Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Breakfast on the beach.

Easter Three:
Acts 9.1-20
Psalm 30 1-12
Rev 5. 11-14
John 21. 1-19

Well, here we are: the third week of Easter and the Easter Day service seems like an eternity away. Life has moved on inexorably and so have we with our other concerns and issues and in many respects this is the theme of today's gospel reading.

This Easter season provides us with readings that focus on aspects of the Resurrection and today we consider one of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances.

All the resurrection appearances of Jesus have a mysterious quality to them. They are scenes of mystical encounter, usually in tranquil settings, yet just beneath the surface they are charged with meaning: of revelation and the promise of transformation. What we also need to remember, as readers of the English version, is how nuanced the story is in its original language and, therefore, how much of its meaning can go over our heads.

Act One of today’s gospel drama finds Peter and a group of disciples on a beach at night. Seven disciples actually, out of the eleven remaining. Is the New Community already breaking up after the death of Jesus?

Peter decides to go fishing. There’s nothing odd in that, given that fishing was his job, but it seems to indicate that he intends to return to his old and familiar way of life. Disappointingly the world hasn’t changed as he had once hoped and life has to return to business-as-usual. The other disciples join him. We are then told that it is "night", a major symbol in John’s gospel, representing dulled perceptions, closed consciousness, spiritual immaturity and the world without the "Light." Not surprisingly, then the disciples caught nothing. That is, business-as-usual isn’t delivering.

But morning was coming and we have again the theme of light that stretches all the way back to the first chapter of the gospel: as the Prologue had said, “The Light shines in the darkness” and with the light comes its own voice. With the dawn Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. It must’ve been a calm morning as the disciples heard this stranger call to them from a hundred yards away. Jesus stood on the beach and the disciples didn’t know who he was. How mysterious, especially since in the previous chapter Jesus had already appeared to the disciples, and, of course, to Mary Magdalene.

Then, like now, Jesus wasn’t immediately recognized. In his appearance to Mary, John’s gospel explains that she mistook him for the gardener. In the first appearance to the disciples Jesus was recognized on the basis of his wounds rather than his familiar face. And here, he will be recognized on the basis of his fish-catching power.

Then Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

Of course, we could take this literally: there were simply too many fish, but the symbolism is important here too. Remember all the talk of the disciples as “fishers of men”? Is John saying that up until now the disciples were not yet able to complete either the task of mission, or the task of their own spiritual maturity? Then we hear:

The disciple, whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, "It is the Lord." When Simon Peter heard that it is the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and threw himself into the sea.

In his exuberance and excitement, Simon Peter puts on his clothes and dives into the sea. What an odd thing to do. Why put your clothes on to jump into the water? Who does that? Probably, he was wearing a loin cloth or some such so he put on an outer garment. Nothing in John’s gospel is random or without some symbolic meaning: at a spiritual level, Peter’s throwing himself into the water was a way of cleansing himself. He’d already been declared "clean" when Jesus had washed his feet but a lot had happened since then. Peter had denied Jesus, did not know what to make of the empty tomb and had gone back to his old profession. New Testament scholars tell us that putting on his clothes to jump in the water is a way of saying that Peter wants to "cleanse" the entirety of himself.

The disciples knew that Jesus was dead, but here he was, alive and serving them breakfast. Bread and fish. Not unlike the meal he earlier served to the large crowd on the mountainside and now, with “eucharistic” gestures, breaks it and gives it to them. Why did he linger on earth? Why not return to God and leave these fishermen to return to fishing? No, the risen Lord had something else in mind for them.

The major thrust of this part of the story is that the risen Jesus comes again to commission his disciples to spread the Gospel.

So let’s regroup. What has any of this to do with us?

Are we in a state of darkness, of closed consciousness, of dulled perception, of spiritual immaturity following the Easter experience? Have we returned to a business as usual mindset?

It strikes me that a great many Christians act as if nothing has changed and are back to business as usual by now – or haven’t realised that there has been a seismic shift. They’re Christmas Christians, not Easter Christians: the maturity of faith that should come with the understanding of Easter and its implications has not come. This central event in Christianity, this event which shows God’s undeserved grace to us, has not been fully grasped. Are we sitting here with the Sunday School understanding?

Act Two then narrows to a dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Having been denied three times by Peter, Jesus asks him directly whether he loves Jesus, and Peter becomes distressed after the first two protestations of his love. What’s going on here?

This is where the subtleties of the original language help us: In the first two instances, Jesus uses the Greek word agapas - unconditional love. In the last question, Jesus shifts the meaning and uses the word phileis - brotherly love. Why? Well each time, Peter responds that he does love Jesus, but with a brotherly love, not an unconditional love. Do you love me unconditionally? I love you like a brother. Do you love me unconditionally? I love you like a brother? So you love me like a brother? Yes, I love you like a brother. That’s an entirely different conversation to the one translated into English. In other words, Peter's "love" is not at the same level as the "love" in Jesus' question.

This seemed to be one of John's main points of dispute with Peter: Peter doesn't love Jesus enough. Indeed, the first question Jesus asked, "Do you love me more than these?" would indicate that Peter may love "these," the disciples or perhaps the implements of his fishing craft, more than he loves Jesus. That's something of a wake-up call for us surely? What are the things that we love more than Jesus? And what about unconditional love? I have often found it helpful to think of Jesus as a brother but it's clear that isn't enough. Jesus' love for me is unconditional and therefore my love for him should be the same. There is obviously a huge mismatch which I'd always known intellectually somewhere in the back of my mind, but which I'd never fully examined before now - and I don't like what I find.

The last time Peter was at a charcoal fire, he was there with slaves and the temple guard and he denied three times that he was a follower of Jesus. At this charcoal fire, he is with Jesus and the disciples, but still doesn't quite get that discipleship is about unconditional and intimate love of Jesus. Nevertheless, in spite of Peter's disappointing performance, Jesus calls him to the central task of discipleship which is tending and caring for the faithful like a shepherd tends and cares for his flock.

Three times then Jesus commissions him, Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Then, Jesus said to Peter, "Follow me." This is the only time in the fourth gospel where Jesus asks Peter to follow. Peter needed the instruction of the entirety of the fourth gospel, plus Jesus' specific words of inquiry and instruction at the end, before he is asked to follow the path of being a follower of Jesus.

What’s that to us? Well, this story is for us as much as it was for Peter and it is about us as much as it is about Peter. The community of disciples as a whole is involved in spreading the Gospel; including Peter, the forgiven sinner - and including us today, also forgiven sinners. This passage goes well with the reading from Acts where we see the importance of both teaching and witnessing. We all teach, some formally, others informally. And we all give witness by the way we live. This is Jesus’ commission and we are disciples as much today as they were then. It’s a commission to us too.

It is not enough to affirm: I believe! We have all been called to witness to that faith. Whether we realize it or not, our daily lives cry out as loudly as did the preaching of Paul in the synagogues of Damascus. This includes our interactions with family members and neighbours, co-workers, even strangers on the bus or train. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus influences the decisions that we make about everything in life. Jesus extends the invitation: “Follow me.” Our manner of living reveals how we have responded. That is the discipleship to which we are invited.