Sermon preached by Iestyn Henson on Sunday 27th April 2014
(John 21: 15-19 and with references to Alfred Ackley’s hymn ‘I serve a risen saviour’)
So then, it’s the week after Easter, and the disciples have now met Jesus a few times, or received reports – he’s not with them day in, day out, as we imagine he was during his ministry, but is here, and there, and, well, just about everywhere. Perhaps in this we see a transition, from the God of the Psalmist, omnipresent yet somehow distant, through to the Spirit of God at Pentecost, omnipresent and so close as to be all around and even inside us. Jesus, of course, is the link: ‘he lives within my heart!’ is what we have sung this morning!
The Gospel writers however, as well as being a little big vague about the sightings of Jesus – Jerusalem, Bethany, Emmaus and Galilee, also disagree slightly on the instructions given to the disciples; Matthew and Mark have the disciples sent straight on to Galilee; Luke has them stay in Jerusalem; John includes stories set both in the upper room and on the beach. Whatever the disagreement (or lapse of memory perhaps) relating to the instructions given to the disciples, the reported meetings were in favourite places of Jesus; this lends some authenticity perhaps – Jerusalem and the upper room – quite possibly the home of John Mark, disciple, early missionary and Gospel writer; Bethany, home of Jesus’ favourite hosts, Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Emmaus, another town near Jerusalem where Jesus obviously had friends; and then, back home in Galilee – Jesus’s home and that of several of the disciples.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence, none at all, that Jesus has met his friends at his ‘favourite places’ and theirs too. It lends some comfort to the meetings, any awkwardness tempered by familiar surroundings.
And no more so for Peter, who must have been dreading certain conversations with Jesus, given his behaviour. I say ‘conversations’ because what we have by way of record of Peter’s ‘reinstatement’ (as some headings would have it) is most certainly incomplete. There must have been more – Peter talking to friends about what happened, and others eves-dropping on conversations – John admits as much – for how else did the account of Peter’s betrayal get recorded? I suspect much of Peter’s apology, and Jesus’s words of forgiveness must have been kept suitably private – it was between them, and none of our business; that’s not only how it should be, but is probably a lesson to us too.
We though, need to turn our attention to what we do have and to some observations about this encounter, and some reflections on it. I’m not at all certain of my own thinking on this, so please bear with me, and try and trust me to stop before I start to ramble!
The first thought is that Jesus’s question to Peter is ever so simple. ‘Do you love me?’ Now, the conversation itself, as we’ve already noted, must have been a fair bit more detailed than this, apology from Peter perhaps, confession and absolution even. But even if so, it’s worth noting too that John doesn’t feel that it’s worth recording more than the simple question ‘Do you love me?’ At this point, the resurrected Jesus doesn’t want to go into ifs and buts, whats, whens and hows? Jesus doesn’t want to initiate an in-depth theological discussion – or at least, if he did, the Gospel writer doesn’t want to tell us about it, doesn’t think it’s important enough. ‘Do you love me?’: straightforward and simple.
Of course, Christians for a very very long time have argued what it means to be a Christian, what are the question of belief that we have to answer, what are the fundamentals of belief by which authentic Christianity can be observed. And that’s just the belief bit, we’re not even worrying about the behaviour bit. Last weekend, David Cameron felt it necessary – whether for personal or political motives, we can’t be sure, and perhaps for him there is no distinction – Mr Cameron felt it necessary to remind us that Britain is “A Christian Country”. Of course, what he didn’t do was tell us what he meant, what definition of ‘Christian’ he was using. He may have meant that the Church of England is still in the position of being ‘Established’ – that is, part of the structures of the state. He may have meant that when it comes to the census, a majority still tick the ‘Christian’ box – now some 59%. He may have meant, in a historical or social sense, that the values which have shaped our society are inherently Christian.
What he didn’t mean, at least, I don’t think so, is that the country all believes the same things, though of course, this is how some have chosen to interpret what he said, and have been offended as a consequence.
When the risen Jesus meets Peter for breakfast on the beach, the definition of a friend of Jesus is distilled to this, and this alone: ‘Do you love me?’ You can put the law to one side; you can put to one side specific quotes such as ‘unless you are born again’; you can put to one side the denominational idiosyncrasies that we’ve developed down the ages, and you test yourself against the great commandment to love God; for those bearing his name, to love God in Christ Jesus.
The second observation I have is that Jesus is pretty persistent with his question; he repeats himself, as if he hasn’t heard Peter’s answer, or if he did, that he didn’t accept it entirely. As an aside, you should know that in the Greek, the word for love which Jesus uses – Agape – is not the one used by Peter – Philos. Agape is love of total commitment, philos is love of friendship. Of course, they were speaking Aramaic, but perhaps, and I’m only speculating, by giving us two different words in the Greek, John is conveying some sense of Peter trying to avoid the question?
