There was a member of my church when I was growing up in Atlanta whom we’ll call Miss Leslie. I didn’t know her well; I knew she was in her 80s, that she lived alone, and that she had been retired so long that I had no idea what she had done for a living. But she was in worship almost every Sunday, and she was always sweet and friendly to me, just like she was to everyone she met, it seemed.
Once I was with a few people talking with her in coffee hour, and we were discussing a particularly aggressive group of self-identified Christians who were stalking people on the sidewalks of Midtown Atlanta where the church was located. They appeared to have been literally bussed in from a small town in order to save the sin-filled big city of Atlanta from itself. They wore matching T-shirts, clutched a stack of flyers, and approached everyone they met on the sidewalk with the same question: “have you been saved?” And if you said you were, they would immediately respond with, “when?” demanding details of a specific moment when you devoted yourself to Christ, or they would come at you with all the reasons that you weren’t really saved after all.
What they wanted to hear was something like the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus that we heard in this passage. For many Christians, the conversion of Saul is the paradigm by which any conversion is described, understood, or accepted. People talk about their “road to Damascus” experience, a time when Jesus suddenly and forcefully intervened in their lives and re-directed them to a new life of joy, faithfulness and service.
The irony is that this story of Saul on the road to Damascus is not supposed to be a paradigm for Christian conversion. In fact, just the opposite; it demonstrates the unusual lengths God had to go to in order to get Saul’s attention. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” And she was right: nothing short of that was going to get his attention, so dedicated was he to searching out and persecuting the early Christians. He was not going to be impressed by any miraculous sign they might do, and he was hardly going to listen to their preaching. So, Jesus takes matters into his own hands and confronts Saul directly and personally, the only such appearance to anyone who wasn’t already a disciple in the entire New Testament.
But, as far as that goes, even a direct encounter with the resurrected Jesus is no guarantee of faithfulness. Just look at our gospel lesson: the disciples have seen him twice already since his rising from the dead, and yet they’re still surprised! To be fair, time has passed, the wonder of that extraordinary week after Easter has dissipated, and the disciples are settling back into normal life. And why not? He rose from the dead, proving his power and his divine favor, and appeared to them, blessing them with his Spirit, just as he promised. It was over, and Jesus had won! And so, the disciples do what soldiers of any war do when the war is over: they go home to try pick up their lives where they left off, and look forward to the occasional reunion when they can reminisce with the only people who really understand what they’ve experienced.
Our lesson describes one such reunion of some of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee: Peter and the disciples deciding to go fishing but not catching a single fish all night; the figure on the shore telling them to try the other side of the boat; the sudden bulging of the net as it fills with fish as soon as they obey him; the race between Peter and the boat for the shore; the table already set with bread and fish as Jesus graciously anticipates their need and blesses them with abundant food to sustain them once again. And they were going to need his sustenance. In rising from the dead, Jesus had won, but it was definitely not over, and following Jesus would not be easy. In fact, sometimes it would demand a high price. Of the disciples you see there sitting there around the fire, laughing and talking and eating with Jesus, several of them would die proclaiming Christ’s saving Lordship to their last breath, including Nathanael (who scoffed at Jesus), Thomas (who doubted Jesus), and Peter (who denied Jesus). Clearly, the power of Easter does not establish that all is now right with the world and everyone will live happily ever after.
But you knew that. As Christians, we believe that the powers of sin and death were defeated on Easter morning, but we also know they have not yet surrendered. We’ve seen that in just the last two weeks since we celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Our neighbors at Iglesia Pentecostal de Bethlehem were attacked twice by an arsonist who once belonged to their own church. Yet another radical white supremacist with an assault rifle opened fire on people at a synagogue, this one identifying as a Presbyterian. And another gunman, for still unknown reasons, burst into a classroom at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, killing two students and wounding four.
But Christianity has a practice of responding to the ongoing efforts of sin and death to make us forget about the truth of Christ’s resurrection: it’s called martyrdom. But as you may remember me saying before, martyrdom, in Christian terms, is not actually about dying for your faith. The word martyr means “witness,” one who testifies to the truth that they have seen and experienced (see note below). In Christian circles, martyrdom became synonymous with dying for the faith because that was often the result of witnessing about Jesus Christ when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. But it was the faithfulness that was the point, not the dying.
And Jesus knew that from the beginning. He did not simply invite those disciples who would die for their faith to sit with him by the fire and be fed by him. Also sitting around that fire were three unnamed disciples: the one described as “beloved” by Jesus, and two others about whom nothing more is said. All of them experience Jesus’ gracious presence; all of them receive Jesus’ gracious gifts. And all of them would be witnesses who respond when Jesus tells them, “follow me!” For some, following Jesus will lead them to testify dramatically to their faith, resulting in persecution and death; for some, following Jesus will lead them to testify to their faith through the day in, day out work of being human. But all will follow, and that, after all, is what Jesus asks of them.
As I stood in that conversation in coffee hour about the people asking, “have you been saved?” Miss Leslie suddenly spoke up. “They came at me the other day,” she said, “and I told them the truth. When they said, ‘have you been saved?’ I said, ‘yes, I have.’ And when they said when, I said, ‘Every single day.’” Miss Leslie understood Jesus did not die and rise again to create a hierarchy of faith between those who encounter him suddenly, vividly, and dramatically, and those who gradually grow to recognize his power and presence in their lives.
And even more importantly, Miss Leslie understood that if every single day is an opportunity for us to witness to Christ’s saving love, that means that Christ’s saving love is at work in us and through us every single day, and that is the most important ministry we can exercise. Few, if any, of us will be called to be faithful unto death; but all of us are called to be faithful unto life, witnessing to God’s gracious love occasionally in the extraordinary events of our day, but always in the everyday-ness of our lives. There is no moment in our lives that is too big or too small for God to be present and at work. So come to the table to meet the risen Lord once again, whatever road has led you here this day, and whatever path you will take from here, because we too are going to need his sustenance for the work before us. And also join in our final prayer of “even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come” after communion with new conviction, that the promise disclosed in Jesus Christ may finally be fulfilled: “death shall be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more….see, I am making all things new.” Alleluia! Amen.
NOTE: The Greek word is martus, and it means a witness to facts in a legal sense. The “witness” gives binding, truthful testimony to facts to which she has knowledge, either events experienced first-hand or persons or relationships known to her. See the article on martus in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, eds. G. Kittel and G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 474ff.