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Murder, mayhem and mystery

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Sermon 3rd Sunday of Easter

John 21. 1-19, Acts 9.1-6

Murder, mayhem and mystery; they’re all there in our bible readings today. Discovering that you were not who you thought you were, the persecution of a religious minority; working long hours for very little. Sounds topical?

Before and after – I enjoy those pictures of before and after; you know, like when we watch some TV DIY experts sweep into a house and do a makeover. Today in church of course we have our own before and after – last week our floor before it was done and this week, after it’s been repaired and varnished.

I don’t know about you, but I find before and after very attractive. I love reading about how people’s lives are changed for the better or seeing how communities are transformed from struggling and embattled to flourishing and empowered.

In our readings today we see 2 of Jesus’ followers after the resurrection, with clear reminders of what they were like before the resurrection. Peter, the one who had run away, now reinstated by Jesus and declaring 3 times that he loves him, thus undoing his previous 3 fold denial during Jesus’ arrest and trial. Paul, a vigorous persecutor of the church, now blinded by a totally unexpected fresh insight and redirecting his energy towards spreading the gospel. Before and after…

The before and after of the resurrection is not quite the same as a damaged floor and a repaired one or a dilapidated house, and a renovated one, though there may be some similarities. I want us to look at the recollections of Jesus’ resurrection appearance in John’s gospel and Luke’s description of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord in Acts and see how resurrection before and after works out there.

Firstly, a fresh recognition of identity. Having had a startling revelation about the identity of our archbishop this week we might more easily enter into the significance of names, their meanings and how they relate to who we are. Can you turn to someone near you and, if you don’t know their name, ask them, and then ask them if they know the meaning of their name and why they were given it. (Pause while everyone does this) Names are important in these resurrection encounters. Notice that Jesus addresses Peter by his old name, ‘Simon son of John’, and Paul as ‘Saul’. Although Jesus had renamed Simon ‘Peter’ (the Rock) when he’d called him by the lake at the start of his ministry, Peter had turned out to be anything but a rock. So, here he is being recalled to this, his original, but hidden identity in Christ. ‘Saul’ in Hebrew means ‘asked for’; Saul was certainly not asked for by the Christians he was persecuting! The name Saul uses after his encounter with Christ is ‘Paul’ means small and humble. Like Peter the so called rock, wavering and crumpling on the night of Jesus’ arrest, small and humble aren’t adjectives that immediately come to mind when considering Paul, the man with the impeccable Jewish pedigree, far advanced beyond many, he tells us, in the knowledge of the law. Yet his hidden identity in Christ is that he is small and humble and we can see him growing into this identity as we read his epistles. Encouragingly for us neither man is transformed overnight through the resurrection encounter; we read in Galatians, for example, that Peter wavers over whether new Christians needed to be circumcised, and Paul can be quite boastful (whilst saying he is not!). So, Jesus’ resurrection puts us in touch with our hidden, true identity, the name by which God calls us and into which we grow as we follow Christ. Some of you may have heard Justin Welby say that revelations about his father don’t affect his sense of who he is – his true identity is as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Another feature of these resurrection appearances is that they happen in surroundings that are very familiar to the disciples. They are familiar and yet different. It’s as though they are seeing them through new eyes.

The disciples had been fishing before, they had been on that lake hundreds of times; doubtless they’d had breakfast on the beach after a night’s fishing numerous times too. But there is now something different about all those familiar things. John’s language conveys a numinous, luminous quality; there is a sense of that newness and freshness that you have as the sun rises on a clear day, but it’s more than that; it’s not just a fresh start to their day, but a fresh start to their lives. More than that; it’s as though everything is being renewed, recreated almost. I like to imagine John the writer of this gospel, reflecting deeply on those encounters between Jesus and his followers before and after the resurrection and noticing how the familiar surroundings looked different. Some of you will know the pull towards holy places like Iona or Holy Island or Taize, and we can all be nourished and inspired by making pilgrimage to such places; and yet for John the resurrection is very much about seeing Jesus, recognizing him, in our current circumstances. The lakeside setting seems beautiful to us, and indeed it is. Let’s not forget, though, that for the disciples it was their workplace and here we see them coming off the night shift, working long hours for very little. Then making the startling discovery that this ordinary place was now a place of rebirth. There is more than a whiff of baptism in John’s narrative with Peter putting on his garment as he jumps into the water – just as those to be baptized would put on a special robe before entering the water. He’s a new creation. Then, having some of the fish they have caught for breakfast – ordinary enough and yet extraordinary because it reminds them of other times of eating with Jesus; perhaps the last supper, or the feeding of the 5,000. Nothing can be the same again. They glimpse that earth itself is full of the divine presence. The presence of the risen Christ enables them to see this.

A renewed sense of our true identity, (that hidden name by which God calls us), a transformation of our familiar circumstances as we recognize Jesus in them, and then, finally, a calling. When Jesus gets Peter to say 3 times that he loves him he is not only undoing the damage of Peter’s 3 fold denial, he is also reminding him of his original call and then updating it. Before he was to be a fisher of people. Now he is to be a shepherd – a familiar term for a leader in Jewish thought. He’s been reinstated and promoted! When Saul is blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, he hears Jesus telling him to go into the city where he will be told what he must do. An encounter with the risen Christ is a call to some sort of action. It will be closely linked with our hidden identity and also, of course, with our circumstances. It will be something that gives us joy, it won’t necessarily be our paid employment, and it will contribute to the flourishing of people and/or the earth.

Recently our newspaper included a short report about 2 young Irish women who had been caught smuggling a very significant quantity of drugs out of Peru. They were both sentenced to prison there. It looks as though one of them is likely to be released fairly soon, a bit sooner than expected perhaps. The reporter seemed to have obtained their information from a Catholic priest and as I read it I heard what you might call a bit of resurrection music which I suspect the reporter didn’t pick up at all. The young woman had learnt Spanish in prison. She spoke of a realization that if the drugs she had been carrying had been dispersed in Europe she would have had blood on her hands. This hadn’t really dawned on her before. She spoke of plans to remain in Peru and work with people affected by Aids. It made me wonder if she had met with the risen Christ.

Today’s readings challenge us to get in touch with that name by which God calls us – why not ask him to reveal that to you? They challenge us to recognize Jesus in the familiar circumstances of our everyday lives. They invite us to hear God’s call on our lives.