In the Shadow of the Valley of Death

The readings from scripture set the tone for the third Sunday in the Easter Season – a time set aside in the Christian Calendar for celebrating new life, resurrection, and joy.

But we also come here in the shadow of ongoing unrest, strife and tragedy reported almost daily on the evening news. Ongoing tragedies of civilian deaths in Brussels, Africa and the Middle East; ongoing civil strife in South Sudan.  More than 70 people died in Clark Country last year because of drug overdoses.  People killed by senseless gun violence in Louisville, Indianapolis and elsewhere in this country. Questions without answers haunt us – as senseless death and suffering confront us again, and yet again.  Lest we think this is unique to us listen again to the opening phrase of the reading from Acts, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder…”  Breathing threats and murder – against the followers of the Way of Christ.

Perhaps our current news accounts could read:

  • ISIL breathing threats & murder … continue to radicalize young people for assaults both on Muslims and non-Muslims in several countries…
  • Opposing political faction in South Sudan breathing threats & murder…openly assault men, women & children in continuing civil war.
  • US political candidates breathing threats and murder share plans for economic, and military attacks on perceived enemies in other countries and immigrants to make us feel safe…

Recall that Saul has the authority of the high priest to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus ,to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.  He has a reputation – and is feared as a persecutor.  On his way to Damascus he has a blinding vision of Jesus.  Those with Saul on this journey of threat & murder heard the voice, but did not see anything.  They led the blinded Saul on to Damascus.

Saul was unable to complete his mission of threats and murder.  Instead, Saul found God anew in an encounter with the risen Christ. This vision changed his outlook and his actions.  This account leads us to question where we find God in the violence and death in our neighborhoods in Metro Louisville , Indianapolis, in Europe, Africa and  Syria & the middle East– where threats and murder are carried out.

Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, also had a vision.  He was asked to go to Saul, a man who had the power to arrest him, in order to give Saul his sight and a message from the Lord.  God intended to use Saul (whom we now call Paul) to bring the good news to the gentile world.  With great trepidation, Ananias went to see this murderous menace – and lays his hands of healing to help Saul regain his sight.

Sight is not always sought, let alone regained, by those intent on their own way – whose evil intentions remain on accomplishing threats and murder.  We wonder what kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. We hear much fear of the many possibilities there are for evil and destruction to cross the paths of our loved ones, disrupting lives.

In the Gospel reading  from John we have a glimpse into the lives of the disciples following Jesus betrayal and brutal death. They went back to Galilee. Not knowing what else to do, they went back to what they knew – they return to fishing. They go back to the familiar and they catch nothing.  It seems that even in their old trade they do not find success. A stranger on the beach suggests they cast the net on the other side of the boat.  And they get a fabulous catch – so great, that even though there were so many fish, they are astonished that the net was not torn. Jesus is recognized, and Peter rushes to shore to be with him.

This Gospel describes a very typical human reaction following great trauma and upset: the disciples returned to the familiar. They wanted to regain some sense of normalcy, and of moving on with their lives.  They tried to get back to the way things were before. As if we can ever get back to what was ‘before.’

Jesus addresses Peter – the disciple who not only ran away, but also three times denied even knowing Jesus, saying ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Peter says “Yes! You know that I love you.” Jesus says “Feed my lambs.”  Jesus asks twice more, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’  After each affirmation Peter is told “Feed my sheep.”  By doing this, Jesus not only helps Peter forgive the betrayal but also points him in a new direction – that of being a shepherd for God’s people.

Jesus asked, ‘Peter, do you love me?  Feed my sheep.’  These are nice words.  But they will just remain only nice words if we do not understand what Jesus was teaching Peter.

‘Peter, do you love me?  Feed my sheep.’  Jesus, knowing Peter loves him, is asking Peter about more than the status of their relationship.  Jesus is telling Peter that love is not a feeling but an action.  It is not enough for Peter to feel good about Jesus, but Peter must also actively work to feed and nourish God’s people in order to live out the love and forgiveness that Jesus has already shown him.

Ananias laid hands on Saul. After Saul was healed, he spent several days with the followers of Christ in Damascus, and ‘immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” This 180° turn in attitude was followed by action – sharing his story.

Part of our baptism and confirmation are vows – we have pledged to live out the love and forgiveness God has given us in tangible ways, through specific actions, in the world in which we live.  Actions in Christian community, actions at the work place, actions at home. What action should we, gathered here, take?  The Baptismal Covenant asks:

  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people?

A number of projects undertaken by members of this congregation show action: our ongoing support of the Center For Lay Ministries Food Pantry, support for the work of Exit 0 and Haven House; our benefit concerts that support important work in the community. Towels and supplies go to Haven House, shoes become wells in Africa; funds offered in thanksgiving go to United Thank Offering and Episcopal Funds for Human Need to help others.. The work done by individual members providing leadership and many hours volunteering:  with children in schools, with community service groups, and in other projects which serve a variety of God’s people.  The list goes on.

We know that many Christians of the first few centuries, as well as some today, faced persecution for their beliefs.  They risked their lives to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”  They stood in the face of evil. They did not go back to ‘business as usual’ – they used their particular gifts to take part in changing the world one bit at a time.  Not everyone can stop evil perpetrated by others, but we can seek the light of Christ by which to choose our actions, and respond to Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep.”

But we cannot forget the threats and murder with which we began this meditation… and which are real all around us.  We may ask where is God in the evil we hear about?  I see God is present in the actions of individuals.  God is present in the midst of the chaos in the person of those who look out for others, who help one another, who enfold others in love, prayer and action, those who comfort others. God is present in the people reaching out to others in sorrow and love. God is present in medical professionals who treat the wounded. We hear many stories of the presence of God in times of trouble if we listen to the stories of the people of God acting in faith and love – and not just the story of unleashed evil that gets the ratings points the media prefers.

Those disciples – Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the sons of Zebedee – and Saul (renamed Paul) did indeed follow Jesus.  They left their fishing nets, and made the choice to follow the Way of Christ.  They entered unfamiliar territory; they used their gifts to serve others and to glorify God.  We know this because it is recorded in our scripture.

Their story has been handed onto us, as has this same ministry of Christ.  It may not seem, for example, that being involved in the CLM food pantry, or providing supplies for Haven House, providing support for local children or organizations is a direct answer to those who breathe threats and murder. Yet, it is!  It is a way to share the new life we find in Christ, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ. It is a way of addressing the world as it is and working to change the world as God would have it become.

When Jesus finished speaking with the disciples, he simply said, “Follow me.”      What will you do?

Don

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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