Stories of love abound. We are drawn to them. They touch something deep within us. They make us laugh and cry. They are told and retold. They make for best-selling books like Chicken Soup for the Soul.
I would like to tell the stories of three very different people. These men could not have been more dissimilar.
One was an outdoorsman, a sportsman; one worked with his hands, a craftsman; and one an academician, a scholar.
One acted before he thought, one thought little of his brother, and one thought and reasoned with the greatest of intellectuals.
One was a hot head, one was insecure, and one was arrogant.
These three men while unique share one common thread. Each man crossed the path of the Savior who reached down to love them and altered their lives eternally. They experienced the power of love, and were changed forever.
Their stories echo the power of love and reverberate it back to those whose paths they crossed everyday.
Their stories, much like others who have felt the touch of God's love - his personal, powerful, and passionate love - are heartwarming and life changing.
I. The friend
". . . and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter) . . ." (1 Cor. 15:5).
I am a fisherman by vocation. My brother, Andrew, first brought me to Jesus. I followed Jesus around Capernaum as he taught in the synagogues and on the seashore. I soaked up his instructions and wisdom like a Mediterranean sponge. His teachings were awe-inspiring.
I walked with him on a part-time basis and fished the rest of the time until that day when my crew and I lumbered in after fishing all night without a single catch. Jesus was on the shore captivating his audience with his stories and interpretations of the Torah. The crowd was growing so large that all could not see nor hear, so he asked to use my boat to launch out from the shoreline. I obeyed his instruction, like a dutiful follower. Sitting at his feet while he held the throng spellbound, myself included.
After he finished with his talk, he requested that we row out into deeper water and let down the nets.* I tried to explain that the best fishing was done at night, not during the day. "The sun drives the fish down below the reach of the nets," I said. I wanted to add, You stick to teaching; I'll do the fishing, but I didn't.
Out of respect I complied.
And it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. We sailed out onto the sea, lowered the nets, and they jumped with life. The fish churned the water. The nets strained under the load of the catch.
I called for help.
And my spirit was awakened. This was no mere man. This was the Messiah. His dominion reached even to the depths of the sea. I trembled, falling at his feet.
With a single touch and a soft word, Jesus whispered: "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men."
My career as a fisherman was over. I left behind my business with its steady income, without looking back. I gave up the boats, the nets, and the fish. I gained Jesus.
I would follow Jesus anywhere. And I did.
I once confessed, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death. Even if others fall away, I won't. You can count on me."
Even the night he was betrayed by a friend - my friend, his friend - Judas. I followed from a distance. The hour was late. The air chilly. The night dark. I had followed Jesus all the way to the temple courtyard, where Jesus, under heavy guard, awaited his hearing. I came because Jesus came to me that day when I walked on the water to him. That night I was confused. Do I fight? Do I testify? Do I just watch and listen?
Under the anonymity of darkness, I warmed myself by a campfire. The talk around the campfire was about Jesus. Someone said he should have stayed in the furniture business. Another gave the odds of imminent death as One to One.
The situation was growing grave. Where are the others? Why aren't James and John here?
Before I could sort that out a servant girl pointed at me, "This man was with him."
Then, another accusation. Then, another. And with each came my denial. I swore hoping that my cover up would protect my identity.
But as I turned to leave, I heard a rooster crowing in the distance. Then I caught Jesus looking at me. That look is framed in my mind's eye. It was not a look of disappointment or disgust. It was a look of sympathy. Of one who knew the fiery darts of the Evil One.
In shame I ran away. Bitter tears stung my eyes. The weight of my guilt overwhelmed me. I screamed: O God, no. What have I done? Turn back the night. Give me another chance. Please, God, can I replay that moment?
I cried until I was numb.
My actions were ever present like a stuck recording. I couldn't get them out of my mind. The knowledge of Jesus' death, that horrible crucifixion, only made the matter worse. On Sunday, the first day of the week, word came that the stone in front of the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus laid the dead body of Jesus had been rolled away. Quickly and as fast as I could, I ran to check it out. It was true. The stone had been rolled away. His grave clothes lay inside. But there was no body. What did it mean?
Trying to sort out the events of the last few days, and to ease the pain in my heart, I decided to go fishing with John. It had been almost three years since I had fished. It felt good to breathe the sea air, to feel the sunshine on my back, and to have the wind blowing my hair.
