“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Over the last 38 years I have done many funerals, and I think that by far the most popular hymn for the generation that died during that time has been “In the Garden.” It was written in 1912.
“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
It has seemed to me to be overly sentimental and even romantic, but this hymn captured something for a generation about what it feels like to be in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus. Marilynne Robinson writes that it is written in the voice of Mary Magdalene, and says “Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’ as well as Mary’s. They met as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world.”
So a generation of Christians was captured by the thought of joyful companionship with the risen Jesus, and they applied Mary’s experience to their own lives. Jesus is friend and savior, and you want to be close to him.
John describes a similar feeling in the meeting of Jesus and Peter on the shore of Lake Galilee. Peter does not seem to know what to do in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, so he goes home, and then he goes fishing. He is in familiar territory once again. He wants the world to feel normal, even boring. He would like to catch some fish. After a long night of unrewarded work, he comes ashore to enjoy the feeling of the warm sun in the new day, the great catch of fish provided by Jesus, a good breakfast on the beach that Jesus has cooked for the disciples – fish and bread over an open fire, and maybe some coffee. (To love this story you have to find the idea of a piece of fish for breakfast to be desirable.) And then, in this warm, blessed scene, Peter sits on a log with Jesus, and they talk.
But this is not just about feeling good in the presence of Jesus. There is in this moment a call to service, a call to feed sheep, to do something of eternal value. Peter is well fed, and forgiven. He is also sent into an entirely new life as a kind of shepherd of the people who will follow Jesus. When Jesus saves and heals us, he also calls us to a new life.
How different it was with Paul in his meeting with the risen Lord. It was not a walk in a garden, or a chat on a beach. The exalted Jesus calls to him while Paul is stricken blind by the glory of God. The words of Jesus seem harsh and demanding: “Why do you persecute me?” not “Do you love me?”
Saul and those of his mind have been wreaking havoc with the Christians in Jerusalem, forcing many of them to flee. Philip goes north to Samaria and has a very successful ministry there. So, rather than destroying the church, these leaders are actually spreading it. The Gospel comes all the way to Damascus, a large city 135 miles from Jerusalem. Paul is willing to walk there to try to stop the spread of faith in Christ, to actually bring the believers back to Jerusalem, to put the growing light under a bushel, the spilled Good News back into a bottle.
When the light strikes Paul, and the voice comes to question him, Paul knows what is happening, he has read scripture and knows very well about the light of the glory of God. He simply needs to know the identity of this heavenly being who questions him. Anthony Robinson writes that when he hears that it is Jesus, “he realizes that God made the crucified Jesus alive as Messiah and Lord.” Howard Marshall writes that “In Paul’s zeal for the cause of God, he had actually attacked the God who raised Jesus from the dead.” In persecuting the Christians he was persecuting the one who had been vindicated and upheld by God.
This leads to a three-day fast, a time corresponding to Jesus’ three days in the tomb, a time of prayer and the receiving of a vision of one who will restore his sight. What else went on in this time we are not told, but this is Paul’s “talk on the beach” with Jesus. It must have been a significant time, for as soon as he received his sight, he was baptized, and then it says in verse 20, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” So the crisis of losing his sight and seeing the one he had been convinced was a fraud, lifted up in glory, now becomes an opportunity for blessing, for salvation. In the three-day fast, Paul experiences the grace and closeness of Jesus, the friendship of Jesus. He writes in Romans 1:5, “We received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” This is the conversion of Paul, the forgiveness of Paul who was described in verse 1 as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” This is also the occasion of his call to serve Christ. Just like Peter, he receives a commission when he meets the risen Lord.
But why was his experience so different, why was he struck down and spoken to from above in an accusing way rather than being met along the way by Jesus providing breakfast? Is it possible that Paul needed to be humbled, broken, even rendered helpless, before he could “hear” the Lord?
I have been reading a biography of Thomas Edison. When Edison invented the phonograph, it was the first time people had ever heard a human voice come from a machine. It was said that many could not distinguish the words they were hearing. But if they were told what words would be spoken, then they could hear them plainly. So the brain has a great deal to do with our ability to hear. Something completely new can get lost; the brain does not know how to interpret it. In the same way, Paul, in his prideful soul, could not hear the Good News of Jesus. First he had to be broken, humbled, disoriented, so he could hear the words of Jesus and receive them with faith.
Peter Hawkins wrote a book called “The Language of Grace.” In it he says that conversion happens when we are able to transcend the demands of a self-centered life and gain a capacity to see beyond ourselves. As long as everything revolves around “me” we cannot hear the Lord, or respond in faith. So to get past this self-centered life, we must experience a type of “breakdown” or “disorientation.” Only then can we move to a spiritual “breakthrough” and “new orientation” of our lives. Paul had to be made blind and helpless in order to receive the grace of Jesus.
Some people come to faith through a crisis, an illness or an accident or a significant loss. Something takes place to break the shell of self centered living. Then they discover that they cannot control the world or their life, and they are able to look beyond themselves to the Savior. Anthony Robinson calls this “conversion to God’s way of salvation.” The time of feeling helpless or disoriented leads to a breakthrough, which is forgiveness.
The risen Lord meets us where we are in life, according to our need. Peter is like many people who feel lost, confused, overwhelmed in life, who may carry a wounded spirit, and Jesus meets them with very tangible love and acceptance. This is healing grace, the warmth of Christ’s love and the assurance of salvation. Jesus knows who needs such healing care. He meets you in the garden or on the shore, in the safe and familiar place where his love brings healing and salvation.
But others need to find Christ in a very different way, a way that may at first seem harsh. When pride and arrogance close our ears to the Lord, when a strong feeling of being “right” drives our lives into our Damascus journeys, we cannot feel the invitation to breakfast with Jesus. Our arrogance keeps us far from the quiet garden. It is then that we truly need a breakthrough. We must go through a time of feeling helpless, out of control, disoriented, so that we can regain a sense of hearing. This is the need of people today who are far from God and prideful in secular values and accomplishments. It will take humbling before hearing is restored. But the Risen Lord is able to meet this generation, and when he does, the scales will fall off of their eyes, and they will become like Paul, proclaiming Jesus the Son of God.
Do you know the Risen Lord? Do you trust his mercy? Do you cry out for his healing grace? Do you need to humble yourself, admit your lack of control, and listen for his voice? Whatever your situation in life, whatever you carry in your heart today, the Savior stands ready to save, to heal, and to draw you to himself.