Easter 3: John 21.1-19

The first time I ever experienced making my individual confession to a priest, the penance I was given was to read John 21. I remember that my immediate feeling was a combination of very relieved (clearly I wasn’t all that bad if all I had to do was read a chapter of John’s gospel!) and disappointed (would it feel like a proper bit of penance if it wasn’t actually difficult to do?).

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Making me read this passage from John’s gospel was, I think, a stroke of genius on the part of my confessor, and it was just what I needed, in so many ways. Here are just a few of them.

First, at that stage in my life I was at my final year at theological college, a time when over-confidence and anxiety battle it out for the upper hand.  I needed to read the part about the disastrous fishing trip to realise that God does not waste or deny the gifts and experiences that we bring from our earlier life, rather, he enhances them and uses them.  The disciples must have thought back to their own initial calling when Jesus promised that he would make them fish for people here he was again, showing them how what they were and what they had to offer could be made more, and better, by doing it God’s way.  At that stage in my life (as I suspect is still the case) I needed to hear both that my past experience was of some worth, and that God could help me use those experiences to greater effect in the ministry to which he’d called me.

Second, I needed to see not only Peter’s impulsive jumping into the water, but also the other disciples’ more sensible gathering in of the miraculous catch of fish and slower return to shore. I needed to be reminded that there are people who make a splash in ministry, and those who work more slowly; there are people for whom leaving the safety of the boat is normal, and those for whom fishing from the boat is the most fruitful place to be. And that both ways of reaching the shore are effective.

Third, I needed to remember that some of the best fellowship and growing in discipleship takes place in the context of hospitality, and that as God’s ministers we share in that.  Jesus is the one who got the barbeque going, but it is the disciples who bring the fish to cook on it.  Jesus is the host, but we bring and offer what we have to his table, and it is our gathering around him, bringing what we are and what we have, that makes the whole thing special.

Fourth (and I suspect that it was for this reason that I was asked to read the chapter in the first place), I needed to read Peter’s threefold commission, that wonderful moment when Jesus takes him aside and reminds him of that other occasion, also gathered around a charcoal fire, when Peter had denied Jesus three times. Here, he is given three opportunities to affirm his love for, and loyalty to, Jesus. Here was my penance, and my absolution, here were my three chances to reflect on the times when I had wandered away from God or rebelled against him, in my own mediocre way; here were my three chances to affirm, prior to my ordination, that I really did love God.

But more than that, this little story of Jesus and Peter makes something absolutely clear which has been hinted at throughout the Easter narratives: belief in God, and love of God are not an end, they are a beginning.  Read through the Easter stories and you will see a very clear pattern that every act of recognition of the risen Christ, every realisation of the truth of the resurrection, every declaration of faith, is followed immediately by a commission.  Peter’s love for Jesus is just the beginning, but it is the firm foundation from which he will make his next leap of faith – Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith and love is not ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ or ‘you are forgiven’, but ‘feed my sheep’, ‘tend my flock’, and ‘feed my lambs’.

With repentance and absolution, with any declaration of faith, with any moment of conversion (as we hear in Saul’s story in Acts today) comes vocation.  Disciples can only be true to their identity as disciples by turning into apostles. Those who feed on the body and blood of Christ must respond by becoming the body of Christ in the world, continuing his work, and empowered by his Spirit, his very breath of life. This was his commission to his friends almost 2000 years ago, and it is still his commission to us, his friends now.

We know what this ended up meaning for Peter and the other disciples, and for Paul.  But what will it look like in our lives, this week, this month, this year?  How will our own faith respond to Christ’s commission, continuing his work? How will the new life that we experience in absolution flow from us to be a force of life and forgiveness in the world?  How will what we do in this service with the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, help to shape us into individuals and a church that is truly Christ-like?

A little thought for Easter 2

When the risen Jesus visits his disciples his visit is characterised by several key elements of his overall ministry:

First, he brings peace – although they are startled and afraid at first, he brings his friends a peace of heart that they have not experienced for many days, and which will stay with them for ever. 