I mechanically went through the motions of throwing the net into the water, while my mind rehearsed my denials of my friend. I heard my curses. When he needed me the most I turned my back on him. I saw his look. That look. I'll never forget that look.
Then I heard a familiar voice: "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will catch some fish." The words jostled a sleepy memory. The time Jesus was in the boat and told me to go fishing in the day and we brought in the biggest catch ever. I worked the nets when suddenly it dawned on John: "It is the Lord?"
Without considering the consequences I leaped into the water to get to Jesus. Could it be him? Is he really alive?
I reached the shore, wet and shivering. It was Jesus! He had a fire going. Soon we were cooking fish. Eating. Laughing. Joking.
After the meal, Jesus took me aside. What he said to me was remarkable. What he didn't say was even more remarkable.
He didn't scold. He didn't rebuke. He didn't say, "I thought you were my friend." He didn't call me a coward. Instead, he asked, "Do you love me?" He asked three times, once for each denial. Not to rub it in, but to give me a chance to openly confess my love.
My love, as passionate as it is, was shallow compared to the depth of his grace-filled love. I looked into his eyes once again. Hoping for a glimmer of forgiveness, I saw it glow from the Savior's eyes. And in a language beyond human comprehension, the power of love came cascading upon me. I had been changed that first day I met Jesus. I had been awed in the boat when I pulled in the biggest catch ever. Now, I was humbled on the seashore. I was fully restored. I had been caught in the net of God's powerful love. It changed me.
Seven weeks later, I would preach the boldest sermon of my life. In Jerusalem, three thousand people would respond to the message and come to faith in my friend. Later, I would stand up to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council that began the process of having Jesus murdered. I would continue to preach and spread the message of Jesus all because of the power of love. I would not, I could not, forget what Jesus had done for me.
II. The brother
"Then He appeared to James . . ." (1 Cor. 15:7).
From the very beginning I did not believe. How could I? He was my brother, or more precise, my half-brother. Maybe it was sibling rivalry. He got the better name - Jesus. It means "Savior," you know. Every Jewish mother hoped and prayed that their son would be the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He had the name for the part. But not me. Maybe it was because he was the first born. And what a birth it was. Mom and Dad did not talk of it often, especially in public. But one day I overheard them tell about the divine conception. How Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
I guess I always knew he was special. Sort of like the brother who had all the looks, the brains, and the athletic prowess. Yea, he was special. Everyone recognized it. He was charming - all the girls liked him. He had charisma - a winsome personality - everyone enjoyed being around him. He was talented - could out throw and out run any of us. Everybody loved Jesus.
When he started teaching publicly going from synagogue to synagogue, it was understandable why people were drawn to him. He was engaging. And he had an uncanny ability to communicate deep theological truths in ways that made sense. He used common imagery and pictures - fields, fishing, flowers - to explain things. I was mesmerized by his teaching, just as everyone else was, but to call him the Messiah was beyond my belief system. I was skeptical. I couldn't believe in him.
The family, I suppose, is the hardest place to achieve real credibility.
I once said to him, "You're telling everybody you're the Son of God. Our family's now the laughingstock of Galilee. Dear brother, shut up! People will think you are mad - mentally deranged. You're ruining our family's reputation, not to mention business for the carpenter's shop."
When Jesus was executed for the claim of being God, it only confirmed my speculation. Jesus was dead. It saddened me that I had lost a brother. Perhaps now people would stop laughing. I would get on with my business. Life would settle down.
A few days after the crucifixion of my brother, I was in the carpenter's shop. It was evening. I was mindlessly chiseling* out a trough for feeding cattle. In my aloneness, I heard the latch on the door lifting. I turned around. The brother, whom I had doubted was the Son of God, walked into the shop. He came to me. Put his arms around me. And, instantly and completely, I believed.
He was not a ghost. Or a figment of my imagination. Or a hallucination. And neither had I been drinking too much or smoking something. I knew Jesus to be dead, yet there he stood alive. It was really him. As real as any person could be.
I fell to my knees. "Oh, brother," I said, "You really are the Christ. Forgive me for not believing."
Tears began to stream down my face. I looked up as Jesus spoke, "I love you, brother."
And that is all it took. One look. One touch. One word.
His love changed my life. I would forever be drawn to him. Seeing that look of love that exuded forgiveness and understanding. I would not, I could not, forget it.
