Back in 1901, Andrew Carnegie was the wealthiest man in America, in not in the world. At the height of his wealth, Carnegie had the equivalent of $308 billion in today’s calculations. At one time he had forty-three millionaires working for him. In those days a millionaire was a rare person. A reporter asked Carnegie how he had hired forty-three millionaires. Carnegie responded that those men had not been millionaires when they started working for him but had become millionaires as a result.
The reporter's next question was, "How did you develop these men to becomes so valuable to you that you have paid them this much money?" Carnegie replied that people are developed the same way gold is mined. When gold is mined, several tons of dirt must be moved to get an ounce of gold; but one doesn't go into the mine looking for dirt and mud; one goes in looking for the gold.
Our scripture lessons today tell us the stories of two men, whom Jesus mined: Peter and Paul. Together they built the foundation of the early Christian church as we know it. Peter, a humble Galilean fisherman, was declared by Jesus the rock on which the church would be built. Peter was the patriarch of the Jerusalem church, eventually moving to Rome and becoming an influential and revered figure there.
The spread of the gospel throughout the Greek speaking Roman Empire is largely due to the tireless efforts of the apostle Paul. Paul a Roman, Greek speaking citizen and highly trained Pharisee, a “Hebrew of Hebrews” in his own estimation. Two men with a zeal and love for Jesus and his gospel. Two men specifically chosen by Jesus to establish his divine purposes on earth. Two unlikely men; yet with one thing in common: To reach the gold in each man, Jesus had to mine through a lot of dirt. Reach gold, however, the Lord did.
In our story from John, we find the disciples traveling back to Galilee to go fishing. Here, on the seaside with a catch of 153 fish, Jesus feeds his disciples. Jesus is concerned with feeding people, body, mind and spirit. Unlike the last supper, we could call this the first breakfast, for these are the two meals that bracket Jesus’ death and resurrection. At the last supper, after they had eaten, Jesus spoke of a new commandment for his disciples to love one another (13:34-35). That they should be recognized as disciples by their love. Peter unfortunately failed to show his love for Jesus at his darkest moment. Instead, Peter denied Jesus three times.
Here, after they had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” A startling question that Jesus asks no one else, not his mother, or the beloved disciple, of Thomas or Mary Magdalene. Just Peter. The Lord, who knows all hearts, knows that Peter loves him like all the rest. The most likely question is that Jesus is excavating through the dirt and mud. Peter undoubtedly experienced a great deal of shame for denying that he knew Jesus. So, Jesus, never vindictive, wants to clear the mud of the guilt and shame Peter feels. Jesus wants to remind Peter of all he taught about love, that night of the last supper. A new commandment I give to you, to love one another as I have loved you. If you love me you will obey what I command. If anyone loves me, she will obey my teachings. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love. Three times Jesus emphasized love in his last discourse. So now again, he emphasizes it with Peter. To heal Peter. To help Peter find the gold within. So, he says, when Peter says of course I love you: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
Peter, Jesus says, I believe you. You have the gold of love in your heart. Now use it to care for others. Once more like at the beginning of his ministry Jesus issues the command: Follow me. The next thing we hear of Peter is on the day of Pentecost when he is boldly preaching outdoors to the crowds of Jerusalem.
With Paul, the encounter is no less dramatic. Paul has been successfully persecuting the growing Christian movement, with encouragement from the high priest in Jerusalem. Acts tells us that Paul, originally named Saul, fixed to destroy the church (Acts 8:3). He dragged people off to prison and approved the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen.
Paul, with great missionary zeal, is armed with letters to arrest Jesus followers in Damascus. Jesus intervenes with Paul as he does with Peter. With a blinding light that knocks Paul to the ground, Jesus asks Paul one question, “Why do you persecute me?” There were many who persecuted Jesus in his life and afterwards, but it is to Paul that Jesus appears and pointedly asks the question, “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus wants to find the gold in Paul. He doesn’t condemn Paul or damn him to hell. He wants Paul to think of the people he is hurting, to truly understand his actions, and to know who Jesus really is. So feared is Paul that a Jesus follower, Ananias, is troubled by the Lord’s instructions to go to Paul. Jesus reassures calls Paul, “my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. v. 15.” Underneath the dirt and the mud, Jesus knows that gold is there.
Jesus’ faith in both Peter and Paul pays off. Before long, Paul has done a 180 and is proclaiming, “Jesus is the Son of God.” Close to 1/3 of the New Testament is attributed to Paul’s writing or influence. Jesus knew there was dirt in both men’s lives. However, Jesus also knew there was gold, gold that would change the world. Jesus was willing to dig for it.
We all sit here together, and we know there is probably plenty of dirt in us and around us. However, there is gold. Our task is to not be afraid of digging through the dirt, not to be deterred by failures and setbacks, knowing underneath it all there is precious gold. Jesus sees it. Jesus says we are worth the work.
We may not be figures like Peter or Paul. However, we can relate to because they somehow got beyond the dirt and let the gold in their life shine. They were able to do this because Jesus believed in them and commissioned them to serve. Jesus believes in us – in each of us. Jesus says we are each worth the digging to extract that which is precious.
What dirt and mud do we have to get rid of? Pride? Jealousy? Resentments? Gossip? Hatred or contempt of someone? We may feel trapped in sin, trapped in something painful, fallen and struggling to regain composure. We may think we have gone too far, lost too much. Have nothing more to give. Perhaps the weight is so heavy that we are unconvinced that there is anything good buried under there. But that’s not so. Jesus sees what we can’t see. That we are precious in God’s sight. God has a plan and a purpose for our lives. We are gold in God’s eyes, meant to shine. Your gold is priceless and needed for God’s realm on earth to flourish. Like Peter and Paul, let us open ourselves to the excavation of the Holy Spirit. Be cleansed of the dirt so that clings to us. So that that nugget of gold will emerge, and like Peter and Paul, become a cornerstone in the realm of God here on earth.