Acts 9:1-20, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
When I drove out of Madison into Middleton one Sunday in 1974, I thought that I was going to a church, but I wasn’t. I found myself in a “center”: St. Benedict Center. After a brief stint some years later at another “center” —in Waunakee Village—I found myself driving to a monastery: Holy Wisdom Monastery. So one might say that I haven’t been to a church in 35 years. We know, of course, that Jesus did not found a religion, but others took it upon themselves to follow his teachings, which eventually led to what we came to call churches. I was baptized in a church, so I have had no problem going to a church or chapel as time and place suggest I do. But I now find that I can do nicely enough by taking my place in an assembly: this Sunday Assembly. Perhaps something similar may be familiar to one or another of you.
So I have been in my last 35 years a member of a religious gathering that draws on the scriptures and that commits itself to Jesus as the Messiah long promised from the time of David to the book of Revelation.
Although I was baptized a Catholic, I realize that many of my friends were baptized into other religious faiths. I knew this from my childhood because I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with friends of different faiths than mine. Many, like my father, were children of immigrants from a variety of mostly European countries where Catholicism was not the principal religion.
Since the founding of Holy Wisdom Monastery, I’ve rejoiced in friends and acquaintances of other religious backgrounds who join together here Sunday after Sunday to listen to the reading of the scriptures and to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy. Thus it is appropriate that we have a Pluralism Sunday. It is with this refreshing moment in my life that I think about what we are all told in today’s scriptural readings and experience in today’s liturgy.
With a little bit of imagination we might think of ourselves as among that variety of fish that were hauled in from the right side of Peter’s boat—a mixed net-full to be sure. Nonetheless we can all be doing what Luke does in imagining Paul knocked from his mount (should we presume a donkey?) on his way to Damascus and blinded with his eyes open—like those among us who’ve have had cataract surgery understand quite well!—until Ananias restored his sight. Ananias! Who is this Ananias fellow? Scriptural scholarship gives us no precise information on whether he was one person or whether there were a few persons with that name because, alas, aside from the Ananias who, so to speak, helped turn Saul into Paul, someone or someones with that name appears in the Acts of the Apostles twice (5:1-11; 24:1-23). Once, when Peter catches him cheating the apostles of money from the sale of land, we are told “he fell down and died” (5:5). Again in Acts an Ananias is described as “a high priest” who listened to testimony against Paul (24:1-8). One can only hope that Ananias—say, like the names Peter and Paul—was a common name and not a single individual who ruined his good work of helping Saul become Paul by being a thief and an antagonist. I regret not being able to answer that question for you today!
The Paul whom we are given in today’s reading turns from the Saul who persecutes anyone who celebrates Jesus as the Messiah into the Paul who himself celebrates Jesus as Messiah. So that Paul is not unlike the Peter, who denied Jesus three times at the time of the Savior’s capture and crucifixion and who we now find declaring his love for Jesus even more vehemently than he once denied knowing him. Both the Peter and Paul in today’s readings came to the same fate: Execution in Rome by order of Nero, who Eusibius Pamphilius, an early historian tells us, condemned nothing “unless it was of great excellence.” Thus do we have Peter’s three denials dismissed in his three professions of belief in and love of Jesus in today’s gospel. And thus do we have Paul’s missionary zeal to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians affirming his faith in Jesus as Messiah and preaching it relentlessly. This faith of both men, as already mentioned, cost them their lives.
What the Revelation passage gives us is what Peter and Paul cannot yet experience as we meet them in today’s readings. They show dramatically what a life like ours is with its limits. Alternately what Revelation shows us is what belief in the one on the Throne and the Lamb awaits us: “power and wealth [and] blessing.” All this is perfectly clear. What is not nearly as clear is how we cross the boundary between what Paul and Peter live rather more dramatically than we do. But we are here today to cross the variety of boundaries that stand in our way of overcoming what they overcame to get to the world of Revelation. The particular ways that we do that will differ for each of us, but it’s general direction is perfectly clear.
The Jesus we get back from Peter and Paul, as I mentioned already, founded no Church, but gave us two commandments: Love God and love one another. Indeed, in Garry Wills commentary on John’s gospel, the latter command is made indelible: “This is my directive that you love one another as I have loved you.” Indeed, “All will know that you are my followers by this sign alone, that you have love for one another.” That indeed is the faith that unites us all once we are dismissed today with a blessing that tells us to do precisely that.