Uncertainly certain

A breakfast on the beach – after an unsuccessful night of ‘fishing’.  This is what it’s like.  They are trying to ‘get on with life’.  They start by going back to what they know, and Peter, for one, knows fishing.  Whatever they expected to find – whatever they wanted to happen – this wasn’t it.  No fish, and a slightly familiar stranger offering advice from the beach.  The disciples are cautious (except Peter – Peter is never cautious) when it comes to this encounter; the text tells us that “…none of the disciples dared to ask him ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  Who else could it be?  How uncomfortable was this meeting?  It is an interesting situation; they are uncertainly certain.

And it seems that this is what it will be like to follow the risen Jesus; always sure of the one thing that will consistently bring doubt on every other thing.  They are sure that it is Jesus, which means their ideas about such fundamental things life and death – the very bedrock of knowledge that has sustained human culture since the beginning of culture – is now nothing more than sand.

So it is with Saul, who is so sure he is right, until he is struck blind.  He can see (and see clearly) until he can’t see anything.  This is what it’s like.

Sure that you know whom God has chosen, are you?  That’s great, until God chooses someone else.  Sure that you can share in the sufferings of your teacher and friend, are you Peter?  Except your nerve failed you, and you denied that you knew him.

But everything will be okay.  Saul will be transformed by his encounter – entirely reliant on the goodwill of those he once hunted down like criminals; he will become the apostle to the outsiders – the gentiles – to us.

And Peter is given his personal moment of redemption.  There on the beach, Jesus offers some fishing tips, prepares food for his hungry companions, and then walks Peter through his absolution, resulting in an admission of love for each vehement denial of that horrible, dark day.  This is what it’s like.

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We soak up the gospel accounts of the disciples’ early days – the bold steps taken and the miraculous results of their proclamation.  We are encouraged (some of us) by their initial hesitation, because it looks so familiar to us.  We are in awe of their commitment and their seemingly unquestioning devotion to ‘The Way’, but the truth is, questions abound!  Who is that on the beach…really?  Why do you doubt that I love you, Lord?  What is this vision that strikes me blind?  Why would God ask us to go to the aid of our persecutor?

Who are these faithful folk; these ancient witnesses who are so sure about the work of God in Jesus, and still cautiously curious about everything else?  These are not just asking First Century, ‘let’s get started’ questions – they are modelling for us the curiosity that is necessary for a lively faith in a living God.  This is what it’s like.

Questions.  Conversations.  Discussion and debate.  In the Reformed tradition especially, we are encouraged to pursue – together – an understanding of what the Spirit might accomplish in us, with us and through us.  As people of Word and Sacrament, we are encouraged to keep both tradition and our contemporary experience in in gentle tension as we worship, study and engage the world after Jesus’ example.  We are to possess the humility of those who are ‘uncertainly certain’ – an attitude described in Living Faith (9.2.1) which reads:

We should not address others in a spirit of arrogance,                                                          implying that we are better than they.
But rather, in the spirit of humility,
as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to life in Christ.

While it is true that this quote refers to our approach to those who belong to different religious traditions, it is worth hearing anew, as within our own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in Canada) we once again consider our stand on same-sex marriage, and the ordination of faithful folks who are found within the LGBTQ+ community…

Because this is what it’s like:

It’s like people taking irreversible positions and daring others to challenge them.  It’s groups of fearful, yet otherwise faithful people loudly demanding that, not only is change unacceptable, but the conversation about change must be avoided.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you – maybe there are bigger worries where the life of the faithful is concerned.  It’s quite likely that you’d rather hear that the denomination was more concerned with the current cultural attitude toward the church in general – but the culture’s attitude to the church is directly connected to the conversations we have (or refuse to have) about the constant collision between (theology) and the world.

+++++++++++

Peter and his pals could not separate their personal histories from the life-changing experience with (of) Jesus.  When they tried to ‘shake it off’ – to get back to life before (without) Jesus, there was Jesus on the beach – familiar; frustrating in his knowledge of their area of expertise; gently urging them to enter the struggle to reconcile life in the world and a hunger for the things of God.  Saul (who becomes Paul) will never be free of his personal history:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3: 4-7)

So Peter find’s pardon, and Saul loses his sight but is granted a vision – neither of these men would have gone much further on the journey without a willingness to consider the options and engage in conversations – sure of only one thing: Jesus is risen, and that puts every other thing – everything they had ever known – up for debate.  Our challenge as followers of Christ and children of the living God, is to face these challenging discussions with the right combination of courage and humility.

We have plenty to offer – nothing less than life in Christ; but it is a gift that spoils under the weight of certainty; one which must be delivered with the humility of those for whom the will of God is utter mystery; in whom there is nothing certain beyond the love of God, made known on the beach – on the road – in the world – in the midst of our questions and quarrels.  Amen.

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