Second, he shares food with them – hospitality and sharing are central to the gospel, from the feeding of the five thousand to the Last Supper, and when we meet in Jesus’ name for Holy Communion we are continuing this tradition of gospel hospitality. Is there hospitality in our worship, in our life as a church?

Third, he brings joy – being in the presence of Christ should bring us joy, even amid the reality of whatever complex troubles of anxieties we have brought with us. Is there joy in our faith? In our life as a community of faith?  Are we really able to share one other’s joy?

Fourth, he brings the evidence of his own suffering, the marks on his hands, feet and side, showing that he truly has walked the path of life as we do, and that there is no place so dark or so painful that we have to go there alone; he will always go with us.  Are we willing to weep with those who weep, as well as to laugh with those who laugh? Are we willing to be vulnerable, to admit our own woundedness?

May we, as a church, as Christ’s body on earth, seek to live out these gospel values in all our activities. 

Sermon for Easter 1 (John 20.19-end)

I posted a snippet from this last week. Here’s the whole thing. Now I’ve actually written it....

St John reports that at Jesus’ mockery-of-a-trial, Pilate asked at one point, “What is truth?”  That enigmatic question finds an unexpected echo in today’s gospel, in Thomas’ own need to know what truth really is.  He is not just asking his friends whether what they have told him is literally true, that Jesus is actually live. He’s asking for an experience of the reality of that fact.

Thomas is remembered for his doubt. But should we not rather remember him for his extraordinary desire to experience the fullness of the resurrection for himself?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, certainly, but blessed also are they who undertake a journey of discovery in doubt, in order that they might experience more fully the truth they seek.  I admit it, I admire Thomas, and I am glad that the gospel records the fact that Jesus granted him his very own resurrection moment.

And in truth, there were many people to whom Jesus granted such a moment.  Yes, the resurrection was a one-off historical event which occurred at some point shortly before dawn on the first day of the week, as we know from the accounts of scripture. That’s a fact that we may either accept or choose not to accept. But the truth of the resurrection is that it was not one moment but many moments. Nobody witnessed the ‘real’ resurrection, but every one of Jesus’ disciples had their own moment where it became real for them.  Mary in the garden, the disciples (minus Thomas) in the room, Thomas himself a week later, the two friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and most poignantly of all, Peter on the beach in John 21, finally being released from the guilt of his betrayal and given his commission.

Yes, in factual terms the resurrection was a one-off event, but in spiritual terms it took time – time for Jesus’ friends to see it, to understand it, to believe it. And in fact, I would go as far as to say that in spiritual terms, the resurrection is still happening. Because it happens every time a modern-day disciple has a resurrection moment – a moment when it becomes real, when the truth that is sought is suddenly found, and found to be more deep and broad and high than the seeker ever dreamed.

So which of these is the ‘real’ resurrection?  The historical moment of Jesus’ own death turning to life, or the spiritual moment of our own death turning to life, each one of us, as it becomes real in our lives?

Which leads us back to Pilate’s question, and  back to Thomas’ doubt.

Attendances in church over Easter were up on last year.  Not just here, but all over the country. And the number of people attending worship in Cathedrals – where mystery and awe and wonder are most clearly in evidence in worship – has increased 30% in the last ten years. Among all the fears that as a society we are becoming ever more materialistic, ever more secular, there is good evidence that there is still – and perhaps more than ever – a desire to engage with God, to engage with things that go far beyond the world of the senses, and yet are revealed in what we see and experience in the world.

We might well feel like the gathered few behind the closed door sometimes, but we gather in expectation:  that there is a truth that is bigger and deeper and broader and higher than we can imagine.  We want some token of our doubtful seeking that, yes, we can see and hear and touch.  But we also want something that shows us that what we see and hear and touch is not the highest reality that there is, but can point us to that greater reality.

We may tend to think of material, physical reality as the most ‘real’ form of reality there is. If we were to see someone walk through a solid wall or a locked door, we, like the disciples, might assume that the person was somehow insubstantial, less ‘real’ than the physical barrier they just passed through.

But what if the reason why the risen Christ can walk through walls is not because he is insubstantial, but because his risen form is so real, so substantial, that the wall is insubstantial in comparison?

