Growing up, I was always a little jealous of people who had dramatic coming-to-Jesus testimonies. Especially during the late 80s and 90s, there seemed to be a lot of kids who gave up drugs and injurious sexual behavior when they realized the claim God had on them. Or maybe those were just the people who went to my youth groups. As they recounted Jesus filling them with so much love that they miraculously lost interest in their dangerous actions, my awe was always mixed with a little bit of envy. I didn’t have a great story. My family moved frequently, and a relationship with God was the one constant for me. I was too shy to ever get into much trouble. In other words, I was a church kid without a transforming story.
My story would have been completely out of place in the early church. Radical transformations were happening right and left. People pledged allegiance to the kingdom of heaven and paid the price, from social derision all the way to torture and death (Acts 7). Yet people still thronged to be part of a community that proclaimed the Son of God came to show us how to live and then died to free us from the powers of sin and death.
God has always been a God of redemption and good news. The early Christian community found new depth in the psalmist’s words: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from [the realm of the dead], restored me to life from among those going down to the Pit. … You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:3, 11). Amid all the turmoil in the eastern Mediterranean in the first century, the good news that Jesus had died and risen again, freeing captives to sin and death, was cause for rejoicing and transformed lives. This week’s lectionary passages tell two stories of thorough transformation.
No longer a man afraid, Peter would proclaim boldly the truth that he had experienced: Jesus transforms and redeems us, especially when we least deserve it.
The story of the miraculous catch of fish after the resurrection is one of my favorites. Jesus had been deserted by his friends in the face of a mob that had come to arrest him and a hastily convened Sanhedrin (the supreme council). Peter, the chief disciple, had denied Jesus publicly and, unlike the women who followed Christ, was not there at the cross. He must have felt like such a failure, a betrayer of his Lord and friend. So when Peter understood that it was Jesus on the shore calling to the disciples, it’s no wonder that he jumped out of the boat to try to race to his side (John 21:7).
Jesus then gave Peter the opportunity to affirm his love the same number of times his disciple had previously denied even knowing him. Jesus charged Peter to be the shepherd of Jesus’ flock in his absence. This reinstating of Peter took a man who thought of himself as a coward and a failure and transformed him back into Jesus’ chief disciple, who would bring glory to God through his own death by crucifixion (John 21:19). No longer a man afraid, Peter would proclaim boldly the truth that he had experienced: Jesus transforms and redeems us, especially when we least deserve it.
The story of Saul/Paul’s conversion also speaks to God’s transformative work through Jesus. After the murder of the sainted deacon Stephen, Saul breathed murderous threats against the disciples. He zealously persecuted Jesus’ followers, even requesting permission to travel to Damascus, round up any Jews who followed Jesus, and return them to Jerusalem for trial and/or extrajudicial killing (Acts 9:1-2). The power of Jesus transformed Paul, a supervisor of lynch mobs (Acts 7:58, 8:1), into one of the most important messengers of God’s love and forgiveness through the work of Jesus.
I may not have a radical conversion story like Peter’s or Paul’s. But I firmly believe that every day we are born again, and that God shows us the way from wailing to dancing and exchanges our sackcloth for joy. All of us have daily struggles and trials, and all of us will die. Jesus transforms us from sinners (even if those sins aren’t particularly exciting), on a hopeless march toward death, into children of God and inheritors of eternal life. I can’t think of a more drastic transformation than that.