Sermon at St James Colwall for Easter 3 2016
Acts 9.1-6; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19
To hear the sermon as you read:
There are several significant things about that first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
First, though Saul – later to be Paul of course –thought of Jesus as the enemy and wanted to destroy his followers, Jesus didn’t think in the same way about Saul. As always, Jesus showed no sign of vengeance. Surely Saul could be converted to become a believer, indeed a friend. Jesus must have been able to see that he had the potential to be a leading missionary apostle, an apostle for the gentiles.
Second, whatever it was that actually took place on the road to Damascus, it was a resurrection experience, not so much a resurrection appearance, but a resurrection hearing. “I am Jesus,” is what Paul heard. And remember that until that moment, as far as he believed, Jesus was dead and buried and his body probably secreted away by his disciples. Yet he heard, “I am Jesus.” It must have been shattering - the risen, living Jesus was speaking to him. No wonder he fell and was temporarily blinded.
And third, the risen Jesus is identified with his followers. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” You’d have expected the question to be, “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But it was, “Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” The risen Jesus is not separate from his followers: he is one with them. So the answer to the question, “Where can we see and hear the risen Lord today?” is, “Look around you: he’s here in those alongside you, and in you, and (I trust) in me; indeed in all who believe in him and try to follow his way. He lives in us.”
So this reading from Acts is an Easter reading, as is our second reading where the writer of the Book of Revelation gives full vent to his flamboyant and Baroque-like imagination. Jesus is the Lamb, because, like the sacrificial lambs in the Old Testament offered to God, he is slaughtered. But Jesus’ sacrifice, unlike theirs, is entirely a self sacrifice, offered to prove to us his love without limit. And in this vision in Revelation he is surrounded by myriads and thousands singing his praise, indeed all creation. “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.” This passage must have been the inspiration for that famous 15th century painting by Van Eyck called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which I’m sure lots of us will have seen in books and art programmes. At the centre on an altar stands the Lamb, victorious over death, and around him are angels, martyrs, apostles, prophets, bishops etc and a vast, vast throng of people. Wonderful work of art though it is, I don’t really like it, because I don’t want to imagine Jesus as a sheep, and especially this sheep which has blood spouting from its breast into a chalice. However, like the reading, it reminds us that when we gather together in church on a Sunday – and in the early days of the church before there was a fixed date for Easter every Sunday was an Easter Day – it reminds us that we are not alone but part of a world-wide and heaven-wide multitude praising him who gave his life for us and is now alive and present, here at the very centre of all our worship. To appreciate this fact fully, perhaps like the author of Revelation and like Van Eyck, we have to give full reign to our own imagination.
Our gospel from St John is more obviously an Easter reading. It’s a happy story, I think, one we can easily picture in our minds, there by the Sea of Galilee or Tiberias as it’s called here.
After the crucifixion and the staggering news of the resurrection the apostles found themselves at a loose end. They didn’t know what they were now supposed to do. They’d lost their director, the one who’d been daily with them for the past couple of years or so and who’d planned all their activities. So, “I’m going fishing,” said Peter, I think in a resigned sort of way. And seven others went with him, but that night they caught nothing. As dawn broke they saw a stranger on the shore who told them to cast the net to starboard. That wouldn’t have surprised them, as, like with the pilchard fishers in Cornwall, there was often someone posted on land who would be able to direct the fishermen to the dark shadow of a shoal not visible to those in the boats. And so they made a great catch, and there was just something about the man on the beach which made John say to Peter, “It is the Lord.” And Peter, impetuous as always, leapt into the water to make his way towards Jesus.
And there’s something here that I’ve never understood. Why did Peter do the opposite to what we’d have done and get dressed before jumping in? Was it because he thought it would be disrespectful to appear before Jesus with no clothes on? Well, I don’t know.
The fish in their net numbered 153, counted no doubt by the apostle who must surely be the patron saint of churchwardens who have the task of counting and recording the number of the congregation. Over the centuries there’ve been all sorts of weird and improbable explanations of that number. Why did John record it? Was it simply a record catch, or did it, as so often with St John, contain a hidden meaning?
17 was thought to be a special number, and 153 divided by 9 is 17. What’s more, add together all the numbers from 1 to 17 and you get 153. Well, that’s a great help, isn’t it. Some early Christian fathers thought it represented 100 heathen plus 50 Jews plus the Trinity. Much more recently, though some decades ago, I read a serious article which suggested that 153 is the optimum number for a congregation – sufficient to have enough people to do things, while at the same time few enough for everyone to know each other. Perhaps that number then could be a target for us.
But the explanation I like best is that 153 was the number of different types of fish known to the ancient world. So, there’s room in Jesus’ net for everyone, for every kind of person. When Jesus first called these fishermen he said he would make them fishers of men. Their mission was to draw everyone into the net. It’s a slightly awkward picture as being caught in a net would be something against your will, but we get the point, and there’s a place for everyone – young, old; male, female; rich, poor; black, white; and so on. Jesus says, “All are welcome.”
Anyway, when they came ashore Jesus had already got the barbecue going.” Come and have breakfast,” he said, and they knew it was the Lord. Again, as by the garden tomb and as at Emmaus, Jesus is first of all not recognized, I think because he was not expected, but then recognition does dawn. And the circumstances are always quite ordinary – mourning by a grave, a supper in someone’s house, a barbie on a beach.
After the meal, according to this gospel, Jesus tests Simon Peter. Three times Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers, “Of course I do; you know I do.” To which Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” Clearly it all harks back to that time a few days previously when in the high priest’s courtyard Peter had declared three times, “Of course I don’t know him.”
I’ve always felt sympathy for Peter over that. If a man bent on murder came into your house and asked you if there were any others there, you wouldn’t tell him that your wife and children were hiding in the cupboard under the stairs. And if you were a spy in the enemy camp, which was Peter’s situation, you just wouldn’t admit it if challenged. There are times when to lie is the right thing to do.
But it was on Peter’s conscience: he wept as he contemplated it. He needed the assurance of Jesus’ acceptance of him, of Jesus’ forgiveness. And this he did receive not only through the three questions, but also by Jesus renewing his commission: “Feed my sheep; catch my fish; bring all into my fold; into my net.”
To gather today’s three readings together, I want to say they’re all about Easter and Easter is all about our lives as Christians. It’s not just for a few days in the spring or for the traditional forty days of Easter, it’s for all our living. Day by day we can experience the risen Lord. It can be in our prayers at home. It can be in our worship in church. It can be in the lives of those around us, those who share our faith. It could be in a blinding flash of inspiration as it was for Saul. It could be in the guise of a helpful stranger as on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. Though it may only be retrospectively that we recognize him.
But of course, and this is the challenge, the risen Lord might well come to us in the guise of someone who is not at all helpful, someone who is demanding. Will we recognize him in the homeless woman sleeping in the shop doorway? Will we acknowledge him in the Syrian orphans, or, with much more difficulty, in destitute migrants? With those whom we don’t encounter personally, those who are only brought to our attention by newspapers or television, there are very clearly huge limitations on what we can do. The numbers are colossal, the situations extremely complex. We have to be very selective. But if it does seem to us that the risen Lord is appealing to us through someone’s plight, then surely we should try to respond. We should at least try to feed some sheep. That could help us to experience some of the wonderful joy of Easter, the joy of knowing the risen Lord.