Sermon: Mirepoix Sunday, 5th May 2019
‘Who are you?’
For Paul, it was a natural enough question. He was a man on a mission, fired up with righteous zeal but something or someone had unexpectedly thrown him from his horse. There would have been a split second when, in fury, he may have bellowed, ‘What the blazes!’ or some choice expletives since deleted from the official account. But then, picking himself up from the ground, still dazed, shaking his head from side to side in an attempt to get his vision back, he hears the voice: it’s someone who knows him by name.
‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Some instinct tells him that behind that voice is a figure worthy of respect. He listens and is given his instructions.
The writer of Acts makes sure we know that Paul’s companions also heard the voice. This is not an internal experience. These men, travelling with Paul, are probably little better than hired thugs, employed for the purpose of rounding up, arresting and transporting any Christians they find back to Jerusalem. These will not be sensitive souls. Yet no-one, it seems, does anything but obey the directive to take Paul to Damascus. No doubt the fact that this vigorous, forthright young man has been rendered blind and has to be led by the hand, has left everyone feeling a touch vulnerable.
When Jesus appeared to a handful of disciples on the shores of Lake Tiberias, ‘Who are you?’ was the question that no-one dared ask. The explanation for this bears all the hallmarks of a first-hand witness statement. ‘How did you feel when you saw Jesus,’ these disciples would have been asked. They do not trot out the sort of answer we might expect – the sort of response we hear from people who are being interviewed having just met some high-profile celebrity: ‘Couldn’t believe it. Just so over-awed. They were so natural. It was incredible. Like the best day of my life. Something I won’t ever forget. It was great.’ Instead, we get a very honest reaction from these disciples: ‘We knew it was Jesus but, at the same time, we couldn’t really believe it could be. We wanted to ask him who he was but it didn’t seem right to. It would have looked like we doubted him.’
I think that these two passages have enormous relevance for us. Like Paul and the disciples at the lakeside, we are living in a post-Resurrection era. Jesus has had his earthly life and he has died. For a forty-day period he made himself manifest to his close disciples, in ways we cannot really imagine, exhibiting a human body (on one occasion at least, complete with its wounds) which could appear and disappear in some supernatural way. Then after that limited transition phase, began the era which we share with Paul. These are ‘the last days’ in that there is no longer anything else humankind needs to have revealed. Enough now has happened for us to make sense of how things are and our place in the extraordinary phenomenon that is Life on Earth.
And with Paul, I think it is wholly natural that we should continue to ask the question, ‘Who are you?’ and variations on that theme: questions like, ‘What precisely do you stand for?’ and ‘How, precisely, do I fit into whatever pattern you have devised?’
It is reassuring that these episodes (on the road to Damascus and on the shore of lake Tiberias) with that voiced or unvoiced question ‘Who are you?’ directed at Jesus, both conclude with instructions, with guidance.
For Peter, there is the slightly cryptic instruction from Jesus to feed his lambs and look after and feed his sheep. Whilst it might not have been immediately clear to Peter who or what the lambs and sheep are, there is no doubt that what he is being asked to do is to tend and care for others. And this is reinforced by the fact that every instruction follows a declaration of love. From love for Jesus flows care for others. That is unambiguous. The final instruction, again following something which is almost a riddle, is ‘Follow me’. Peter cannot physically follow Jesus; they are no longer in the same dimension, but he can follow Jesus’ example and live as he lived.
Paul’s experience is not quite the same. First of all, Jesus identifies himself uniting the Old Testament phrase associated with God, the ‘I Am’, with his own name. “I am Jesus”. For Paul, the pharisee, this is a clear enough statement that the Jews’ God and the man Jesus are indeed one and the same. Jesus then gives Paul three days to digest what has happened to him. His instructions are simply to go to Damascus and wait.
For Paul, this must have been utterly disorienting. He has gone from fiery self-confidence to complete vulnerability and an enforced passivity. All he can do is wait. But we are told that he also fasts and prays, turning this time of stasis into something with a different dynamic. He sets out to understand what is in store for him by concentrating solely on aligning himself to God’s purpose. And then he is ready for the arrival of Ananias who is able to restore his sight.
This – the lifting of Paul’s blindness – happens after three days and I think we are expected to make the connection between the shock that threw Paul from his horse, frustrating his self-determined course, and the crucifixion; between the restoration of his sight and Jesus’ Resurrection. There is a pattern – a three day block of time – here.
Incidentally, the episode on the shores of Tiberias was the third time that Jesus had appeared to the disciples after his death. The conversation with Peter also takes the form of three questions and three instructions.
I don’t think there is anything mystical in the number three but I do think the writers of these accounts understood how to use patterns to attract the reader’s attention. The repetition of three helps to point up the significance of what’s going on. There is pattern. And, where there is pattern, there is likely to be meaning.
