Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Easter 2019
Patterns of resurrection
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 5th May 2019 at 11.15 AM
Saul was a celebrity, whose very name would have aroused fear in the hearts of many early Christians. His conversion was one of the most pivotal moments in the post-resurrection period. Saul, persecutor of those who followed The Way, whom we are told watched with approval the execution of St Stephen the first martyr, becomes Paul, one of the pillars of the Church upon whose witness to Christ so much of our own faith rests. The story we heard in today’s second lesson is itself an Easter Story – precisely as Saul is on the road to bind Christians, breathing “threats and murder”, the Risen Jesus unbinds him. This is the Paschal Mystery bearing fruit right at the point of crisis: at the heart of one whose life was rooted in the annihilation of the Jesus movement. We know from his own writings that this man who becomes known as Paul remained deeply conscious of his past – his own radical doctrine of grace which comes to its full expression in his letter to the Romans, surely in part springs from Paul’s own experience of radical change and conversion. To paraphrase him, everything that he had once regarded as gain, status and identity, was now counted as loss because of his desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
St Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, recounts Paul’s conversion with vivid drama. He applies certain images which leave us in no doubt of the divine nature of this intervention – light from heaven, a mighty voice heard even by onlookers who don’t see anything, and finally perhaps the most telling detail of all, that Saul is blinded, neither eating or drinking, for three days, as his whole life and being are refashioned by the one whose name and memory he had once sought to destroy. This pattern of death and resurrection, which culminates in Paul’s baptism and reception into the Christian community, is an Easter pattern. After three days, he regains his sight and begins to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues. The voice of the psalmist becomes his own, “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead.” Saul – Paul – has experienced how the overwhelming power of Easter cuts right to the heart of his humanity, and reaches into the heart of his own brokenness.
Today’s Gospel is also a remarkable story of reconciliation. There are many layers here: the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus’ invitation to breakfast, and the extraordinary commission he gives to Peter. At a superficial level it may reasonably seem a beautiful, comforting resurrection appearance in which the events of calvary are past and forgotten. But there is one particular detail in this story which challenges our temptation to get too comfortable. Since childhood, I’ve had a very strong sense of smell. Even now, I’ll sometimes catch a whiff of my late grandmother’s perfume, or the scent of a cake which reminds me of being in the kitchen at home. On the beach, as Peter hauls the net of fish ashore and brings some towards Jesus who invites him to breakfast, what awaits him, but a charcoal fire? Just a couple of chapters ago, the last time Peter had been at a charcoal fire was the night before Jesus died, as Peter stood in the courtyard warming himself. Peter’s nostrils remind him of his betrayal, “I do not know him”, he said of Jesus, as he denied him three times. In this scene Peter is taken back right to the heart of his own weakness. With the scent of the charcoal floating through the air, Jesus feeds him, and then poses three questions which will change his life, and enable him to live liberated by the power of the resurrection.
Three times, once for each betrayal, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And with each question, Peter is progressively disarmed. There is ambiguity here. The original text of Jesus’ question can be read “Do you love me more than all these? All these other people?” Or, “do you love me more than you love all this?” perhaps gesturing at Peter’s fishing nets, at his trade. Either way, Jesus leaves the impetuous Peter in no doubt that this is decision time. How can it not be, when he has had his nose held up to the reality of his betrayal? The ambiguity of the Gospel text goes further. There are several Greek words which we translate as “love”, and there is a bit of a wrestling match going on here: Jesus’ side of the conversation uses the verb ἀγαπᾷς, perhaps denoting love of God, or the respect owed to a benefactor. Peter, however, replies uses φιλέω, denoting a more affectionate, familial warmth. They’re using different words! But finally, in this strange, rich conversation, and what seems like a staggering reversal of power-dynamics, Peter elicits that verb from Jesus in Jesus’ third question, φιλεῖς με? “I love you as a brother, with affection, as one of my family.” For Peter, it just has to be personal. It is an immensely beautiful scene in which Peter is personally reconciled to Jesus.
Peter and Paul, the Church’s heroes, encounter the pattern of resurrection from the heart of their own brokenness. We often perceive Lent as the time of penitence, and self-examination, and Easter as a season of celebration and joy. But perhaps this distinction is too binary: these two stories challenge us to think more holistically about our Christian lives. We live in Easter joy and abundant light because our woundedness, our frailties are exposed, loved and healed in that light. Paul’s conversion comes precisely as he is en route to persecute the Church, Jesus holds Peter’s nose to the scent of charcoal; God reaches right into the messy heart of our human frailty, and works from there. That is the pattern of Easter and there is no point in trying to hide.
In a sermon at Evensong yesterday, Archbishop Rino Fisichella reminded us that before we see God, we are seen by him. The pattern of Christian discipleship is that we only know as we are known. The first move is always God’s; and so, whether it is by insistent questioning, or a more drastic series of events, if we are serious about our discipleship, we must be prepared to be disarmed by the love which has saved us.
Three days, three questions – even after Easter, where are we in this pattern? Can we allow the resurrection of Christ to seize us? Even today, as we accept his invitation to eat with him, can we say deep in our hearts with honesty and holding nothing back, “Lord you know all things, you know that I love you?” And if that’s too tricky, perhaps try “You know that I want to love you”, because the Easter pattern is that ultimately even our doubts and uncertainties will be disarmed, and transformed, by Christ’s love.