Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
Whatever one may think of him, there was a time Andrew Carnegie was the wealthiest man in America, in not in the world. He came to America from his native Scotland when he was a small boy, did a variety of odd jobs, and eventually ended up as the largest steel manufacturer in the United States. At one time he had forty-three millionaires working for him. In those days a millionaire was a rare person; conservatively speaking, a million dollars in his day would be equivalent to at least twenty million dollars today.
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 men (or shall we interject in our modern ears, 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, Peter and Paul. By no means could they be considered the robber barons of their day. They remained most likely in humble financial circumstances all their lives. Yet together they built the foundation of the early Christian church as we know it. Peter was the rock, 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. Peter, a humble Galilean fisherman, 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 – the establishment of love in action- the kingdom of heaven. 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. The last time they were at the Sea of Tiberias (the sea of Galilee in other gospels) was back in chapter six when Jesus fed at least five thousand from five loaves and two small fish. Here, on the seaside, at dawn, with a catch of 153 fish, Jesus feeds his small band of 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. Jesus spoke of his love for his disciples He told them to remain or dwell, in that love (15:9). Twice he said anyone who loved him would obey his commandments (14:15; 15:10). He said that anyone who loved him would obey his teachings (14:23).
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. We know that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. So Jesus, never vindictive, wants to clear the mud of the guilt and shame Peter feels.
The best way is the direct way. 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 this 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. Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer but tells him to go into the city and wait to be told what to do.
So feared is Paul that a Jesus follower, Ananias, is troubled by the Lord’s instructions to go to Paul. Jesus reassures Ananias, 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 and was willing to dig for it.
Our texts tell us that this is the work of the body of Christ, of each one of us in our walk of faith, and of each of us called to leadership in the church. We all sit here together, and we know there is probably plenty of dirt. However, there is gold and plenty of it as well. Our task is to not be afraid of the dirt, the hard work, not to be deterred by failures and setbacks trusting there is gold. This is what Jesus sees in us. The gold – even before we see it, God does.
We may not be people with the stature of a Peter or a Paul. However we can still relate to them as human beings 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. In that way we are no different from them. Jesus believes in us – in each of us. Jesus says we are each worth the digging to extract that which is precious. Jesus calls us to serve, to feed and tend his sheep, to spread the message of love. In serving the dross is removed and we shine.
So today as we hold our congregational gathering let us celebrate new leadership, and the call and gifts of each of us to serve. Let us celebrate the particular gifts of Union Church as it is called to be a spiritual leader in this community. Let us dig, and through the power of Jesus, knowing we will shine. Amen.