In time, I became the head of the church in Jerusalem. Jesus eventually ascended to be with God, the Father. I was determined to continue the movement of my brother.
If a sibling can come to believe in Jesus, then anyone can.
III. The enemy
"Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me (Paul)" (1 Cor. 15:8).
My parents were Pharisees, members of the party most fervent in Jewish nationalism and strict obedience to the Law of Moses. I couldn't play with Gentile children. Greek ideas were despised. We looked to Jerusalem as Muslims look to Mecca.
By my thirteenth birthday, I had mastered Jewish history, the poetry of the Psalms, and the majestic literature of the prophets.
Then I was sent from my home in Tarsus to Jerusalem to study at the feet of Gamaliel. Here I studied for the next six years. I lived for the day I would become a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Sanhedrin.
Soon I became a successful lawyer in the bustling courts of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was a buzz. A Nazarene named Jesus, claiming to be the Son of God, had created quiet a stir. My colleagues in the Sanhedrin soon put a stop to that by having the lunatic executed. We, collectively, wiped our hands, saying, "That will be the end of that."
But the plan backfired. Soon word spread that Jesus had risen from the dead. His proponents and followers seemed bolder than ever to tell of his wonder-working power.
I heard one of the followers, a man by the name of Simon Peter, tell of how Jesus, dead now alive, claimed to be God. It was more than I could bear. If I could get my hands on him and all the rest of them, I'd kill them all. I'd be the first to throw the stones*.
I hated the name of Jesus. So much so, that I was determined to persecute and, if necessary, execute the followers of the Way.
A short time later, one Stephen, a disciple of Jesus, took a strong stand for his Master before the Sanhedrin. Along with them, we refused to sit any longer listening to his passionate diatribe. In a rage, we drove him into the street through the northern gates to the outskirts of the city. There he was pummeled with large, jagged stones until he fell and died. I watched the entire episode, standing among the howling mob, holding the robes of the murderers. The blood of Stephen splattered across my clothes as I shouted my approval. I was an accomplice to a vicious crime.
This attack was the first of many that I organized and spearheaded against the Christian movement. My blood boiled. I continued on my murderous rampage toward Damascus. I was out of control. My fury could not be contained. I was willing to go the farthest extremes to stamp out this movement and apprehend followers of the Way.
In route, something rather dramatic happened. Words cannot describe the surprise I got. My life took a sudden turn. A blinding light stopped me dead in my tracks. The light was so intense I could not see. I was pinned to the stones protruding from the ground. One minute before I was in full control of my life; now I could not even stand on my own. One minute I was dependent on no one; now I was desperate.
A voice spoke to me: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"
With a muffled voice, meekly I answered, "Who are you, Sir?"
Not only was I blind, I was confused. I had never heard this voice before.
The voice answered, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting."
I was silent for several seconds, trying to comprehend the moment.
Could it be? I thought to myself. Is this the voice of Jesus? Is he alive? Is this talk about a resurrected Messiah true? I knew a Messiah would come. The Hebrew Scriptures had informed me. I had been impressed with Stephen as he died. No screaming. Not pitiful plea for mercy. No cursing. Instead his face shone like one "who had the face of an angel." I remember him praying. "Father, don't hold this charge against them. They don't know what they are doing." I was flabbergasted by his compassion. Stephen's courage and the undaunted bravery of other followers of the way had arrested my attention.
At that moment, like the divine chess player patiently maneuvering his opponent into a corner, I conceded. "Checkmate." The fight was over. God had won.
I changed the direction of my life. I had been a persecutor of Christianity; now I became a proponent of Christianity. I had been a destroyer of the faith; now I was a defender of the faith. I had been a murder of Christians; now I was a missionary for Christians. I had been an enemy of Jesus; now I was a friend of Jesus.
Love can do that. Jesus not only had the power to stop me in my tracks. He had the power to kill me on the spot. Instead of being stoned by God, I was saved by God. Instead of justice, I was granted grace. Instead of getting what I deserved, I was given what I didn't deserve. That is the power of love - an act of grace that I would not and could not forget.
I had seen the Lord. That was enough.
That's the story of Peter, James, and Paul. Each gives evidence to the incredible power of love. As different as their lives were, their stories share one similarity - the change made by love.
I wonder if you have a story to tell. I wonder if you can tell of the time you met the Master face to face. I wonder if the love of Christ has changed your life. That's what the unforgettable story of Easter is all about.