Last Words, New Story

Sermon, Third Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 1, 2022

Last Words, New Story

“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9: 1-2). Sooner or later, each of us eventually comes to the stark and profound realization that beauty and brokenness mix and mingle in us. We are, each of us, a beautiful mess and our lives can often reflect this reality.

Our readings offer some good news in answer to this quandary. God loves you with an unbreakable love despite your failures, failings, and regrets. This knowledge alone would be a difference maker for us, of course. Yet there is more. There is another lesson here which, I think, may be even more crucial and life-giving.

Peter and Paul show us that the Holy Spirit picks up the pieces of our lives to restore what’s broken. In place of self judgement, shame, and despair, God plants seeds of true wisdom and joy. This is what Christians from ancient times call the resurrected life. This is the life Christ offers to us now. This is the life for which we pray and in which we partake at Christ’s table. “Grant us such life, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our risen Savior, life in you, now and forever” (ELW eucharistic prayer X).

Paul was “bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and a rather large nose.”  That’s how the apostle Paul is described in an early Christian document, the Acts of Paula and Thekla.  Perhaps to soften the injury of this unflattering description, the writer continues, “at times he had the face of a man and at times he had the face of an angel.”   (Anne Howard, Beatitude Society, 4/8/13)

In his song, “You’ll Never Make a Saint of Me,” on the Bridges to Babylon CD, rock-musician-turned-theologian, Mick Jagger sings, “St. Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man. Jesus hit him with a blinding light, and then his life began.” Paul went on to write most of the New Testament.  The book of Acts tells the story of how the greatest persecutor of the early church became its greatest propagator, eventually traveling over 10,000 miles to spread the good news before dying a martyr’s death in Rome.

Years later, he would write to his young protégé, Timothy, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” He considered himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:13). But like so many saints of God before him, Paul transcended his past, “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,” he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward” (Philippians 3:13–14). Easter holds out the promise that our future is free from the heavy causal weight of our past.

“In his book Art and Faith (Yale, 2021), [American] artist, Makoto Fujimura, devotes an entire Chapter 4 to kintsugi — literally, “golden joinery.” In kintsugi as an artistic technique, instead of hiding a flaw in a piece of broken pottery, the artist highlights and even celebrates the damage by repairing it with a special lacquer that is dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The restoration is more beautiful than the original precisely, because of, rather than despite its repaired brokenness.

Kintsugi is also a more general philosophy that understands breakage and repair as normal parts of human life. Instead of denying or hiding our faults and failures, we embrace our imperfections. In this Japanese aesthetic, the wear, tear, and damage on a physical object are marks of beauty to treasure and honor, not a reason to discard it. Fujimura calls his chapter on kintsugi ‘the new newness.’  Like a gold-dusted piece of repaired pottery, there can be beauty in my brokenness” (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, A New Newness, 4/24/22). Can the Holy Spirit make art, or kintsugi, out of us?

Peter is another flawed-person-made-hero in our bible. Yet, in contrast to Paul, he’s the sort of disciple we can relate to. He is eager, yet foolish. He tries hard but fails. He followed Jesus throughout Galilee but fled when Jesus was arrested.

In today’s gospel Peter eats breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with the resurrected Jesus. Dirty, wet, and tired from fishing all night, he huddled around a “fire of burning coals” (21:9). There, Jesus asked him, not once but three times, “Peter, do you really love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

John writes, “Peter was hurt” (21:17) by Jesus’s questions. The triple interrogation evoked a deeply painful memory for him—of the last time he stood at a charcoal fire, just a few days earlier, when he had denied three times that he even knew Jesus (John 18:18, Luke 22:55). Rather than retribution or shame, Jesus reinstates Peter three times into his good graces with the words, “Feed my sheep.” (Clendenin) These words opened Peter to a new future and re-established intimacy and relationship with Jesus.  Despite his failure, Jesus entrusted Peter with the ongoing work of leading the early Church.  His last words to Peter become the beginning of a new story.

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century, wrote that Peter and Paul became “successful failures.” They experienced the liberating truth that “the person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone, for they know that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of us who is trying to make progress.”

Peter and Paul testify to the simple but profound promise of Christ that ‘I will not leave you.’  We are grafted together into One Body, the living presence of Christ in the world.  Feed my sheep, Jesus says. I have appointed you. You are my hands and feet.

This is what Paul learned out on the Damascus Road. This is what Peter discovered at the charcoal fire beside the Sea. The new newness of Easter joy comes to us after hope in our selves is lost.  Martin Luther once wrote, “God does not save people who are merely fictitious sinners.”  The power of Easter is found in real life. So let all sing, “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” (Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing ELW #389)