John records the question being asked three times, and of course, it is possible that the other intention here is to mirror the three denials which John reports in Chapter 18. But in any case, the number three has enormous significance in Judeo-Christian writing, from the time of the three Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the way through to Christian thinking about the Trinitarian God. The online Agape Bible study suggests that the number 3 “represents that which is solid, real, substantial and complete”.
I read somewhere else that the number 3 is used over 400 times in the books of our Bible, so I can’t possibly begin to make sense of all that here, but one of the things which is striking is that it’s also often used to denote a period of time – For example, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for 3 months during her pregnancy; Jesus was missing for 3 days in Jerusalem as a 12 year-old; Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years; Paul was blinded for 3 days on the road to Damascus; and of course, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.
And so, I’m wondering whether first the denials of Peter, and then Jesus being insistent – asking ‘Do you love me?’ three times isn’t just ‘historical reporting’ neatly mirrored, but an indication that the question which is asked of us is one which will, inevitably, come to us time and again, and over a period of time. And of course, that means that we have many opportunities to get it wrong or to get it right. Put to the test, asked the question many times, we might, sometimes, hide away, say ‘no, it wasn’t me, I don’t know him’, or we might otherwise respond, ‘You know I love you’.
As I was writing this on Monday, rumours started flying round that Manchester United were going to sack their manager, David Moyes; sure enough, by Tuesday he had gone. Having had a contract for 6 years, he was sacked after only 10 months. Contrast this with his predecessor, Alex Ferguson who had been in post for 27 years or if you prefer an analogy from the world of Classical music, with Mariss Jansons, who stepped down as Principal Conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on the same day as Moyes was sacked – having been in charge for 11 years. I fear we are becoming a society which can’t handle long term projects, not even medium term. We keep looking for instant results, immediate success, and if we can’t get it, we try something else. There is very little forgiveness if things aren’t going well. We will need to be on guard against this sort of behaviour when Phil arrives to be our minister. Because Jesus will ask the question repeatedly; our faith isn’t a once only statement of commitment, it’s not something to be reaffirmed only when things are going well. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s to be reaffirmed if or rather when we mess up.
Thirdly and finally, having been asked the simple question, repeatedly, over time, there is consequence to the answer we give. Peter replies 3 times, getting more exasperated, ‘you know I love you’, to which Jesus replies in a similar way each time ‘feed my lambs’, ‘look after my sheep’ and ‘feed my sheep’. The echo here is underlined by what Jesus says next, and the commentary which John adds about Peter’s own death. We are meant to remember John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep”. With the addition of the simple words ‘Follow me’, Jesus hands over to his friends the responsibilities which come with discipleship.
What are these responsibilities? Jesus, I think, points us to both responsibilities in life here and in the hereafter, and in doing so, there’s reiteration that the question of love and discipleship isn’t one for a single point in time but one which returns to us time and again.
In life here, our love for God in Jesus is to be matched by our love and care for everyone – ‘feed my lambs’ and ‘care for my sheep’; it is, of course, the message that Christian churches preach throughout our year, and one which we try to live in our life as St David’s.
With his call to ‘Follow me’ however, and perhaps almost painfully, the reference to the way in which Peter was himself crucified, Jesus points to discipleship beyond love, charity and good works. Jesus points to total commitment, the possibility that love for him will take us to places we would rather not go, to experiences which we would prefer to avoid, to expressions of love which we can scarcely imagine. This is the ‘agape’ of Jesus’s question. For Peter, for many others in the early church and in its persecution, and for countless other Christians down the ages, this has meant physical, earthly death. We are unlikely to be tested to that point ourselves, but it doesn’t mean that it will always be easy.
But this is where the context is important, because we are Easter People; this call to ‘Follow Me’ isn’t happening in isolation, nor indeed in the shadow of a cross, but it follows an empty tomb, and for that matter a celebration breakfast. The call which Jesus made to his disciples at the start of his ministry has not been in isolation, either, but is ongoing.
I was talking to Michael (Howells) at the end of last Sunday’s evening service (the Emmaus Walk), about the nature of the change which came about amongst the disciples as a consequence of the resurrection – we were mulling on the idea that it’s this change which stands as our ‘evidence’ of resurrection. I’ve been reading a bit more around this subject this week, blogs and commentaries from near and far and a theme of sorts emerged, that resurrection was not something to be observed, but to be experienced. Peter experiences the risen Lord in the questions posed to him, in the answers given, in the call to action and the reminder of discipleship. We are reminded of this not merely as a record of a post-breakfast conversation, but because as disciples ourselves, the experience is there to be shared.
Simple questioning, insistent and persistent all the same, and with a consequence to action and to follow. This experience of Jesus is something which people of our faith have borne witness to for near on 2000 years. We believe it to be our experience too. And it’s because of this that we can say that resurrection isn’t something which happened once, time-stamped long ago, but it’s something which is experienced all the time. Perhaps we should be singing ‘he lives within my heart’ a little more often?