One day in 1928, a young printmaker named Willard Clark was on his way from the East Coast to settle in California, when out of curiosity he stopped off in Santa Fe along the way. Like many before him, he never left, choosing to settle in northern New Mexico where he made himself into a renowned wood engraver and printer whose work is still highly valued as capturing something of the essence of this region. He printed, for instance, the daily menus for the Fred Harvey restaurant in the La Fonda hotel, which included drawings of the animals and people that made up the street scene around the hotel in Santa Fe.
Clark is part of a long tradition of people who have come to New Mexico to remake themselves. Some, like the painter Georgia O’Keefe, seemed to find their creative spirit especially stimulated by the imposing landscape. Others—like Mabel Dodge or D. H. Lawrence—came more to escape something oppressive, finding in the cultural diversity a sense of freedom and release. Some came for health reasons, seeking to find renewed physical strength in the dry air and abundant sunshine. Others came to invent something radically new in the secrecy of the desert, like Robert Oppenheimer and the other physicists of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos.
Some of us here today have likewise come to New Mexico from someplace far away, seeking a new life—perhaps as retirees, or adventurers, or like myself, as someone who has returned to something old and familiar yet entirely new and captivating all at the same time. Even for those of you who are natives, I think there is a sense in New Mexico that one is continually inventing oneself anew, influenced by the sheer expansiveness of the space and the complexity of the culture. At some level we all are shaped by being in New Mexico’s unique environment of—well, for lack of a better word … enchantment!
So as New Mexicans, we might find this morning’s lessons especially intriguing, because they tell stories about two individuals—Paul and Peter—who also radically remade themselves mid-stream in their lives.
In the first instance, the reading from Acts tells of the conversion of Saul, persecutor extraordinaire of the first Christians, into Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Saul’s hostility against the Christians, is suddenly reversed by his becoming one of them.
So the story is this: there’s Saul, walking one day along the road to Damascus (in pursuit of some Christians), when suddenly he is blinded by a bright light and a voice (the voice of the Lord) speaks to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He is directed to go into the city, where a Christian named Ananias then lays hands on him at the Lord’s command, and Saul receives back his sight. He then immediately desires to be baptized, and now as Paul he begins the new ministry to which he has been called as the instrument through whom the good news of Jesus will be brought beyond the Jewish community to the wider world of the Gentiles. From persecutor, he remakes himself as apostle, leaving his past entirely behind with what can only be called the zealous enthusiasm of a true convert.
Then in the gospel, we encounter Peter once again—poor Peter, the one who is still smarting emotionally after his three-fold denial of Jesus on the night before the crucifixion. But now, on the other side of Easter, the risen Jesus appears to Peter and the other disciples as they are fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, and he quietly invites them to join him for breakfast on the beach. At the end of the meal, Jesus turns to Peter (who must have been dreading this moment, fearing that now would be the moment of reckoning for his perfidy). But instead, Jesus simply asks him three times if Peter loves him. With these three questions, Jesus gives him the opportunity to set right the three denials, with three affirmations. And then based on this restitution, he commissions Peter to follow him—Peter, who in addition to Paul, will now remake himself from betrayer into one of the two greatest apostles.
So in each case—Saul’s conversion and Peter’s restitution—Jesus gives these two men opportunity to remake themselves, to move beyond what they had been, to what he is now calling them to become. And I think that there is a clear message in all this for us: we too have the potential to become something more than we have been, because Jesus is always opening up for us a future that holds the promise of something new. It’s like moving to New Mexico: a whole new world opens up before you, and you step into it with curiosity, amazement, and a sense of being transformed by the experience.
That in and of itself is good news, I suppose. But there is something deeper that amplifies the hope that is contained herein. In neither case—either Paul or Peter’s response to the risen Lord—does Jesus dwell upon their past, forcing them to reckon with who they were and what they did. Rather, Jesus simply takes their mistakes and blindness as a given, and then helps them to move on. It is as if he builds the new Paul and Peter on the foundation of their former selves, drawing out the raw material with which each of them will be transformed from within their former blunders. From Saul, Jesus takes his passion, enthusiasm, and thirst for righteousness—and turns it into evangelical zeal. From Peter, Jesus takes his intense though weak-kneed desire to be near Jesus (Peter was, after al, apparently always within earshot of Jesus, even while denying him, for Jesus turns to look at him when the cock crows)—Jesus takes that desire and turns it into the steadfast courage of an apostle whose life will from now on be centered in spreading the good news, even as far away as Rome.
And that, I think, is the true good news that these stories of conversion bring to us: Jesus can take us as we are—everything that we have done and everything that we are—and make something better and greater of us, if we put our trust in the path into which he calls us. And isn’t that the essential meaning of forgiveness, which is at the heart of the gospel? In effect, Jesus puts the same question to us that he put to Peter: “Do you love me?” And as we answer “yes” to that question by learning to love the Christ that is in each one of us, Jesus works in us that same transformation that came over Saul and Peter—perhaps not as dramatically or suddenly, but over time every bit as profoundly.
This Easter season in which we find ourselves, therefore, comes to us as an invitation to move on, to leave behind whatever it is that has held us back from becoming who we most fully can be. It is a time to remake ourselves, to encounter a vaster landscape of possibility than where we have previously been. Easter is, if you will pardon the rather awkward metaphor, a time to move to our own spiritual New Mexico.
So let’s be on our way. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016