The Rev. Robert P. Hall
I am pleased to bring to you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Delaware, the First State. Those of us who live in Delaware, blessed by its location on the Delmarva Peninsula and beside the Atlantic Ocean, can think of a lot of areas in which our State is “first.” But in truth ours is the First State because it was the first of the original thirteen states to ratify the new United States Constitution, thereby forfeiting some of the individual sovereignty won in the American Revolution and committing instead to the collective good proposed by that document. There was no great competition to do this; the other twelve states were more than glad to let someone else be first.
In recent years, Delaware has adopted the slogan “It’s good being first.” Maybe now, but not then… For the men of eighteenth century Delaware who ratified the new Constitution, it was a bold step onto new ground and an extraordinary commitment to untested ideals. Yet they were ordinary people, called out of their everyday lives to take that bold step and, in this case, start a nation. We honor their courage and resolution on the original Delaware Day, which was December 7.
Let’s move from the first Americans to the first Christians. They, too, were ordinary people who had been called out of their everyday lives to take part in something new. Most importantly, they had been called to bear witness to our Lord’s Resurrection, the very event that makes them Apostles. In this last chapter of John’s Gospel, they have returned to Galilee, where they had been told that they would see the Risen Lord.
They were not a contemplative group, these men. They were working people, in this case, fishermen. And so they fished and it was while they were fishing that they recognized Jesus, who called to them. His call gave them the direction that they needed and their efforts were rewarded.
It is one of the great beauties of the Christian faith that God seeks us out in our everyday lives. We need not go to mountaintops. Where we are—Delaware, Washington, wherever—is fine. Just as he found those Apostles on the Sea of Tiberias and told them how to make good what they were doing, so does he find us wherever we are and, by his life, death and resurrection, show us how to make the most of our lives.
There is a good deal of debate taking place in this great nation over the role that religion has in everyday life, not just the lives of individuals but the lives of communities. How influential can religion be in our modern American society? It is a complex debate and surely one that goes beyond the simplistic phrase “separation of church and state.” While few would want a national church, encouraging people of faith to help the poor, the frail, the sick and others in the shadows of our society is surely in the interests of both the nation and the church, independent as each might be of the other. As one engaged in health and human services ministries, I marvel almost daily at the ability of individuals and groups from the faith communities to help the addicted, the unemployed, the homeless, the disenfranchised and the victimized. That wonderful Constitution that the early Delawareans ratified is in no danger from sincere believers who simply want to respond to their Lord’s having called to them in their everyday lives.
Now if the first point of this homily is that God finds us in those everyday lives, then the second point has to be that his finding us is sometimes not what we had planned. The reading from Acts talks about the conversion of Saul. Saul, too, was going about his everyday life and taking care of his own business, only his business at the time was persecuting our ancestors in the faith. So while the Lord got the attention of Peter and his companions by providing a bountiful catch, he got that of Saul by striking him blind. God then sends another brother called out of his everyday life, Ananias, to confirm Saul’s call and restore his wholeness. And the rest, as they say, is indeed history. Saul of Tarsus, having also born witness to the Risen Lord, now becomes the Apostle Paul, the chosen instrument of God to carry his Name before the nations.
It is important to notice that these stories do not have simple happy endings. God would tell Paul that he must suffer many things. And, had we read further in the Gospel, we would have heard how Jesus told Peter that he would be led where he would not want to go, a death that would glorify God. But the final point of this message is that while their stories might not have had happy endings their lives were by any index great successes. Peter and his companions and Paul and his companions—ordinary men who had been called out of their everyday lives—changed the world and changed it for the better. They took the Gospel to the center of their universe, Rome itself. And while both men met the martyrdoms that the Lord said they would, we know that their faith would take only about two hundred and fifty years—about the time that has elapsed since early Delawareans first ratified the Constitution—to triumph.
In both the Gospel and Acts readings, the stories end with our Lord setting a table for his Apostles, a breakfast feast for Peter and his companions and a restorative meal for Paul. And in a few minutes a similar invitation will be extended to us. But our Lord’s invitation will not be limited to our worship. It will come to us in our daily lives, perhaps to encourage, perhaps to admonish. But above all it will say to us what it said to those first, and eminently successful, believers, “You have seen and believed. Now, follow me.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.