When I ran a school – a Church of England comprehensive in South London – I was keen to cultivate an environment where looking for meaning was encouraged. We invited anyone who wanted to, to come along and explore ‘meaning of life’ ideas. Many I wanted the pupils to feel comfortable asking the question, ‘Who are You?’ Many of these children had been brought up in enthusiastic Christian homes where the questioning of anything other than a literal acceptance of what they read in the Bible would have been regarded as apostasy and punished. I firmly believe that everyone, and young minds in particular, should be given a secure space to express doubt, to question, even to rebel. Blind acceptance, unquestioning adherence can lead so easily to lip-service and hypocrisy. It is really important, to my mind, that each of us can ask the question, ‘Who are you?’ and not feel that we are teetering on the edge of the pit.
To question and to probe is essential, isn’t it, if we are to understand how we fit into the pattern? I am reassured by the fact that Jesus’ words to Peter verged on the cryptic; at best they were metaphorical. What he said about putting on his own belt, having a belt put on him by someone else and stretching out his arms, to my mind, does not immediately translate into an indication of how Peter was going to die. That is an interpretation, dropped in by the writer of Acts, many, many years later. For Peter, were those words simply to carry no meaning until he found himself confronted by an imminent death? Surely, he would have been wrestling with their significance almost every day of his life. He would be forever trying to tease out their meaning, hoping they would shed more light on precisely how he was to fill the role assigned to him.
To doubt and to question is not a failing nor is it a weakness. It is an honest acceptance of our human condition. And it is wonderfully illustrated in the disciples’ hesitancy when they clambered from their fishing boat and saw that man on the shore, with breakfast on the go. They knew it was Jesus but they still wanted to ask him who he was. If that response of theirs was valid, even when confronted by the figure of their resurrected Lord, surely it can be no less valid today, two thousand years later, living (as we do) in far more complex social structures, exposed to far more powerful, sophisticated, and insidious influences.
There is, of course, a danger that we ask this valid question but do not then listen for an answer, nor indeed wait for one.
Both these episodes help us understand what makes for an appropriate mind-set for listening. Critically, there has to be humility. Any confidence Peter might have felt, charging through the shallows to be the first to link up again with Jesus, was knocked back by having his love questioned not once but three times (no doubt reminding him of that other time, not so long before, when he repeatedly denied knowing Jesus.) Similarly, Paul’s self-appointed righteousness and his unwavering belief in his own course was also flattened, reducing him to helplessness.
Instead of listening for God, there is a danger that we block our ears to only that which we want to hear. Creating God in our own image is a perpetual danger. It certainly is for me and that is why I invariably tag the Gethsemane prayer, ‘Not my will but thine be done’ onto anything I pray for. When praying the question, ‘Who are you?’ and its sister, ‘Who am I?’, it’s important to have the humility which opens us up to some surprising answers.
In addition to humility, there also has to be patience. It may take years, perhaps a life-time of listening to hear an answer. That’s understandable. Haven’t we all, at some point or other, said something along the lines, ‘I’m not going to talk to you until you’ve calmed down’ or ‘Let’s discuss this when we’re in a better frame of mind or less tired’? We know, don’t we, that under certain circumstances, listening and hearing don’t happen? There can be distortion and a lack of perspective. Why then would God want to confound us with important revelations when we are not ready to listen, when we are still burdened by the baggage of childhood conditioning or later scarring, emotional damage, or deep-rooted, self-centred preoccupations and worries? For some of us, it can take for ever to clear these obstacles away. And, I suspect, for most of us, we never fully succeed in reaching a place where we are perfectly attuned to God’s influence.
I have a feeling that humility and patience are qualities seriously at odds with much of what we might call Western culture. Much of the social media, Instagram, ‘selfie’ revolution is all about ‘look at me’, ‘admire and envy!’ And the pace of life, for many, is frenetic with few opportunities to stop, step back and reflect.
So, while we try to cultivate the virtues of humility and patience within ourselves, we also have a responsibility, I think, to combat those aspects of our culture which are hostile to these virtues. We learned several hundred years ago that the sun does not revolve around the earth. We now have to understand that the earth does not revolve around us, neither us as a species nor me as an individual.
One metaphor which I find helpful, and which I have referred to a few times this morning, is that of a pattern: the sort of thing, perhaps, that provides the design for an exquisite Persian rug. It is for each of us to find the area on that rug for which we are responsible and make sure that we knot in threads of the right colour and texture. The choices we make could enhance or mar the overall effect and might influence, for good or ill, the choices of others, tying-in their own threads on either side of us. Making that choice, playing our full role in weaving the extraordinary work of art which is this world and all life upon it, is our life’s work.
And at the end of our time, call it heaven, there will be revealed, most certainly, the answer to that humble question, ‘Who are you?’