This physical reality – the material world around us – cannot be at odds with God. I’m not trying to advocate some kind of ‘spiritual is good, material world is bad’ kind of dualism.  Rather, what we see around us can help to show who and what God really is.  Again, that’s why cathedral worship does it so well – it’s absolutely about saturating the senses with beauty.  And that’s why people often feel close to God in gardens, on mountain tops, and so on. They are places where our senses are assailed by such beauty that we start to be able to see beyond it.

In today’s gospel the disciples see in the person of Jesus just a glimpse of that greater reality.  May we too, be granted such glimpses, and be changed by them, so that as the resurrection becomes real for us, so the light and life and love of God made real in us can spill out and become real for the whole of God’s creation.


Palm Sunday sermon

A sermon for Palm Sunday.

We have heard read to us the story of Holy Week.  It’s the story of Jesus, and the last days before his death on the cross.

But it’s also the story of Jesus’ friends – the way they fail to understand, their fear, their betrayal. Perhaps today we can bring to God our own confusion, our lack of understanding, our fears, and our awareness of the times that we have failed to acknowledge him before others, the times that we have kept quiet about being friends of God.

And it’s the story of the Religious leaders – their anxiety, their plotting and manoevering. We might find ourselves sometimes in their place, struggling to find a balance between the good of the whole and the needs of the individual, and the times when we are aware that we have not tried hard enough, or have colluded in injustice, sacrificed a little of our humanity for the sake of what we see as our task or duty.

It’s the story of Pilate, and his soldiers, drawn into something they can’t fully understand – and perhaps don’t want to understand.

It’s the story of the crowds, pulled this way and that by their own desperation, and by the fervour of the moment – their hope and expectation, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. We might sometimes see something of ourselves in them: The things in which we place our hope, our dreams for ourselves and for the world.  And then in their condemnation, shouting ‘crucify!’  It is easy to knock down those whom we have raised up, and it is easy to rush to judgement. 

It’s the story of two thieves, struggling to come to terms with their own death, and to understand Jesus’ death alongside them.  We might on occasion find ourselves on the crosses either side of Jesus – in our times of greatest suffering, we may struggle, sometimes raging at God just to get us out of this, and sometimes finding the serenity to ask for the greater gift of salvation and eternal life.

It’s also the story of Barabbas – inexplicably free, given back his life and left to wonder what to do with the years he never thought he would have. We might put ourselves in his place – using this Holy Week to understand the kind of Love that let Christ accept suffering and death for us and for our salvation. 

Each character in the drama of Holy Week sees Jesus differently.  Some see a political revolutionary, and are filled either with hope or fear.  Some see a victim, who ended up as a disappointment to those who’d pinned their hope on him.  Some see a blasphemer, never getting beyond the words ‘Son of God’ to see the reality of it. Some saw a friend and teacher, who they’d hoped would be around for ever, cruelly put to death.

But a criminal and a soldier both somehow, in the midst of what looks like failure, see more.

The Roman soldier looked up at the body on the cross and instead of seeing just another Jewish trouble maker, suddenly saw the Son of God.  Perhaps, as a soldier, he had witnessed death countless times, and was able to grasp in Jesus’ own moment of death an insight into who he was, what his life had meant. In that moment of realisation is encapsulated the shift from king of the Jews to King of the world, from Son of their God, to Son of the God. One man’s leap of faith is more significant than the shouting of the adoring hundreds in the palm Sunday crowd.

So, what is the moment for you when you see Jesus as he really is?  What is it in the story of Holy Week that gives you the most profound glimpse of God at work?  What part of the story touched you most today, and showed you something of what it means to be the Son of God?

This is Jesus’ story, and it is the story of Peter, and Judas, and Caiphas and Pilate, and Barabbas, and all the countless and nameless others, but it is our story too. So where are you in the passion story today, at this moment in your life?  Where do you stand on the way of the cross?  There were no witnesses to the original Holy Week, only participants. And they could not be left unchanged by what happened.  If it is to be our story, too, then we cannot be left unchanged either.