Opportunity Nearly Missed 3rd Sunday of Easter Pastor Pat Mecham
Acts 9: 1-20 May 1, 2022 John 21: 1-19
Our flight from Paducah, KY to Minneapolis had been delayed, so we got to the gate for our next flight just in time to see it pulling away from the terminal. Rats! I found myself wishing that I had spoken to the flight attendant, requesting that she radio ahead and ask the folks to hold the plane for us. But she was in a foul mood, and I couldn’t bring myself to make that request—so I missed that opportunity and we had to wait for another flight!
In the grand scheme of things, this was a pretty minor thing compared to the opportunities that you and I have missed out on. We fail to act, and we miss out, and we groan about it.
But our scripture readings today have two examples of opportunities that were nearly missed. Peter went out fishing with some of the Apostles—or perhaps I should refer to them as disciples?—because they were certainly not acting like those who have been sent out on a mission! And Jesus came to them and gave them another chance to be Apostles. Then, in Acts, we hear the story of the conversion of Saul (who would later adopt the Gentile version of his name, “Paul.”) Within that story is the story of Ananias, one who almost missed out on an opportunity to change the world! Let’s take a look.
Going Fishing (for fish, not people)
First, I want us to remember what happened back in Luke 5. Early in his ministry, Jesus had stepped into Peter’s boat in order to address the crowd that had gathered by the lakeshore. Afterward, he said, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter informed him that they had been fishing all night and hadn’t caught anything—but, because Jesus said so, he would let down his nets. And they caught SO MANY FISH that the nets practically split! Peter fell at Jesus’ knees, but Jesus told him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And he (and the other fishermen) followed him.
Now, fast-forward to our text in John. The Resurrected Jesus has appeared twice to the disciples in the Upper Room, and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But in today’s reading, Peter has said, “I’m going fishing,” and some others have said, “We will go with you.” They fished all night and caught NOTHING. (Sound familiar?)
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the shore and called to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” And they gave him the shortest answer in all of scripture, “No.” So he said, “Cast the net to the starboard side of the boat, and you will find some.” They did, and caught 153 big fish! When they came ashore, Jesus already had some breakfast ready for them.
After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter 3 times, “Do you love me more than these?” And three times, Peter said that he did. And each time, Jesus reminded him to care for the sheep.
It seems to me that Peter and these others had reverted to their old lifestyle, fishing for fish. Jesus was there to remind them of who they were (Apostles), and what their true calling was—fishing for people, caring for the “sheep.”
They might have missed their opportunity—but, by the grace of God, they didn’t.
Here I Am, Lord (Ananias in Acts)
Our reading from Acts comes from a time 2000 years ago when the Christian faith was facing some very serious persecution. Last week, we heard how the Apostles had been told to stop teaching in the name of Jesus—and they kept doing it anyway! Then, in the passage leading up to today’s reading, a man named Stephen (described as one full of God’s grace and power) was chosen to be one of the first Deacons—and Stephen ended up getting arrested. At his “trial,” he witnessed POWERFULLY to all the members of the Sanhedrin. But, instead of responding positively to his message, they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him to death. In order to throw their rocks better, they took off their outer garments and laid them at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul.
Stephen prayed for those who were killing him, and then died. “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”
In today’s passage, we read that the high priest authorized Saul to travel to Damascus (Syria), find Christians, and bring them back in chains. His group had to travel 135 miles—plenty of time for Saul to reflect on his mission, time to think about all that had happened since his arrival in Jerusalem.
Now, it doesn’t say so in the text, but I have to assume that part of Saul’s thoughts went back to the stoning of Stephen. He was there, watching the whole thing, hearing Stephen pray, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In my thinking, I picture Saul traveling the long road to Damascus, thinking and praying and making sure he was doing God’s will.
We don’t have any record of the things Saul was struggling with on that long, dusty road. But a battle was brewing—a battle for Saul’s very soul!
After his encounter with the Resurrected Christ, Saul was led blindly into Damascus. For three days he didn’t eat or drink, but just prayed.
Enter our hero, Ananias! He had heard that Saul was coming to arrest him and all his Christian brothers and sisters, so he hesitated when God instructed him to go and lay his hands on him and pray for him. (He almost missed this incredible opportunity!) God told him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”
Friends, think about what was hinging on Ananias’s decision! What would our faith look like today if Saul had NOT been healed, if he had not become the Paul we know as spreader of the faith and writer of much of our New Testament?! And more importantly, Who is God battling for TODAY? Who is it that will have an incredible impact on the world once the battle is won?!
The most beautiful part of this story is when Ananias goes to Saul, lays his hands on him, and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” His sight is restored, he is baptized, and eventually he proclaims Jesus in the synagogues as the Son of God!
I want to finish today with a tragic story about missing an opportunity. In the 13th Century, the Empire of Mongolia spread all across Asia and into Europe. Kublai Kahn was Emperor, and Marco Polo’s father and uncle—merchants from Venice—spent years there, in a favorable relationship with the Kahn. Kublai’s mother was a Christian from Syria (no doubt a spiritual descendant of Ananias and Company), and the Kahn was interested in having Christianity taught to his people. He asked the Polo brothers to take a letter to the Pope, requesting 100 teachers from the Vatican to come to Mongolia for this purpose. They delivered the letter in 1269.
WHAT AN OPPORTUNITY! Spreading the Gospel to this huge and powerful empire could have had such an impact! But the Pope was afraid to risk sending that many teachers. So he sent 2. Yes, 2. Talk about an opportunity missed! Most of modern China and much of modern Russia was included in that empire. Just imagine 100 missionaries, welcomed by the Emperor! What kind of impact might they have had on that region, and on world history?!
Well, here’s a story with a better ending. In 1831, four men from the Nez Perce Tribe arrived in St. Louis to ask the Presbyterian Church to send teachers to help them understand God’s book. The church responded by sending Dr. Marcus and Mrs. Narcissa Whitman, and Rev. Henry and Mrs. Eliza Spalding who traveled many harsh miles to bring the gospel to the Nez Perce and the Cayuse. Despite many difficulties, the faith was established and thrives to this day. (The oldest Presbyterian church in the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest is in Kamiah, ID, in Nez Perce country.) To supplement the people’s diet, they introduced potato farming. And, to broaden their economy, they introduced sheep. And the rest is history!
Where is God calling you to serve? And what opportunity is there for you to either choose or avoid? I hope you will say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”