The Journey of Faith
A sermon on John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-20 [for an audio recording of the sermon, click here]
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God's goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.
I invoke your “journeys of faith” every week at the start of my sermons, but it occurs to me that I don’t often take the time to explain what I mean by that. A journey, of course, implies movement – travelling from one place to another. And when we talk about a journey of faith, we are recognizing that faith is not a static thing. Faith is not a simple assent to a set of belief that locks you in one place for the rest of your life. Rather, in the life of faith we move, sometimes in good directions sometimes maybe in more dangerous and destructive directions, but when we live lives of faith, we are moving with the trust that God is walking along beside us, and that God is calling us to follow a good path, a path that will transform our lives, and through us – in some way – the world.
Our brother, Martin, is taking an important step on his journey of faith today. In just a few minutes, we will all join in the sacrament of his baptism. We get to witness the promises of God’s grace, embodied in water, claiming Martin as God’s beloved child.
I often talk about the font as our starting place in the journey of faith, because this is where we get marked with the cross of Christ and initiated into the church, the body of Christ. But, really, the journey doesn’t start at the font. Because God is present in our lives well before that water ever touches our heads.
Martin has shared with us this morning a little about his journey of faith so far, and it is very clear that God has been walking with him for a long time. And I hope his witness can remind us all to look for the ways that God is continuously working in our lives too. Because baptism is an important step on the journey of faith, but it’s not the only one.
Wherever we all are on our journeys of faith today, God is there – to welcome us, and also to keep moving us along on the journey.
Our readings from the lectionary today offer us two other stories of journeys – those of Simon Peter and of Saul – and these stories show us the ways that God meets these men where they are in order to get them moving in the right direction.
Let’s look at the gospel reading first: The “journey” part of this story might not be obvious, but the location of the little night fishing trip tells us that Simon Peter has moved. We last saw the disciples hiding out in Jerusalem, but now Simon Peter is back in Galilee… back on a fishing boat… back in his old life.
His journey hasn’t just been geographic. He has also backtracked in his identity. In Jerusalem, Jesus commissioned the disciples “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). But Simon Peter doesn’t seem to believe that he is really sent. Unless, maybe, he thinks he’s been sent home, like a dog with his tail between his legs.
His journey back to Galilee makes sense if he is acting out of shame … shame for his failure, for his denials both of Jesus and of his own identity. Jesus had given Simon an identity when he gave him the new name of Peter, which means “rock,” but he had not been strong or solid when Jesus was arrested. And in this scene no one seems quite sure whether he should be called Simon or Peter now.
That retreat back into the life of Simon makes a lot of sense to me. When we feel unsure of who we are, or ashamed of what we’ve done, our instinct is often to go back to what’s familiar, what we know how to do. It may not be inspiring, or even very fruitful – the disciples don't catch any fish that night – but when we are caught in shame it’s pretty hard to step out in faith. It’s hard to move forward on our journey when we believe we’ll only mess it up.
That’s one of the reasons why it is such good news that “wherever we are on our journey of faith…” Jesus show up there – in that place we actually are – but it's also good news that Jesus doesn’t leave us there.
Here’s how the SALT Commentary this week imagines Jesus’s welcome to Simon Peter and the other disciples on the beach in Galilee:
“I knew I’d find you here, back to your old habits, empty hopes and empty nets. You’re worried you’ve let me down, that you’ve been disqualified – but on the contrary you are the ones I’ve chosen. Do you really think I didn’t know your weaknesses when I called you? I knew you better than you knew yourselves, and I called you and taught you and sent you, and now I send you again. Stop thinking in terms of scarcity, of limitations, or what you can’t do! I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly – so think in terms of bounty, of opportunities, of what you CAN do (John 10:10). Look at all these fish, for God’s sake, filling the net to overflowing! Take courage, and go!”
It's a message of both comfort and challenge, and it’s also the message of our baptism: The message that brokenness in our lives does not disqualify us from God’s mission. We are cleansed at the font. We are made new, God’s beloved children. And no failing in our past OR in our future can change that.
And because of that – we are called to feed and care for God’s sheep. We are called to join in God’s work in the world through the covenant of baptism…
…to live among God’s faithful people,
…to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
…to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
…to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
…and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
That’s the journey into which we are baptized.
So, if your journey of faith has you stuck in old habits, or hiding in shame from God’s call on your life… Peter’s story is for you. You are called, and you are sent.
Sometimes, of course, we are at a more confident place in our journey of faith. Sometimes that confidence empowers us to be about God's work in the world. But we also have to be careful that it doesn't become selfconfidence. Because that can look more like Saul’s journey to Damascus.
Hopefully none of us are “breathing threats and murder,” but before we rush to judge Saul, I think it’s important that we recognize the sincerity of his motives. Saul was seeking to serve God, and to defend his faith against people he saw as a corruption and a threat.
As theologian Amy Oden writes, “Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.” From Saul’s perspective, the place he is in his journey of faith is on a godly mission!
But the danger of unquestioning self-assurance in our own rightness is that it can drive us to violence, and to the search for power. Saul has already overseen the mob-execution of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. He has embraced the path of violence in his mission. And today’s reading begins with his efforts to secure the power to extend his persecution to the church in Damascus.
But as he moves down that path, God interrupts him. Not just with the flash of light and booming voice from heaven confronting Saul with the truth of what he is doing. But also with an experience of vulnerability and dependence. Saul had started on this journey consumed with his own power, but he ends it blind, needing to be led by others, not even eating or drinking as he grapples with the complete reversal of everything he thought he knew.
His self-assurance has been replaced with the recognition of his own need… the need to be led. To be about God’s mission, not his own mission “for God.”
There’s a lesson in that reversal for us, as pastor Tim Brown describes:
“what does this Acts lesson tell us? It tells us to go back to the beginning, the font, the womb of Christ, where we hear who we are and whose we are. And, like babies, reliant only on God’s love and the love of others, we move through the world as ones sustained not by power or the powerbrokers, not by coercion or violence, but by the message of a God who would die before letting us believe that would get us anywhere in the end.”
The story of Saul calls us back to the font to recognize our dependence just as he did.
Because we can’t move forward in mission until we remember whose mission we are on… the journey of faith will call us to do powerful things, but to never be about our own power.
I don’t know where you all are on your journeys of faith. Most days It takes a great deal of attention and prayer and spiritual checking-in to know where I am! But our scriptures today, and the reminder of our baptism, can teach us all a few things about all of our journeys.
First, God will meet us where we are. Wherever we are.
And second, God will not leave us there.
Because when we are baptized into new life in Christ we are called to a journey that is about God’s work in the world. And God will keep showing up to lead us where we need to go.
Thanks be to God.
 Pastor Tim Brown, commentary for May 5, 2019 in ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters.