The Third Sunday of Easter
14 April 2013
A Sermon Preached by The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner, Curate
On Easter Sunday, Fr. Blume in his sermon said something at the outset that has stuck with me. Easter is hard. He meant “hard to grasp.” And I think that’s true. But I’ll explore it in another way. At this time, when the Lenten darkness of human sin and suffering has been blasted away by the light of Christ’s triumph over the grave, Eastertide is marked by celebration. Our worship begins and ends with the Hallelujah shout. But the disciples in our Gospel stories of Jesus’ appearances live somewhere between “the Hallelujahs.” And that is space we may also inhabit. What is hard about this time can be described in various ways: I would frame it as the matter of moving the meaning of the Easter event from the head to the heart. What does Easter mean day by day?
The Apocalypse of John, Revelation, is, as the word itself suggests, a visual written down in words. It is often held to be impenetrable and of little use when it comes to the practical needs of Christian living. My first access to the meaning of the cross and the resurrection in Revelation is as a spectator. Our lesson from Revelation offers a dramatic and vivid example of visual theology: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” The image is powerful, simple but sublime. But it will take some work to become more than a spectator. Singing the new song might move this lofty theology into the heart: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” And in that statement we may glimpse something of our priestly present and royal future in a kingdom still sputtering to life, but in this chapter the meaning of the cross and resurrection are given in the grandest terms.
What this writer at the end of the first century could package in a single image, the disciples, still wrestling with Jesus’ death and resurrection, could hardly imagine. One of the reasons the Gospels are so crucial for the formation of our Christian identity is that in the disciples, the women and men who spent time with Jesus, we can often imagine ourselves. This is not a visual event but a visceral one. The accounts of the appearances find the disciples in various situations, still reeling from all that has happened—afraid to believe, on the verge of disbelief. They will take the rest of their lives to come to terms with what happened behind them; eventually they would understand that their present and future had been forever changed by an event in the past. But we find them today, in the last appearance story of St. John’s Gospel, just getting on with life, seeming a little bit in limbo, and uncertainty is in the air. They’ve made their way back from Galilee. At the end of the day, Peter decides to go fishing, and six other of the disciples join him. What do you do when your world is shaken up? Grab hold of something normal. This is really a story about Peter, but in our reading we stopped a few verses short of the real heart of the story. When we get there, you’ll know that part well enough.
The story evokes potent memories of events in the past—events that shaped Peter. The fishing miracle is a near replica of the story of Peter’s call to discipleship preserved for us in the early stage of Luke’s Gospel. There too the disciples had fished all night with no success. When Jesus instructs Simon Peter to let down his nets into the deep water, he tells Jesus about the unsuccessful night, but adds that he will do as Jesus has instructed. The net is filled to bursting and two boats are necessary to get the haul of fish in. But it is Peter’s response that needs remembering: “He fell at down at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man’.” And Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.” As John tells the story, the instruction comes from an unknown man on the shore, “put down the net on the right side.” And through the instruction itself, Jesus’ identity is revealed, and there is no hesitation. But notice what detail John adds immediately after the mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” informs Peter that it is the Lord: “He put on his clothes, because,” as our translation of the this text rather euphemistically glosses it, “he was stripped for work.” What the original language says is “because he was naked.” There is a hint here that Peter feels exposed, vulnerable, and well there should be.
The location (described as the Sea of Tiberius only in John’s Gospel) and the fish and the loaves take us next back to chapter 6 and the feeding of the 5000; and from there back to the story of manna in the wilderness. But as Jesus reenacts the wilderness story in the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes and the feasting that followed, Jesus makes himself both the provider and the provision of eternal life. Jesus equates himself with the manna from heaven and the bread of life, and these hard words (hard to understand, and hard to swallow for some) led many of the disciples to cease from following Jesus. When he looks at the twelve and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” it is Peter who answers: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
These echoes of moments in Peter’s walk with Christ are important: they hark back to flashes of awareness that Peter had about himself and about Christ. But the next flashback, to events closer in time, is more telling. This is that section of the story not included in our reading, but well known to all. All the Gospels record Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, with some small variation, and they make the point that Peter was adamant about his willingness to die with Christ, to go the distance. Mark and Matthew mitigate it somewhat by saying all of the twelve claimed as much. In Luke, Jesus generously describes the event as instigated by Satan. But especially in Luke and John who have more to say about the resurrection appearances, the elephant in the room, alongside of Jesus, who has appeared out of nowhere, is this bit of unfinished business with Peter. Only John addresses the issue. After breakfast, Jesus asks one question of Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter assures Jesus that he does. Jesus asks the same question again, and Peter gives the same answer. The third time he asks this of Peter, we can see the repetition has unnerved him. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Three questions, three declarations of love, each one erasing one of Peter’s infamous denials—denials, which, no doubt, weighed more heavily on him than they did on Jesus. And without a word, Jesus demonstrates what his death produced for Peter—forgiveness, a fresh start on a journey of service that would be no less dangerous.
During the year, I come back to this story of Jesus’ gentle engagement with Peter again and again. And at this time especially, still basking in Easter’s warmth after the cold and bitter season of Lent, as we watch the disciples wrestle with their desertion, their denial, their unbelief and then their puzzlement and fear when Jesus appeared in their midst again, I am reminded that my own failures have been forgiven, and that I can believe this, that it makes a difference. What the John of Revelation writes in grand, universal language for the entire world to see, John’s Gospel says quietly into our hearts through Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer. In various ways, Peter stands for us. As we this morning sit down to our breakfast of loaves and fishes, our Eucharistic feast, between the hallelujahs, the question posed to Peter three times is also posed to us. The design is not interrogation but rather to move the reality of the forgiveness, paid for by Jesus’ death and assured through his resurrection from the dead, from our heads to our hearts. The meaning of Easter day by day may be more than this. But this is a beginning: We are forgiven. Hallelujah and Amen.
© 2013 The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner