jesus said in another place, "My grace is sufficient for you."
And we never hear about all those carefully counted fish again. One imagines them piled in a heap on the shore, rotting, symbolic of earthly riches given up for something better.
Which brings us to the next character, Saul.
Now, Saul was a Pharisee, and, by his own modest testimony, a jolly good one. He was successful, brilliant, ambitious, and he had a mission - to destroy what he saw as a heretical sect threatening his beloved Judaism, this cult made up of the followers of one Jesus of Nazareth. And as Saul was going about this godly work, torturing and killing, he carried with him something very important - letters, letters from the Sanhedrin. These letters were his legal authority to extradite Christians from any city outside Israel to stand trial in Jerusalem. These letters were accepted by the Romans as enforceable and they were a sign of Saul’s influence and power. And, it was with those letters in his pocket that Saul discovered something very important.
He discovered that he was wrong. That he was persecuting the God he had sought to serve. And he discovered something even more important than his own wrongness. He discovered the power of God’s grace.
Saul was not condemned for what he had done. God did not kill him for having killed Christians. God never mentioned any of that. He just told him to do something different. Be an apostle.
And we never hear about those letters again. We don’t know what became of them, but, we know what happened to Saul.
And that's where our third character, Ananias, enters the picture. Everything we know about him, you just heard read. But, just because he seems to be a minor character doesn't mean he wasn't pivotal in the life of the Church. He was a Christian who was faced with a difficult choice. He had to do something which made no sense to him whatsoever and which, in fact, was a serious challenge to everything he believed. You see, he knew all about Saul. He knew Saul was his enemy and the enemy of the Church. Ananias had friends who had been forced to flee Jerusalem because of Saul's persecution. They'd probably get together over coffee and spit with venom about this fanatical Pharisee. Saul was easy to hate, easy to demonize, easy to curse.
The idea, then, of being told to befriend this agent of Satan, this fiend from Hell, this angel of death, clearly did not seem right to him. He argues. Excuse me, God. Who are we talking about here? And, in that moment, Ananias also discovered something. He discovered that he was wrong - wrong to exclude anybody from God's life-changing grace. And he also discovered that he had to give up something very important to himself, something he really wanted to hold on to - his hatred. He had to give it up, he had to leave it somewhere in order to be able to go to his sworn enemy, call him “brother,” touch him, and heal him.
Ananias gave up his hatred and he gave to the church and to the world the ministry of St. Paul.
You see Ananias left his hatred in the same place Saul left his letters and Peter left his fish. In the past. The past is a big place. It's a place where we can leave things and most of us have a thing or two we need to leave there.
We often think and talk about new life, renewal and change, in terms of God giving us something - a new spirit, a new mission, a new call. But, before God can give us anything new, we need to make room for it by clearing out some things that are old. Peter couldn't be a shepherd while dragging a fishing net. Saul couldn't be an apostle carrying arrest warrants. Ananias couldn't be a healer infected with hate.
They each had different issues, but, they also had the same story. Each had to choose between keeping something very precious to themselves or letting it go and accepting what was important to God. One might think that sounds so obvious, so easy to do, but, we know better, don't we? We've all struggled with this. God's priorities don't always thrill us. His call isn't always what we want to hear. No, none of their choices was obvious or easy. Each of them was faced with a complete change in the way they looked at life. But, that's what new life means.
There's a pile of rotten fish out there somewhere and on that pile there's some letters and a lot of other junk. There's lots of reasons we can think up not to toss something onto that pile. But, there's one good reason we should. God has lots of new things to give us. Good things. And we can only receive them if our hands, our hearts, are free. Let's make room for them.
In the Name...