One of the ways Christians have meditated on Scripture over the years is by putting yourself in the place of the people in the stories. Maybe you’ve done this as you’ve considered the story of the prodigal. Am I more like the younger or the older brother? Or in the account of Jesus’s visit to the house of Martha and Mary. Do you identify more with Martha who is doing all the chores or Mary, who is reverently sitting at the feet of the Rabbi?
It isn’t often or even ever, that I can remember, that I’ve asked of myself, “Am I more of a Paul or a Peter?” These two towering figures of the New Testament each have such rich stories and teaching associated with them. Mostly we focus on either one or the other. But once in the three year cycle of readings, we get this Sunday where the conversion story of Paul is read alongside the commissioning of Peter after he’s shared breakfast on the beach with Jesus.
For each man, the story is one of, if not the most significant event in each of their lives. Both encounter the risen Christ, who speaks directly with them. Both face turning points that mean their lives will never be the same. Both are given new names. Saul becomes Paul after his conversion and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock as Jesus has commissioned him. These are the origin stories of two towering figures of the Church. The great Vatican Cathedral is named for Peter and the famous London cathedral is named for Paul. They are the most prominent of the apostles.
And yet, each of these vital stories about how they received their new identity and purpose begins with shame—deep, crippling, run away and hide under a rock shame. Shame is the certainty that if people know this about me, I will be rejected, derided, pitied and abandoned.
Saul’s shame comes as a result of his arrogance, his certainty, and his self-righteousness. No one works harder than he does to do what is right. He is the straight A Torah student. He is the most devout defender of the faith. He is an up and comer who will overcome every obstacle to complete his mission. His zeal is so great that he seeks out and imprisons anyone found to be following the Way of Jesus. He plans to root out all support for the crucified, rabble rousing, blasphemous leader of this new sect. His future is bright and clear.
Until. Until he gets knocked down and blinded by a light from heaven and he hears Jesus asking him, “Why are you persecuting me?” He enters a world of shame and pain. He is completely vulnerable. He has to be led around by the hand. He cannot eat or drink. Everything he thought was right turned out to be wrong. Everything he took so much pride in turned out to be worthless. Instead of being in control, he was powerless. Instead of acting, he is waiting. His career has come to a sudden halt. His future is unclear.
And the person God chooses to lift him up, to care for him, to restore him to health and then baptize him was a simple disciple of Jesus, named Ananias. Ananias risks his own life and safety to approach and minister to the man who has terrorized him and the people he loves. God will use Ananias and Barnabas and countless other disciples who have far less learning and status than Saul to teach him, love him and bring him into the Body of Christ.
Peter’s shame runs just as deep as Paul’s but for different reasons. He knew and loved Jesus. He was the disciple who responded whole heartedly to anything Jesus asked. He was all in. He was present for all the major miracles, signs and wonders. He had been renamed Peter, the Rock and Jesus promised to build the church upon him. Right before Jesus’s death, Peter promised that he would never abandon him. Everyone else may turn away, he said, but I will never deny you.
Until. Until he did, not just once but three times. Imagine his shame. He can’t get over his weakness, the denials, and the self-incrimination. It seems like his shame keeps him from fully experiencing and rejoicing in the resurrection. He slinks away, back to Galilee. He goes back to fishing. When things don’t work out, he returns to what he knows even if it’s no longer fulfilling. At least it’s safe. At least he won’t screw this up. After everything we’ve heard from Peter in the gospels, there are no recorded words of his after the resurrection until he is interrogated by Jesus on the beach. He has gone silent.
Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times the risen Christ asks him “Do you love me?” It’s almost too much for Peter. You can hear his resignation and his implicit confession, “Lord, you know everything.” “You know everything about me.” “You know my heart, my failure, my desire, and my shame.”
Jesus does. He knows Peter’s heart and Saul’s nature and the very depth of our being. Jesus knows that we’d like to escape our shame, to run from it or hide away. We want to find a way to fix our lives and then to turn around and fix everyone else. We want to clean up the messiness and chaos around us and inside us. We believe that if we just work harder, gain more knowledge and data and apply ourselves, we will get all A’s, succeed, produce and raise great children, and live our best lives.
If you’ve ever heard or read the social science researcher, Brene Brown you know that her studies about shame lead her to a startling and unwelcome conclusion. Shame destroys connection with others and our best and true selves. And, the only way out of shame is vulnerability. In order to connect with others, we have to be seen. We need to be known, to be called by our own name and not the persona we try to create. It’s a terrific risk. We will face the death of the false self. We will have to uncover our wounds and to open ourselves to that which we cannot control.
And the only way, my friends, that we can do this is if we know and believe that we are loved and that we belong. The gift and assurance Jesus offers to Paul and Peter in the darkest part of their shame is that he sees them. He knows them. And he loves them. In spite of their failure and weakness, Jesus commissions them to a life of sacrificial love and wholehearted giving. This deep sense of being loved and belonging to Jesus gives them courage to proclaim the gospel even when they are persecuted, rejected and ultimately put to death.
Amazingly, this confident sense of being who they truly are allows them to let these stories be told over and over again. Their deepest shame is public record, which precedes them everywhere they go. Their sharing of the good news, their spreading of the gospel is grounded in their own vulnerability and authenticity.
Shame cuts us off from one another and from our own core. Shame can’t be numbed without numbing everything else inside. Shame can’t be controlled or projected onto others without devastating consequences. We can’t pretend that our shameful behavior doesn’t hurt others.
Shame can only be healed by connection, by honest reckoning, by forgiveness in a context of love and belonging. Shame is overcome when we understand that there is nothing that can separate us ultimately from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Did you notice that both Paul and Peter are welcomed and fed as part of their redemption? The mark of the Beloved Community of Jesus is that all of us are welcome at the table WITH our shame, failure, sorrow and wounds. Everyone is offered the body of the living Christ, food for the soul and the cup of new life. Connection is established at the table. Belonging begins with shared bread and wine.
When we know ourselves to be loved and accepted we can no longer project our shame in judgement of others. We no longer need to withhold compassion and forgiveness from ourselves or others. We are free, empowered and courageous to answer the call of Christ and to walk in his way.
After some reflection, I’ve decided that I am more of a Paul than a Peter. I prefer to be right and in control. It’s going to take getting knocked on my butt for me to acknowledge my weakness and stop trying to take charge of everything. Over and over it has been God’s grace in those who love and accept me in spite of myself that leads me into fullness of life. Often I find Jesus in those whose lives seem most unlike my carefully controlled and organized one. These are the ones who offer me forgiveness, compassion and belonging when I least expect it. And it is often at a meal, daily breakfast at the Edible Hope Kitchen, Thursday parish lunch or our Sunday feast at the altar, that I know myself to be loved for who I am, in spite of my many flaws and that I belong in this community of faith, hope and love.