One day, I may actually get the opportunity to engage with the text and write a whole sermon from scratch once more...This week, which looked so gentle, but turned to bite me on the bum, is not the week - so I'm thankful that I can re-work an oldie from my curacy, and hope it will pass muster.
Two weeks ago, when some of us gathered on Holy Saturday night for perhaps the most significant service of the whole liturgical year, we rejoiced in a baptism. For centuries all baptisms were reserved for this Vigil service. It was the pivot around which the whole year was structured - and so the readings from scripture for the Great Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost were chosen to help the entire Christian community understand the meaning of their baptism and of their life in Christ. Those themes are still clear in the readings today. In the Common Worship service, as in the rites of the early church there is one specially striking question Do you turn to Christ? In the early church, candidates literally turned at this point from the west, the direction of sunset and their old way of life, towards the east…sun rise, a new dawn…That's what we're recalling when we turn to face east during the Creed…And since we recite the Creed Sunday by Sunday, we are given a weekly reminder of our own continued need to change direction.
Turning, repenting, changing our focus should be a daily activity for us- and it’s demonstrated in our readings by both Peter and Paul. Saul/Paul, after all, could be adopted as the patron saint for of all of us who've ever realised we were facing the wrong way. Having done everything in his power to suppress the strange new cult that seemed to be threatening the cherished traditions of his Jewish faith, he found himself confronted with unmistakeable evidence that he had got it all wrong...So he made a U turn, and set forth with equal zeal in precisely the opposite direction...Having recognised the error of his ways, he made the most of his second chance, and from his conversion flowed so much else.
For Peter, things were very different. We all believe that where there is life there's hope – but for Peter it seemed as if all hope was extinguished. What could he do but repent, alone at the end of a long Good Friday?
On one level, his feelings are a normal reaction to bereavement. After a death, survivors are gripped by all sorts of feelings, - grief, of course, relief possibly, but often guilt as well, no matter how unjustified, unreasonable or downright silly. My father was unable to eat at all in the last 2 weeks of his life – but after his death I beat myself up for some months because I had not, as I’d promised, made him some of the cheese scones he so much enjoyed. I would have loved to have been able to put the clock back…to cut short the exam revision and do some baking instead. It felt as if that would have made all the difference to my ability to cope with his death. Silly, I know. It wouldn’t have made any difference to anything…but grief is rarely rooted in common sense and guilt is so often part of the package.
Feelings rise in a tide that can threaten to engulf us even after a “Good death”. Suddenly, things seem to be irreversible and there are too often unresolved issues words unspoken and deeds regretted,
Small wonder that we’re prone to thinking
“If only I could have him back, just for long enough to put things right – then I’d be able to move on”
Just one more chance….
Usually, those guilty feelings are simply our reaction to our own survival in a world which someone beloved has left…but occasionally, there are real grounds for contrition.
And we can’t put the clock back. There are no more chances.
We can repent as much as we like but we can’t hear the words of forgiveness we seek from the lips that we long for. And that’s hard, very hard – even if there's actually little reason to reproach ourselves.
But of course, it was different for Peter, wasn’t it.
He had a genuine reason to beat himself up – reason enough to wallow in misery till the end of his days. He has let his best friend down and catastrophe has followed.
So we find him days, a week perhaps after that fateful Passover weekend, mired in guilt and regret.
He longs to put the clock back – but since he can’t, he decides to pretend that the whole Jesus event, this wonderfully exciting chapter of his life, never really happened.
It’s easy to imagine the disciples, sitting round in a dispirited huddle until suddenly Peter takes the initiative.
“Right. That’s it. The past is over. He’s not coming back. – so let’s get on with our real lives. I’m going fishing…”
The wheel has come full circle. Peter is heading back to the beginning. He had been called away from his accustomed business but now that his dreams have been shown to be delusions, where else can he go but back to the boats? Fishing is in his blood. It’s who he is. Peter the fisherman, back at his nets.
And the others join him.
The comfort of familiar things, familiar places….
Again, quite a common reaction to grief – a way of trying to pretend that recent events just haven’t happened, so we act as if we really can put the clocks back.
If the world is changing around you, clinging to the tried and trusted seems the best thing to do.
But even this comfort is denied the disciples…for a long cold night out on the lake nets precisely nothing.
If Peter needed any confirmation that the world has gone awry, this must surely have provided it.
He can’t even make it as a fisherman any longer.
And then, as in each of the resurrection appearances, Jesus is there, changing everything.
First, he recognises their situation.
“You have no fish, have you?”
Then he offers them a remedy.
“Put your net out on the other side. Change direction yourselves. It will make all the difference.”
Another U turn….and a fruitful one.
This time, having learned their lesson three years earlier, the disciples take his advice without demur, and are duly rewarded, not just with a bumper catch but with the sight of the One they most long to see.
But everything has changed after the resurrection – even Jesus! There’s something unrecognisably different about him. And so it’s as though he appears for the first time again. This is a new commissioning to a new ministry…
Here’s Peter, trapped between love and loyalty. It’s his love that makes him respond as he does,- impulsively leaping out of the boat to reach his Master as fast as he can. He’s always loved Jesus like that .But being ruled by his feelings he was also particularly vulnerable to his fears…It was those fears that spoke in the courtyard as he denied his Lord, and his own love for Jesus. Can you imagine the inner turmoil he’s been wrestling with? Not only did Jesus die, but he died believing (as far as Peter was concerned) that Peter did not love him.
John’s gospel doesn't tell us whether Peter has actually encountered the risen Jesus before this…Perhaps like Thomas he too had been away, missed out…or had hesitated, hidden among the press of disciples crowding round in the upper room, conscious of his own consuming shame.
If ever there was someone who needed to hear words of absolution, it’s Peter and in this new world of restoration and second chances Jesus offers him the chance to take back those words he wishes he had never said.
Three times he asks the question that has been tormenting Peter:
“Do you love me?”
Three denials balanced by three chances to affirm his love afresh, three opportunities for forgiveness.
In human terms, forgiveness is one thing but trust in quite another. After we’ve been let down, disappointed in a significant way, we may try to forgive but the reality for most of us is that mistrust and anxiety cloud the relationship from then on.
We may manage to get along on a superficial basis, but we’re unlikely to make ourselves truly vulnerable to someone who has let us down…
But with Jesus, things are rather different.
Peter is not just told
“There there, it doesn’t matter”
He is confirmed in his vocation as the rock on which the church will be built. He’s not to be a fisherman but a shepherd.
A new identity for him, as for Saul (turned from persecutor to apostle).A new certainty, for all of them, that they are now heading in the right direction, following the One who is way, truth and light.
To encounter the risen Christ is to be challenged, challenged and changed.
He forces us to reflect on our own direction, our practice of life and faith. Perhaps like Saul we’re side-tracked by legalism or by the fine print of observance, and have missed the living reality of Christ staring us in the face? Maybe we’re so intent on getting it “right” that we have forgotten why “it” exists at all?
Perhaps we’re conscious of failures and shortcomings, of lacking the courage of our convictions, of putting safety before radical love. But the message of Resurrection is that transformation is possible, if we can accept it.
We’re bound to fail, gloriously, ignobly, repeatedly.
But thanks to the transforming power of the resurrection, we mustn’t give up even on ourselves.
Do you turn to Christ? Do you accept the reality of his resurrection for yourself….because it happened to him so that it could happen, likewise, to the world.
Resurrection, never resuscitation. This is not a question of putting the clocks back and undoing the past,- but of moving with joyful confidence into a future beyond our imaginings.
And so by the grace of God we find ourselves at Eastertide gazing in wonder at a world made new, a world of grace and Life and Light.,a place of transformation. Easter Sunday is not just the first day of a new week: it is the dawn of a new creation and things can never be the same again.
And, in the light of that new dawn, Jesus invites us to come and eat with him.
Thanks be to God!