Easter 3, Year C
Feed my Sheep, Lead my Church
May 1, 2022
About 30 years ago, I was a center director for Jenny Craig Inc.
It was the nineties, and you may recall it was the era of “leadership empowerment.” Jenny Craig sent us directors to leadership seminars, offered incentive rewards and assigned motivational books to inspire us to inspire our staff. I remember that one time, the company sent us to a Tony Robbins rally at Key Arena. Honestly, it was fun. The energy was electrifying, the music was loud, and the message was, “Come on, you guys. Be successful like me. Get off your butts and go make a difference in your life and the world.” I only remember two specific lessons from that event: one, if you have credit card debt pay it off and start saving money (good advice, really), and secondly, if sweetheart dumps you, don’t be sad, just say, “Who’s next?”
Jenny Craig Inc. also hosted monthly and quarterly positive empowerment gatherings for all their center directors. At our monthly director meetings, we were obligated to participate in a variety of leadership training exercises. The one that comes to mind involved a long rope with the ends tied together to form a giant circle, and 14 blindfolded directors, standing in a parking lot, each holding a piece of the rope so that we too formed a circle. The goal of this exercise was to communicate and accurately direct one another to transform the circle we were currently standing in into a four cornered square shape.
After some confusion and anarchy, both of which I hate, I took the lead. I had a vision. I had a mission. I was sure of myself and quite directive. So self-assured and so directive that even the observing regional directors believed I would get those fourteen directors into a perfect square.
I did not.
When the exercise was over, we formed neither a square nor a circle. But my bosses were amused by my spunky determination and misdirected confidence.
The point is, I thought I was right. I believed in myself and my ability to lead. But in the end, I was terribly wrong.
When I took off my blindfold and saw the crazy concoction I had produced, I was shocked by how misguided I was by my own perception of reality. I remember feeling embarrassed and foolish. And yet, after that misadventure, my peers and bosses took notice. They could have I got more training opportunities and even a special day in my honor. Honestly, they had a ‘Donna Hallock Day.’
“Thank you for calling Jenny Craig, It’s Donna Hallock Day. How can I help you?”
So today I want to talk about Paul. Peter also. But mostly Paul.
Paul is not reported to have killed anyone, but is reported in Acts chapter 7, to have been an approving eyewitness to the stoning of Stephen. And while he was and remained a faithful Jew, his words were venomous against followers of Jesus. So, from the preceptive of Jesus followers, he was a villain. And yet, Acts chapter 7, states that Stephen singled him out and forgave him, and Jesus came to him in a flash from heaven on the road to Damascus to transform and save him.
What did Paul do to deserve this special attention?
What about? “Your faith has healed you.”
What about? “Ask and you shall receive.”
Let us leave those questions in the air for a minute.
I struggle to relate to Paul. But in many ways, I relate.
I relate to Paul’s single-minded determination and his self-assured sense of purpose. I can relate to his amazement at being chosen despite his past missteps.
I think we can all relate to Paul in that we know what it is like to find ourselves ignorantly misdirected, a tad over-confident or even, on-occasion, profoundly wrong.
Most importantly, like us, Paul was called to apostleship not because he was good, or smart, or for his writing skills and leadership potential. While all these may have been true, he was chosen simply because he was loved and needed.
Jesus was not answering Saul’s prayers that day, nor acknowledging Saul’s faith. Jesus saw something significant in Paul, the way my Jenny Craig bosses saw something special in me.
Just as Jesus instructed Peter in today’s Gospel to be a Shepard and Jenny Craig groomed me for leadership in the nineties, Jesus transformed Paul on the road to Damascus to be a community organizer for God’s fledgling church.
Much has been explored and written about Paul in the past 2,000 years, and yet according to James Tabor Paul remains in many ways a mystery. But we all have our own ‘Road to Damascus’ experience. And we all have that moment in life when we took off our blindfolds to see the mess we unintendedly created. These are our God stories.
How do we reconcile and learn from Paul’s experience and subsequent conversion in Acts:9, with Peter’s three-fold affirmation of love for Jesus in John 21?
One was converted; and the other had his faith restored.
What of us?
Does our call to faith compare?
In both Acts 9 and John 21, Jesus appears. In both situations the witnesses are confused, conversely knowing, and yet not knowing the man standing in front of them.
Paul is blindsided for sure.
But like us, Peter and the men in the boat already experienced Easter. This is the third time Jesus has appeared after the resurrection, but even so they did not recognize him.
Like Paul, these guys are out doing their business. they are back to their regular lives, fishing.
Unlike Paul, these seven are already disciples, but like Paul they are far from perfect.
In the boat is Thomas who doubted; and Nathanel who famously said, “Can anything decent or good ever come out of Nazareth?
And then we have John and James who once notoriously asked their mother to ask Jesus for special status beside of Jesus in the Kingdom.
Frankly, that one is kind of cringy.
And Jesus loved them all.
As you and I can relate, it took them all awhile to get use to the comings and goings of Jesus.
The Gospel of John Speaks to our hearts that the Risen Lord was not only among Paul and Peter and Thomas and Nathanel and the others, but He is among us today.
Jesus confronts us, calls us, forgives, and loves us.
Paul persecutes and Peter betrays. Both are forgiven. Better than forgiven, and interestingly, neither asked to be forgiven.
Both were called to specific missions. Both experienced God’s love and knowledge of the Kingdom.
Paul’s mission to be an instrument to bring Jesus to Gentiles and kings.
Peter’s mission is to “feed my sheep.”
Again, Paul and Peter never said, “Oh, I’m sorry, please forgive me.”
So, the key here is not in forgiveness. The key is in God’s amazing immeasurable capacity for loving us.
Every human is born into this world with a deep and lasting hunger for love, recognition, and acknowledgement. We long to be truly seen.
We love each other to the best of our abilities.
We maintain God’s church, we feed the hunger and we love our neighbor. We recognize, mentor, and encourage young people to reach their potential. We are called to servanthood, and we do our best to fulfil our missions.
But it is when Jesus sees us and loves us that we are fully satisfied. It is when we love with that One Love that we heal this broken world.
As St Augustine says, “Our hearts will never rest until they rest in Thee.”
Paul was ridiculously bad, and Peter was terrible too. Like us sometimes their behaviors were unforgivable. God reaches down beyond whether we are worthy of forgiveness and forgives and loves us anyway.
Paul and Peter’s experiences taught them that forgiveness comes from grace, that nobody is worthy of being forgiven and all are forgiven.
It is as if Jesus was saying, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You do not have to do penance, you don’t have to be on your knees, you don’t have to cry for my forgiveness, for I have loved you from the beginning, and I will be faithful and true to that love for as long as we are together.”
This week we can stop worrying about whether we can forgive the trespasses of other’s and just be love in the world. Just act in love and speak in love. And at least once a day breath in the grace that is that great love.